Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Philippines

Partially written at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila:

Awaiting our flight out of Manila to Kuala Lumpur.  The hospitality here in Manila has been wonderful, we haven't been able to buy a meal and it hasn't been for lack of trying.   Eleanor's friends opened their hearts to us and in at least one case, their homes.  They showed us the city and even some of the countryside.  But as wonderful as the Filipino people have been the Philippines itself is heart breakingly broken.

Take the airport in Manila.  Most Asian capital cities have wonderful new airports speeding arrivals to their downtowns by modern high speed rail lines.  NAIA is not one of those Asian airports.  It looks and smells like an American Greyhound bus station from the 1970's.  Light fixtures are dark with missing or blown out bulbs, the ceiling is stained by roof leaks.  The 2 guards who were supposed to inspect our boarding passes were too busy taking cell phone selfies to bother with us.   Except for the liquor store the shops at the airport are few, dimly lit and poorly stocked.  This airport doesn't need a makeover, it needs a wrecking ball.

But it's not out of character with the city that it serves.  Manila traffic is absolute chaos.  I saw many stop signs in Manila but I never saw a car stop for one.  When we were being taken around Manila kids would approach the SUV at a red light and get right up to the windows attempting to sell home made feather dusters, brooms, plastic Santa Clauses or sunglasses with built in LED's.  This is the kind of place that I've read about where if you stop for a traffic light and dangle your arm out of the car window street urchins could steal your watch in a flash.  I was cautioned by locals to not ride the rapid transit rail lines, they were tightly packed and unsafe due to violence, groping and pickpocketing.  A friend of Eleanor's told me that the rail rapid transit lines have no escalators because the money to buy and install them when the lines were originally built had been pilfered because the government in the Philippines is a kleptocracy.

Before I came to Manila I had read about the jeepneys, the icon of the Manila streets.  When I got here I saw them, they're banged up homemade minibus/trucks that carry people or sometimes cargo, a sort of home made ragtag private rapid transit substitute for the buses that the government doesn't seem to provide. Passengers and barefoot feral children hang off the backs of the jeepneys in traffic.  When the jeepneys move they belch coal black diesel exhaust onto everything and everybody so Manila lives under a brown cloud.  The spare tires on a jeepney are often bald, sometimes so bald that the tire cord shows.

Worse yet are the tricycles, sort of a local tuk-tuk.  A tricycle in the Philippines is a motorcycle lashed to a sidecar.  I saw tricycles carrying 7 people at once with 4 crammed into the sidecar and 2 people sitting behind the driver. With such a load the tricycle can't move very fast and for safety's sake that's probably a good thing.  But that slows down the cars, trucks and jeepneys to the speed of the tricycles which gums up everything.  Because of the insane traffic entry into Manila is restricted by licence plate number.  The well to do get around this by simply buying and licensing a 2nd car.

Or take the cell phone system.  Locals tell me that it's necessary to have several cell phones or a phone that accepts multiple SIM's because while the local competing cell phone carriers do interconnect with each other they charge more to connect calls to their rivals so many people have service with all of the companies because it's cheaper to do that then to pay their higher charges to call people who use competing companies. Businesses often list several phone numbers, one for each carrier.

So if the government is a screwed up bribe and kickback machine why not vote them out?   Corruption is rampant but the electorate votes the same folks back in with majorities that would make Saddam Hussein proud.  When we were were in Batangas province, I saw incredible poverty with spots of very conspicuous wealth.  I checked, in recent elections the governor was reelected with almost 94% of the vote.  But it's worse than that, read a few paragraphs here about the governor  That kind of comic nonsense is the norm in the Philippines, the people get the government that they deserve.  I broached this subject with several people I met in the Philippines, all were aware how sad and desperate it made the country seem.

So the Philippines makes due economically by exporting workers to more prosperous economies and exists financially by remittances sent home by these OFW's or Overseas Philippine Workers.  The rich families that control the Philippines make money every time an OFW deposits their earnings into one of their banks or calls home to friends of relatives via the phone companies that they own at toll rates that are kept artificially high.

When we were in Dubai we had dinner with Eleanor's niece Rachel, she's been an OFW in Dubai for 10 years.  Exporting workers means that the motivated best and brightest of the Philippines are working and benefiting someone else.  Some of the money comes back but the talents and skills that the country needs do not.  There's an separate OFW entrance and lounge at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.  I asked Rachel if there were any advantages to being an OFW at the airport.  She replied that the only one she would think of was that OFW's were exempt from having to pay the exit fee of $12.70 US.

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