Culture Shock

All I can say is that nothing could have prepared me for what it’s like here in Manila…I’ve been both pleasantly surprised and often heart-sick.  It’s hard to put into words what it’s like here, and all that I’ve seen and experience so far, but here goes.  Manila is SO crowded and SO big, and from what I’ve seen the Philippines in general is SO crowded.  I arrived in Manila early Monday morning and the city was still recovering from Typhoon Glenda, while bracing itself for Typhoon Henry.  The sidewalks were covered in branches that had fallen from the trees, but slowly they’ve been cleared away (I think people take them to use as fire wood to cook over).  Walking around my area of Manila is just such a culture shock.  The sidewalks (where there are sidewalks) are full of street vendors, and the streets are full of fast food – McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, ChowKing, and JolleyBee.  My neighborhood is full of college kids and working class, and it’s a generally safe area aside from the ubiquitous pick pockets. But having this be my entree to Manila was like being dropped off in Harlem and thinking that all of NYC is like that! I’ve since found other areas of the city…the Soho’s, financial districts, historical districts, garment districts etc.  My condo is on the 34th floor with stunning views of Manila and Manila Bay.  There are huge barges on the bay that look like battleships.  When we were hit on Tuesday and Wednesday by the outskirts of Typhoon Henry, the wind was incredible!  I’ve never experienced rain like it rains here – one minute it’s blue skies and sunny, and the next minute there’s a deluge.  And the water just pools on the streets, collecting dirt and trash until it forms a stagnant pond.  My condo has a roof deck with a swimming pool, and after hunting around I found a yoga mat that I take to the roof to do pilates!  I have gotten some pretty strange looks so far, but that’s not stopping me!  My roommate, Sara, is 22 and from Singapore.  We got along instantly…in part because she likes to explore!  On Monday after I settled in, she took me out for my first taste of Manila.  Within just a few hours of being out, we had already taken 4 modes of public transit – the FX which is a small shuttle bus that cost us P15 (about 35 cents), the MRT which is one of the subways, a jeepney which costs P8 (18 cents), and a taxi which cost about $2 for a 15 minute ride.  The jeepney’s are crazy!  They’re modeled after US tanks from WWII, and are long vehicles with open backs and a bench seat along each side.  Each one is uniquely and lavishly decorated, usually supporting a theme, and often these themes have to do with God (it is a Catholic country after all).  The destination is written on the front and side, and to hail the one you want you stand on the street and hold up your hand, or if you’re with a group you hold up the number of fingers corresponding with how many of you there are.  If there’s room on the jeepney, it slows down (note, it doesn’t actually always stop), you hop in the back, and crab-walk scrunched down along the middle isle until you find a spot on the bench to squeeze into.  You then tell the driver your destination, pass down your payment saying “payad po”, and then when you want to get off you either tap the roof or yell “para po”, and the jeepney slows down a bit and you hop off the back.  They are efficient since there are so many people, and traffic is horrible!!  The sides are completely open so it’s been on these rides that I’ve experienced the pollution the most (the exhaust from these is jet black and comes out in big puffs).  I’m going to try and take as many photos of the different designs as I can!  There don’t seem to be any traffic laws here, nor are there crosswalks.  People just dodge cars as they maneuver across the street! 

Malls here are huge – our neighborhood mall is 5 levels with 1 level devoted just to tech stores, and this isn’t even the biggest mall!  I can’t believe all the US stores and restaurants – Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Java Juice, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, TGI Friday’s, Red Mango, Aeropostale, Crocs…the list goes on.  At the grocery stores there’s Quaker Oats, Smuckers jam, Honey Nut Cheerios, and I even found Braggs apple cider vinegar!  So much of Manila and the Philippines is more “westernized” than Europe (not that I’m at all advocating Dunkin Donuts opening up in Rome!)  I purchased a local SIM card a pocket WIFI that provides internet when I have it turned on, but the signal is generally pretty weak.  Internet across the board here is a lot slower than at home, probably because there are so many more people trying to use it!!  I’m so thankful that Sara knows how to get around, and she’s thankful for my “white skin” because she says people are nicer to us when we have to ask for directions or don’t understand the language.  I am trying to learn Tagalog, the local language!  All the signs here are in English as it is the national language, but people here do not like to speak it.  When they have to speak English, they refer to it as “getting a nose bleed!!”  My poor co-workers for the next 10 months…

Tuesday morning started my “exposure” week to the ministries of The Center for Community Transformation (CCT).  My driver all week was Kuya Art (Kuya is the polite title for a male elder, Ate for a female).  Ate Elvie was my guide, and she’s a little ball of energy!  We went to the 2 locations of the boarding schools that I’ve been working on the crowdfunding websites for – Puypuy and Magdalena.  Both areas were heavily hit by Typhoon Glenda, and were bracing themselves for Henry.  Electricity was still out.  All along the roads there were trees uprooted and all the banana trees were broken in half.  Those are the livelihood of so many of the people in this area.  I know that a country’s geography plays such a large part in it’s economic standing, but I was really struck first-hand with why a country in a typhoon belt remains a third world country – the people can never catch a break!  Despite all the devastation, I could tell how immaculate they keep the grounds at the schools.  The kids were still smiling and are so precious!  Their swimming pool was black from debris and branches, and just as I arrived we learned there was a 6’ snake in it!  There were 2 Dutch girls who arrived there the day of the typhoon, and the roof of the guest house where they were staying was ripped off only minutes after they were brought to the canteen for safety.  It was so amazing and somewhat surreal to actually be at these schools after hearing about them for so long while working on the website, and picturing what they would be like.  For lunch we went to a restaurant where the tables sit on small huts that are floating on a fish pond!  I got to taste some of the local dishes including seared pork, vegetable curry, tamarind soup with tuna belly, and chicken adobo.  And all served with lots of rice!  Rice is eaten 3 meals a day, and is also a main ingredient in many snacks.  Fresh coconut (buko) grows abundantly, and I also got to try buko pie.  It’s a top and bottom layer of pastry crust, with a filling of thin slices of fresh young coconut and custard.  So good!! 

The next day we toured CCT’s AU Factory in Dasmarinas, Cavite.  This factory was taken over by CCT 2 years ago, in 2012, under the leadership of Kuya Froi.  The factory was under-performing and the owner decided to close it, causing 1,500 workers to be out of a job.  CCSC, the Coop branch of CCT, took over the factory as a sub-contractor and opened back up with an initial 57 employees.  Operating as a coop, the employees are co-owners, thus sharing in the profits and becoming more motivated to be productive workers.  The workers have daily devotions in the morning and during breaks, are required to purchase health insurance and life insurance, have access to buy affordable housing, have access to loans through CCT credit coop, and enjoy profit sharing.  The factory is now back to employing the full number of people, and productivity has more than doubled.  They now own all the equipment and were still able to turn a profit.  There are managers for the lines, who resolve conflicts.  There is quality control on each line, cutting rooms, CAD rooms (with computers that draw the patterns),  hand-sowing rooms, packing rooms, and a showcase.  When the finished packages are inspected, if there is one problem, all the boxes are opened.  If a product is delayed and the deadline isn’t met, it costs the factory, not the client, and the factory has to send it by air instead of by boat (the recent typhoon that cut power to Manila meant the factory had to stay open over the weekend.)  The brands that are made include Max & Co, Ralph Lauren, Pilcro, Anne Taylor, and merchandise for Urban Outfitters and Anthopologie.  This factory is the minority, but has gotten much attention.  Former street dwellers who are part of CCT’s “Kaibigan Ministry” (which mean friends in Tagalog) are given a 2 month training, and if qualified are employed in the factory as well.  There are 2 more factories owned by CCT, one smaller that makes powdered food products, and one larger.  The scraps from this factory are given to CCT’s Kaibigan Center where the women turn them into rugs.  It was so amazing and exhilarating to learn about this work that CCT is doing, and made me so excited to be working with them!  I also visited their new community center in this area, and another micro-fi branch. 

Thursday we went to the G54 Parola Fellowship.  This area of the city is walled in, and each entrance or “gate” is assigned a number.  The night before my visit, I was told by my neighbor who works for CCT that this is where the pedefiles, killers, and thieves live.  It was very dirty, there were naked children walking around and many stray dogs.  There was a wake being held, and a coffin with the dead man was on the side of the pathway, there was a cup out for money, and there were a bunch of men playing cards across from the coffin.  The branch here has a pharmacy, medical clinic where they perform procedures and check-ups, and holds 8 fellowships per week.  There are up to 13 women in the fellowships, which is the maximum number.  I interviewed a few of the women and also Kuya Daniel who took his first loan out from CCT 15 years ago for P1,000 ($23) when he only had P700 ($16) to his name.  He most recently took out a loan for P200,000 ($4,600) to expand his grocery business to a second stall, and now employs 6 men!  Through CCT he became a Christian and has learned to entrust everything to Christ.  He is now a mentor to new community partners.  One of the women had a young daughter, maybe 3 years old.  When I went upstairs, the girl asked where “Barbie” went to, and put her hair in a braid like mine! 

Our next stop was CCT’s Kalaw Feeding/Savings Circle.  Of the over 200 street dwellers that gathered here for the feeding, about 25 are involved in savings circles.  They saved anywhere from P20 to P1,000!  There was a Bible study and I got to hear the testimonies of a few of the women and Kuya Frank, a former street dweller who is now staff of the Kaibigan Ministry at CCT!  He was born and raised on the streets – 14 years.  He was addicted to solvent and either had to steel or work hard to survive.  He started coming to the feedings and then went through CCT’s Kaibigan program.  He showed me a video on his smart phone that CCT made about his story, and he said that despite how materially better off he is, he’s most thankful for the spiritual transformation.  His wife was also in the same situation as he was, and now they are married and she works in housekeeping with CCT.  I also met a parent of one of the boys at CCT’s boarding school Magdalena!  Her son has been in the school for 3 years now!  There is one more girl headed to the boarding school in Puypuy as soon as the electricity returns.  During Typhoon Glenda she was found huddling on a sidewalk under an umbrella.  A few more girls were supposed to go, but now their parents don’t want them to.  I met another woman who kept asking me if I liked her dog, and it was cute but the animals here freak me out.  It kept licking me!  I handed out all the bags of food as the names were called out, starting with the youngest children, then the women, then the men.  They received bags with rice and either sausage, fish, or a salted egg and tomato.  There was also a Bible study at the beginning of the feeding.

Friday we went to CCT’s Retreat Center in Tagaytay where I’ll be helping with the bakery! 

We met up with the 2 Dutch interns who had been staying at Puypuy, and also the daughter of one of the CCT board members came with us.  She’s 22, and so sweet; she lives and works in Germany now, and it was fun to talk to her about the Philippines and Europe.  We got a tour of the retreat center – it is so beautiful!  When Typhoon Glenda hit, there were over 400 guests and they all had to congregate in the large function hall.  The canteen across from them had all the glass in the large windows completely shattered.  The guest houses that were built by the Kaibigan workers (former street dwellers) survived with minimal damage, while those built by the commercial builders had their roofs ripped right off!  The slogan for the rebuilding project is “build back better” and they’re only employing the Kaibigan workers! They sell goods from local farmers, like moscovado sugar, coconut sugar, whole grain rice, dried fruit, and coffee.  All kinds of groups come to stay here – church retreats, couple retreats, corporate retreats.  People rent out the amphitheater for weddings and have the reception in the break room.  There are 2 basketball courts, a rec room with games and game tables, and a soccer field.  The rooms are gorgeous as is the artwork everywhere.  Our next stop was the Taal volcano – the world’s smallest active volcano.  It sits upon Taal Lake and there are tiny islands off the mainland, and people live on them!  We were supposed to hike it and you have to take a boat to get there, but there was a chance of rain so we couldn’t go.  Had an incredible view from where we ate lunch and then hiked up People’s Park for another vista.  We passed a ton of pineapple plantations and fruit stalls.  We stopped at one and I sampled the indigenous jack fruit, mangosteen, and lansones, as well papaya, mango, and pineapple.  Peanuts, cashews, and the local pili nut also grow here. 

Saturday morning we went to the Kaibigan Ministry Center, KKMC in Cabrera.  This center is headed up by Pastor Noel and is the only Kaibigan Coop in the Philippines.  It is completely sustainable/self-sufficient.  The center is a half-way house for woman and children who have been taken off the streets and are in the discipleship program or are being screened to go to the boarding school.  There is also an elementary school in full operation.  There is a water purifying station which supplies the water for local CCT branches, a print shop providing much of the printed materials for CCT, and a taylor – all employing Kaibigan workers.  There are places for people to come in off the streets, take a shower, have a meal, and sleep.  But all very structured.  Street dwellers aren’t used to structure and often don’t know how to answer to authority.  Sometimes they don’t want to leave the streets because they don’t want this discipline in their lives.  Also, so many of the street dwellers came to Manila from the provinces seeking work and more opportunity, then got caught up in a bad crowd and ended up drug addicts and thieves.  At this center there is a multi-step process of discipleship, skills training, and transformation, and then they are either offered employment or offered the chance to return to their province (with free transportation), but only if their families will welcome them, a church body will support them and hold them accountable, and if there is an active micro-fi branch there.  After this I finally went to the CCT office, met my co-workers, and was greeted with a welcome lunch!  Everyone is so nice!  For celebrations they roast a whole pig, called Lechon.  There was also a bunch of fresh fruit and some local dishes.  The staff gave us welcome gifts, mine is a purse made from fibers from the coconut tree.  We took communion together before we then ate our meal.  Everyone is so joyful and thankful. 

Early Sunday morning Sara and I went to the Legazpi Market in Makati, one of the business/classy districts of Manila.  There were organic farms selling fruit vegetables, and dairy, local products like coconut sugar and vinegar, and vendors selling prepared food.  It was amazing!!  There are so many fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen before.  I bough Japanese eggplant, fresh bamboo shoots, baby bok choy, carrots, and water spinach, which I turned into a red curry.  Our condo has a sink and kitchen counter, and under the counter were unopened boxes containing a dual induction burner assorted pots and pans.  I opened them all up – it was like Christmas!  And now I’m going to make full use of our “kitchen!”  We went to Victory Church with Michelle, a colleague and now close friend of mine.  It’s part of a group of churches founded by an American pastor in 1984.  It was very modern and western – a bit too contemporary for my taste but neat to experience.  After church we had lunch in an area that reminded me of an outdoor shopping area in SoCal.  We ate at a tea room/cupcake bakery that was so adorable!  I felt so far removed from the hustle and bustle of Manila. 

Monday I headed to the immigration office to extend my visa.  The office is located in the old district of Manila called Intramuros.  It’s walled in, and looks like what I envision Cuba to look like.  Spanish architecture from their reign in the 1600s.  Two of the original 8 churches still stand – the Manila Cathedral and the Cathedral San Augustin – both beautiful.    

One cultural difference I’m going to need to get used to is that most toilet stalls do not have toilet paper!  Either you take paper from the sink area before heading into the stall, or there is a hose attached to the toilet to wash yourself.  Also, you do not throw the paper in the bowl, but rather in the trash can.  At the grocery store I found a portable mini toilet paper roll, so I’ll always be prepared!

I have seen so much just in one week here, and while it’s been difficult at times, it makes me so excited to be working with such an amazing organization that puts Christ first!  Because ultimately, looking at just so much poverty, we can’t change the life on earth for all these people, but we can share the love of Christ with them and give them hope for eternity!


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