Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mabuhay Manila!

I left Lebanon and met up with Ann in the Dubai airport, together we flew to Manila. We arrived to 33 degree weather! It is so hot here, I understand now why Filipinos have a reputation to bathe three times per day and use lots of cologne and creams in between so they always smell nice. I've decided when in the Philippines to do as the Filipinos do, and never leave home without a bottle of Johnson's baby cologne. Ann and I were met at the airport and taken through the ambassador's passport line, Erika met us at baggage pickup, what a lovely welcome.

Our first day we had dinner with Erika and her family, Renelyn - the next Director of Asia Pacific, Tam - the Director of Operations, and Michelle - our favourite and best lawyer, no introduction necessary. Thursday we rested then went to the pearl market in the afternoon. It was slightly overwhelming to wander through aisles of pearls and always be confronted with yet more aisles of pearls. Ann was the best bargainer of all of us, and helped me out with my last purchase to get a better price. The Philippines are wonderful, all our meetings revolve around food and the food is delicious. We're fed lots of delicious mangoes, although apparently its the off season so they're not as sweet as normal. I can only imagine how many I would eat during mango season.

Friday we toured Intramuros, that is the old section of Manila which was built by the Spanish centuries ago. The Spanish largely ignored the Philippines who were able to keep their language and traditions alive, the greatest impact the Spanish had was to convert much of the Philippines to Catholicism from Islam, although the Philippines remains Islamic in the south. The Philippines was sold to the Americans during the Spanish American war, at the Treaty of Paris, and then became an American colony. The Americans considered the Filipinos to be "little brown Americans" since the culture was so readily accepted with all the technology it brought. Manila has a glorious past, it used to be called the pearl of the orient and was a beautiful city. During WWII, the Japanese invaded and General MacArthur left with his famous words "I shall return." He did return and to prevent the Japanese from keeping Manila he bombed it completely, Manila was the second most destroyed city during World War II. The Japanese for their part decided that if they couldn't have the city neither could the Filipinos, and they proceeded to massacre thousands of Filipinos before they were killed.

Manila is now a sprawling city with much of its beautiful, colonial architecture destroyed. There are slums scattered around and "informal settlers" even in the wealthier neighbourhoods. WYA here is partnering with an organisation called Gawad Kalinga which builds homes in the slums through partnerships among those living within the slums and those who donate the money. They work on the principle of building more than just homes and for people to donate they must work to help build the homes themselves. They've also started to implement programs for the children and for the sustainable development of the communities through agriculture and other means.

Saturday we had a Track A accreditation session with the interns here. There are four interns and they were quite shy at first. Their responses to the questions and about WYA were very insightful. At one point we asked what is the internship program. Mikho responded that "it is the best program in the world." Michelle responded that it "familiarizes you with the WYA database" and you "learn how to make coffee." Mikho also told us that the WYA is fun because youth equals fun, and that he had an acronym for fun: Friendship in the United Nations. When we discussed solidarity and poverty I asked if it was better to speak with beggars or to ignore them if you are unable to help them. Michelle stated that its hard to give money because often they don't receive the benefits of their begging since they are part of a syndicate, but its also hard to say no to a street child who desperately needs food and help. She said the hardest is to look them in the eyes as they're begging because it hurts. When you're stuck in traffic and their faces are at the window and they stare at you asking for money what do you do if you have no food or money, tell them you have nothing? When they continue to stare at you do you look back and smile at them, do you just stare back at them, do you look away and pretend they're not there? There was nothing more to discuss after that, it hurts to look at someone who is reduced to begging and it hurts to give knowing it doesn't help them and it hurts to not give knowing they need it.

After the accreditation session we went to Erika's house for a tea-party. Many members and friends of the WYA were there; the national committee members, Tam's and Ren's parents, some professors, representatives from other organisations, it was good to finally meet the people I've heard so much about and who are working so closely with Erika, Tam and Renelyn to bring WYA to Asia Pacific. I was especially excited to meet Aliah, a member from Mindanao in the southern Philippines. She's done so much work for the WYA and has so much initiative. I was able to meet her, and learned of some other activities and ideas she has to lay the foundation for the WYA and get more young people involved in Mindanao.

Sunday Tam and I went to the beach. We drove to the north to the west coast and swam in the South China Sea. We were hoping to surf but the waves were too small so we swam instead. The water was beautiful, warm and clear. In fact Tam and her friends felt the water was slightly chilly and not very clear, but compared to the Atlantic it was lovely. The beach is from volcanic ash so was rocky and tough in places though a nice white sand in most places. We ate lunch at a turo-turo near the beach, a small cantina with home cooked food. Turo-turo means point point, so called because the food is already there and you simply point at the foods you wish to eat, it is so cheap we ate all we could for less than $1 USD per person. The drive to the beach took 2.5 hours, and 5 hours to return to Manila. Being a Sunday evening the traffic was intense, even more so than usual.

Today we met up in the morning for a strategic planning session to discuss current and new programs to implement here and throughout the region, of course it was quite exciting and we all have lots of work to do to implement our ideas. We ate breakfast during the meeting, and then had lunch after our meeting. Now we're heading to the office and will meet with Tam's family for supper of Chinese food. It would be so easy to become fat here since the food is pretty international but the best is taken from all the cultures. Pa alam - goodbye!

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