That first ride from the airport to wherever you’re staying in a city is always quite telling. It’s your first true glimpse of the city, your sigh of relief. It is usually the moment that your excitement builds again after going through the rituals of flying. I’ll never forget the drive from Charles de Gaulle to the St. John’s Paris campus, nor the rain-soaked one from Rome’s Fiumicimo to campus, my first time out of the country (okay, Canada excluded). After pulling what was essentially an all-nighter for this flight to Manila, I didn’t really have much left in the tank: I was very much prepared to get to the hospicio and fall right to sleep. Manila in the nighttime rendered that moot. I should have known better.
This visit Philippines to the Philippines is my first time out of the West. I had the privilege to study abroad earlier on in my college career, but as we all know in an artificial way, Manila is not Seville. I had never even truly been to the developing world before. The first thing that hit me as we all piled into our car was Manila’s heat. Although already dark, the air was thick with humidity and I found myself breaking a sweat almost immediately. But the heat is not what burned itself into my brain, but rather it was the city’s poverty. Piles of garbage covered stretches of sidewalk with Filipinos searching through the bags for remnants of food or plastic bottles. Underneath an underpass, several Filipino men sat rigidly on the garbage as a uniformed militant with a rifle strapped across his chest sat next to them, his posture also rigid. The unfortunate lay on the sidewalks, possibly with some cardboard to cushion them from the concrete. The more fortunate lived in wooden huts, often with ads for KFC, Pizza Hut, or Globe Phones covering the makeshift roofs. As traffic slowed to a point where cars could not possibly maneuver anywhere else if they tried to, I saw a young boy, 14 at the oldest (which just happens to be my sister’s age), cross the chaotic street, barefoot, holding a garbage bag filled with plastic bottles. Traffic whizzed past the boy as if he were nothing. I watched as he disappeared into the night, just a teenager looking to survive in a world the West only knows of in textbooks.
The next day was even more sobering. We are staying at the Hospicio de San Jose, a campus on its own island run by our field partners, the Daughters of Charity. The hospicio houses the poor and part of its services is to house kids from utterly dire conditions. Right after breakfast, we took a tour of the grounds. One of the first places the Daughters decided to take us was the preschool. Now, warning, I’m not good with kids. At the time, I was still extremely jet lagged and dealing with what I could only classify as some very real culture shock. The little kids, all around the age of four or five years old, rushed to all of us immediately. They tugged on our shirts asking to be picked up. Good morning they all chimed cheerily. One boy tried to climb up my leg to hop up on my shoulders. They smiled all so widely. To see the vitality, the cheerfulness of these kids that have had such a hard life was really awe-inspiring and uplifting. One boy took the rubber band off of my wrist and began to play with it. Once I had to leave, he offered it back to me which I refused. There’s something really beautiful about the energy of the kids and the positivity they seemed to have access to, even with all of the challenges life had presented them.