3rd World’s a Charm

The kids of Sigma, Philippines, played to my camera constantly. Often taking it from me to make images of me with them as well.

The transition from the third-world poverty of the Philippines to the first-world class of Singapore is much more dramatic than I expected.

In the Philippines, toilet paper is worth more than pesos. Motels don’t automatically stock it. If I found a partial roll, it went with me to the next stop (just in case). A hand-held squirt-hose, or poor man’s bidet was usually positioned next to the bowl–which may or may not include a seat or a lid.

Yet in Singapore, the city is clad with an abundance of crappers, almost always with private stalls, two-ply rolls and typically well-groomed facilities free of icky floors.

The high-rise hotel In Manila provided me with one bath towel, no wash cloths or hand towels. The room was void of daily room service. Luckily, I always pack my own small hi-tech REI towel which I’ve relied on for decades of travel. Besides, no one needs fresh linen every night unless they wear a diaper and or run an escort service.

But my condo in Singapore comes with a maid who provides me coffee and toast as often as I request. She washes my clothes daily if needed and makes-up the room when I ask her to. I don’t exploit her services as I sort of miss the sketchy survival skills I acquired in the Philippines. There, I learned to wash clothes in the sink, hang things that needed drying on a bush outside; and to toss what slowed me down.

A friend told me years ago, how she always saved up her tattered, one-use-left undies, just for traveling. You took them on the road and tossed’em once you couldn’t stand yourself any longer. This plan worked great the first two weeks until I ran out of throw-aways. Now I’m juggling three pairs till I get home in a couple weeks. No problem.

In Roxas City, Philippines, a bottle of San Miguel beer cost 40 Philippine Pesos (php), or about 90 cents US. In Singapore, the very same beer is 10 bucks.

Philippine wi-fi is a mythical fog that rolls in once in a while, but you’re usually off-grid more often than not; going old school with paper maps to navigate by and word of mouth rather than Yahoo filling you in on current events.

In Singapore, connectivity is above 100% with speeds slightly less than world leaders such as South Korea. I found service was free in most public places, including my condo, but porn or anti government websites are strictly monitored (yeah, I had to check) so you’ll get a warning page that suggests you better zip-it or face a beheading.

Public travel is readily attainable in both countries, however in Singapore, you’ll not find the duct-taped, spot-welded tricycles with chickens and children clamoring to jump off and on at random stops. Rather, the modern city of Singapore boasts a subway, bus, and taxi service, which seems seamless. air-conditioned transport is available everywhere I go and never more than a minute or three away from any corner I stand on.

In the Philippines, transport was abundant too, but comfort went out the window with the roosters. Some of their seat-belts (the ones I noticed) are affixed with heavy-duty fishing line, rather than steel bolts. Should a Marlin or Sea Bass find the need to buckle up, they would surely have been safe, but I’m guessing my hulk of a frame would have snapped such feeble restraints should a collision have been my fate.

I could go on endlessly about the differences between the old worlds and the new. I’m used to drinking water from the tap and not worrying about whether something I flush will show up again somewhere around the building the next day. But there is a charm to the simple life in the Philippines that won my heart. The people there surely are accommodating, respectful and endearing.

Along with proper plumbing and conditioned air, sometimes comes a sense of entitlement, snobbery and detachment from human interactions. The subways and busses in Singapore are filled with expressionless faces, surfing mobile devices and avoiding eye contact with anyone. I often felt like the one dude in church, looking around to see who else wasn’t bowing their head during prayer. I’d feel alone in my irreverence as a sat, surrounded by a sea of silent, texting souls.

They say it’s important to be number one. The United States has surely lost this race in dozens of categories. Many countries appear more civil, more advanced and less crime riddled–Singapore certainly has the US beat on many first-world fronts.

But I know I left my heart back in the little primitive villages of Roxas and Sigma, where Philippine children fearlessly played in the rice fields, finding amusement among their friends, fueled only by their endless imagination.