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Christmas in the Philippines

As I write it’s still December 31st in the states, although here in Guam it’s lunch time on the first day of the New Year. Thought I would write a bit about my recent trip to the Philippines; there are some things I don’t want to forget.

We returned from the PI at around 2 AM 1/1/14 and then I finally got situated and in bed around 4 AM. So the return felt like a journey. We went because the boys’ (I have 2 sons) basketball team arranged a bunch of scrimmages and practices there to help warm up for the season. I’d never been to the PI before and Jungson (wife) wanted to go to monitor the kids so I figured we would make it a family trip.

The first few days were a bit rough. The signs of wealth disparity were probably the most extreme I’ve seen in a long time. When we got to our hotel, a little girl, probably 4-5, ran up to me and asked for money, of which I had none because I hate cash. I was however carrying a can of chips she wanted which I would have gladly given except it was empty, and I demonstrated this fact to her and she kind of gave a half nod. Barefoot, dressed in an oversized brown t-shirt, her skin was—I don’t know how to describe it—looked like it had the surface of sandpaper. Hair in a pony-tail but still somehow unkempt, the contrast between her and my daughter was stark. Two other kids ran around us searching for handouts of all kinds. And then a man appeared from nowhere, started yelling at them, and chased them off. I entered the 4 star hotel feeling sick to my stomach.

We were right next to the Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, which on the outside looked big, old, and run down, but on the inside was quite beautiful in all the Catholic church ways that are good. When open for services it appeared to be always full. Christmas Eve people were camped out at the church steps—whole families on flattened cardboard boxes so they weren’t touching the dirty sidewalk. It looked sad and pathetic but in hindsight such an idea was probably a cultural judgment. I don’t remember seeing so many families on the days after so they were probably gathering for church services, not for handouts.

In the end I decided I had a good time in Manila and there’s more to explore and learn from the Philippines. There are a lot of things to mention that feel noteworthy, but I’m starting to feel pressed for time, so I’ll just gloss some things and emphasize what I want to remember.

Our first game was with a poor community center team (champions in their community) who we were demolishing by 20+ points in the 1st-2nd quarter. The opponents looked like middle school kids but I was assured they were high-schoolers. The court was outside in a run-down housing area (industrial revolution tenement housing-ish) about 50 feet from train tracks, which had a train running approximately every 5 minutes, and blowing it’s horn all the way. Lining the tracks were people just sitting around all day with not much to do. I guess some people didn’t like that their kids were losing so they joined in the fray. I say fray because fouls were never called unless we committed them; meanwhile the opposing team was running screens that looked like blocks in football. And who were these people who joined in the fray? Cock fighters, gamblers, local gangsters (according to our driver). And then elbows, punches, and trips started to enter the fray. It got so bad we ended the game and walked off the court. I was afraid a riot might start because of course the community had turned out en masse to watch the game, and tempers were certainly running high. At the same time, there was an element in the crowd that thought the game was being played fair and couldn’t understand why we were leaving early. They felt hurt. I don’t have a salve for that wound, but I wish I did.

Next two games were with local college teams who beat us fairly and mostly cleanly. Losses were in the 40-50 point range though and I was genuinely questioning what the point was of coming to the PI to play a series of painful games with dubious opportunities for sincere learning.

Next two games after that were with legitimate teams—one high school and one college—and in good facilities. We won both but again, tempers were flying high and it just wasn’t a positive atmosphere, at least in the first game. I was proud of the boys to win against a college team. I don’t know where that college team was from and I don’t know if we only played against their “B” team but we dug deep for that win, and there was genuine learning that took place.

Ok, here’s what I don’t want to forget: one night we went to a seafood market. The way it worked is you go to the market, pick out the animals you want to eat, and then bring it to a nearby restaurant where they will prepare everything for you to eat. It was a big market surrounded by a great assortment of restaurants.

Henry (first son) doesn’t like seafood and my daughter is even more picky so the three of us walked to a nearby shopping arcade that looked promising with food alternatives. With luck, we found a kimbap house (Korean sushi bar) run by a young Korean lady. It felt like we were in Korea—a place everyone in my family misses. All the music, decoration, food choices, and prices, were Korean. I didn’t eat much as I’d already had dinner (not knowing we were going out), so I watched my eldest son of 17 who will graduate high school next year be a good brother to his younger, nine-year-old sister and help her with her food. Conversation was familial, and mostly between the two of them. Dinner was an occasion parents dream of: kids not only getting along, but loving and respecting one another in a shared space. They probably didn’t see it that way but I did. Happy parent-family moment. :)

Other happy moment came soon after that dinner. I was walking around because I heard live music, which I figured would be more entertaining than sitting outside that seafood restaurant. Walking along I found a live band, different from the first one I had heard. The band was a 3 man set up: guitar, keyboard, and a backup vocalist who helped remind the group of lyrics if anyone forgot. They were great though. The keyboardist had an angelic voice; I don’t know what Philippino song he sang but he drew a crowd of appreciative listeners. I didn’t understand any of it but he had a wonderful high range.

Then they announced they were going to soon sing “Careless Whisper,” one of Jungson’s favorite songs. So I went back to the restaurant and told her, and she enthusiastically came with me. She bought a couple bottles of San Miguel which turned out to be rather strong stuff and proceeded to get semi-sauced as the band took her requests for “Knife” and a repeat of “Careless Whisper,” among other tunes. It was fun to watch her and watch the band. They seemed to be grateful to us.

The poverty of the Philippines is a fact of life there. One night we saw kids (5-10 years in age?) just run across a highway. Didn’t stop, didn’t look, almost got hit by oncoming traffic, screeching tires and all. My wife wondered aloud about what the kids were thinking and doing. Our driver said, memorably, “This is their playground. They do it all the time.”

Young girls with toddlers hand in hand or on their shoulders walked among cars at traffic lights, tapping on windows, begging for money. We just ignored them. Would anything I give them make a difference to their situation? And if you give money, you are literally swarmed in seconds by outstretched hands. Even the church leaders in Manila ran stories in the papers about how people should give the children food, not money, because the money just goes to their gang leaders. Begging and poverty is a different kind of racket in Manila—at least one I hadn’t encountered before.

Back at home in Guam, I’m relieved to be in my home. Not so relieved with all the work to be done in the short time available, but grateful to be in territory that makes sense, that feels less class divided than the Philippines. Money seems to have a greater currency in the Philippines. People there are willing to do a lot for money, and the cost of material goods is less than in America. I feel guilty being in a higher economic class than the locals in their own country, but it’s obvious why so many Americans like to go to the PI and retire.

I’m glossing so I didn’t mention the malls, the food at restaurants (hit and miss), the pro b-ball tournament we went to see (and then one of the star players we later spotted in a restaurant), the Enchanted Kingdom amusement park, and the nicely-mannered people. I’d like to think the positive attitude of the people towards me and my family wasn’t just because we were foreigners with money.

I hope this New Year brings blessings to the world, and enough healing so the poor can at least get by.

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