Thursday, May 27, 2010

To live. You have to have faith.

Only after packing my bags and picking my route do I have time to realize that I am nervous. This will be my first trip outside the developed world since I left Tunisia 3 years ago and my first trip out of the expat friendly district of Makati since I arrived here 3 weeks ago.

As I leave Makati for the next district where I will find my bus, one thing is very clear: I’m not in Kansas anymore. The taxi driver affirms this by warning me to be careful of the people there and insisting he escort me to the ticket counter of the open walled bus station. The comfort he provides leaves as soon as he does.

Though the people at the station would probably go out of their way to help me, as the only foreigner I still feel vulnerable. I suspect many people there are wondering what the hell I am doing out of Makati? Learning that my bus won’t leave for four hours at 11pm doesn’t help matters. Perversely, though I am nervous, I am also glad to be finally getting a taste of the different.

Placing my back against a wall I tell myself that things will be okay. My faith erodes somewhat when the uniformed security guard goes off duty leaving me even more alone. My situation soon improves though when three fellow foreigners approach wearing enormous backpacks and speaking that distinctively North American English. Fresh graduates from Toronto they are three days into their first trip outside the western world. We decide to stick together at the bus station and as we navigated Vigan, a UNESCO site and the “finest surviving example of a Spanish colonial town”, and San Fernando, home of the Philippines surf culture. Only when we part 30 hours after meeting do I realize how much security they provided.

As I arrive in Baguio, the scene reminds me of India: so many people move so quickly past me and towards me on the sidewalk that I opt for the street instead; the buildings are dully painted including with pictures of Ronald MacDonald; and electrical wires are strewn everywhere. In the street little boys straighten cartons of cigarettes, women pick dead leaves off fruit, and young men cook chickens all in hopes of making a sale. Nobody, including taxi drivers, security guards, or other strangers can tell me where my bus station is; most seem not to know it even exists. Only after slipping through alleys so busy that I have to turn sideways to pass between jam packed jeeps and tables of fly swirled pig’s heads do I see the odd assortment of buses that is my escape from the city.

Amidst the noise of people retching, and the smell of same mixed with bus exhaust, the ride to Sagada is no more calming; each new hair pin brings a new chaotic scene of a car passing around a turn, or someone replacing a tire on one side of the road while a scooter parks on the other. I think about the remnants of rock slides, and baldness of bus tires, and the way the mountains must eat away at the brakes. I wonder how the young driver can stay aware for 8 hours, and how tired the turns will make his arms.

And then I tell myself again that things will be okay. Right then in the middle of this mountain route I have but no choice to tell myself this. Instead of worrying I enjoy the views of rice terraces harnessing mountains with gardens; and of women holding up their wares for sale to the bus windows at every stop. These same stops where I shoe flies from my bread before buying it and having faith that I can eat it. The same stops where the only water is probably unfiltered, but you have to have the faith to drink it all the same.

This same faith sees me trusting two 13 year old boys to take me on a tour of ancient burial caves containing hundred of coffins in Sagada. This same belief that it will be okay brings me to climb with other locals to the roof of an otherwise full WWII era jeep to get some of the most amazing mountain views I’ve ever seen (and where I, appropriate to the conversation, meet a women who after 11 months living in the mountains in Besao, a town of 1000, will soon return to America to become a priest).

In fact it was this same faith that saw me leave Makati in the first place to meet many fine strangers, experience very different towns, and see jaw dropping views. Faith isn’t unique to travelling in the developing world or travel at all. It helps us get through life in general; faith that she is the one, that the kids will be okay at daycare, to buy that house, or to take that new job. It is this faith that make life interesting, if not worthwhile.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Philippine Election 2010 - Now that's what I call an election!

Philippine Election Poster taken from (without permission)
The Philippines is an Archipelago made up of 7107 islands. Spread across 2000 of these islands is the world’s 12th largest population (approximately 97 million people). 11 million of these citizens form the Diaspora who live abroad in countries like the United States where they make up the second largest immigrant population, or in Canada where they make up the first largest immigrant population. Thanks to a 45 year American occupation following the Spanish - American war, most Filipinos speak English as a second language. The remainder will get by on their first language which could be any one of 111 dialects spoken in the country.

One can only imagine the challenges of conducting a national election in a country with these statistics. Well, yesterday they attempted to do just that: 50 million registered voters voted for any of 87000 candidates running in 17000 positions.

This task would be challenging under the best of conditions. Unfortunately, the people here have rarely if ever had the best of election conditions. “The government is perceived as among the worlds most corrupt, according to Transparency International, an NGO addressing corruption, and other watchdogs.” (Lonely Planet). Supporting this claim is a history that includes the world’s first bloodless coup in 1986 when the People Power revolution overthrew Ferdinand Marcos (whose wife, at 80, is now running for a seat in congress). The people repeated this exercise again in 2001 when they deposed President Joseph Estrada (an ex film star who is again running for President). Further, 30 people have been killed in election related violence in the run up to this election.

So you have a really complicated, really fragile political system – let’s not try anything extraordinary like, for example, overhauling the entire election system…Right? Wrong. This is in effect what they have decided to do. In one election, they moved from manual ballots where you wrote the name of the candidate you support on a piece of paper, to a fully automated electronic system. Computers work fine nowadays right? This should be fine? I mean, after all we are located in Southeast Asia, not far from China, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore where the majority of all computers are made. Sorry again. A last minute test showed the machines did not count the votes properly. This saw a frantic last minute push to update memory cards in the 70,000 voting machines (again spread across the archipelago). This resulted in calls by the “Concerned Citizen’s Movement” (CCM) led by former President Estrada to suspend automation and shift to a manual counting. The current President’s spokesperson supported this for a brief moment but later recanted.

Not all is rotten though: reportedly the memory cards have been replaced; 364 foreign observers have been accredited to monitor the elections as well as 159 foreign journalists; and 3664 teachers have been mobilized for a manual vote audit. Further, a liquor ban has been put on to prevent candidates from plying voters with drinks. For now, it is too early to tell how things will fall out. As I mentioned before though, few are concerned with who gets elected as long as someone clearly does.

Best for now,


Friday, May 7, 2010

Safety. Sleep. SD Card.

First - the Canadian thing to do: talk about the weather. On Tuesday, I scraped the snow off Jaime's car, it had been snowing for two days, and it was -2. When I arrived in Manila it was approximately 35 degrees celsius.

The trip itself, was like any good trip - uneventful. That doesn't mean it was spectacular - Not moving out of my seat for 13 hours was a challenge, and the food was bad even for airline food. That and I didn't understand too many of the announcements. Even when they were in "English" I didn't know whether to put on my seatbelt or get ready to put on a parachute. The plane ride did serve to remind me that I had to put on my travel mind, or what some have called your "Asia Head". i.e. being cautious, watching your passport, remembering not to drink water, being careful who you talk to and who you tell what etc. - just being safe.

I was pleasantly suprised upon arrival in the capital of the Philippines - Manila - to learn that I didn't have to bargain for my taxi. Yes it is fun, but you always, always get swindled on the first taxi ride that you bargain for in a new country.

I made it to my hotel without incident. Two observations of many on the way: First, at least the capital appears to be quite clean, and well developed and second, for Monday's election here, the people are not too worried about who wins, but as long as someone clearly does, and that it goes off without a glitch. The hotel's bellhop was astonished when I told him that in Canada we usually know the results of an election the same day as the election.

I was again pleasantly surprised upon arrival at my room. It was clean, quite, and secure. I then did something very uncharacteristic for my arrival in a new city- I slept for 8.5 out of the next 10 hours from noon until 10.

This morning I'm eating a full "American" breakfast for 195 pesos or about $4.44 Canadian while waiting for my new employer to take me to my apartment. Before leaving I look in the safe in my room. I find an SD Card. Should I open it? Thoughts of Will Smith finding secret gov't documents go through my mind, yet I decide to look at it anyway. In addition to the random photos of a children's musical concert, and a crazy frog, I find a picture from my hotel window. I know this is a bit creepy, but I post it at the start of the blog anyway. My moral justification is that perhaps the owner of the SD will read my blog and know where they left the card. That and I am currently without my own Camera.

My next blog might be a few days since I won't have internet right away. I'm out for now. Stay tuned.