When visiting the home of my friends Daniel and Beth:
It’s the gate with the picture of Jesus and Mary on it.”
When visiting the home of my friends Daniel and Beth:
It’s the gate with the picture of Jesus and Mary on it.”
March 17, 2009
Despite having our plans of riding the ill-named “Bikol Express” Southrail train from Manila to Legazpi “derailed“, Joosje and I manage to get there by night bus from Manila. We arrive about 9.30AM, exhausted as all hell, catch a tricycle to the Legazpi Tourist Inn (which was the only hotel I have ever been to in the world where they let you stay for two nights and don’ t even ask to see money until you checkout.) It’s raining.
We wander towards the docks, realize you can’t get far down in that direction due to concrete walls and construction barriers, and then instead head into “Victory Village”, which looks from the outside to be a small fish market area on the other side of the concrete wall, through an archway. It turns out to be a 6000 person Barangay (Filipino word for village or neighborhood, which was chosen to replace the Spanish-era word “barrio”). We chat with many people, all very friendly, as we wander through the narrow streets-if you can evven call such narrow pedestrian-only alleys streets, and then a woman tells us we can climb the hill behind the village to get a view of the city and huge volcano (Mt Mayon) beyond. The rain has stopped, and the sun is out. A 12 year old girl, an 18 year old girl, her dog Pipi, and two boys who unusually don’t seem to know any English at all take us slipping and sliding up the hill for an amazing view and after taking it in we slip and slide back down, through what seems to be a mix of mud from the earlier rain and caribou shit, back down to the village. To get onto the path up to the lookout point you have to slip through a barb-wired fence, which is little physical obstical but would probably keep out most un-invited visitors due to appearances.
After we get back down, the woman who had pointed out the way up the hill waves us over to talk. She first introduces herself, Julie T. Bahoy, and then asks if we want to go see the docks and construction site behind the barriers we had balked at earlier. The Barangay runs parallel to the docks area, entirely cut off from it by a tall concrete wall which is prettied up on the dock-facing side but ugly, bare concrete on the village side, aside from the market entrance we had taken, another opening in the middle, and one gate into the construction area and fishing docks. Julie tells us that the construction is for a major tourist destination and resort project known as The Embarcadero. (The project and name both seem inspired by San Francisco’s Embarcadero.) The Embercadero construction has made it more difficult for the villagers to reach their fishing piers, which can only be reached by traversing the construction site itself. Only village residents are supposed to be allowed out to the fishing pier, but Julie says that if anyone asks she will just tell them that she wants to show her friends the fishing boats and not The Embarcadero. In fact, none of the guards or construction workers are very interested, but Julie seems to ejoy the thought of getting away with something.
After looking around the pier area we walk back into the village and have a seat at a small shop run by her mother. She gives us bottles of generic brand cola and some chocolate snack-cake thing and tells us about herself. The fishing village within Legazpi cityis her home town, and she is educated in a nearby college, with a major in business management. After graduation she was unable to actually work in that field, instead getting a clerical job in a law office, which she did for many years before switching to her current job managing a small office in the city. It does not pay particularly well, and she has some side jobs trading various goods, sometimes involving networking with her sister in Manila, particularly apaca fiber products for export. She might be able to find a better job with higher pay, but says that the company she works at would fail without her, and she does not want to be responsible for putting the others out of work. Yet, she also does not demand higher pay. Her father is a retired machinist for the electrical utility, draws a small pension, and continues to do some machining work from a home shop.
Although much of her time is of course occupied by her dayjob, Julie’s real vocation has been her work on the Barangay Council, where she is the youngets of its seven members. She was first elected as the youth representative at the age of 18 and is now nearing the end of her third, and term-limited final, term. She has always ran, and been elected, as an independent and refrained from the bribe and gift exchanges ubiquitous in local Philippine politics, facts that she is very proud of. She even uses her small honorarium as a council member for purchasing things needed by the village, such as lights, instead of keeping it as a payment. Approaching the end of her final term she is wrestling with the decision of whether or not to try and run for council chairperson, as some are urging her to do, but is reluctant to do so out of concern that it may be difficult to do so without engaging in the standard corrupt politicking and that it would occupy even more of the time she needs to make money for her family, a conundrum traditionally solved by engaging in the corruption which she so abhors.
Still, she is considering giving it a shot so that she can work for the barangay. And the barangay needs help, fenced in and under threat due to the Embarcadero project. 95% of the village population survives in one way or another from the fising trade, with only about 1 in 20 engaged in external occupations in the city. Naturally, anything that obstructs their access to the sea is a serious threat. While some villagers have temporary work during the construction phase, few of them have enough education to apply for the permanent jobs that will be created upon its completion. There is a free public elementary school inside the village, and like all of the schools I have seen in The Philippines so far it is pleasant and well maintained (the newspapers reported this past week that the Department of Education was rated least corrupt governmeent department in a public opinion survey) but higher education requires travel outside into the city, which few of the fishing families have the hard currency for.
There are rumors that the project is partially owned by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (always referred to as GMA here), widely considered to be corrupt (one recent survey pegged her as even more corrupt than the late Ferdinand Marcos, which while highly unlikely at least gives a sense of the level of discontent) or at least one of her friends. The wall was constructed without permission of or consultation with the barangay or any of its residents, and unsurprisingly cut across some private land. According to Julie, the Bahoy family house’s lot extends a full 25 meters past the wall, and they have a lawsuit pending over the theft of their land. She says that the developers have offfered to settle for the fairly hefty sum of 20 million pesos (around USD $500,000), but they have documents showing clear title to the land and are not interested in settling. Such a settlement offer implies that they have a strong case, and she even hopes to have the wall itself removed. Unfortunately, many of the other residents lack proper documentation and are even legally considered to be squatting in their own homes, and have no hope of filing a similar lawsuit. Such carelessness in basic legal matters is an obvious result of under-education, but fishing has not historically been an occupation with a great need for men of letters. And with the fishing at risk, they have little or nothing to fall back on. More of the children stay in school than their elders, but probably still not enough. In the face of this situation, I expect that Julie will find herself unable to not run for barangay council president, and will sleep even less.
(As will all entries in this series, this will be reposted with photos added some time after my return to Japan.)
Having spent a couple of days in Manila catching up with old friends, it is now time to head to the south. My plan had been to take the Southrail train all the way from Manila to its terminus in Legaspi in the Bicol region at the SW tip of Luzon-a roughly 15 hour ride on the aging pre-WW2 train system with a top speed of around 50km/hr. This travel plan had been slightly augmented when I met a Dutch girl who had just arrived the same day as I to do a four month tour working at an education related NGO and doing research for her MA who was very keen on the idea of joining me on the trip.
We met up yesterday to work out the details, and being somewhat confused by how the time tables on the official website had no relationship with the information presented in the Lonely Planet, printed in 2006, I called the number on the website only to be told in that in fact both time tables were entirely wrong, due to the fact that the line has in fact been closed for around two years. Astonishingly, this rather critical detail is printed nowhere on the Philippine National Railway website that I could discover, nor on the Wikipedia page (at least in English).
After looking around a bit, I discovered that the line has been closed since a typhoon caused major damage in 2006. Since, as I mentioned, the line was ancient and only ran at pathetic 50km/hr (like 30 mph), they had been planning to rehabilitate it and upgrade to a modern system that could at the very least be called “high speed” when compared to the old line. Since the planning for the rehabilitation and upgrade was already underway, it seems that they decided not to even bother with the easier and faster work needed to simply reopen the train as it was before the typhoon, and instead take the opportunity presented by a complete closure to complete the long-term project more rapidly and efficiently. They claim that the new, higher-speed Southrail train will in fact be opening by the end of the year, although considering that New Jersey Transit has been unable to finish the repairs to the Newark Broad Street Station that has kept the Montclair Line that goes from my house to Manhattan from providing weekend service for at least a year past the originally promised date, combined with the notorious Philippines corruption, I have little confidence in this date being kept.
It is worth noting that, as in the good old USA, the Philippines (or at least the main island of Luzon) had a substantially more extensive and better rail system before WW2. In addition to the Southrail, there is also an old Northrail that hasn’t run for many years, as well as some smaller branch lines, and also a number of trams around the Manila area which were completely annihilated by the bombing of WW2 during the re-conquest of the city. Metro Manila mass transit rail has only in recent years begun to be replaced by elevated rail lines, which currently includes one MRT line and LRT lines 1 and 2, to which a 3 is curently under construction and more are planned, including a direct rail link to the new airport at some point.
Having taken this detour to learn a bit about the history and state of the Republic of the Philippines railway system, in the end Joosye (which is pronounced nothing like how you think) and I will be taking the bus.
After my mishap last week I made sure to get to the airport about two hours earlier than I needed to, and so naturally the plane was an hour late-which would have easily more than made up for the amount of time by which I had missed my plane last week.
I found a place to crash for the night in the backpacker/tourist district near downtown Manila as it is not too far from the airport, although I will be staying for the next couple of days in the University of the Philippines area up in Quezon city, about an hour away from the airport.
I took a brief stroll around the area after checking in to pick up some toiletries at a 7/11 and grab a snack. This is not the nicest part of Manila to walk around at night, as you have to dodge both men trying to sell you women and women trying to sell you themselves. Even if that had been the goal of my walk, as opposed to toothbrush and stuffed bread thing, I am perfectly capable of reading signs and walking into a store and don’t need anyone following me and gabbing in my ear, thank you very much.
In the morning I took another stroll around to get breakfast, and instead of being accosted by pimps and whores met with watch and viagra merchants. Shouldn’t the viagra sellers be out when the prostitutes are? Doesn’t anybody coordinate their schedules? Such are the mysteries of the cosmos.
Walking around with my new camera, I was reminded of one of the peculiarities of the Philippines, being that a foreigner wielding a fancy camera will actually be stopped by locals asking you to take their photograph. “One shot, right here.” They say. Needless to say, this is the reverse, or at least crossverse, of the usual relationship between the tourist photographer and the busy local. It takes a few times, initially, to realize that there is no scam, no demand for money involved, but merely some globally rare but nationally common enjoyment of the experience of being documented.
After being called upon to photograph one smiling old man-a pleasant enough interaction-I had the misfortune of stepping on a sidewalk stone which shifted in a downwardly spinning fashion beneath my foot, plunging it into the murky sewery depths beneath, soaking my foot and mildly scraping my shin. A couple of people on the sidewalk nearby hurried over to ask if I was all right, and no serious harm done I said that I was, as one man hawking cigarettes nearby shifted the slab back into a less precarious place.
Just before getting back at the hostel (whose wifi I am currently perusing) I stopped to briefly admire a well-maintained fire truck parked on the street, whereupon I was greeted b its crew, relaxing at the side of the street across from it. Exchanging hellos, they asked me where I was from, I told them “US, New Jersey, currently studying in Japan”, the usual introduction, following which I become absorbed into a nearly hour-long conversation with one of the men. They were volunteer fire fighters, not city employees, and even the fire truck is privately owned. I saw a Rotary Club emblem on it, presumably one source of funding.
This man, whose name I will not mention for reasons that will be apparent, looked to be in the general neigborhood of 30. When I started to expain to him that I was studying the area of colonial history he gave his widely-shared opinion that education was the best thing that America had given to the Philippines. He then followed up by expressing dismay that America and the Philippines, having been engaged in building a system of education generally maintaining a high level relative to the region, had not carried those high standards into the realm of Philippine history, choosing instead to present a slanted and incomplete version of that history, particularly where the Community Party of the Philippines is concerned.
He asked me if I had heard of Jose Maria Sison, which I had. Sison, now elderly and living in political exile in The Netherlands, is the leader of the CCP who has written many revolutionary tracts over the years. I mentioned that I have one of his books, “Philippine Society and Revolution”, written in the 1970s, which I had downloaded from a website. I mentioned that I had read more of Renato Constantino, the most famous left-wing historian of the Philippines, to which he replied, “well he’s OK too,” clearly indicating a strong preference for the writings of Mr. Sison. Out of both interest and politeness I then asked where I might find some more of Sison’s writings, to which the reply was “well, for that you have to go up there” by which he meant, to the mountain camps where the communists hide out and train. His writings are banned in the Philippines, and cannot be bought or sold or even possessed openly.
He, or perhaps I should say The Young Communist, which is what he gradually and eventually came out as, was originally from Manila, of middle class background. Of partial Chinese descent, his grandfather had married a non-Chinese Filipina and been disowned, which says enough to The Young Communist about Chinese society for him to want no part of it. He went to Polytechnic University of the Philippines,which he described as the second most communist university in the country after UP (University of the Philippines), where he had been recruited by one of his professors. UP, he said, while containing the highest proportion of communists and communist sympathizers, is also by far the most elite and wealthiest of the nations universities, with over 80% of the student body themselves coming from an elite background. While people there may be intellectually communist, and may even join the struggle, they will never have the full level of understanding of the need for revolution possessed by those of a more humble background. “Poverty is part of the education.”
He had then spent his university career traveling back and forth between the city, where he studied in class, and the mountain regions, where he studied in the communist camps. He never lived full time in the mountains, because (and he stressed this) he “never had a job up there” due to not being a member of the armed struggle. Instead, he studied comunist philosophy and methods for organizing and activism, and worked in some aid programs for the aborigines. The aforementioned writings of Sison were studied, but he said he would always shred or burn a copy after reading it.
After university, he stopped going to thee camps in the mountains to concentrate on work in the city. He mentioned that there was some sort of amnesty for CCP memberss, which applied to him perhaps since he was not in the armed faction-I did not adequately get the details. The Young Communist then gestured at the fire truck saying that it was part of his work, to do something for the community. While he does consider himself a communist and refers to other communists as “comrades”, he is pragmatic and considers himself a realist. He says he works for revolution, but not in the radical and dramatic sense of a popular uprising and the establishment of a People’s Republic, but in the sense of changing the social order in a gradual and peaceful fashion. To this end he is involved in organizing in the labor movement and in the promotion of revolutionary art, and even the volunteer fire fighter duty, and makes money to live off doing some kind of event organizing thing, which I got virtually no sense of due to his clear lack of interest in talking about work when he could be talking about the real work.
Having seen the results of revolutions throughout the 20th century, he does not believe that an armed uprising will actually improve things long-term except, and here I dare to presume, in the case of a violent and oppressive dictatorship. He had particular venom and bile for Marcos, whom he considers perhaps the worst person in modern Philippine history-a statement that many would agree with. In his view, following the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, which toppled Marcos, there was a window of opportunity for real reform, which was squandered and undermined by the same old elite, and each president since Corey has only been worse. Like many here, he bemoans the fast that the best and brightestt and most educated leave the Philippines behind to go work in the US or other foreign countries, which “is bad for the Philippines on a macro level, but you really can’t blame them for taking care of their families” even as it continues the cycle of underdevelopment.
While I can understand how an espoused communist might not be in favor of armed struggle for both moral and pragmatic reasons, I am both startled and puzzled to hear him say that he considers Marxism to be unrealistic and Marxists to be mistaken. When he goes on to say that national democracy is the only framework that makes sense to work within for the foreseeable future, I am left wondering what actually makes him a communist as opposed to merely a very progressive liberal. What, aside from self-identification, is different from my own views? We seem to have similar views on both history and current events. Neither of us is calling for the overthrow of the state, but think that dynasty in electoral politics (a far more serious problem in the Philippines, but one that is distressingly on the rise in the US) is unforgiveable. Perhaps he has a dream of some distant communist society, but what person with any spark of imagination and optimism doesn’t fantasize about a future utopia? I certainly don’t pretend to think that any society in existence in the world today, however much better things may be now than in the past, is more than a shadow of things to come. But I also don’t pretend to have any glimmer of what future society might be, as fun as it is to guess or imagine. And I wonder, does The Young Communist even believe in communism? Does it matter? If someone can follow a religion-say Christianity-as a set of moral guidelines but not a literal description of history or roadmap to the future, why can’t someone calling themselves Communist approach that doctrine in the same way?
I”m heading to Manila today and will be in the Philippines until March 24. On this trip I bring the following items:
My exact plans are still rather vague, but definitely involve spending some time in Manila, visiting the Banaue Rice Terraces, and probably riding the Philippines’ single long distance train line from Manila to the its terminus in the SE corner of Luzon and seeing what’s on the other end.
I will hopefully find some internet along the way and do a bit of blogging, and there will be an extensive visual record upon my return.
I’ll be flying to the Philippines next Thursday (March 5) and staying until March 24. I don’t have a clear travel plan yet, aside from spending a bit of time in Manila with some friends I haven’t seen in a while, but I’m definitely going to check out the famous rice terraces farther north in Luzon. Are there any readers in the Philippines, particularly Metro Manila? Any readers with particular recommendations on places to visit?
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed three stories in the Taipei Times on the topic of preserving notable or historical architecture in Taiwan.
There were also three other stories of note related to historical topics I have discussed on this blog before.
From the minutes of the Constitutional Convention for the Philippines, January 24, 1935.
As I am about to permanently disassemble this computer and bring only the hard drives with me to Japan, where I will then assemble a new system after finding a place to live, I figure it would be a good time to post the various things that had been sitting around my desktop in case I ever found the time and motivation to write something about them.
At least, that is how it is described in the words of Carol Lloyd, blogger on women’s issues at Salon.com. Due to the centuries as a Spanish colony, The Philippines is a firmly Catholic country-one in which the Church holds a level of influence rarely seen in the western world. Although the Catholic Church has oddly never managed to have any appreciable effect on the Philippines endemic Southeast Asian liberalism towards homosexuality and gender identity, they have managed to keep abortion illegal in all circumstances but to save the life of the mother. (More information on abortion in SE Asia here.) Although pre-conception birth control remains legal throughout The Philippines, in 2000 conservative Catholic Mayor Jose “Lito” Atienza of Manila issued an executive order removing all contraception from free clinics within the city. Many women in the desperately poor slums of Manila find it impossible to fit contraception in with food and other basic needs into their family budget, which has the eventual effect of a larger and even harder to feed family. This is what has women living in three urban slums to file a lawsuit demanding revocation of the order. From Reuters:
Emma Monzaga, one of the petitioners, said she was getting injections once every three months to prevent her from becoming pregnant, but was told on her third visit to a public clinic that the treatment was no longer available. “I was asked to go somewhere else to get the shots because the city hall has stopped funding the family planning program,” Monzaga said, adding her family could not afford to spend extra for contraceptives. “We used to get it for free. It’s becoming a burden because we have to eat and send our six children to school.” She said she has given up the idea of saving some money from her husband’s 300 pesos ($7) daily wage as a construction worker to pay for the vaccines because of rising cost of basic needs.
Amazingly, it took almost eight years before a local NGO managed to file the lawsuit “because the women feared political reprisals.” Unsurprisingly, there is now a different mayor in charge, and many hope that he will revoke the previous order without the need for the lawsuit to proceed. The Center for Reproductive Rights has a 50 page report, full of testimony, on the issue entitled “Imposing Misery: The Impact of Manila’s Contraception Ban on Women and Families,” which may be downloaded in PDF from their website at the above link. The report claims that the executive order violates the Republic’s 1987 constitution, stating:
The 1987 Philippine Constitution guarantees the
rights to liberty, health, equality, information and education for all citizens,
as well as the right of spouses to found a family in accordance with their
personal religious convictions. These basic principles, reinforced by
several pieces of legislation, create the foundation under national law for a
right to reproductive health, including access to contraception. [p. 9]
The report suggests that “The Manila City government should revoke Executive Order No. 003” as well as various further plans. [p. 11]
While many people look at issues such as these primarily in terms of individual rights and their effect on individuals and families, it is critical to consider the broader picture as well.
The Philippines today has a population of just under 90 million, a staggering number of whom live in poverty. I can attest from my own visit to the country that the cities are clogged with slums, illegal shanty-towns line the rivers and fill public parks, and the ratio of the population with no gainful employment appears to be easily several times that of anyplace else I have ever been. I have even heard that the unemployment rate in Metro Manila may be almost 50%.
Without high quality and aggressive family planning, that 90 million could nearly double in a generation- and the country’s scarce economic resources would be stretched even thinner. Could the unemployment rate rise even above 50%? Will The Philippines be plunged into a Malthusian crisis like Bangladesh or parts of Africa? Lack of birth control is hardly the only factor that has made Manila, and many other third-world regions, into dystopias, but it is one.