• Valentina Poletti

The exploitation paradise

For those of you who don't know, I'm currently in the Philippines. I came here because my Taiwanese visa was expiring (I have to renew it every so many months), and I needed to get out of the country for a while. I didn't have any particular plans of any places I needed to visit, and so I was suggested to go to the Philippines, as it is very near, and has a reputation of being a little paradise - with idillic white sand beaches and coconut palm tree forests. Somehow I did not feel at all inspired by these descriptions, but I curled my nose a bit and decided to go there anyways - what could I possibly lose, I would see another country and possibly have a nice relaxing time and then get back, I couldn't think of any major reasons not to go there.

So I found an intentional community in Vigan that needed some help to be built, and arranged to stay there - I figured it would be a great experience for me to learn something about permeaculture and community living, while I learn about the culture. But as much as my intuition wasn't at all excited about leaving for this trip, nothing could have prepared me for what I actually found. Indeed I was faced possibly with some of the shadows I've been escaping all my life, while at the same time giving me the tools to face them.

As I arrived in Manila, the first thing that hit me was the tendency towards collaboration of the locals. As soon as I jumped on a taxi, I was met with a stunningly fluent, English speaking local who went on to entertain me and provide me with useful local information. I almost felt indebted when he asked me a ridiculously low cab fair at the end of the trip, after making sure to drop me off at exactly the right location. I arrived in the center of Malati, not far from Makati, in a sky-scraper building overlooking the metropolis. The host took me to a highly functional minimalistic apartment with a stunning view from the top, swimming pool, gym, and security service. It seemed too good to be true. How is it possible, that with 30 dollars a night I get such treatment?

Soon however I would find the answer to that question. As I proceeded to visit the city, particularly looking for fresh produce and healthy foods to eat, I was faced with the first shadow. Other than the fruit stands, it was impossible to find anything healthy to eat. A person I met on couch-surf advised me to go to the vegan farmers market in the center of Makati - a completely colonised area of the metropolis, that did not look like South East Asia at all. It felt, looked, and was like downtown Manhattan, New York. High-end shops and restaurants, luxury homes, malls, office spaces, lots and lots of banks and clean streets. The local mini-buses, tricycles, and any other local activities are forbidden on these streets. Only polished cars and cabs are allowed to enter the area.

In the middle of that I indeed found a park with a small vegan farmers market, where I found the only prepared healthy foods I would find for the rest of my trip.

Local stores are only stocked with junk foods of all sorts, imported and home made. Meat products, fish products, extremely highly processed foods, and junk, junk, junk. Health is not a word in the local vocabulary. Nevertheless I didn't give up. I stoked up on nuts, dry lentils and rolled oats where I could find, and went on to buy fruits and vegetables at the street stands, eating only that.

As I went for my first run, I was hit with the second shadow. The quality of the air, the level of pollution and the dirtyness and chaos of the streets were unprecedented. I was lucky enough to have my intuition take me to the only runnable place in the area - some kind of park around a monument, surrounded by highways. It was really hard to run mostly because the air felt think with pollution.

As I looked around me at the modern buildings and structures being built, surrounding street slums and extremely poor areas with people living off the dirt on the street, I was finally hit by the reality going on there. Capitalism meets poverty.

There are many ways the modern and less modern worlds can clash together. In Bali in Indonesia last year I experienced a kind of clash that is mutually helpful and beneficial. Foreign artists, entrepreneurs and inspirational people who settle in the beautiful land of Indonesia to create harmonious businesses and places that are sustainable, that use the local resources and give back to them, improving the life styles of both.

The Philippines is a perfect example of the kind of clash that is exploitative. What happens when foreign investors are there mostly for their gain, for exploiting local resources without giving much back. First of all poverty is increased, instead of decreased. The wealth inequality is deepened by barriers of the sort I saw in Makati - high-security walls keep the rich in, and the poor out, creating an unequal distribution of resources. Secondly, instead of improving life style quality, it gets worse. It creates enormous pollution with factories. The imports of foreign junk food and other 'goods', to sellto the locals, who are not as fully aware of the damages of these products, and are not able to cope with the resulting pollution and detrimental health effects.

You get a population that is sick, poor, unhealthy, unhappy, all while living with high modernity and foreign infrastructures. Welcome to the urban Philippines.

As my trip proceeded to Cebu, the situation was slightly better but not very different. Here however I started to notice different things. I stayed in apartment complexes a bit far from the cities, while still reachable. The complexes were mostly modern, recently built, with good amenities. A kind of comfortable living style away from the local chaos. Yet there was no integration between these complexes and the locals. Again, you could see a sharp distinction between the convenient and modern life style of these buildings, and the poor and decadent huts of local people. It seemed a kind of joke, almost, so surreal it was. As I interacted with these poor locals, buying food from them and going around with them, I started to realise something. For them this situation is completely normal. They do not expect anything different. They expect to be treated less.

Needless to say, if I had any shadows of my own left in my subconscious, regarding my own lack of self-worth, of not deserving or of normalised abuse, they all came to the surface in plain view, thanks to these interaction. I had a really intense purging experience as I healed my emotional wounds left from my own past, reflected in this reality. It was an intense and difficult experience for me, as I went through my past traumas and healed a lot of pain left in me.

But as these people treated themselves, so they treated others. It became very clear to me, as I interacted with more and more of the locals, that I was seen as nothing more than a piece of meat. They would not leave a single chance go unused to somehow use me for their entertainment, or for whatever other reason they could find. I am an object there - a pretty object to look at and to fantasise about. I don't remember the last time I felt particularly unsafe walking around at night, before here. One evening I was particularly hungry, and out of fruit, so I went out looking for bananas around 9pm. As I walked in the dark little streets, I felt as though people would have absolutely no problem attacking me and raping me. A few men saw me and they screamed at me "what are you doing out so late?" - I intuitively felt they were concerned for me, so I went near them to feel safer. They ended up escorting me for the rest of the night to get my bananas.

After arriving in Siargao this reality became more evident. Not only animals, but also women and children here are very much considered meat. Last night I watched a foreign old man go to a house just two houses away from were I'm staying now, in the local village. He came out with a little girl, around 11 or 12, a very pretty young girl, took her on his motorbike and left. This morning as I was jogging on the main road (there is only one road) in the tourist-resorts area, I saw that same man on his motorcycle with that girl, going back in the direction of her house. The expression on the girl's face was devastating. The reality hit me, hard and heavy. It's not about me anymore.

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