Keep Things in Perspective – We have it Good Here

Spotting the above photo, taken on June 1st, in a news report brought back memories of my trips to the Philippines.

Thousands of villagers have been evacuated after Taal volcano, one of the world’s smallest volcanoes, about 40 miles to the north the Philippine capital, belched a dark plume of steam and ash into the sky in a brief explosion. Magmatic materials came into contact with water in the main crater of Taal Volcano, setting off the steam-driven blast. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology raised the alarm to the third of a five-step warning system, meaning “magma is near or at the surface, and activity could lead to hazardous eruption in weeks. Alert level 5 would mean a life-threatening eruption that could endanger communities is under way.

Taal is located in a small island in a scenic lake and is considered a permanent danger zone, along with a number of nearby lakeside villages. Taal erupted in January last year, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and sending clouds of ash to Manila, where the main airport was temporarily shut down. The Philippines lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a region prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

When I visited Taal, on my last trip to the Philippines in 2008, the view was more like that in the image below.

After a bus journey from Manila, we got a boat out to the volcano and did a steep climb up to the top of the creator in intense heat. The climate in that part of the country is hot and humid. The creator was filled with water so you had a lake in the volcano in the lake. It was quite a spectacular view.

Other random memories of my trips to the Philippines include the following.

The first thing I noticed stepping off the plane was the intense heat and humidity. It hit you like the wall of heat you feel on your face when you open the door of a hot oven.

Then there was the journey from Manila airport to the hotel. The first time there I was unprepared for and shocked at the level of poverty as we passed mile upon mile of huts made of corrugated iron, timber or cardboard in which people lived along side the roads and under bridges. Perhaps more shocking still was the realisation that each day I passed these the more used to them I became. After a week they almost seemed normal. Its amazing how quickly we adapt to our surroundings. And on subsequent trips it took even less time for it to seem normal.

Similarly being greeted by armed police with dogs and searched every time you entered your hotel, shopping centres, banks or public buildings surprised me the first time but quickly became accepted as normal. They would check underneath the taxi you arrived in with a mirror on a long stick to ensure there were no bombs attached. Just like Belfast in times past.

The factories were located in an industrial zone a couple of hours drive away, so the work day began early and it was late when you got back to the hotel. You were too tired to do anything but shower and eat before going to bed, to be up to repeat the next day. The factory workers normal shift was 12 hours a day, five days a week and only six hours on a Saturday. But we got Sundays off and the shopping centres had air-conditioning. The route to work could vary depending on which roads were washed out and which rebuilt. It seemed the country back roads were mainly built on clay, not the massive concrete foundations we have here.

The workers were searched every time they went into or out of the factory buildings. They were searched going in to ensure they did not bring in cigarettes as the corporate management in America had decided they were no smoking zones. So they stashed their cigarettes outside and collected them on their lunch break. They were searched on the way out in case they stole any small tools like a screw driver. Not much trust built into that system.

While those of us belonging to the company working in the US or Europe could get a bonus in a year in which the company did particularly well, our Philippine collogues could not. The state had set wages so that workers would not be moving from company to company for higher reward. This was to make the employment market more stable for foreign companies setting up there. Their bonus was a bag of rice.

There seemed to be no air conditioning in the factories I was in despite the heat and humidity. But on one occasion I was surprised to arrive to a nice cool, air-conditioned building. I joked to one of my colleagues that someone had remembered to turn on the air-conditioning. I was informed that it was only turned on when the American management were visiting. It was left off the rest of the time to save money.

On another occasion after the factory had been damaged by a typhoon, communications systems were down. They pulled out all the stops to clean up the mess in the areas that would be seen by the senior management from the US who were also visiting. They got a single internet connection up and let the Americans use this, not pretending that for a while it was the only internet connection in the whole factory. They did everything they could to hide any problems from the corporate guys because they were very aware that they were being continuously compared with similar facilities the company had in different parts of the world, and that work could easily move to another location.

Family is very important to them, and if you want to really connect with them don’t ask about work first. Talk about your family and theirs. Are you married? Why not? How many children do you have? How many brothers and sisters? Take some time to share this kind of information first. Then you will get every cooperation from a great team of workers. Then they will let you know how things really work there, not what they want certain people to perceive.

Traffic: to try driving there without understanding the unwritten rules would be suicidal. Communications involved much use of the car horns, in a code I never managed to decipher. We depended on our designated driver, who was also our bodyguard.

The Philippines sit across the typhoon belt, making dangerous storms from July through October. As my trips were usually planned for October/November they were often delayed due to typhoons. These cause considerable damage; flooding, mudslides, uprooted trees, knocked buildings, power lines down, etc. But because they are so used to them the clean-up is usually swift.

On one visit to a shopping centre we came across a shop selling all kinds of guns. We were welcome to view and purchase if we wished, but not allowed to take photographs.

The poorer people do their shopping in open air markets and hygiene standards would probably have made it unsafe for someone from this part of the world to sample the food there. The better off shopped in the big shopping centres, which are pretty much like anywhere else.

Small children of about nine or ten and younger scoured rubbish tips for items that might be useful. Plastic bags were useful as refuse sacks for disposing of waste.

No matter how poor people were they still seemed to be able to get cigarettes and coke cola, which probably helped to make them poorer still. I have noticed this about other parts of the world as well.

Tap water in many areas is not safe, and with the high heat and humidity, one could easily become dehydrated quite quickly. So we always carried bottled water. We would only purchase this in shopping centres because if you purchased from street vendors it was likely to be in bottles refilled with unsafe tap water and often expertly resealed.

Mosquitoes were common once you went far from Manila and a bite could potentially have fatal consequences. So Long sleeves and pants were worn in certain areas to protect from more than the sun.

When you go to the foreign factories, shopping centres, etc. you would swear that they are the most beautiful people in the world, without what might be deemed any physical flaws. But on the streets they are like anywhere else. Its seems to be just with such a large pool of labour to pull from, jobs dealing with visitors are filled by people that visitors will perceive as beautiful. We do it here but not to the same extreme. Positions for receptionists and floor staff in hotels and restaurants tend to be filled more often by staff that would be deemed to be good looking.

I have already mentioned the huts that many lived in by the roadside. Other stone houses with walls around them and gated apartment complexes around Manila were guarded by armed private security.

Out the country among the fields where they grew rice you would come across homes made of bamboo and leaves on stilts, typically about six or seven feet by the same again. Families would sleep on mats on the floor in these. The relative dimensions of the model in the picture below would be about right.

Nursing courses were in high demand because with the proper qualifications you could get nursing jobs in other parts of the world and send money home to your family in the Philippines. We have benefited from that here in Ireland with many of our nurses and carers from there.

Whereas many of us in this part of the world would like to get a nice tan, over there they sell soap that is supposed to lighten the skin. Strange world, with so many people wanting to be what they are not, and wanting to live where they don’t.

I enjoyed my trips to the Philippines. It was a great experience. I worked with some great people and made some good friends. It certainly helped me to better appreciate what I have at home. For all its imperfections, we have it good here.

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