Viewing the Philippines in a Different Light
By Scott Allford
If you live outside of the Philippines and you watch or read the news you may feel very justified in believing that the Philippines is a very dangerous country. Savaged by typhoons, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and terrorist attacks. You may also be assured in your belief that it is a poor country with images of children picking through garbage, slums, and corruption scandals broadcast in most international news reports. I am not going to deny that these things are true, however, they are not all that the country contains. Not every person in the Philippines is poor, a terrorist, or a victim of terror. In fact other countries around the world suffer from these same problems yet they do not become iconic images of those nations.
The common view of the Philippines
A few months ago I was at a roof-top birthday party in Makati filled with socialites and expats. Whilst there I was introduced to a German ‘journalist’, and my friend asked him why the Philippines is portrayed in such a negative light in the foreign media. His response was in two parts; Firstly because in his experience he could not sell stories about the Philippines in Germany if they were not about poverty violence, or corruption. Secondly, he said that because there is so much poverty, violence, and corruption there is nothing else to report on. After saying this he sipped his glass of red wine and was whisked away into a group of Filipino socialites.
Perhaps the red wine was ‘poor’ in taste, or the fact that that particular roof-top was one of the few in Makati which doesn’t have a swimming pool made him focus on the poverty in the Philippines, or maybe the sounds of merrymaking were ‘violent’ on his ears. I think that it was none of these things. Germany, a developed country, has slums. But if the focus can be moved away from the poverty in the developed countries and put on some islands way out in the Pacific Ocean, then people in developed countries can feel a little bit better.
I remember growing up in Australia, taking garbage out to the dump after cleaning up the garden. I would see Aboriginals picking through the garbage for food. Yet that has never been an iconic image of Australia. I went to ‘water villages’ in Malaysia and Brunei and thought how similar they look to slums in Manila. Yet ‘water villages’ are tourist attractions and the slums here are not. I lived in South Korea a few hundred kilometres away from the DMZ, with jets and helicopters flying overhead all the time it felt like a war zone. In the spring I would have 40 tanks facing in the direction of my apartment. Yet South Korea is generally not viewed or branded as a dangerous country. And South Korea has slums too. Perhaps the time will come when people outside the Philippines will come to realise that the branded image of the Philippines portrayed in the media is only a small piece of the full picture of this country.
A Different View
Since the Philippines was settled by people 30,000 years ago this country has blossomed into a mix of over 180 indigenous ethnic groups, over half of which also represent unique linguistic groups. This array of cultures, languages, and cultural artifacts cannot be matched by most nations of the world. From the Ilocano, Pangasinense, Kapampangan, Tagalog, Bicolano, and Visayans to the Binukid, Moros, Ati, Igorot, and the T’boli, just to name a few. These cultures are rich, strong and proud and in most cases the people that make up these cultures are very friendly and welcoming to outsiders. On a trip to Sagada I was welcomed into a very warm and friendly Kankanaey family. They showed us around Sagada and told us stories of Kankanaey cultural practices. They even taught me how to wear a traditional bahag (a hand-loomed loin cloth or G-string).
Neighbouring Sagada is Ifugao, with vast rice terraces that shape the mountains of the region. The oldest rice terraces are 6,000 years old, which is 1,000 years older than the oldest pyramid in Egypt. If put end to end the rice terraces dwarf the Great Wall of China and the rice terraces were not made by using slave labor like most other ancient wonders of the world.
The Banaue Rice Terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage site. But they are not alone. The Philippines have numerous UNESCO world heritage sites including the Baroque churches of San Agustin Church in Manila, Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, and Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Church in Miag-ao, Iloilo. There is also the beautiful and historic town of Vigan in Ilocos Sur. Furthermore, there are the natural UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park and the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
Lastly the Philippines consists of 7,107 beautiful islands. These islands contain remote beaches and amazing rock formations as well as other natural wonders like the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, the perfectly conical Mt. Mayon volcano or the stunning Bacuit Bay in El Nido, Palwan. But also on these islands is a range of biodiversity not seen in most other places on the planet. In Romblon, Sibuyan Island is known as the Galapagos of Asia as it contains such a diverse range of species which can be found nowhere else on the planet. If you get off these islands and dive into the cool blue-turquoise waters of the Philippines, you may also see some of the richest biodiversity in the world’s seas. The Verde Island Passage has been named as the ‘centre of the centre’ of marine biodiversity in the world. It has over 300 species of corals as well as vast numbers of fish that you will not find anywhere else.
With all that this country has to offer I am baffled as to why it has been branded in such a negative way by the International media. However, I think that more and more people are starting to discover that there is a different side to the Philippines to the one they have been bombarded with for the past few decades. Those who come to the Philippines to seek out the beauty of this country will not be disappointed. However, first time travellers to the Philippines should beware, just like me and many other foreigners, this amazing country may compel you to stay quite a bit longer than you initially planned.
(Scott M. Allford has lived and worked in Australia and South Korea and has travelled extensively throughout Asia- Mongolia, China, Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan – fell in love with the Philippines and decided to allocate at least two years to comprehensively cover the country.)