Letters from a first visit to the Philippines

Emile, 20, from Montreal, has allowed us to share his letters with you. Emile is on his first trip to the Philippines. His "exposure" to the realities of the country and its inhabitants are filled with surprises, discoveries, and self-discovery, eloquently expressed in his letters. They allow us to relive some of our own past experiences, and to renew our ties to this country of South-East Asia and its wonderful people. The Centre for Philippine Concerns facilitated his trip.

Below is a brief summary in English excerpted from the original letters, which are in French.

SEE THE LATEST INSTALLMENTS -Letters 4 and 5 (conclusion) below.


Bye bye to western comfort

February 14, 2010

Emile describes his first few days: arrival at the airport in Manila and taxi ride through the traffic-filled streets flanked by slums and highrise buildings. After some detours, he arrives at the KMU office building where he is given a bed in the dormitory. Later, he meets with the environmental group that he will be going with on a field trip. A meeting with the League of Filipino students allows him to understand the history of this group and some of their demands. And then an outing with the KMU, which he describes thus:

"I also went on some protests with the KMU. They go to strategic places downtown and get out of their vehicles with placards bearing protest slogans. Then they set up a megaphone on the big trailer and blare out the crimes committed by the governing powers. It is really an extraordinary experience to be with them and see how they go about things. They generally come to an agreement with the police who assure that everything unfolds in order, without intervening."

Émile describes the briefing he receives about the environmental mission with the Centre for Environmental Concerns, to Rapu rapu island. The local people are suffering the effects of mining projects.

And finally, he describes that his western comforts have been left behind:

"I wash myself with a pail of water and I share the toilet with the cockroaches. The toilets don't flush. You have to fill the pail and throw the water into the toilet for it to flush. It is really good for me to live experiences like this and to become aware that most of the world has much more limited resources than we have. And I am not even staying in a slum."


How to feed the sharks

February 21, 2010

My trip to Rapu-Rapu was really an unforgettable experience. I travelled there with two experts from the Centre for Environmental Concerns to meet local people to instruct them on how to gather data about the impact of mining in the region. A twelve-hour bus ride got us to the capital of Albay province, where we stayed with a woman who is very involved in progressive causes. Despite the fact that she is not very rich, she is one of the most smiling and laughing persons I ever met; she really seems to enjoy life, which just goes to show that money doesn't make happiness. I am always surprised when I travel, and meet people who have difficult lives and own almost nothing, but are happier than people who have never lacked for anything.

At noon, we went to the harbour to catch a ferry to Rapu-Rapu.

As soon as I got on the ferry, all eyes were fixed on me. People are not accustomed to seeing foreigners, cause it's really not a tourist spot. This was going to be even more the case later on. The trip lasted about three hours, and several people were seasick. The members of the crew had some fun at their expense. When a young girl started vomiting over board, one of the seamen said "There's another one feeding the sharks!"

We arrived on Rapu-Rapu and got on a tricycle to pick up some material we had to take to the village where we were heading. I remember telling myself: "Wow, here’s a village that’s been spared by modern life". No cars, just a few little motorcycles and tricycles, little houses made of bamboo or concrete. It was the first time that I was seeing such a "traditional" village: there is nothing of the kind in Canada. During our tricycle trip, I really experienced the feeling of being the only white person on the island and being one of those rare foreigners having ever come this way. Everybody was looking at me with curiosity. The children were extremely intrigued; for some of them I was probably the first white person they had ever seen. Back to the harbour, we boarded a small motor boat that took us to a small village.

When we arrived at the village, I realized that the village we had just come from was in fact quite a modern city in comparison. Here, no tricycles or bicycles: just a small community of about 148 families living together. One of the villagers was generous enough to offer us to stay at her place. The following day was spent assisting two of the villagers who were campaigning in the neighbouring village for Anakpawis Partylist. It was a great experience where I got to meet the villagers. Once again, everybody was thrilled to see a foreigner in their midst. The children were following us, they would come as close to me as they dared and then run away laughing and screaming as soon as I turned around. It was quite funny.

The second day, I attended the course given by the geologist. It was interesting to see that villagers of all ages were taking part. You could really see their willingness to learn. The villagers were very grateful and enthusiastic. They even thanked me again and again for having come to their village and I quickly thanked them for their kind hospitality. Once again I was struck by their generosity and by the fact that they shared what little they had with us.
In the afternoon we went back to the town. It was on our way back that I caught my first sunburn, the traditional mark of tourists! We spent the last night with an old gentleman and his numerous relatives. His house was very cozy and comfortable. This is where I partook in the "national sport" for the first time: the karaoke! I was surprised to see that almost everyone here has his own karaoke kit. Even in the small village where we went, there are no phones, no Internet, but they have karaokes!

This whole experience really got me thinking. It’s obvious that, in sharing their way of life on Rapu-Rapu, I started wondering how I can encourage people to support their cause.

I told myself that if we could all do our part to fight social inequalities, in one way or another, things would change. If every individual on this planet could make just a little effort to help those populations in crisis, we could solve many issues. But we’re still far from that. While some devote their lives to these kinds of causes, others spend their lives trying to avoid thinking about it. There is a profound defeatism in us: "Ah, what can we do, things will never change, that’s how it is and we might as well accept it". Which is wrong. Individual actions can contribute to the success of "progressive" actions, and can even sometimes prolong or save lives. We’re simply discouraged by the scope of the problem when we look at it from a global point of view. The problem is that we see ourselves trying to change the world on our own. Obviously, seeing things this way is demoralizing. If everyone could say, I’ll do my share, regardless of the rest, it would change everything. That’s why I believe that the most important thing is to try and find the best way to encourage people to get involved in causes that support social justice.

Learning to eat with my hands

February 25, 2010 On the campaign trail: the most tiring day of my life!

Emile spends a day on the election campaign trail, as he travels around the countryside with a caravan of vehicles of the Anakpawis partylist. He rides cramped in a jeepney for three hours to get to the first village on their route.

"This is where we joined the procession of Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza, two Senate candidates supported by Anakpawis. They had a long line of vehicles (Jeepneys and small trucks) following them, armed with megaphones. This is when I learned how you campaign over here. You start by spitting out the Anakpawis music through a megaphone at the top of the jeepney- two campaign songs in Tagalog that rotate, whipping people up to vote Anakpawis. thje volume is pretty loud, and at first it is quite fun, but after a few hours, I got a splitting headache and could bearly stand it. ....we distribute pamphlets describing the party's program to all the people around..we do a lot of waiting for the other vehicles, and then, as we we leave we parade through the town or village, waving our hands out of the jeepney and yelling ANAKPAWIS! "

"Around noon, we stopped in the middle of the countryside, between two sugar cane fields, right in Hacienda Luisita. This is when the heat was most terrible. At least 40-45 degrees in the sun. Simply walking was torture. From afar, we could see peasants working in the fields. I can't even imagine how they manage in that heat, covered in rags and scarves to protect themselves from the sun, when I can barely stand the heat standing still. The peasants don't make more than 9.50 pesos. (One dollar canadian equals about 48 pesos) a week working in inhuman conditionsl. It is the ruling class that took control of the land when Spain colonized the Philippines. "

"The Filipinos had some fun at my expense watching me eat rice and vegetables with my hands. they have a very particular technique that I still don't get. I can't figure out how they manage to eat rice dunked in sauce with their hands. I think it is one of those metaphysical things that only they are really able to do."

LETTER 4 -short stories

Jazz and gourmet cuisine

Emile talks about an election campaign fundraiser he attended where he knew the two progressive candidates present, Satur Ocampo and Liza Maza. Unaware that there would be a wonderful buffet meal, Emile had gone to McDonald's before coming to the benefit.  (He was making up for having eaten rice and fish three times a day during his trip to Rapu-rapu island). The buffet was followed by a jazz show; though he doesn't know much about jazz, he was amazed by the singer named Scarlett and her band. "Satur Ocampo ended off the evening with a passionate speech, of which I didn't understand as single word, cause it was in Tagalog. But he sounded great anyway -  Go Satur!"


"I was also able to see how Philippine activists treat their leaders when they die....I went to a funeral with the people from KMU- about an hour and half from Manila, in Southern Tagalog. It all took place in an outdoor chapel. About 100 people were present. Family members and members of his organization paid tribute and spoke about his life. (I didn't understand  much - it was all in Tagalog). There was also a group of musicians who sang songs. What I did understand was that here, activists are very respectful of their leaders and continue to support them even after death. This corresponds to what I have observed until now, this tendancy of Filipinos to think of others. Another example of the positive values of the people who surround me."

Human rights,  more a myth than reality

"A few days ago I went and had a beer with a New Zealander, who works with the KMU. It was one of the only beers I've had since I arrived. Activists I hang around with don't drink much because one, they don't have much money, and second, they prefer to use what little they have for more essential things.

So me and the New Zealander took off to a bar close by. While he was telling me about his work, documenting human rights violations in the Philippines, a lady about 50 years old came and asked us for money. Seeing this, a guard on the other side of the street rushed over to tell her to leave. When she hesitated, the guard started pushing her out of the bar. She didn't like that and started yelling at the guard. He yelled back, and started beating her. Me and the New Zealander got up to separate the two, and the guard backed off when he saw the size of my companion (6 foot 3).  So we continued our discussion about human rights after being interrupted by a representative of the law who was beating a defenseless woman. What a contrast."


"Last week, I was at a protest against the "Laiban Dam Project" with the Dumas indigenous community. You can find all the information about it at this address :

http://www.facebook.com/notes/cec-phils/indigenous-peoples-and-environmentalists-to-san-miguel-corporation-forgo-the-lai/367085645041 (and too bad for those who don't have Facebook, you'll have to "google" it.)

I made the mistake of really participating at this event. I was given a banner to hold, of Kalikasan, a network of environmental protection groups. The problem was that I wasn't supposed to participate actively in this kind of protest because I could get deported from the Philippines and never allowed back. When they told me that later, I thought it was a joke, but it's true. I stood out in the sun for a half hour with that banner, and when I talked about it later with the people here, they told me not to do that again. Lucky it was a small demonstration, with no police present."

Hot chocolate and government agents

"Yesterday I went to another rally. It was with the student sector this time. They are opposing school fee hikes at University, a pretty hot topic these days. The education system is getting more and more privatized and a large part of the school-age population can no longer afford to go to school.

Before going there, I was at a McDonald's (yes, again!) drinking a hot chocolate with a member of the LFS (League of Filipino Students). We were talking about the electoral system when a suspicious-looking character came and sat right next to us. He walked in to the McDonald's,  didn't order anything and made a bee-line right to us. He stared at us and listened to our conversation. When my companion answered his cell phone, this strange character asked me if I was a student. I said I was a tourist, and then we left, with this guy's eyes following us out the door. My companion told me later that he suspected the guy was a government or military agent. That made me a bit nervous, but my companion assured me that this happens a lot. The neighbourhood with lots of students has lots of agents hanging around. This one had probably seen my companion at a demonstration - he attends lots of them. We didn't see any more suspicious characters after that, but this time, I made sure I was a by-stander at the rally. "

See y'all later.



I spent my last weekend in the Philippines going camping on the beach with a couple of dozen friends. They organized the trip through a travel agent. We travelled all night squeezed into a mini-van. Impossible to sleep, we were too crowded. In the morning, we arrived at a little village on the seashore. Then we took a boat to an island where we camped. I spent the day swimming, sun-tanning and snoozing in a hamac. The place was magnificent. We cooked food over a camp fire, it was a real camping trip.

That evening, we shared two bottles of tequila, sitting around a circle on woven mats. Our discussion was really interesting. I was not in the presence of my usual circle of activists, but rather a group of university friends of a girl who is a member of the Centre for Environmental Concerns. We went around the circle, each one sharing our life's dream.

At one point, the discussion turned to politics. We spoke about the 43 health workers who are being held by the military. It turned out that me and the girl from CEC were the only ones who knew about this. She pointed out to her friends that it was pretty strange that I should know more about this than they.

The remark made me realize a lot of things. I had been hanging out with activists during my entire trip in the Philippines, and this was the first time I was with people who were not politically involved. That's when I realized that the majority of Filipinos (like the majority of people in general) are not involved in advocating for rights in their country. You may think I was naive to think otherwise, but it was because of the people I was with every day. This reminded me of something I mentioned in a previous letter, that we need to get everyone involved in some way to do their bit to change society; but you really have to work to make people aware of the issues. It may be a matter of education. If we were taught right from high school about international affairs, maybe people would feel more concerned and more likely to stand up against social injustices-or maybe they wouldn't! But it is important to start thinking about this.

I had another flash that evening. Conversations are so much more interesting and enriching when you talk about real things (our life dreams, our beliefs, our way of seeing the world, etc.). Why do we spend so much time in everyday life talking about trivia? I agree that we cannot always talk about serious things, and I'm the first to recognize the importance of laughing and joking around. But we end up having very few really interesting discussions, I find.  It obviously depends on who you are with. We all have friends that we talk to about deeper things. But talking like this, with people I hardly know, made me realize there is nothing wrong with talking about real issues, even if you don't know each other very well.  It seems the tequila brings out the philosopher in me.

International Women's Day
The last event that marked my trip: International Women's Day. It is one of the largest demonstrations of the year in Manila. Several thousand people marched, blocking off the streets. There was great energy in the crowd, and you feel almost all-powerful when you are part of such a gathering.

My experiences in the Philippines will remain unforgettable, for sure.  I intend to return as often as I can. I hope these little stories will make you want to take a trip over there, if you have never been. And if you have, that it will make you want to go back again soon!

Read the original letters in French here