Posts Tagged ‘manila’

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“Most of the time I don’t even pay them; all I need to do is show them my baby blues. Sometimes I just give them bus fare home.”

Bob was the stereotype, the guy we all love to hate: tubby, white-haired, sunburnt, and dressed like a beach-bound slob. The guy you hoped didn’t share your nationality. I’d seen him in fast food restaurants, night clubs, videoke bars, and even aboard airplanes headed to vacation destinations. Always beside him there was a beautiful Asian woman—sometimes two—young enough to be his granddaughter. He was the Sex Tourist.

Prior to leaving for the Philippines, I’d spent over a year reading books and articles on human trafficking, and almost all of them were filled with sad victim stories. I’m glad for every person who picks up Half the Sky, Not for Sale, or Disposable People, and I wish more people were reading them. But if we want to understand the complex, sophisticated human trafficking machine, we need to understand how it works–and what fuels it.

The Low-Flying Dove, the novel that came out of my year in Manila, is my attempt to do that. The narrative follows not just trafficking victims and those trying to help them, but a pimp, a bar owner, a former stripper, and two customers. I knew that writing this kind of book would mean interviewing customers, or Johns, and I dreaded talking to people I was sure I’d hate.

But at last I enlisted the help of an NGO worker who had formerly been a sex tourist himself; I told him my objective (to get a real picture of why these guys did what they did) and within a couple of hours, I had a half a dozen meetings set up with guys of all ages and backgrounds.

But let’s get back to Bob.

I’d secretly hoped that all of the guys I interviewed would be like him: easily villainized and blamed. But the truth was a lot closer to home. Yes, there were some despicable, unrelatable sex tourists, but more frequently the men I talked to were surprisingly . . . normal. Likeable, even.

One middle-aged man from Boston sat with me for almost two hours and told me how heartbroken he was when his wife of forty years left him. He came to the Philippines looking for a wife and a second chance, and found her in the form of a 23-year-old bar girl. He met her by paying her for sex, but was indignant that men like Bob abused the girls. He thought sex trafficking was terrible.

I talked to several twenty- and thirty-something guys who had come to Asia to travel and see the world–not sex. They wouldn’t pay for it back home, so why would they in another country? But then they arrived in Manila/Hong Kong/Bangkok/Singapore/etc. and met another foreigner who took them out to a red light district, had a few drinks, and ended up at a strip club. Or they got a great deal on a massage, where their young, pretty massage therapist abruptly offered them extras.

“Normal becomes a pretty relative term after a while,” one guy told me. He’d been stunned the first few times he’d found himself in some of the situations above. But after a while, the things that had shocked him suddenly began to feel commonplace. “Guys do things here that they would never do at home,” he said. “Back home they might look at porn, but they would never go looking for a prostitute.”

Some of the men I met were traveling for work; they had wives and children whom they loved and missed. Many of them knew about sex trafficking and thought that it was atrocious. Not a single man I talked to believed that he was contributing to it in any way. Many times the girls who had convinced my interviewees that they were having a great time confided in me that they had been trafficked and were deeply ashamed of the life they were living.

It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, but thanks to our friend Anna Broadway, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for couples this year. Anna understands that sex trafficking and prostitution will continue to exploit growing numbers of women unless we turn our attention to the demand for sex—to the customers, or Johns.

All across the country, churches, groups, and individuals are joining Anna in praying for the Johns. We are too. You can read more about Pray for the Johns Day here, and also read an article where Anna interviewed me.

Would you join us in praying for the Johns tomorrow? You can find specific ways to pray on the PFTJ website. We’d love to hear about your experiences here, so please comment and let us know that you’re joining us!

-Laura

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Growing up, I never thought I was that fortunate. I was short, skinny, and had glasses: shrimp, four-eyes, not exactly precocious with the ladies. That was me. And since my mom sacrificed her life to home-school me and my siblings, we had one income for a family of seven, so I couldn’t always sport Z. Cavaricci and Hypercolor like the cool kids.

I saw more of what I didn’t have than what I did. I read National Geographic, but for a kid, is the exotic much different than the make-believe? Even living abroad, I picked up on details–why can’t they get good orange juice in the UK? Why are the Palestinians always angry?–but missed the part about how traveling is a privilege.

Then Laura and I moved to Manila. As we noted on several occasions on our blog, it was the biggest, sweatiest, loudest, dirtiest, most crowded place we’ve ever been. But as hard as life is there in a city of twenty million, it’s often even harder elsewhere. So people keep coming.

We had gone there to volunteer for a year, to donate our valuable time and skills: Laura coaching and writing her novel on trafficking and prostitution, and me with communications. Yet amidst the dripping-wet waistbands, the pre-dawn roosters, and the smoggy hours on buses, life got stripped down to the essentials. We got to know a wonderful country. We received more than we gave. And at Samaritana, we not only found beauty, but also saw God.

After some reflection, “quiet miracles” is the phrase I’ve arrived at to describe what goes on there. How else to explain the reclamation of society’s refuse, of women considered worthless, of human beings robbed of humanity? It’s a slow process, of course, often painful, frustrating, and heart-wrenching for the marvelous staff and volunteers. There are tears, harsh words, sullen looks, and defiant walks out the door. But they come back, and when they do, with counseling, prayer, hugs, singing, cleaning, cooking, and crafts, the lacerated lives get stitched up, day by day.

Artists say that the plain human form is the most beautiful subject; in the same way, there are few more beautiful events to witness than a simple smile emerging at last from a person whom life has taught to despair. This was the beauty we saw at Samaritana–and was a new side of the God I’d read about in a book all my life, yet just came to understand this year.

Now we’re back. We returned to zero jobs and one big mortgage, yet the freelance work for me has come in, Laura’s gotten to stay home and write, we’re healthy, and little Kierkegaard Umlaut Davis is supposed to arrive in March. Plus we have hot showers, our own car, potable tap water, and now two lives’ worth of friends. A year ago we thought we were giving up so much, and yet we’ve been given it all back, and more.

After 35 years, it’s finally seeping into my dome how fortunate I am. If you’re thinking “Wow, finding beauty and seeing God? Sign me up for a sabbatical year,” then nothing could make us happier. (Note: we saved for four years leading up to this; it’s all gone.) But for a year like this? Such a deal.

-Nate

As we restart our lives in the US, one of the key ways we hope God will use us here is being able to share our experiences with various groups here. We got our first such big opportunity a week ago Sunday,  back in Minnesota visiting the church Laura grew up in–and where we got the sabbatical idea in the first place. They’d also supported us this past year, and gave us five minutes at their services to present our story. If you’ve wondered at any point “Uh, where’d they get that crazy idea? How’d they do that?” and so forth, here’s the answer:

Nate: It was a Sunday morning in 2002; Leith was preaching, and I was half listening, half worrying about school work. But then God dropped an idea on us that would pull us across the planet, take a year of our lives, and bind us to a topic that makes most people squirm.

Laura: The sermon was on Leviticus 25, where God tells the Israelites to take a Sabbath year every seven to break from ordinary work and trust in his provision. We weren’t “missionary types;” Nate was studying advertising; I was applying for MFA programs in fiction writing. We were just regular people, but that Sunday, we asked ourselves how life might be different if we took a year off to serve God.

Nate: Then we got married, I graduated, and we moved to California for Laura’s grad school, but the Sabbath year idea was gestating.  We made friends. We bought a house. We were putting down roots—but God was only going to let those roots go so deep. By 2008, we were still committed to the Sabbath year; we wanted something that would challenge and change us, but we didn’t know the who, what or where.

Laura: Then a friend lent us Not for Sale, where we read that there are 27 million slaves today. We went to see Call+Response, a documentary on sex trafficking and prostitution. Walking out of the theater that cool Berkeley night, we realized that this could be the focus of our year.

Nate: For the next two years, on top of our full-time jobs were meetings with our financial planner, contacting dozens of organizations, and Laura applying for (and God providing) a Fulbright scholarship to fund research on her novel about sex trafficking in the Philippines.  Thanks to Wooddale, family and friends, we raised the remaining funds we needed, packed up our lives, and two days before our flight, found tenants to rent our house. We knew the year would change us, but we had no idea how much. On July 25, 2010, we flew to Manila.

Laura: No amount of research could prepare us for what we found: one of the dirtiest, most densely populated cities in the world—and one of the worst hubs for sex trafficking. Manila rattles and roars with the energy of twenty million people hustling to get by, stray dogs and roosters roaming the streets, jam-packed jeepneys careening through traffic, acres of tin-roof-and-cinderblock slums, and grilled intestines competing with diesel fumes in dense, sweaty air.

Nate: It also smells of the broken dreams of countless women who come to escape chronic poverty, but often end up being trafficked or selling themselves instead.

Laura: As part of my research for my novel, I interviewed many women and girls whose stories often left me in tears. Victoria’s friend convinced her to move to Manila to waitress; only after she arrived did she find out that the restaurant turned into a brothel after dark.  Caroline was just a teenager in the wrong place at the wrong time when she got rounded up by the police; she was drugged and raped by an officer, and so distraught that she later turned to prostitution to feed her children.  Gemma moved to Malaysia to work as a maid, but upon her arrival was imprisoned in a brothel.

Nate: As awful as these stories are, we are happy to say that when we met Victoria, Caroline, and Gemma, they could smile thanks to Samaritana, a shining light in the dark night of prostitution. Samaritana is a small Christian organization that helps women leave the spirit-crushing life on the streets and start anew. It became not just our workplace, but our Filipino family.

Laura: Samaritana’s holistic approach includes education, spiritual development, counseling, exercise, and livelihood skills. God’s love seeps through the daily activities, and also through the daily grace that the women feel from the staff and volunteers.  It is the most joyful place we have ever been.

Nate: Samaritana convinces women to leave the streets by building friendships first, then by offering them sustainable work. But when we asked the women what the best thing was about being there, every one of them had the same answer: “I came to know God here.  I learned how to read the Bible.”  One woman told us, “I accepted Jesus into my heart, and he accepted me into his.”

Laura: When we left for our Sabbath year, we naïvely thought we would just return to our normal lives. Now that we’re back—jobless and with a mortgage looming—Nate is looking for work, and I’m finishing my novel. But we’ve never felt so grateful, or had such a deep sense of how much we have to give. We’ve been ruined for the better.

Nate: Along with a taste for rice and mangoes, we came back with a passion to continue serving the women at Samaritana, and to urge others to expand the definition of who our neighbor is, to love our neighbors both here and around the globe.  We’re also asking God where he’ll take us in 2017, and trying to bridge our Western world with the impoverished one we left behind.

Laura: We want to close by asking for your prayers for Samaritana and for all the women still on the streets. As with Wilberforce and Lincoln fighting slavery in the 19th century, fighting human trafficking today is a chance for Christians to change the world. The Bible exhorts us repeatedly to serve the poor and oppressed, as in I John 3: “But if anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.”

After Taste for Freedom, our fund-raiser that many of you attended or helped make happen, I said to myself, “Never again!” Event planning is just too stressful for me, since it requires both organization and detail-orientation, two things which I most definitely am not.

And yet here we are again. As you may have read a few months back, Laura had the idea to use her coaching experience to start a fitness program, Super Babae, for the women at Samaritana.  Super Babae is gaining momentum (Nike’s second donation is en route from the States!), and when we were talking to our friend Ryan (who worked in sports marketing and managed events), the idea came up of doing a fund-raising race for Samaritana. (All the Samaritana women will get to run the race and get the t-shirt for free, so we’re encouraging them to train the next few weeks as 3k is still longer than most of them have run.)

June 4 is closing in fast, so we’d appreciate your prayers! So far we have a venue, a few partners, and a water sponsor, so all we need is a few hundred locals to register and it’ll be a smashing success!

— Nate

Some of you have wondered, “Nate had all this talk about working with IJM. They’re a pretty great organization. So why haven’t we heard more about it?” A few reasons. First of all, IJM’s Manila office is a bit . . .cozy. Cozy to the point that there isn’t space for the communications intern and me. So I’ve been working remotely, and also because of that, less with IJM and more with Samaritana.

It wasn’t what I expected, but to volunteer for both has been an enriching and meaningful learning opportunity, because while IJM and Samaritana both aid victims of prostitution and trafficking, their approaches and structures are almost polar opposites: Though IJM’s staff in Manila is all Filipino, the feel is very Western, with mostly English spoken around the office, headquarters in DC, an international presence, ace legal team, high-drama, time-sensitive operations, and great organizational muscle (they do also have a number of Western interns and fellows). Samaritana, on the other hand, is very Filipino: mostly Tagalog spoken, founded here and with one location, patient, relationship-based work, small, family feel, and humble, yet amazing staff. It’s been a unique privilege to learn from both.

However, in addition to visiting the Samar office (see post here) and the Chiang Mai office in Thailand (post upcoming), one of my regular duties has been writing, editing, and collaborating on the layout for the Kalayaan, the quarterly newsletter from IJM in the Philippines (Kalayaan is “freedom” in Filipino). So to catch up and give you a sense of their work, I’ve included screencaps of the cover of the September 2010 newsletter, as well as of several articles I wrote. In the future I’ll also post excerpts from the two succeeding newsletters we’ve done; let us know in the comments if you’re interested in me emailing you the pdf of the entire 8-page newsletter.

— Nate

The Crazy Lady

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Life in the Philippines
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“Manila is like a crazy lady,” one of our new friends said to us our first month here, and then quickly added, “but eventually you learn to love her.”

With its mishmash of Spanish, American, and Asian cultural influences (the product of centuries of colonial rule), its two extreme seasons (hot and wet; hot and dry), and its stark contrast of glitzy shopping malls next to sprawling squatter communities, Manila often feels schizophrenic, or at least manic depressive.

Early on we learned about the phases of culture shock: stage one, the honeymoon phase; stage two, the I-hate-everything-about-this-place stage; and finally, stage three, where you come back to earth, accept the tough stuff, and are finally useful in the midst of the struggle. The stages never quite fit for us, both because we’d done enough research to feel somewhat prepared, and because we were thrown into negative aspects of our new home too quickly to experience anything like a honeymoon. We’ve decided that “culture fatigue” more accurately describes our adjustment to life here.

A few months ago I had a day that brought me to the depths of culture fatigue. I spent four hours traveling to and from an airline ticket office to try to (unsuccessfully) change tickets I’d purchased for my parents’ upcoming visit. It began to rain—hard—and for the first time, I had forgotten my umbrella. Tired of waiting, I ran out into sheets of rain, my clothes immediately soaked. I rushed to an already packed MRT train, and then, seeing that there was just enough room for me to fit onto the last car, ran toward it before the doors closed. In the seconds before they did, my foot slipped between the train and the cement platform, and my entire body dropped until I felt splintering pain where my upper thigh finally stopped my fall. There were gasps around the train, but I hobbled to my feet and squeezed inside.

I watched a huge squatter community whiz by out the window, stood with six passengers pressed up against me on all sides with my hand on my wallet (I was pick-pocketed in a similar situation just a few weeks before), and then limped to a jeepney. Most jeepney drivers remind me of an impatient sixteen-year-old boy learning stick-shift for the first time—which is not so bad once you get used to it. But on this particular day, the tires squealed as we raced around buses three times our size, and the engine roared as the driver jammed the gas pedal to the floor. When I called out “para po!” (please stop) he slammed on the brakes, paused long enough for me to start walking hunched over toward the open back of the jeep, and then gunned it before I could step off, sending me flying and, unfortunately, clocking an innocent passenger in the face with my flailing hand.

As I got off the jeepney, I mused that so far, the crazy lady had mostly just driven me crazy. But every now and then, I understand. Manila may be a dirty, sweaty, chaotic place, but it’s also the kind of place where things happen—things so special that you would never dream of them on your own.

A few weeks after we arrived we found ourselves listening to Joniver Robles, a local blues artist, on a rainy night when most Filipinos didn’t venture out. Joniver sounds an awful lot like John Mayer, Johnny Lang, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, depending on the song (he covers all three artists), and can rip up guitar solos almost as well. We chatted between sets, and when I mentioned my singing background, he invited me to join him on stage. I crooned my way through a Norah Jones song, and then he asked me to do some blues improv. Being the blues junkie that I am, I knew the consistent themes (I’m so lonesome I could die, my baby left me, why you gotta treat me so bad, etc.), and so I got to live out a lifelong dream of belting the blues.

Or there was the seemingly ordinary Tuesday when I suddenly had a handful of texts from friends urging me to look at the Philippine Star, one of the major newspapers here. The previous weekend I’d had the good fortune of winning a trail running race, and there I was, right on the front of the sports section, looking a little too giddy as I crossed the finish line. I can count on one hand the number of times the local paper published my picture in high school even though I won far more races back then than I do these days . . . never once did I make it into a major city paper. But in Manila, these things happen.

There have been other, daily “good crazy” moments: flying seatbeltless down a darkened street perched on the back of a “tricycle” (a motorcycle with a sidecar); finally getting to ride on the back of a jeep (not usually something women get to do); admiring plastic soda bottle sculptures carved by a woman with a face as ancient as time; watching kids gleefully play basketball in flip flops in the middle of the street; having an hour-long conversation with a new woman friend at the bars during outreach (all in Tagalog!); tasting a mango, and realizing that nothing I’d tasted back in the States deserved that name.

Without a doubt, the best sides of the crazy lady’s personality are Filipinos themselves. It’s Hazel, our teacher friend, showing us true Filipino hospitality in a delectable dinner even though she just met us. It’s one of the Samaritana women worriedly sending another volunteer after me so I wouldn’t have to make the walk to the jeepney without a kasama (Tagalog for “companion”). It’s the way the Samaritana women tell me I’m beautiful and give me hugs for no reason almost every day. Filipinos are pretty amazing people. They’re the reason we came, and the reason why even on the hard days, we’re not ready to go home.

The crazy lady still drives us crazy. But slowly, we’re learning to love her too.

-Laura

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In graphic design, white space is the term used to describe (regardless of literal color) an area in a composition left blank for effect, to set off other elements on the page, or for visual rest. This post is about something completely different.

Can you imagine a city where every surface, every space, every molecule is full of something? Land, water, air? All chockablock, cheek-by-jowl, and shoulder-to-shoulder? I can: it’s called Manila, and we live here–along with 19 million other people, countless chickens and pigs (alive and grilled), fighting cocks, stray dogs and cats, goats, and lots more. But let me explain.

It’s pretty simple: in metro Manila, every horizontal surface has something on top of it (by approximate frequency of occurrence): people, concrete, shanties, buildings, vehicles, and the occasional plant. There is simply no such thing as unused land, and public land is almost nonexistent; seemingly every square centimeter, meter, and hectare is being built on top of, lived in, squatted on, dug up, or torn down.

Every vertical surface is covered with advertising, signs, graffiti, or smog-rain residue. Every unbottled molecule of water contains either bacteria, dirt, laundry suds, human waste or some redolent stew thereof. Every air molecule has humidity and exhaust, plus essences of sweat, smoke from fires or grills, perfume, odors one hopes not to identify, not to mention an assortment of sounds including, but not limited to, roosters crowing, street vendors hawking, jeepney hustlers barking, stray dogs howling, vehicles honking, basketball players yelling, workmen hammering, people singing, the occasional bird tweeting, and of course daily, rain falling. In a word, everything here is full.

But as New Yorkers (to a lesser degree) can attest, anywhere people are packed together, everyone hustling to get by or ahead, there’s an energy that can’t be duplicated in more mellow, restful parts of the planet. And indeed, Manila teems, pulses, veritably yowls with energy. If you come here to retreat from life you might be disappointed, but if you’re ready to embrace it, they’ve got all you can handle.

–Nate