Last week I went to the Philippines for 24 hours.
You can do that kind of thing around these parts.
For me, it’s a bit like taking a domestic flight in Australia but hey presto, blink twice and I’m in another country.
Yep! just me, myself and I.
As any mother knows, as much as we would go to the end of the earth for our beloved babes, sometimes there are only so many play-dough pussy cats one can make.
There are definitely only so many dirty nappies one can change before you need to down tools and take a well-earned sanity break.
For me, most weeks that sanity break comes in the form of a solo session with a hot mint mocha.
So when I was offered the chance to fly to the Philippines for a night and emcee an economic forum, I didn’t need to be bribed with the winning lottery numbers, in fact, I really didn’t need to be paid at all. No really!
Still, when it came time to bid my gorgeous girl goodbye, there were tears…from me, not her. Typical.
Stroller free and without a nappy bag stuffed to the brim with emergency supplies or any headless dolls protruding from my oversized handbag – this was rather different to my airport dalliances of late.
I was almost strutting towards the check-in counter with my single, very small black suitcase on wheels. I’m pretty sure I was silently chanting ‘I am career woman, hear me roar!’
I was the only Guailo (white person) checking in at Cebu airlines – most were domestic helpers, no doubt heading home for a much-needed break and family reunion.
I’ve always been curious about the Philippines.
Did you know it’s the 12th most populated country in the world with a colossal 92 million people, all co-existing on an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. Yes that’s right, seven thousand!
Situated smack bang on the Pacific Ring of Fire, earthquakes and typhoons regularly make themselves at home in this tropical oasis.
It’s a catch-22 situation really because it’s also its location that makes it abundant in natural resources. Gold, Silver, Copper, Nickel…name your mineral, it’s there!
But despite all this natural wealth and coral-fringed charm plus a well-educated, largely english speaking population, this country has been left right off the world’s radar.
A long-time sufferer at the hands of a corrupt government, the Philippine economy has lagged embarrassingly behind its thriving asian neighbors.
11-million Filipinos are OFW’s (Overseas Filipino Workers) and if you’re familiar with Hong Kong, you’ll know there’s a pretty large contingent of Filipino women living here as ‘domestic helpers’…. in fact around 300,000 of them.
Despite many having university degrees, by western standards they aren’t highly paid, but at the same time, earn much MUCH more as a helper here than they ever could as a professional doctor or lawyer in their own country.
Most Filipinos I’ve met here in Hong Kong are kind, humble and hardworking.
As I watch them playing in parks and pushing strollers with children of chinese or western families, they are a race that intrigues me.
Most have their own children but due to Hong Kong immigration laws that don’t allow permanent residency, they must remain in the Philippines with other family members.
These women are usually sole providers for their families, so the majority of their earnings are sent straight back home. Their children’s education is absolute priority.
I’m sure many of them are homesick and as a mother I feel their pain being separated from their babies — indefinitely.
As a rule they get a paid trip back home once every two years.
Many will say this is all they know and of course they choose to be here to make a better life for themselves and their children, but I can’t help but feel inspired by their extraordinary tenacity and courage.
They are only human after all.
Here, they get their much-needed social fix. Sitting on flattened cardboard boxes, they plait each other’s hair, eat, dance and sing.
It’s a sight to behold.
So – hence my curiosity about this great land they flock from, to what for them is the land of opportunity.
My first impression of the Philippines is a friendly one. But you have to wonder is this because I so obviously stand out? Tall (comparatively ok), blonde hair, fair skin? Maybe it was just my smug, single suitcase strutting that attracted so many sympathy smiles. “Ah here comes a woman clearly out of her depth in high heels.”
Blonde on a mission, I was whisked from the airport to my hotel where I was greeted by giant x-ray machines and sniffer dogs. (hang on, hadn’t I just come from the airport?) Security is tight and I was frisked, prodded and poked ‘every single time’ I came in and out of the hotel in my short stay (thank god for that lightweight luggage.)
Unfortunately this whirlwind trip didn’t allow me the chance to soak up the very roots of this deeply spiritual culture.
But even in my rather hairy trip from the airport (drivers and road rules don’t really mix) it was hard to miss the influence 400-years of Spanish rule has had.
What I did get to do though was chat to a 500-strong crowd of very excited Filippino businessmen and women.
Surprisingly, what I did find out is that with the country now under a new and popular president, optimism is at an all-time high
Slowly but surely the nation is transitioning from a struggling, impoverished land to one with a thriving economy and a positive future.
On the cusp of an investment boom, the Philippines is predicted to be the 16th largest economy in the world by 2050. A force to be reckoned with.
So after the six and a half hour event which we can call a success, I was hustled back on stage by every man and his dog, wanting to share in the excitement of this new-found prosperity. What do they do best in Asia? Why photos of course!!
I’m pleased to say, I was also encouraged to play my part in giving back to the economy.
My play dough-infused brain was hurting after all that economic talk, so what better way to ease the pain than a little retail therapy.
Clearly what I witnessed was the Philippines’ glossy side on show – designer shops, Paris Hilton handbags, casinos, fancy cafes serving Chai Lattes and soy Macchiatos.
No sign of poverty here.
True Fact: A third of the nation lives below the poverty line. That’s oh, a mere 30-million people!
A week before my visit the third typhoon in as many weeks had completely knocked Manilla for six but it was barely mentioned.
As I write this thousands of villagers have been forced to flee their homes after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the country’s east coast.
With all its calamities on show, this country and its people seem to get right back up, dust themselves off and soldier on.
Taking it all in their stride they are the very essence of resilience.
As I sat in the boarding lounge waiting for my flight home, again I was one of the few white faces, surrounded by at least 200 Filippino helpers. I admit, I felt just a little self-conscious, all eyes on me…especially when I pulled out my (ridiculously expensive in Asia) trashy magazines.
I seriously contemplated passing them around but thought that could be risky business.
Wouldn’t want to send a bunch of women in a small confined space (aka plane) into a wild frenzy over all those pictures of Prince Harry in the buff would I now!
So! it was back to Honkers for us all.
Very different lives, very different circumstances – but all women with a purpose and a plan, striving to make the most of life’s opportunities.
I suspect there’s a little bit of lion in us all.