Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Poverty, Perversion & Progress

My experiences after 66 days in the Philippines

I have been in the Philippines for a little over two months, the sights and sounds of New York faded like distant memories.

It feels like I’ve been here a year and counting… that’s a good thing so far, I've yet to tire of the action and adventure.

It’s difficult to summarize my experiences, but bear with me for these next few paragraphs while I try to make sense of it all.

It has been an action-packed couple of months: my work, interests, and personal contacts have led me on a wild goose chase around Luzon and the 7,106 other islands comprising the Philippines.

I have visited run-down courthouses where metal detectors are present and functioning but not at all enforced: feel free to bring a gun, knife, or any other object you desire to your trial. I have relaxed in upscale lounges with pricey martinis, live jazz music, and plenty of foreign faces. I have talked politics with activists and businessmen alike moving from smoky, dingy, bohemian enclaves to polished, corporate board rooms with shiny elevators.

I have drank in meat-market girlie bars filled with sex tourists and Filipinas from the provinces, many of them victims of trafficking. I have stumbled upon nightclubs filled with the gyrating bodies of the young Filipino elite wearing the latest fashions, dancing to the latest Jay-Z single. I have experienced the warmth of comforting home-cooked meals and wandering conversations. I have smelled the harsh tin, concrete, and burning trash of squatter communities.

I have glimpsed the cream and the dregs, the good and the evil, the hope and the despair of the Philippines.

The Human Trafficking Project
As for my trafficking project, I have attended several conferences, made dozens of contacts, and am essentially bouncing from non-governmental organization (NGO) to NGO interviewing staff, clients, and observing programs with the goal of developing an overview of the anti-trafficking NGO community in the Philippines and the different approaches being used to combat trafficking. For example in the past few weeks I have interviewed staff at the Department of Education, which has integrated a trafficking module into the school curriculum for middle and high school students, observed a court case of eight trafficking victims against an illegal recruiter, and interviewed a social worker who counsels victims of trafficking.

I am also working on a music project and looking into developing film shorts, more on that in the near future.

To tell you the truth, at times it can be downright exhausting. To go from a morning of interviewing trafficking victims and learning first-hand about the poverty and unemployment that promotes migration and creates an endless population ripe for illegal recruitment and exploitation to eating lunch with activists and photojournalists and discussing the People Power movement and the various Muslim and communist guerrilla movements dotting the country to going out with rich Filipino college students who’s first language is English and are more interested in embracing other cultures than their own- it’s like seeing the life of a country flash before my eyes in the span of a day.

Statue of Jose Rizal, the Filipino national hero who's martyred
death in 1896 sparked the Philippine Revolution.

The exhaustion has been worth it, though, because I have been able to better understand both my work on trafficking and the foreign culture and society I’m living in. The diverse conversations, interactions, and experiences have helped me view the Philippines with a more refined, understanding eye, which ultimately benefits not only the quality of my work, but also the relationships I form and the cultural stimuli I ingest.

Disparate Experiences
It is depressing to hear the plight of pro bono lawyers who spend their time filing suits against traffickers only to have their cases dismissed time and time again because the defendant’s lawyer is the judge’s second cousin. The victims are then sent home to their respective provinces re-entering the same situation of unemployment and poverty that motivated them to leave in the first place thus fueling the trafficking cycle.

Fighting an uphill battle to convict traffickers in a corrupt justice system, a lawyer
from the Kanlungan Centre checks on one of his cases in the Pasay City courthouse.

It is enraging to see the sex tourism and the commodification of Filipino lives- to see swarms of Americans, Europeans, and Asians flocking to the Philippines to leverage their economic clout to freely pillage the bodies of Filipina women and children. To see the carnivorous look in the eyes of foreign wolves preying on these “natives”, these “little brown people.”

It is eye-opening examining the cultural differences, connecting with locals and foreigners alike, and sitting back amidst ridiculous scenarios to think how on earth did I end up in this situation and wondering what people back home are doing at that moment. At no other time in my life have I found myself in so many situations where I didn’t know anyone in the group yet felt right at home and was treated as a close friend, a credit to the genuine warmth of Filipinos.

Preparing to make rice in the countryside.

It is refreshing to see life from a different perspective- to laugh at myself in awkward situations examining my paradigms and beliefs and destroying and rebuilding them, accounting for this new land.

It is comforting to be embraced by long lost family with open arms, winding conversations, non-stop jokes, and steaming pots. I have slowly been learning about my family history and am, for the first time, connecting with a culture that I have really only heard about.

My relatives. Not pictured- the scores of other cousins, uncles,
aunties, lolas, and lolos I have yet to meet.

Lastly, it is inspiring to speak with professors, artists, lawyers, journalists, taxi drivers, intellectuals, housewives, social entrepreneurs, film directors, and activists about their love for their country and the great potential that exists for transformation, for evolution, for progress.

I have spent my time in the Philippines immersed in disparate environments amongst a motley crew of characters that span the economic food chain and the occupational spectrum. It has been exhausting without a doubt, but at the same time it has opened my eyes to the different realities that co-exist here- from the terrible and malicious to the hopeful and brilliant.

So there you have it- after an exhausting first two months I am in the process of transcribing interview after interview, licking my wounds, recharging my batteries, and preparing for whatever comes next. It has been a dizzying road of surprises, challenges, horrors, setbacks, and small victories...

So far so good.

All is well, I hope I can say the same for everyone back home.

Until next time...

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