A rat walked slowly across the breakfast buffet this morning. He looked as healthy as a rat could look. He was fat and had a nice coat. He was not in a hurry and seemed to be at home. We reported it to the staff, but they were no more bothered by the rat than the rat was bothered by them. The rat went back to wherever he came from. The staff went back to work. This is the Philippines.
There was nothing unique about this trip. It was similar to many others I have taken, but for the sake of recording 10 days of my life, I write.
The Filipino way
The Philippines is a beautiful country. It is comprised of more than 9,000 islands which are mountainous and covered in lush vegetation. The surrounding seas are clear and beautiful. The fruit is delicious, particularly the mangos, lanzones, rombutans, bananas, pineapple, and pamelos. There are many other varieties.
The Filipinos are delightful people. Although they frequently are not trained in the finer aspects of service or hospitality or whatever their supposed area of expertise, they always greet you with a pleasant smile and in a sing-song sort of way say, “Hello, sir” or “Hello, ma’am,” which usually comes out “Hello, suh” or “Hello, mom.” Many times there will be 6 or 7 workers in a restaurant waiting on 2 guests. Labor is cheap, so workers are usually in abundance. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into efficiency or effectiveness.
The conference was in a hotel in the city center of Cagayan de Oro, a different hotel than where we stayed. It was located in a part of the city which seemed to be where the typical resident shopped. The streets were lined with small shops no bigger than a nice-sized office, often with poor lighting and very little merchandise. Every second or third shop was a food venue complete with plastic chairs and tables and dim fluorescent tube lights. The shop floors morphed into the sidewalks which morphed into the street. It was not clear where one changed into the other. There were also street vendors along the streets, mostly selling food from their carts. The buildings looked unfinished, and everything was a shade or tone of brown. The shops with glass fronts and sufficient lighting typically were grouped together but not always. There are modern shops and restaurants, sometimes in secluded parts of town, sometimes sprinkled throughout these more common establishments. Pedestrians, cars, taxis, jeepneys, motorcycles, bicycles, and tricycles jammed the streets. Everything with a horn honked.
There are three traffic laws: (1) if you will fit, you have the right-of-way; (2) do not hesitate; and (3) honk. Honking is usually not to scold but is more of an announcement. One honks to let someone know he is coming or going or that he would like to come or go.
Four-way stops are neither four-way nor stops. They are blobs of traffic where every man does what is right in his own eyes. Each driver inches forward, negotiating for space and priority, giving and taking in order to carve out his own path which immediately closes up behind him. Occasionally, due to the negligence of a distracted or timid driver, two cars—or bikes, or mopeds, or whatever—will squeeze by instead of one.
When it is deemed necessary to have a traffic signal at a given intersection—and the logic for making such a determination is never apparent—it is also deemed necessary to have a policeman direct traffic because no one pays attention to the traffic signals.
It gets dark early in the Philippines, so we made this journey to the conference in the dark each evening. There is very little street lighting, so this extreme congestion takes place in poor lighting. Not only so, but many drivers drive without headlights, thinking they are saving gasoline. This, along with the throngs of people, the dilapidated or unfinished buildings, the trash and dirt along the streets, and the overall sense of chaos makes it seem as if one is in a gang-ridden ghetto in danger of being mugged. But this is not the case at all. These are simply people going about their business, doing life in the only way in which they know to do it. They are husbands and mothers and students and common people living their lives.
People relieve themselves whenever they need to and wherever the need becomes urgent. Not everyone does this, of course, but enough do so that it is not an oddity. The men usually face away from the street. Women usually hide behind umbrellas.
The Philippines, like most developing and Third-World countries, is very dusty, even in cities. Diesel smoke can also be a problem due to the traffic congestion and the age of the vehicles. Too, people build fires to cook or eliminate their trash, and sometimes the city is literally covered in a haze.
Last night as we left the conference, working our way through the seemingly endless maze of streets, we stumbled into an extraordinarily sophisticated development of shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues unequaled by most establishments even in the United States. I wondered who owned these affluent stores. Who were the customers? Would people actually drive through the chaos and filth to come here? And then, as if we crossed the border of some strange country, we were back in the dark. Back in the dirt. Back in the filth. Back in the chaos. Back in the normal.
A common tip is fifty cents. A common cab fare is $2–$3. The fare from the airport in Manila to the hotel where I overnighted upon arriving and departing the Philippines, was $6. It would have cost $30 or more in the U.S. I took a “coupon taxi,” the upscale taxi, from the airport in Manila to the hotel and paid double the fare of a regular taxi. It was $13 and took 45 minutes. Gasoline is $4 per gallon. After a driver pays for his car and fuel, he literally only makes a few dollars a day.
The first hotel we stayed at in Cagayan de Oro was a magnificent building . . . thirty years ago. The building had great promise. Inside was another story. The building was of concrete construction, and each room was essentially a concrete box. The floors were tile. It had a cold, unfinished feel. There was a sign over the bathroom lavatory which read, “Water is not potable,” beside which were two drinking glasses. But I have stayed in much worse. (I am particularly thinking of India and some backwards places is Eastern Europe.) This building was reminiscent of thousands of such hotels in such places around the world. They started with a great vision but never seem to have finished. Someone who knew nothing about hotel management, or interior design, or hotels decided to build a hotel.
The hotel sat on top of a hill overlooking the town. Below were countless shanties huddled in clusters, sometimes sharing walls. They were built with whatever materials could be found; most of the roofs were rusted corrugated metal. Many were no bigger than a room or two. Some housed multiple families. Some owners rented rooms—single rooms—to other families. At meal times smoke rose from these houses as women prepared food over open fires. The result was a gradual haze which ascended and filled the valley and ultimately joined with dust and diesel smoke to filter out the mountains in the background. The haze would drift away with time. But just as the mountains became visible, it was time for the next meal, and the cycle repeated itself.
The hotel had a window-unit air conditioner in each room. The unit was like a pump dumping outside pollution into my room. The room smelled of soot. I finally had to turn off the air conditioner in order to breathe.
Due to the hotel being over-booked, we had to change hotels for the last night. We moved to a Korean hotel located on the edge of town. Being on the edge of town, the pollution was much less severe. In fact, there were affluent subdivisions surrounding the hotel, demonstrating the extreme contrasts between the rich and the poor.
The hotel was only 5 years old and was no doubt the dream of some Korean entrepreneur. A lot of money was spent on this complex, but it was inadequately finished and was already falling into disrepair. Parts of the grounds were not maintained. The lobby had no drop-off point for guests, only a row of parking spaces in the front. The lobby was a patio with no protection from blowing rain, flies, or the heat. The floor of the entrance to my room, an area about 4 feet by 8 feet, was covered in mold, which added to my allergy problems. However, the outside air was not as bad as at the other hotel, so I was able to survive. This is where we encountered the rat.
This conference was a district conference, a gathering of the ministers of the Northern Mindanao district. The presbyter (district superintendent) has wanted me to come since I first visited the Philippines in 2005, but it has taken this long for it to work out, although I have returned to preach and teach at other conferences since. The conference grew in intensity each night and ended on an encouraging note.
The Filipino church is very strong. They have good leadership and have aggressively focused on starting new churches. They only license ministers who are already engaged in ministry, and many pastors pastor multiple congregations. The Filipino church has risen to the challenge and is an example from which we all can learn.
We celebrated after the service last night by going to McDonald’s. It was a treat for us all! The Filipinos ordered spaghetti and fried chicken. I had a Number 1 Combo with a large Coke. The Filipinos gave me a nice plaque and a barong in appreciation for coming. I will wear the barong Sunday.
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