Surviving a revolution: My stint in Manila, Philippines

It’s all far more dramatic sounding than it actually was, but it was real and a real eye-opener, as well. 

In 2000, I was an IT consultant troubleshooting a project for Asian Development Bank in Manila.  I went in November and left at the end of April of the following year.  The year I was there was marked by a terrorist attack and hostages taken by Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino terrorist group linked with Al Qaeda.  The first was in May 2000 before I got there and the second was in May 2001 right after I left.

While I was there, Philippine President Joseph Estrada (nicknamed “Erap”) was deposed and the current president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was Vice President at the time Erap was deposed took over.

Estrada had started out as an actor who was supposed to be the “man of the people.”  He ended up being corrupted by the power and money, getting in bed with organized crime and stealing billions from the poor people of the Philippines.

When I arrived at the airport in Manila, I was greeted by miles and miles of rubble that looked like it was the aftermath of a nuclear bomb going off.  It was actually the result of multiple very powerful cyclones, after which there was no money to clean up, much less rebuild.  Children scurried through the rubble like mice.  Bands of little children roamed the street begging for money.  These gangs were managed by adults who would maim the children just so they would get more sympathy and, therefore, more money.

Asian Development Bank is a development bank much like the World Bank which was created by a multilateral treaty among 157 member countries.  The facilities are like Fort Knox.  They have their own private army.  Several thousand people work at the bank — many of the executive and upper management are appointed by their member countries while the lower level management and administrative staff are often local residents.  They fund economic development projects like infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams, docks, telecom systems and wiring, power grids and wiring, etc. — the kinds of things underdeveloped countries need to attract commerce.

There is a large contingent of Americans and Europeans who lvie there. Like most third-world countries, there is a very small middle class.  Most folks are either very wealthy or very poor.  The economy had been bad for decades.  Back when Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Emelda, were in power, the exchange rate of Philippine pesos to the U.S.dollar was 8 to 1.  By the time I got there, it was 55 to 1 (sometimes higher).  Unemployment was very high, and there were no social programs to combat poverty and disease.

I was assigned a driver/bodyguard (Jose) and one of his friends (Danny) that drove me wherever I went.  I got to know them and their families very well.  This is a strategy I recommend to anyone visiting outside the U.S.  Make friends with your drivers, maids, waitresses, etc.  They will be able to show you parts of the area you are visiting safely that tourists never see.  You will also get a better feel for who the people really are.

Jose, his wife Lenora and his two sons (at the time, his wife was pregnant with a third son) lived in two rooms — each no more than 10×10, with no doors.  There was one bed room for everyone (parents and kids) and one “living room” where everything took place.  No dining area or kitchen.  The bathroom, shower and only sink in the complex was shared by everyone.  They collected water in a barrel and you had to use a dipper to flush the toilet by hand.  The shower was over the toilet and drained onto the concrete floor.  No bathroom door — just a curtain.  The only sink was outside in a covered patio with no doors.  All the dishes and other “sinkly activities” were performed there.  No one had a stove, only crock pots/electric pot cooking.  Neighbors would cooperate at meals — one would cook the rice and another the vegetable.  The only refrigerator was built into the wall (a “bar height” with no freezer).  People grocery shopped everyday because they could not store much in the refrigerator.

I was invited to their house for Lenora’s birthday.  It was a big treat for them to have cake and ice cream, which I brought.  When I got there, Lenora started crying.  I asked her, “Why?”  She said she didn’t think I would really come.  I said “Why not?”  She said, “Because we are so poor and you are so rich.”  She was ashamed of their tiny apartment.  I told her that I wasn’t rich in America, I was only middle class, like them.  In Manila, however, my Mitsubishi Eclipse, which I paid $20K for, would have made me a millionaire there.  A  low six-figure salary in dollars was unthinkable to them. 

Jose had a B.A. in Business Management and Lenora was a LPN.  There were well-educated.  But jobs were scarce and there was little business investment from the outside world because of the corruption and instability of the government.  The way Filipino law worked, anyone hired for more than six months had to receive benefits, so companies would hire employees as temporary for five months at a time, lay them off for a month, then rehire them — just to avoid paying benefits.  That meant that Jose and Lenora had to save every extra dollar they had to pay for their expenses when Jose was laid off.

The Healthcare system there was excellent.  I went there with a severe case of bronchitis, so I had to avail myself of their medical services.  A doctor’s visit with no appointment caused me to wait about 10 minutes and cost about $10 total.  And it was an excellent doctor.  My medications — full price — cost less than my co-pay here with my insurance (BC/BS).  My insurance, of course, did not cover anything abroad.

While I was there, they had a revolution — Filippino style.  One night I was in bed (about 3 a.m. — no phone call) and was awakened by what sounded like Rod Stewart in concert at the foot of my bed, and my suite was on the 11th floor.  I was startled at first, so I listened for a while.  Then the political speeches started.  There would be speeches, then a 30-minute rock concert and repeat.  This went on for three weeks.  But that night, after a few minutes, I called downstairs to the hotel lobby to find out what was going on.  The desk clerk (a cute young Filipino girl) said in a voice breathless with excitement, “Oh!  Ma’am Laura, we are having a revolution!”  Well, I saw the film The Year of Living Dangerously (about a Filippino revolution) and, although this was before 9/11, terrorism in Asia was much more common, so I was concerned.  They told me not to worry about it.

The next morning, I went downstairs and out the back door of the hotel, which was across the street from ADB to find a four-lane boulevard packed with cars bumper-to-bumper for miles.  The cars were so close you couldn’t get a sheet of paper between them.  Some Filippino gentlemen were self-appointed traffic cops.  They came up to me and asked me what I needed.  I told them I needed to get across the street.  So, they picked me up by my elbows and walked me across the tops of the cars from one side of the street to the other.  They then told me that they would get me back across that night when i was through with work.

The site of the revolution/rock concert was around a business area and six-lane interstate-type highway with two sets of roads — one on ground and one above (like San Francisco).  When I looked out my office window at the scene, you could see nothing but a sea of people for miles and miles — as far as the eye could see.  They left one lane free for traffic, but most everybody had stopped work and was demonstrating.  During the entire three weeks, businesses opened up their bathroom facilities to the people.  The people would bring toilet tissue, hand towels, soap, etc. and donate to the businesses for their kindness.  There was absolutely no violence except for one brief attempt by the Abu Sayyaf, but the people ran them off.  Of course, this was the film clip that made it to the U.S. news, so my mother and father were freaking out.  But it was actually very peaceful.  The Filippino people are a very gentle, nurturing people, and this was just an extension of their nature.

While I was home for vacation, several bombing took place around Manila.  I was still sick with bronchitis, so i had delayed my return trip to Manila by two days.  Had I taken the originally scheduled flight, my plane would have arrived and I would have been in the elevator going up from the tarmac to the concourse floor when the bomb when off in the elevator in the airport that day.  But, I was two days later arriving.  You never know.

All in all, it was an interesting trip.  I met some wonderful people with whom I am still corresponding.

So, that’s my personal experience with revolution and terrorism.

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About Laura Schneider

Retired IT consultant (disabled), musician and animal lover. I support the constitutional concept of Right of Privacy and no discrimination against any person based on race, religion, ideology, gender, sexual preference or disability. I am very concerned about the erosion of our constitutional rights and protections under GWB (and even this administration). I strongly oppose torture, rendition or illegal search and/or seizure (without a warrant) and warrantless wiretapping. I believe that education is our best hope of a bright future for our children. Knowledge is power, and that's the kind of authority (Biblically speaking) that our children must have in order to be successful in a 21st century world.
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