A Half A World Away

Despite being 12 time zones removed from Boston, the first surprise for me was seeing how many American “things” fill the Filipino culture. Restaurants and other conveniences are scattered throughout Manila, and the soundtrack playing in the background in nearly every location we visited was American pop music (predominately Taylor Swift).

Riding as a passenger in a tour bus (there are approximately 35 of us Trekkers traveling, together representing 21 countries), I had a bird’s eye view of the impressively delicate ballet that is Manilla’s ground transportation. Cars, bikes, and motorcycles travel within one inch of each other, with pedestrians walking confidently beside the chaotically controlled traffic. Though I lament Boston’s transportation shortcomings, those seemingly minor inconveniences are strides ahead of Manila’s infrastructure. To say Manila’s public transportation is insufficient would be a total understatement.

Thanks to one of my Trekker friends who was insistent about finding a beach for our first free day, we made our way to Pico de Loro (thanks to the SM company!) for a day in the sun. The water was warm, sandy beaches were welcoming, and the gentle breeze and smell of ocean air calmed any of our lingering travel stresses. While I was fighting off a cold (typical result for my long flights) and couldn’t breath well enough to snorkel or dive, a day in the warmth and sunshine was nonetheless beautiful. The two-hour ride to the resort, however, was a trip like none other. We passed countless villages and communities with rows upon rows of one-room shacks. Weathered and worn pieces of cloth hung in some windows, giving some semblance of privacy. Others had totally open windows, allowing us to see the morning yawning and stretching of the residents.  Returning home at dusk, it was evident that most of these villages are lit only by a single light bulb. This was a stark juxtaposition of the economic divide with the country - and made many of us Trekkers question the fundamental differences between this lifestyle and ours (especially returning from a day spent as the beach resort).

From our research meetings in Manila, one major takeaway is how proud and optimistic Filipinos are. Given the country’s history with corruption, the strides they’re making to improve basic operating systems and financial accounting practices gives the country tremendous hope for the future of the Philippines. We started our Trek by touring the US Embassy, meeting with the US Ambassador to the Philippines, then met with leaders from family conglomerate businesses such as the Ayala, SM, and JG Summit Holdings companies. Our research trip also took us to meetings with the Philippines’ Budget Secretary, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Philippines House of Representatives, national news anchor Pia Hontiveros, the Asia Development Bank, and the Asian Institute of Management. These conversations provided fascinating perspectives of the economic, political, and social landscape within the country.

A second major takeaway from these meetings is hearing Filipino’s say over and over again that the number one asset of the country is its people. The median working age of the Filipino working community is only in the mid-20’s, arguably an incredibly young population by any standard. Many of the major companies, like the SM Corporation and JG Summit Holdings, are creating ways to invest in this young population to educate them for the opportunities available within the country. The companies we met with have foundations that provide financial resources to help educate the country’s poorest students. The first teaching workshop we presented was for a group of young scholars from the SM Foundation. What was surprising to me, however, was that the corporations are seemingly satisfied with educating individuals solely for the skills needed to fulfill structured company workforce roles. Given my interest in continued professional development, I was left with little understanding of how this young work-force can continue individual development within or outside the company roles.

In addition to the business investment in education, the Philippines government is actively working to support improved education systems throughout the nation. Beginning next year, the country will switch from a K-10 to a K-12 educational system. In the resulting two-year gap of no students entering college, the government will be providing professional development funds to the college and university faculty for advancement of their own education and skill-sets. The government is also implementing incentive funds for impoverished families to continue to send their children to school, as well as providing grant funds for impoverished college students to finish college (provided student GPA’s are high enough). They are aiming to providing not just access to education for everyone in the country, but access to quality education as an investment in the country’s number one asset - a mission set out in the Philippines' constitution.

For now, a third and final reflection from the Philippines was the prominence placed on global warming. Meetings with nearly every company or individual had some discussion of the increasing numbers of natural disasters. Given the prominence of typhoons across the Philippines, the immediate and long-term effects of these storms is increasingly prevalent in everyday life. This topic was typically brought up in nearly every one of the meetings, unprompted from the Trekkers, in the context of the presenter discussing how to factor in recovery efforts and future development planning to prepare for major natural disasters. There was no hesitation in the Filipino’s believing that global warming is a current crisis impacting everyday life. I just wonder how long it will take for others to have this similar recognition, and not just plan for disaster relief but also plan for truly caring for (and fundamentally changing habits) to take care of the world in which we live.

After only six days into a three month adventure, my thinking is already expanding from the conversations with the Filipinos and among my fellow Trekkers. I don’t know where it will ultimately lead, but in the short-term I already recognize that I am beginning to formulate a more informed perspective on global and cultural issues. It’s challenging my assumptions and understandings, and it’s changing me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated

(Posting this blog  was delayed due to China's firewall; pictures will be added soon!)