Saturday, February 19, 2005

Africa vs. the Philippines - The Great Paradox

July of 2004...Jay and I had driven more than 2,000 kms up and down the highways and dirt roads of Mpumalanga and Gauteng provinces of South Africa -- home to the famous Kruger National Park and Joburg (Jozi to the locals) respectively. Being a member of A to A Safaris, one of the perks of my job is to pose as a client for a few days, check out 5 - 10 new camps per year and write very detailed (and sometimes even scathing) reviews about them. So when our real clients ask me questions, I will be able to answer everything from first hand experience. Knowing how Jay wanted so badly to escape from the daily drudgery of management consulting, he was more than willing to be dragged along for the ride. (Too bad he still can't quit his day job or we'll definitely starve -- my job sure is a lot of fun, but if I don't have enough clients, my annual salary won't even pay for a a couple of months' grocery bill).

Being a small, financially conservative company, A to A opted to rent us a car instead of flying us from camp to camp which effectively saved us thousands of dollars. We figured that it was also a great way to see a slice of the "real" Africa; how people commuted from town to town; how the roads and general infrastructure were; how dangerous was it really to ask directions from strangers; how dirty/clean were the bathrooms were in the gas stations and pit stops -- you know, mundane things like that. We absolutely had no idea of what to expect and little did we know that we were in for a big surprise! First of all, the main roads and highways were all perfect! There were modern flyovers; big signages all in English and very good road directions. If not for the fact that 99% of the people were black, you would think that you were somewhere in the US or Canada. Drivers were very courteous and followed speed limits; were gracious about letting you in their lane and signaled whenever they turned. There was also the concept of "right of way" which, in Asia, is almost foreign (I am now convinced that Asians are the worst drivers in the world, I almost felt like a barbarian in SA with my own Asian driving skills, or lack thereof). Naturally, all that driving made us tired, hungry and in need of several bathroom breaks and shuddered at the thought of entering dingy, stinky gas stations and being mugged or worse, raped (this bias was based on several media news reports about car jackings, shootings and rapes in the city). How wrong we were! The locals we asked always gave us the correct directions to our destination. And, even if they weren't smiling or warm, were always unfailingly polite. There were several gas stations along the way (every x number of kilometers at regular intervals) and almost every one had convenience stores; ATM's; and fast food restaurants. And how clean they all were! Even the small ones along the dirt roads had relatively clean floors and all stalls had toilet paper despite the fact that we were surrounded by very poor people. Almost immediately, I felt ashamed about my own country where Filipinos cannot seem to keep the public bathrooms in half decent condition; people don't even know how to "aim" properly when taking a leak and that there seems to be almost always no toilet paper in the stalls! Sure, I am very aware that SA and some of the countries in Africa for that matter, were slightly richer (in GDP figures) vs the Philippines; but poverty is NOT an excuse to live like a pig.

I believe that there is one key difference between Africans and the Filipinos, and that is the concept of self worth. We noticed from the among myriad of locals (blacks, whites, coloureds -- which is politically correct term to use in SA, by the way) we saw during our long road trip that there heads were almost always held high, they walked so tall (and most literally are) and had the air of so much confidence about them. I fel that they truly had a sense of being one with the land; who are proud of it and really owned their culture. (Sidebar: One thing that was quite amusing to see is that the black women were mostly Rubenesque in proportion to the males who were almost stick thin and when I inquired about this to a local, she told me that men liked their women "meaty" because "it kept them warm at night, esp. during winter.") In the Philippines, true, the people are smiling, warm, and chatty but I don't get a sense that the they are confident and truly happy. For me, this really shows in the way Pinoys take care of public property (mostly filled with garbage; defaced with graffiti) or even in their own homes when there's really no "pride of place". During my honeymoon in Cape Town, SA, last Jan 2004, Jay and I had visited a shanty town (yes, a real squatter area) and I immediately sensed the pride of place the people had. In the midst of all the corrugated iron; tires and tiny dirt roads, they had built their own simple but very functional pre-schools and high schools; bars and restaurants; a center to learn life skills; and even the world's smallest B&B where tourists can spend the night in a real black African township. Vicky's B&B was extremely clean, inviting and it was easy for me to consider spend a night or two there. Contrast this to some of the squallor found right in the maids' or drivers' quarters in some of my friends' huge homes in Manila's most prestigious subdivisions, I think I'd rather spend the night at an African shantytown, thank you very much.

For a continent whose 50% of its adult population is ravaged by AIDS, and so many people living below the poverty line, the countries I had visited had some of the best tourism infrastructure that I have ever seen outside of the US. Seamless travel between airport to hotel; or camp to camp is commonplace. They make you avoid long transit periods in airports and try to make the route between locations as direct as possible. Service is impeccable. Contrast this to Boracay where you have to first take a plane - then take a van - then a tricycle - then finally, a boat to reach the beach, where you have to wade through the shin deep waters just to get to your hotel! Couldn't they have just built a proper dock? (They say that's part of the charm of Boracay, but I don't buy it). My last visit was in Dec 2003 and it was a nightmare! Almost all the food in every restaurant was out of stock by 7:30pm; the only coffee machine at the beach's only coffee shop broke; there was no hot water and electricty in my bedroom for one night (never, ever stay at Pearl of the Pacific, sorry, that's Hurl of the Pacific); service was horrendous and worse, a storm hit us! And this is the Philippines' most well-known beach! Even if I had stayed at Fridays, the situation wouldn't have been a lot better. The thing is, whether you're a 5 star or a 2 star traveler, I believe that you should always deserve what you pay for and our wonderful experiences in SA and Botswana did indeed prove this; but that fiasco in Boracay did little to convince me in further promoting our country to my foreign friends. It's sad that even if you pay more (and therefore expect more in terms of service and facilities), you end up with less than what is perceived as "acceptable". (I don't think expecting to have hot water, electricity and hot meals is too much of a stretch).

The Great Paradox is this -- both are poverty stricken places; but one has refused to allow this to shape its destiny and bow its pride; while the other one allows this to be used as an excuse for everything that goes wrong.

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