Generosity and vitality define the Filipino way

In August-September 2010, Dominion Post reporter Amanda Fisher was in Manila on an Asia:NZ journalism internship at the Philippine Star. Promptly gaining a place within Manila’s journalism crowd, Amanda was overwhelmed at the energy and drive with which Filipinos went about their day-to-day lives. In a country often teetering on the brink of precariousness, she found people’s appetite for life contagious.These are some of her reflections on her placement.

From the moment I hopped off the plane in Manila, the world was tilted on its side. In the Philippines, the rules one takes as universal do not apply.

Throughout my two-month internship at The Philippine Star, not a day passed when I was not shocked or humbled by something new – from the scores of families sleeping on the street inside their pedicabs, to uniformed men toting automatic weapons at every street corner, hermit crabs with cartoons painted on their shells, and brilliant sunsets which set in Manila’s polluted skies.  

Photo: Amanda Fisher with Philippine Star editor Isaac Belmonte and photography intern Christoph Soeder from Germany.

The air in the country is electric; life is lived on the edge. With the threat of both natural and manmade disaster lurking around the corner, a sense of urgency and vitality accompanies even the most mundane task. My sensory perception was in overdrive, just commuting to work.

In my second week, I reported at a hostage crisis in which 10 people were killed, after a spurned former police officer, dressed in uniform, hijacked a busload of tourists. It was an event that cast much light on the country, its problems and its people – who were deeply moved and ashamed by the tragedy. It also fomented an emotional attachment to the country for me.

Photo: One of the hostages being released from the bus - Mendoza is in the background.

Filipinos are a nation of warm and beautiful people. At once diffidently polite to foreigners, when you break through the surface you feel genuinely rewarded. Their self-deprecating humour takes some getting used to – it seems a national joke that speaking too much English can cause a nose bleed. This was explained after, one day in the supermarket, a helpful sales assistant was heckled by her colleagues who yelled out from 20 metres away “Nose bleed!”

Generosity to strangers underscores the Filipino way, regardless of how much they have to offer; though I knew no one upon my arrival, I never wanted for company or a free lunch. Within my first ten minutes at work, I was told to go home and get some sleep – but not before being taken out to lunch with the country’s premier press club, mixing with the likes of Imelda Marcos’ most trusted reporter and the heads of the major news networks. Though I couldn’t understand a word of the Tagalog they were speaking, everyone welcomed me and my moronic grin.

The deeply indebted and twice-colonised country is mired in extremes. Bizarre norms – such as government-owned casinos and the millions of overseas Filipino workers whose remittances account for 10 percent of the economy – have become a means of survival. The fervent Catholicism which arrived with the Spaniards 500 years ago informs much of cultural life, and accounts for seemingly draconian laws such as no divorce, abortions or ready access to contraception.

Overpopulation (the country is hitting 100 million), combined with rampant corruption and wealth extremes, create a fairly unstable social environment, prone to episodes of chaos. Fellow reporters chuckled at the notion my life had never been in danger on account of my job at home – the Philippines is the most dangerous country in the world to report, by number of killings. Though not, I should add, a regular feature in the relative safety of Manila.

Photo: a child at Smokey Mountain, a rubbish tip home to 20,000 people who scavenge for a living.

Without cataloguing all the (fascinating) minutiae of daily life, it is pretty apparent the country is seriously good fodder for the curious and impressionable young journo.

The accommodating folk at the paper set out a schedule for me to spend each of my eight weeks covering different rounds. Filipino journalists are a conspicuous absence from the newsroom, instead stationed at press corps at whichever government agency best applies. It makes strange bedfellows, to have competing journalists for office mates. The jocular atmosphere at work is positively illicit compared to our own austere offices – laughter, sleep, practical jokes and furious bouts of eating are constants.

The English-language Star is one of the country’s top three papers, renowned for impartiality. However, I felt reporting from inside governmental departments seemed to compromise independence and the news agenda was circumscribed as a result. The Star was established at the end of martial law, with one of the first editions reporting the People Power Revolution of 1986. It is run by the three Belmonte brothers, who are the sons of co-founder Betty Belmonte.

Journalistic highlights include visiting Smokey Mountain, a rubbish tip where a community of 20,000 live and survive largely from scavenging. While New Zealanders balk at prisoners being housed in shipping containers, the youngsters of this community are fortunate a British NGO has built a school out of disused containers.

For a feature on minors in jail, I interviewed a teen murderer (pictured), who had shot his 11-year-old friend at the age of just 16.  I also wrote a feature story on a group of performing “lady-boys”, a tourist highlight for the millions of Westerners who visit each year.

I was disarmed by the amount of access I had to the country’s hot shots – I was introduced to the Police Chief, Army Chief, Speaker of the House and the country’s highest-ranking Bishop. I suspect I would have been invited to dinner at the President’s palace if he had not been in America the week I was due to do my placement there.

With so much journalising going on, there wasn’t too much time to indulge in the country’s notoriously good sightseeing and diving. I was fortunate to be taken on a trip (all-expenses paid) to Boracay, a paradise regarded as one of the best beaches in the world.

Photo: the brighter side of life (or tourism) in the Philippines

I spent time living with an incredibly hospitable Filipino family, who took me away to their “rest house” and to the basketball game of the year. Basketball to the Philippines is rugby to New Zealand – perhaps union and league.   

And throughout the surreal trip, I kept thinking to myself how privileged I was to be there and what an incredibly precious opportunity Asia:NZ had given me. In an age where you don’t get too much for nothing, I’m still marvelling at what a worthwhile investment the organisation is making in the future generation, while asking for very little in return.

Amanda Fisher was an intern at the Philippine Star with funding from Asia:NZ's media programme. Photo credit: Christoph Soeder.

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Last updated: 11 Jun 2013