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"Between Poverty and Paradise"
« on: December 14, 2007, 03:27:33 PM »
Thursday, 13 December, 2007 10:57 PM
(The Author won award for this Essay)

Paolo Mangahas head of WWF in
Malaysia, recently
won an award for this essay

LAST night, I had dinner with a German friend to
talk about her planned trip to the Philippines. She
had just completed an internship program in one
of the law firms here in Malaysia and wanted to
take a short holiday in a nearby country before
headng off to Australia to finish her studies. She
wanted to know more about the Philippines and
asked me for tips on making the most of the two-
and-a-half weeks that she had allotted for this vacation.

We planned her trip between bites, armed only
with a faded map of the Philippines that we had
downloaded from the Internet. My goal was to
identify all the "must-see" places in the country
(her criteria being beaches and volcanoes), plot
them according to distance and flight routes, and
then cram them all in 17 days. A tall order indeed,
especially for someone like me who has never had a
sense of direction even in my own neighborhood. For
the life of me, I could not spot where Boracay was on
her map. So I took the easy way out and told her to go to Palawan instead.

I carried on with the task like a diligent student trying to remember my geography,
starting from the rice terraces in Banaue up north, moving down south
to the Mayon Volcano in Bicol and the Chocolate Hills in Bohol. It was an embarrassing
ordeal nonetheless as she could see that I was struggling to find all the
other attractive destinations on the map, which in turn made me realize how little I
truly knew about my own country. She was very excited about the trip
and was eager to learn more about the country and its people.

She imagined the Philippines to be an eternal fiesta of Spanish and Chinese Third-World
flair, filled with warm and accommodating people who all speak with a clear American accent, where
all men have the handsome earthy appeal of Jericho Rosales and women the heavenly mestiza charms of Kristine Hermosa (thanks to Filipino soap operas that have become so popular here in Malaysia). It was certainly one of the most honest cultural impressions that I
have ever heard and quite amusingly, one shared by many. In my German friend's opinion, the Philippines is one of the most open-minded countries in Southeast Asia. I found this view
rather interesting, especially since it came from a European who has never stepped foot in the Philippines and whose only direct exposure to the country, was me.

The funny thing about cultural impressions is that they often come from a place of both
acute perception and blatant ignorance, split in the middle by what is painfully true. But
they are what they are ~ impressions. Quite naturally, my friend and I have come to build our own
impressions about Malaysia in the several months that we have been here. Malaysia is a beautiful
country that seems to be in a hurry to develop economically, but is hampered by a palpable trace of
social reluctance. It seems grounded on an age-old culture that simply does not mix well
with progress, or at least the kind dictated and exemplified by the Western world. I find this true
for most developing Asian countries, including the Philippines.

My friend pointed out that she has never seen a beggar in the streets of Kuala Lumpur
since she moved here and asked me if it is the same in the Philippines. As a matter of fact, she
admitted that she has never seen a beggar up close in her whole life and asked me to explain how it is to live in a poor country like mine.

She wanted to know more about poverty. Her question struck a chord in me because
I realized that apart from Jericho Rosales, this woman had absolutely no idea about the country
where she was going and how it was out there. Here was someone
who came to me wanting to know more about my country and the best I could offer was
a geographical representation of scenic destinations, which I hardly even knew myself.

By this time, I had put down the pen I was holding,
set aside the map, and got ready to explain to her details about my country. I did not
know where to begin. After all, how does one explain poverty to
someone who has never experienced it before? To make things more relevant to her, I
started by comparing the Philippines to Malaysia. I told her that blue-collar workers in the Philippines
did not have the same opportunities as the ones in Malaysia, who can afford to eat in the same
restaurants where executives eat or even shop in stores where their own bosses shop. I told her that unlike the ones I have met in Malaysia, secretaries and administrative clerks in the Philippines will eat in posh restaurants only on very special occasions and can barely afford
to travel to other countries. I then told her about the beggars, young and old, who parade
the streets of Manila, the children who knock on car windows selling sampaguita, the mothers who
have to forage for food in garbage landfills, and the unemployed fathers who waste their lives on drugs and alcohol.

I told her about the shanties that bedeck highways
and railroads, the unproductive traffic jams, the garbage-infested streets and sewers,
and the regular typhoons that flood the country and exacerbate
already poor living conditions. I told her that poverty in the Philippines
unapologetically hits you in the face the very moment you step in. It is an open
wound just waiting to be healed.

My friend looked shaken, as if experiencing for the
first time a world she has seen only on TV. That was
when my tears started to fall. I could not help it. I have never cried in front of a semi-
stranger before but for some reason, I cried this time because she
was still not immune to these things.

Her unawareness taught me to see poverty as if for
the first time myself, which brought out a lot of
pain. I have become so used to the pain that I have
forgotten how it felt until I painted for her the sad face of poverty.

I then found myself having to explain to her that despite all these, the Philippines is
still a beautiful country and this you will also feel the very moment
you get there. It is a beauty characterized by the
indomitable human spirit of a people who have seen
better days and yet still have the capacity to find a
piece of heaven in their lives. It is a beauty defined
by the untiring faith of a people who have learned
to acknowledge their plight with reverence and yet
have never lost the courage to dream big dreams.

It is a beauty characterized by the painful history of
a people who have been abused and pillaged
through the years and yet still have so much of
themselves to give.

Now her tears were falling, smearing the map that I
had earlier vandalized with circles and arrows. But
I knew it did not matter anymore at this point. I
realized that my friend had learned all she needed
to know about my country and my people. She
thanked me profusely, saying that she came to me
wanting to know more about how poor the Philippines is but in the end, she
learned how abundantly blessed Filipinos truly are.

A beach is a beach and a volcano is a volcano
anywhere in the world, but it is the people who
make the difference. I learned in that moment that
I may not know the geographical features of my
country all too well, but I sure know its heart and
its soul because it is who I am. The real poverty
lies in not knowing this.

“Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.”~Thomas Henry Huxley~

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