As I mentioned in a previous post, I am in California for the holidays at the end of 2013. I’ve spent the previous 16 months in the Philippines and aside from a handful of ‘kano’ friends I’ve embedded myself into the local Filipino lifestyle. At first I spent 9 months on the smaller island of Mactan, just off the shore of the much larger island of Cebu.
Living on Mactan gave me several benefits as my first landing so that I could get situated a bit more easily. My studio was located only 3 blocks from the central Grand Mall so getting groceries and other needed items didn’t require any transportation. It also allowed me to learn the use of tricycles, jeepneys, taxis and even riding backseat on a motorcycle (habal-habal) for getting around the island depending on how far I was going and how fast I wanted to get there. Mactan is not a glamorous island for the most part. It does have a stretch of very nice resorts along the north-east coast which are very beautiful with all the sandy, white beaches and clear ocean waters you think of when you think of the tropics. However I didn’t spend any time at the resorts. I was in the central Basok area and spent a lot of my time in Lapu Lapu where the marketplace and sabong (cockfight arena) are located. That’s where I walked and explored every nook, cranny and alley sampling the various food locations and interacting with the local residents.
Since I neither needed nor desired my own transportation, I was like Cain from the t.v. series, “Kung Fu” to be seen walking up to five miles as I slowly observed everything the broken sidewalks and small shops had to offer from Mandaue (on the Cebu shore) back to Basok. I even once walked it for two hours in the drenching rain. But the rain is warm and I was enjoying every step of it, even if the locals gave me puzzled looks as I passed by to give them a wave and a smile.
This sandals-on-the-ground approach is how I also came to meet people who would later become my newest friends. It’s easy to make new friends in the Philippines when you’re a foreigner. But it takes a bit of discernment and time though to know who your real friends are. It was while on an evening stroll that I happened to sit down in the darkness at a closed propane store that I happened to meet my very good friend, Kristine my first month on Mactan. It was so dark I really couldn’t even see her clearly but we talked for more than an hour as the occasional traffic passed by and began what is still a good friendship more than a year later. She is in her early 20’s, easy going, beautiful and easy to speak with. Because we didn’t pursue anything romantically, being ‘just friends’ removed a lot of the usual tensions and facades every Foreigner and Filipina usually have to work through in a new meeting.
It was also while walking one early evening that I stopped along a bbq stand made from a metal rain-gutter and some welded re-bar on the side of the road. Cooking the bbq was a cute, young Filipina. Her name was Baby (Eugenie) and she eventually became my part-time maid and friend. It seems about 95% of the people, male or female, use a nickname here, including myself. Aside from Baby, other nicknames I became familiar with were Bebe, Sirk, Angel, JM, Linda (not her real name), Sajarah, Chloe, Mae, Boy, JT, Tess and several others who had some long, Catholic name they simply preferred to shorten down to their daily nickname. In the U.S. I had been married for over a decade to my then-wife who was from Mexico. Thus, in short order my original name of Henry quickly became Enrique and that’s what I was known as for over tenyears in Southern California. But when I arrived in the Philippines and responded, “My name is Enrique.” The pronunciation I kept getting with the Filipino accent was, “Reekay”. So, after a few months of that I finally just stuck with Reekay to avoid repeating the explanation about Enrique. A few people call me “Ricky”. Close enough.
After my nine months on Mactan I moved to the island of Bohol located about a 2 hour ferry ride from Cebu. This was a huge difference in surroundings. No more mall down the block for one thing. I was now living in a small, one-bedroom brick home out in the ‘province’ (ie; jungle) located about 3 miles from the outskirts of Tagbilaran city. For the first 4 months I would walk through the ‘jungle road’ until I reached the edge of town and then walked again until I reached the ICM mall. There I could enjoy air-conditioned luxuries such as a movie theater, net café with higher-speed connection and the usual mall foods you find in the Philippines such as Chow King, Jollibee, buko-juice and Joe’s Chicken Inato where they have some of the best roasted chicken served up daily. Oh, and lots and LOTS of the cutest Filipinas both working there and strolling through the mall hallways every time I went. Even one of the security guards, Neome, caught my eye but she was always too busy working to ever strike up any free-time with, apart from a few sporadic texts after we became acquainted.
Eventually I got a scooter and that really opened up the island for me. The big difference between Mactan/Cebu and Bohol is.. the greenery. Bohol is a lush, green tropical island. Mactan/Cebu City don’t have the foliage for the most part that I prefer. At least Cebu city doesn’t. Mactan only in limited spots. On Cebu you can find much more greenery if you go outside the city either to the north or south. But on Bohol you are never far from a nice beach, a little bit of town’s luxuries, tourist spots, jungle roads for a nice cycle ride or drive along the coast. Panglao has no major city and is so tropical it is more of a tourist location along the shores and full of barangays along the center of the island where the local province residents live along with a few foreigners here and there. Iloilo, an island slightly to the north of Cebu is also an environment similar to Bohol but much larger. Dumaguete has lots of greenery as well as many other islands so don’t get the idea that it’s all about Bohol.
So many of the islands are just so lush and beautiful it really takes time to visit them and get a feel for how big or small a city you desire with your tropical paradise. For me, I’ve made a few good friends on Bohol and it’s a quiet enough place that I enjoy the tranquility. Another friend of mine felt the inner-city driving was just far too hectic for him to deal with. But to me, hectic is what you encounter in downtown Manila or Cebu. So I guess it’s all about perception and perspective for each individual. One man’s serenity is another man’s idea of ‘boring’. Some guys need the busy downtown life of central Cebu City. Me.. I enjoy ‘the big city’ for up to a week and then I’m on a boat outta there for another 5 weeks in the province.
As I mentioned, for the most part I spend the majority of my time with local Filipinos and only sporadically with ‘foreigners’ (expats from other countries). For one thing, there are far more Filipinos around than Foreigners so it just works out that way. I am a social person, but I’ve become a more private person since arriving to the Philippines. Before I didn’t give much attention to it but here, if you don’t protect your privacy, then pretty much everything you do becomes tribal knowledge. To such a degree that even a large circle of locals will know at least ‘something’ about you.. and some of it might even be accurate. People here love to pass on tidbits about each other. They call it culture. We normally call it gossip. Together we seem to agree to call it “chismis” (or; chisme)
One thing you learn here is that your life is an interesting topic in both your neighborhood and the places you shop on a regular basis. Store owners, security guards, concession stand attendants and cashiers pay attention to how often you pass by and who is with you as you stroll near their storefront.. even if you’re not a regular customer of theirs. If you’re seen with a woman it’s assumed she’s either your live-in girlfriend or your wife. The idea that she might just be a one-time date or a friend just doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind. But they will bring it up on casual conversation with you, “You’re wife is very beautiful.”, or “I saw you with your wife last week.” are the usual comments you might hear. And if you attend a wedding with a Filipina as her guest, it will be quickly surmised you are engaged and people will want to know if you’ve set a date yet.
But I’m not complaining. Anymore. At first I’ll admit it kinda got on my nerves when I first moved here. I was accustomed to going in and out of a city like a shadow. In and out with no trace I’d even been there. That’s how it is in the U.S. People back home don’t pay attention to what other people are doing. And even if they did notice you with someone it’s considered your own private business. Back home they don’t remember you talking to some woman three weeks ago just because you stopped in front of an ice-cream store near their workplace. Unless you ran buck-naked down the center of the grocery aisle during lunch-time, people pretty much ignore you and whatever you might be up to. So when I arrived on Mactan and realized that even total strangers I had never conversed with were commenting about where they’d seen me or who I’d been talking to.. or asking me where I was going, at first it really caught me off guard.
Now, however, I accept it as part of the culture. People here are more community conscious to a much higher degree than the U.S. Not even in a cul-de-sac do people know much about each other’s lives. But here it’s how the time is often passed. Collecting little bits of info and passing it along like trading cards. This plays into why it’s so important to understand the culture here when dating. A Filipina’s reputation is not only a public commodity, it’s something to be protected. You don’t see much public displays of affection among boyfriend/girlfriends or even spouses. Some hand-holding is about it. Women for the most part here want it to be known that they are not bouncing from man to man. You will always see young women walking arm in arm like sisters as something of a social buffer of accountability. If anyone were to spread some false rumor, she has her friend/alibi to vouch for her presence at any time. Many expats get thrown off by the whole ‘chaperon’ element of dating here and become the proverbial ‘bull in a china shop’ until they figure this part of the culture out. A Filipina maintaining some semblance of a decent reputation is of big importance here where news travels fast and gossip travels even faster.
It does have its drawbacks though, all this chismis flying around. One rumor in my village is that I am an outlaw or fugitive of some sort from my home country and that’s why I hide out in the jungle. The fact that I’ve managed to stay single for more than a year in the Philippines and never hired a live-in, 18 year old maid hasn’t done my reputation any good either. Add to that having open conversation at the mall with some friendly ladyboys and no doubt my ‘rep’ has been the fodder for all sorts of rumors. I can’t be on rumor damage-control all my life so, I just do what I do and let the stories grow to epic proportions on their own. I’m sure after word got around that I knocked an attacker unconscious during a mugging in Cebu earlier this year, it will eventually compound into me having killed three guys with my bare hands by next year.
But having something of a spotlight on you can have its advantages as well. For one thing, you’d have to be a clueless idiot to cheat on your girlfriend or wife around here. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ she will ever find out.. it’s a matter of ‘when’ some cashier or neighbor’s cousin will text her the second you are seen walking with some other woman at the mall or riding a tricycle together. There is no privacy. Just accept it. My advice is, if you aren’t ready be ‘exclusive’ to one woman, don’t get into a committed relationship and don’t get married. Life is much simpler that way for everyone involved.
Another advantage is when you do some random act of kindness, that helps your “street rep” quite a bit. Giving someone from your neighborhood ‘barangay’ a ride home, paying for some stranger’s groceries in line behind you, helping out the elderly, giving some street kids bread rolls from the bakery.. these are things that go pretty much unnoticed back home. But here, people take note of that kind of thing and it can somewhat counter the random, inaccurate gossip to some degree.
Sixteen months of this on a daily basis brings me now to my current visit here in Southern California for the holidays. The streets look the same for the most part. The food and people are as I remember them. But the landscape as a whole has now had a veneer peeled away from it that reveals things I never really took note of before. Maybe I saw it before and simply didn’t want to acknowledge it. I don’t know. All I do know is that I see not only Life, but life in these United States in a much different light than before I boarded that plane more than a year ago.
I could go into the details of my observations here such as the lack of appreciation I see in so many kids here in the U.S. for education, compared to the hunger, thirst and desire for education I see in Filipino kids. I could wax on about the fourteen year old Filipino kids I see (mostly girls) sacrificially spending their after-school hours helping out in the family store or resto along the road to help make ends meet.. compared to kids here who can’t tear themselves away from their video games or tablets long enough to even take out the trash.
I could speak of the tough will to survive by means of hard work for long hours that I see in so many Filipinos compared to the entitlement mentality of so many here who not only ‘expect’ money for nothing, they abuse the system and even sell drugs on the side with all the free time they have. In the Philippines, for the most part, if you do not work.. you do not eat. I know of entire families who only manage to keep rice and dried fish on the table because their daughters managed to find a job and present their paychecks to their aging parents as a duty for the family’s survival. Some of the sons will do the same, but sadly I see too many young Filipino boys aged 15 who only seem concerned with scraping up spare change for their cigarette habit and loitering around aimlessly. There is a definite double-standard in the Philippines (and Mexico, for that matter) as to the high expectations made of the girls while the boys often are allowed to be spoiled and/or lazy with little sense of accountability or cause and effect.
But none of this even begins to touch upon how differently I see the World today. It is not just about a difference in customs, child raising or work ethics. It’s not even the politics or effects thereof that make for the circumstances present either in the Philippines or the Western world. For me, it comes down to an overall priority of humans across the globe in what they hold as their Priority; People or Things. Others or Selfishness. Duty or Vice.
Materialism. It doesn’t matter if it’s those in Orange County hoping to move up to the Beverly Hills lifestyle, or those in the province desiring a more middle-income strata of simple luxuries we in the middle-class take for granted. Everyone wants a better life. The difference is, some people have held on to their ‘balance’ in life while others have discarded it as a hindrance and they will step on the neck of anyone they must in order to “get their share” of life’s riches. In the Philippines they call it the “crab mentality”. Dragging down anyone else who is making progress even if it does them no good to do so. If they can’t succeed, some people just can’t stand to see their neighbor succeed and will sabotage them whenever possible. It’s an ugly trait not limited to any one country.
I believe in working and enjoying the fruit of one’s labors. I believe in improving one’s state in life. Despite my minimalist philosophy I don’t fault anyone who is willing to work for a better life for themselves and their children. I’m all for prosperity. More money is a good thing. It puts food on the table, keeps the utilities on and pays for the medical bills. I am no enemy of prosperity or luxury by any means.
But what I am completely opposed to are those in life who have discarded their sense of humanity and place Materialism at the altar before which they bow. These people will not only steal, lie, cheat and defraud others to get more for themselves, they have committed an even greater crime against their own conscience.. they have sacrificed their humanity and compassion in the process.
We’ve run into these people in every country. Rich or poor, money comes before People in their equations. And this is the difference that strikes out at me as I walk the familiar streets I grew up in with the streets of the Philippines still fresh in my mind and heart. I have seen the poorest of people retain not only their humanity, but their sense of ethics and honor. They have respect for others and a sense of respect for themselves that has nothing to do with material wealth or the lack of it. They love their wives. They love their husbands. They love their children and they have a sense of community. Not just among the poor and not just in the Philippines. I see it in the U.S. and I’ve seen it in Mexico. There are people in this world who have retained their sense of ‘Balance’ regarding money and people. They have their priorities in right order and neither money nor the lack of it has caused them to lose their balance in life.
I know a wonderful couple living in the wine country of Temecula, California. Compared to most middle-income people they are considered somewhat ‘rich’ and compared to most average Filipinos I know they are outright wealthy beyond their dreams. And yet, these are some of the kindest, most genuine, family-oriented people I have ever met. For some people the lack of money is what causes their heart to grow cold. For others the abundance of money has the same effect. But not for this couple and their family. Another wealthy person I know, a Filipina, despite her many properties she owns and vast security she has amassed for herself and her children.. she still has the heart of the province girl she grew up with. She leaps forward at any calamity to donate money and food to those in need. She makes now show of it either, she simply does it and weeps at their misfortune. She has her balance despite her wealth.
Money is NOT the root of all evil. It is the “love of money” which is the root of all evil. And that is all the more crystal clear to me as I’ve bounced between three countries which are so diametrically opposed in standard of living, culture, history and geography. People are people. All Filipinos are not “such and such” any more than all Americans, Mexicans or Europeans are “such and such”. It all comes down to an inward decision Individuals make about whether they will choose to be a selfish Taker in life, or a discerning Giver who values others. Poverty doesn’t cause a person to take the dark road any more than wealth does. I see evil in both the poor and the wealthy. I see virtue in both the poor and the wealthy.
In one sense, I walk around feeling like a fish out of water here in the States. I just don’t relate to all these infomercials and television programming that place such a high importance on entertainment, wealth, name-brand clothing and the exaltation of the Ego at every age level. I don’t relate to the entitlement mentality of the willfully ‘poor’ who rely on those who work for free government subsidized laziness. I despise the online and ofline scammers, liars and swindlers who rationalize that it’s not thievery if they steal from someone who can afford it. I hate the currency-wealthy who have no heart for their fellow Filipino and see them as ‘below’ them in some meaningful way. All of it, on either side of the shores makes me sick to equal degrees.
But what I do find encouraging.. what I do find hope in are those who despite their wealth or their poverty maintain a sense of humanity and humility regarding their status in life. Neither money, nor the lack of it has anything to do with being noble or virtuous. I’ve experienced heartfelt generosity and hospitality from both the poor and the rich, in both the Philippines and the U.S. These are the people who understand that a person’s value is not measured by the level of their wealth, or lack of it. These are people who will do the right thing, even if doing the wrong thing would be to their advantage. Rich or poor, whatever country they may call home.. it is the people who have held tight to their sense of balance in life that give me hope for this world’s future. To them, money is merely a tool for getting life’s requirements met, not a measure of human value.
I enjoy the adventures and people that Life places in my path each day, no matter what portion of earth is beneath my feet at the time. But I no longer see people as ‘this’ nation or ‘that’ nation. Instead my travels have solidified my belief that each individual must be seen according to their individual heart and deeds. Not their pocketbook and not their nationality.
Henry ‘Reekay’ V.
Author: Reekay V.
Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat and spent 1999 living in Vietnam.
Share with me my ongoing adventures of life in the Philippines. Hopefully you find my observations helpful in your own adventures.