It takes a village-A A +A
Wrapped in Grey
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
IN THIS popular tourist attraction, the guests are treated to a sumptuous buffet while onboard a rickety ferry traversing a beautiful river largely unchanged by time. Local singers and musicians serenade them on this river cruise and in daylight the towering foliage of trees and vines provide a natural shade and the green smooth waters cool the spirit.
It is a special experience for local tourists and foreigners alike, one that is easy to enjoy and then later file away as a pleasant memory. If only I were not who I am.
I have always been conflicted by the idea and practice of tourism. Maybe it is just me and my training that frames the experience according to the cynical lenses of critical social science but there is something about the tourist trail and meeting people that inhabit these places that is unsettling. There is politics in tourism and the economic privilege of visiting places as opposed to being visited is imbued with certain hidden power relations and structural contexts.
In the few occasions that I have been to developed nations, I have always been conscious of my subjectivity as a citizen of a country whose passport somehow signifies an unwelcome stay. From various international airports, immigration officials undertake a second go over at my papers verifying whether I am a potential burden to their welfare system if I decide to illegally prolong my visit and find work. When I walk their streets, I am most conscious not to break their laws because it is clear to me that I am merely a visitor and have even less privileges than any local.
But here, where everything is supposedly more fun, the political and economic standing of the country relative to other nations reverses the relationship. We welcome tourists with open arms (and legs). We bend over backwards (pun intended) because they bring in much needed revenues. And our attraction has been our largely untapped natural resources and our people. We even have a word for this novel development strategy - ecotourism.
In the absence of a serious economic development direction, government planners have sought to showcase the beauty of the islands, which is not in dispute, but also the people inhabiting these places under the contentious banner of ecotourism. Filipinos are depicted in the various ad campaigns as hospitable and easy going, with a sense of humor and lightness that is even made more attractive because we can relay all these qualities to our guests in English.
But while in developed nations, you get by with a single tour guide handling a bus load of tourists or use just a book to guide you in your visit to their tourist sites, here it takes a village. You have the street hawker selling everything from trinklets, a henna tattoo service, cellphone load, or the famous mam-ser-banana boat ride.
Add to this the army of habal-habal, kalesa, and taxi drivers; and let us not forget the pimps lusting over that generous tip in every port, airport, and hotel in the country where tourists arrive. If I were a conscientious foreigner, I would wonder what all these people did for a day job.
But there's the rub. These people do not have a day job because in the absence of regular and decent paying work, many of our compatriots scramble for the cents and pennies that visitors throw their way. The big money, however, is in the agencies, resorts, hotels, and airlines who arrange these tours.
In these various ecotourism sites, the best facade is put forward and the struggles of everyday living is set aside in favor of everything that is light, gay, and usually expensive. It is not altogether different from going to a zoo where you ogle the locals in a controlled environment. I witnessed this first hand in that river cruise and remain conflicted about the experience.
At some point on that boat ride, the ferry momentarily docks at another makeshift platform floating on the river. On that platform is not one or two local dancers but a whole village with old men and women, young boys and girls in cheap colorful costume that is supposed to depict rural Filipino life. On cue, they danced folk dances and clapped with a desperate joy, on their faces the desire to please.
I learned that the performers where actually residents of the villages by the river. Though there were rice paddies nearby, they were peasants who seasonally worked on these fields for landlords and they also subsisted in gathering firewood in the nearby forests to earn a living. The revenue that they collectively earn during their daily performance will be equally divided among them all thirty or so performers and it can barely provide for their daily needs and the children's schooling. On that day, there were two such platforms with local residents eager to perform for guests.
As my fellow Filipinos danced and twirled with gusto, I zoned out bothered by the spectacle on display and later on I arrived at a sad realization. What I saw before me were my people performing desperate acts just a step away from begging.
The contrast is so great to be missed. Amid all the beauty of our country is also so much poverty. But the reality reveals itself no matter how hard others try to hide it.
Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on September 24, 2013.