Archive for August, 2010

On the Streets

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Our work
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We’ve been in Manila for nearly a month, and after days of language school, orientation with three different organizations, and three weeks of Friday-night outreach training, it’s time to venture into the world we’ve been hearing and reading about for the past several years, the world of prostitution and sex trafficking.

This past Friday, after two hours of training at Samaritana,* half our group of volunteers prepares to head out to the bars; the other half stays to pray for the safety of the group and the conversations we will have. We are excited to meet these women face to face―this is why we’re here―but also a little scared.

We go to an area just a few miles from our house on Commonwealth Avenue (one of the main roads through Quezon City). It’s an area we’ve passed by many times on our way home from work or school, with one dingy “karaoke barafter another. These bars are often little more than shacks of corrugated metal and plywood, with a fluorescent tube or string of Christmas lights to attract attention, a lone TV up front for the sham entertainment, and tiny curtained-off rooms in back where the true, sordid business goes down.

These poorest-of-the poor women mostly wear T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops, and spend hours standing or sitting on the curb, breathing exhaust from the 8 lanes of passing traffic, and pimping each other, or letting their bar owner or pimps advertise them to passersby to avoid the potential shame of being rejected directly.

During the hour and a half that we’re out, we sit and talk with women from two neighboring bars. In our halting Tagalog, we attempt to ask their names, ages, and whether or not they have kids (most of them do).

A pretty, petite girl catches our attention, because she is the oldest daughter of the bar owner. We’ll call her Lucia. She is my first “woman-friend,” a term we use at Samaritana rather than “prostitute” or “sex worker.” It’s a distinction I’ve come to appreciate: these are women who have had to make a “choice” when there isn’t another option. Lucia says she is twenty-six, but she looks more like sixteen. She and the other girls with her are continually rubbing their noses and sniffing, a mannerism we later find out is the result of sniffing “rugby,” or rubber cement. (Incidentally, Lucia tells us that she gave birth to a baby boy just a month ago, and yet she started working again almost immediately after he was born.)

As we’re talking, the bar owner grabs two of the youngest-looking girls and touts them as virgins to men walking by, who eventually decide to move on to another bar. At one point we walk to another bar, and even though I’m standing right beside Nate, I see every girl we pass eyeing him, doing their best to pose for him and catch his attention. As soon as I reach over and hold his hand, it is as if I have flipped a switch, and they are just girls and women again, slouching back into their resigned stance of waiting. All of the girls we talk to seem surprised to see a man who isn’t there to use them.

One of our first days here, a cab driver told us a girl can be bought for 100 pesos, a little over two U.S. dollars. One girl tells a fellow Samaritana volunteer that she has “no life, because she hasn’t had any customers today.”

This is just the first of what will be our regular Friday nights, but it’s clear to us already that God is at work here in a powerful way―but that doesn’t mean the work is easy. Transformation happens slowly in these lives among the slums of Quezon City, but there is hope.

*Samaritana is a local NGO dedicated to fighting sex trafficking, and the main group that we will be working with this year. We’ll discuss our work with in more detail in upcoming posts, but for general information though, please visit their site listed in our sidebar.

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Polite Bay Area rain can be put in its place by simply deploying an umbrella. Seattle and Portland ubiqui-mist can be shrugged off with sufficient dosages of caffeine. But in the Philippines, the rain owns you.

From our perch on a slight rise in Filinvest Heights we see the portly dark clouds congregating to the northeast. The lightning zig-zags down to the peaks once, twice, many times. Thunder–something we’ve forgotten living in California–booms out loud enough to set off car alarms, no empty threat like the heat lightning and thunder we get back in the States. And then it comes.

Across the metal roofs we hear the rain advancing, the drum solo of the skies, and then with a roar and a splash it is upon us. A few fat drops burst onto the balcony ahead of the others, and then their countless brethren pound down upon us. In an instant, the temperature drops from “extremely uncomfortable” to “tolerable,” conversation ten feet apart in the same room gets drowned out, and–safely above floods–we are enveloped in the sound of the exuberant tropical cloudburst.

It rains back home, and people casually click their windshield wipes from Off to Low; it rains here, and birds roost, dogs howl, and humans seek shelter under solid objects. Rain back home generally falls in tidy vertical hyphens; rain in the Philippines slants down in violent diagonal underscores. Rain back home spots shiny cars surfaces; rain here washes dog crap, dead frogs, and medium-size branches from the streets. Rain back home is a spritz from a spray bottle; rain in the Philippines is a water balloon falling on an entire city. Rain back home gently greens the hills and nourishes plants; rain here makes stronger any plant it doesn’t kill by blunt trauma. Rain back home is a footnote during the evening news; rain here is a force of nature–and then like that! It’s gone.

We’ve only been in Manila 9 days, but it feels like much longer since we’re taking in so many new impressions and experiences every day—many of which will merit future posts.  In the meantime, we’ve made a list of five things that have struck us as new, interesting, or just plain hilarious:

1. That’s ok; we weren’t planning on breathing: after Shanghai, Mexico City, and New Delhi, what city has the fourth-dirtiest air in the world? You guessed it! The exhaust is as visible as San Francisco fog . . . except for that it’s right in your face, and it smells.  The “Manila smell” is a mix of exhaust, grease (as in deep fried food grease), and rotting vegetation.  The Manila smell hits you the minute you leave any air-conditioned building, and has penetrated our dirty laundry.  There is a general impression of everything being covered in a soot-like grime—including us.

One of many ads encouraging brown people to be white

2. Brown people want to be white: every day we see about a dozen ads for cosmetic products that promise to make your skin paler/fairer/whiter, featuring either white models, or Filipinas who have fair skin and Western features (our Filipino hosts informed us that some women here even get plastic surgery to look more Western).  I’d swap my easily-sunburned northern-European skin in a heartbeat, but I suppose we all want what we don’t have, no matter what culture we claim.

Siblings, right?

3. All white people look the same if you’re brown. During our first day here, we were told on three different occasions that we looked like brother and sister.  No matter that Nate’s eyes are blue, mine are brown; Nate has the flattened quarter-Chinese nose while mine is decidedly pointy and Roman; I have freckles and fair skin, while Nate tans easily, and so on—we look the same to them!  Much-needed chuckles all around for that one.


An amusing vehicular rhetorical question

4. . . . but all Filipinos really do drive the same: crazy.

It only took about 10 minutes in our first cab ride to find the humor in the “How’s my driving?” painted on almost every bus, jeepney, or trike. Unlike in the US, for example, lanes are open to interpretation, public transport vehicles of all sizes and speeds will cut across any amount of road to stop and pick up a new passenger, and most busy intersections between multi-lane roads have no stop signs, let alone traffic lights. As one Filipino explained to us, instead of following traffic laws, Filipinos’ driving is directed by feeling or instinct–so what this leads to is a level of organic, exuberant chaos that is hard for the Western-trained driver’s mind to even comprehend. (However, we should note that this astoundingly intricate dance of hurtling humans means that Filipino drivers are amazingly alert, a lesson that we iPod-tuning, text-messaging, spacing-out American drivers could learn from.)


For some good laughs, check out the "Next Time I Fall" video on YouTube with Amy Grant.


5. The 80’s never died in Manila. (Jen Sheedy & Jennifer Burden, are you listening?) We’d heard before we came here that Filipinos love their karaoke, but as it turns out, they love 80’s music as well.  We’ve heard Journey, REO Speedwagon, Peter Cetera, and other cheezball classics pumped through the speakers of taxis (often accompanied by a singing driver), the hallways of the many malls here, and over the yards and shanties in our new neighborhood.  And really, why not?  In the Philippines, it’s always a good time to be livin’ on a prayer or to bust a move!