A Glimpse into my Life in the Philippines

By: Veleda Tam

Living Conditions

Ants all over my small twin bed. Mosquitoes all over my flimsy mosquito net. Spiders all over my incredibly tiny room. Moths all over the worn-down house…

Unpainted wooden doors. Cement floors covered by a dirty, thin plastic sheet. A shower head that barely works. A toilet bowl that has no flushing system. Broken mirrors, the lack of tissues, toilet paper that is always damp…

All of this is all that I could’ve expected from my homestay… yet it’s not. Maybe it’s because I had to convince myself that it wasn’t going to be so bad to stop myself from dropping out of the course every time I thought about having to live in poor, rural Philippines for three weeks. Since signing up for this program, there probably has been over fifty people who have said, “the living conditions sound horrendous, you’re gonna die there.”

They were half correct. It truly has been a struggle living in Tubod Mar these past two weeks. In this short period of time, I had to adjust my biological clock to align with that of my host family, become accepting of the fact that there will always be insects crawling on my food, force myself to not be too mad over getting waken up every single night by cats chasing rats on the roof rails, roosters crowing at the randomest times, and raindrops falling on the metal roof plates as if it were hailing. Indeed, some people can get accustomed to all of this, but I would be lying to myself if I said I ever could, because in all honesty, knowing comfort, I could never see myself living here.

But they were also very wrong. In just two weeks this has become my home. Every day when the sun sets, I walk up the muddy road on the slippery hill to go home. I stayed at a luxury resort on Panglao for a night for comfort and relaxation, but that was nothing like home. It’s not always about the living conditions. It’s about the people that make the place feel like home, and I have grown to love home.

 The Hosts and the Family


Rebecca and Leto are an extremely friendly and accommodating couple. Rebecca is the president of a doormat micro-business, while Leto works as a barber in Cebu. Rebecca explained that she is always happy to host HKU students because Leto would take time off work and come home for a month every time. Although they have no kids of their own, Rebecca’s sisters Neneng, Stella, and Marissa live very close by, and they have many children.

Leto’s cooking is so amazing that I wonder why he hasn’t become a chef. He has made different dishes every night, but my favourite would be Sinigang, a sour and savoury soup. Over the past two weeks, I realized that Filipinos love eating rice every meal, even breakfast, and even if noodles are also served. I like it though, since their food is rather salty, so the rice neutralizes the flavours.


I remember asking Mr. Lefler during the interview for this course, “How do these families benefit from hosting us?” I feel like I have the answer now—they don’t, at least not really. Yes, they do get quite some money (considering the currency exchange rate and prices here) through hosting us, and yes, they do get to meet people from outside their village/town/province/country, but that’s pretty much it! At times I feel like I am actually a bother, and as most host-guest relationships in voluntourism go, it is an unequal one, especially considering the discrepancy in wealth, education, and exposure.


Tatai (Rebecca’s father) and the kids love coming over to watch TV and movies after dinner. According to Rebecca, they all come over because the other televisions are broken. There is a tall stack of DVDs that Leto brings back from Cebu, of which most are American movies. Pardon my ignorance (possibly?), but I was surprised by how up to date they are with movies and music in the rest of the world. I often see them watching movies released not too long ago, and singing and dancing to the latest Korean Pop songs. From reciting lines and singing along to the songs from TV commercials, I could tell how much time they spend in front of the TV (what else can they do after dark?)

Filipino Birthday Party


To celebrate Leto’s 40th birthday, the family rented a karaoke machine for the night. When I got home that day at around 5:30PM, friends and relatives have already started gathering around the little hut outside the house. I wanted to take a shower so desperately, as I was drowning in my own sweat, only to realize that water supply was cut off from the entire town of Jagna due to equipment failure at the water source. Though disappointed, I decided to quickly put down my backpack and join everyone outside.

From the moment I sat down at the stairs of the hut, everyone asked me to sing. I politely refused, citing my poor singing voice, but they were insistent, “We all sing even if we love the music, but the music doesn’t love us!”

One strange thing I noticed was that Leto, who was supposed to be the center of the festivities, did not really stand out at the party. Instead, he was the one to prepare food for everyone and make sure everyone was having a good time. Assuming I didn’t miss anything, friends and relatives did not sing the birthday song or prepare a gift or even a cake for him.

Like the author stated in Poor Economics, poor people make great entrepreneurs. This applies not just to business contexts–they come up with all kinds of games and activities to keep themselves occupied and entertained. As the adults sung on, the kids all went into Neneng’s house and played with each other. They even exercised with one another, such as doing group pushups, sit-ups, headstands, headstand spins, backflips, etc. We were super impressed watching them perform all these mildly dangerous stunts, but were worried that the children might have done all this not just for fun but mostly to entertain their guests.

Falling Ill in Rural Philippines

After showering in ice cold water for a few days straight (especially washing my hair in the morning) I woke up with a massive headache and worse, my whole body was aching. My hosts went out of their way to help me get better faster. Leto avoided making fried foods and instead, cooked more vegetables, while Rebecca bought oranges for me so I could get more vitamin C.

Although I felt really sick, I didn’t want to see a doctor after hearing about the situation at hospitals in Jagna. Anisa actually went to the hospital a few days later to get her wound checked out. She waited the entire afternoon just to see the one doctor who was seeing patients at the entire hospital and mentioned that the hospital staff were, compared to international standards, incompetent. “It seemed like everything they did—I could do myself,” she said. This immediately reminded me of what I read in Poor Economics about the attendance of the staff and their questionable qualifications and skills. Rebecca told us that there are only consultations on certain days of a week… and on those days you have to wait “forever”. I can only imagine what it’s like being severely ill in Jagna.

When Trash Management is… Trash

Being an aspiring anthropologist, there are so many more things I want to say about my experience and the observations I have made about the people and the place, but I will end my blog post with a brief discussion on trash management in Jagna.

Hearing me cough quite often, Rebecca told me that most of the people in Tubod Mar have a persistent cough. I could immediately think of one major factor that would contribute to this issue—trash burning. While it is probably true that it is probably caused by other factors, I am sure burning trash can only exacerbate this problem. The highly unpleasant burning smell has bothered me since day one, even though I hadn’t figured out until a few days later that it came from trash burning until I saw some children sweeping up a pile of garbage and igniting it. At times, the fumes are so pervasive that the entire house becomes fogged up even with closed doors. On one occasion, I was dozing off sitting on a chair at 7PM due to the intense lack of oxygen caused by trash burning.

So I decided to look up open burning of personal trash on Google, and found that it’s actually illegal in the Philippines. So why do they do it? They must know the threats burning waste—let alone, plastic—poses to the environment and one’s health. Hoping to understand the situation more before being judgmental towards others’ behaviours, I inquired Rebecca about waste collection in Jagna. It turns out that the only ways you can remove garbage from your home are to 1. Burn it, 2. dig a hole in your land and dump it all in (composite), 3. Bring all of it to someplace near Jagna market, where someone else will collect and get rid of it for you. So, obviously, considering that burning is essentially free, while transporting is relatively costly and time consuming, the former would be the much easier option—in fact, burning is an instant solution. As discussed in Poor Economics, people and poor people in particular, usually opt for immediate solutions to small problems rather than spending a bit more money for better future outcomes, which in this case, is sustainability of both their environment and their health.

It is evidenced that their action of burning trash is a result of their belief that they “have no choice”, which I can sympathize with. Unless the government recognizes this problem, enforces laws prohibiting open burning, and most importantly, revises their current trash management program and implement policies to increase accessibility to waste elimination facilities, this would more and more lead to a vicious cycle of poor management, quick solutions, and an unsustainable future.


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