More than Just Fun in the Philippines

By Jamie Greenthal | KF 17 | Philippines

Doing my best “waki” pose under the ubiquitous tourism poster in Manila.

The attractiveness of a location can be defined in many ways.  When talking to friends and family or reading guidebooks, superlatives often convince us that a place is worth (or not worth) visiting.  I’m sure you’ve heard of spots that are described as having “the best restaurants”, “the prettiest beaches”, or “the liveliest nightlife”.  While we all relate to places differently based on our tastes, experiences, and the contexts of our visits, my ears always perk up when a trusted source throws out a travel superlative.

Have you ever visited a country and thought, “wow, the people here are great!”?  I’ve passed along that impression a few times because I’ve met very friendly locals in my travels. The beauty of the Kiva Fellowship is that since we are working in a foreign country and not spending our time solely as tourists, we get the unique opportunity to embed ourselves in the community, get to know our new colleagues, and hopefully find some “great people”.

Following this immersive experience, I’ll return home and tell folks in the States, “the people in the Philippines are great.”  While that’s a true statement (but also way too vague), the quality time I’ve spent with Filipinos has given me the ability to formulate a deeper description, which does justice to the way they’ve treated me and how I’ve seen them treat each other.  (And they eat five times a day and love to share their food.)  Here are some examples of what it means to be a “great” people.

A seafood buffet welcomed us upon arriving at a borrower’s house in Talibon, Bohol.

A spur-of-the-moment buffet, courtesy of a friend of a friend of a friend’s parents at their home in Jagna, Bohol.

Engaging in cultural discussions with my colleagues has been a highlight of my 14 weeks in the Philippines.  Whether it’s swapping stories about our favorite foods (Buffalo wings and dinuguan) or demystifying stereotypes of famous places in our countries (Harlem and Mindanao), my co-workers have displayed a genuine interest in teaching and learning from me.  I truly appreciate their ability to break away from their computers and cell phones, and invest time in having a meaningful, personal conversation in the middle of the workday.  While it may mean staying longer that night, they prioritize the interaction between us.

Another buffet:  this time with CEVI colleagues on a river boat in Loboc, Bohol.

About a month into my Fellowship, I told a colleague that the Philippines has such a friendly vibe because I’d never encountered a seriously pissed off Filipino.  I figured that I had just happened to be looking the other way or it was lost in translation because they were speaking Bisaya.  On the contrary, I was told that Filipinos do complain, but they most often do it in private or internalize it.  They avoid public confrontation and strive to get along with others, creating an atmosphere of positivity.  It’s honorable to put the dignity of another before your own frustrations.  Selflessness is a defining characteristic of the majority of Filipinos with whom I’ve spent time during my Fellowship.

On my first day at Community Economic Ventures, Inc. (CEVI), I was seated in the room with the rest of the Executive Department.  Some of the desks were just big enough to fit a laptop and an 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper.  Although I insisted on having one of these since I was a temporary employee, I was not only given the biggest desk, but one that was also right beneath the air conditioner (crucial as I had just arrived in 90 degree heat from 35 degree New York City).  Toward the end of my time at CEVI I accidentally dropped my backpack, which contained my laptop, on my desk, sending a crack through the entire length of the glass cover.  Despite my embarrassment and insistence on buying a new one, my colleagues laughed and it was never mentioned again.

At my (big) broken desk in the CEVI office in Tagbilaran City, Bohol.

During my last week at CEVI, I told a colleague that my wife hadn’t seen the famous Chocolate Hills of Bohol and we were leaving that Saturday.  Despite only asking for advice on finding a tour that she could go on, my co-worker took it upon herself to arrange an entire day of sightseeing around Bohol with four others from the office.  The effort that went into organizing that day was too thoughtful for words.

At the CEVI headquarters, receiving a plaque for my service after my last day on the job.

A few weeks ago, I visited Kiva borrowers near Kabankalan on the west coast of Negros with colleagues from the second MFI for which I’ve worked during my Fellowship, Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation (NWTF).  Our mode of transportation was a tricycle, in which only two passengers, and sometimes the driver, are sheltered from the crushing heat of the mid-afternoon sun.  Since two of us were going to be out in the open, on each ride my colleagues insisted that I sit under the canopy.  They only ceded an exposed seat to me after I defiantly jumped in the back before they had the chance.  On the same trip, whenever we faced a decision my hosts consistently asked me “Is this OK with you?” or “Do you prefer…?”.  They put my needs before theirs.  They were truly great hosts.

Despite my apprehension, my colleagues at NWTF treated me to balut in Dumaguete, Negros.

The Philippines Department of Tourism’s slogan is, “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”.  When I reflect on my time here my first thought isn’t of fun (though I’ve had a lot of it), but how I’ve been treated.  While I’ll only live here for five months, I think I’ve witnessed the Filipino’s true character.  My life is most enjoyable when I spend time with selfless and sincere people who treat others with kindness and respect.  I have experienced that in the Philippines, so when I return home I will not use a generic superlative like “great” to describe the people; rather, I will share a deeper and more deserving recommendation that’s cute and sentimental (just like Filipinos):  “The Philippines:  Come for the Fun, Stay for the People”.  Perhaps the Department of Tourism will consider it for its next campaign?

Jamie Greenthal is a Kiva Fellow working with the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation in Bacolod, Negros Occidental, Philippines. 

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