Philippines 101 – Origin of Myth
While writing about the media’s negative portrayal of the Philippines in my article ‘Viewing the Philippines in a Different Light’, I was “baffled as to why [The Philippines] has been branded in such a negative way by the International media.” Since then I have come to realize that a lot of negativity towards this beautiful country comes out of misinformation, uninformed opinions/ideas and perhaps a little prejudice. After months of reading blogs and articles it became clear that these common themes were the root of most ‘anti-Pinoy’ commentary online. So it’s time to look at the facts and examine some of the negative myths that surround this country.
Last night I was online and got a message from a relative in Australia asking if I was okay after the bombing in Basilan. I replied that Basilan is over 1,000 kilometers (well over 600 miles) from Manila and is just off the coast of Malaysia. She then replied that she really needs to get an atlas. Most people around the world need to not only get an atlas, but also read it when it comes to the Philippines.
Just to help those who don’t know -The Philippines is the 12th most populated nation on Earth and is made up of 7,107 islands which stretch over 2,000 kilometers (Well over 1,200 miles) from Batanes in the north to Tawi-tawi in the south. Politically the country is divided into 80 provinces, 17 Regions and 3 Island Groups: Luzon in the north (where Manila is), Visayas in the centre and Mindanao in the south.
The Geography of Danger
It seems that many people overseas think that the whole of the Philippines is constantly experiencing problems with terrorist attacks. However, most of the troubles of this nature in Philippines are in the south western portion of the island of Mindanao which is over 1,000 kilometers to the south of the Philippine capital of Manila. Mindanao is the second largest island in the Philippines and the 19th largest in the world making it just over 1.5 times the size of Tasmania.
Speaking of Tasmania, let’s focus on one problem I have. Back in 1996 in Port Arthur, Tasmania when Martin Bryant went on what was at the time the world’s worst killing spree and shot 35 people who were mostly tourists; massive numbers of people didn’t suddenly cancel their trips to Australia or even the cities of Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania. Yet last year in November when the Maguindanao Massacre happened (57 killed in a politically motivated attack) people suddenly cancelled tours around Manila and jumped on the next plane back to their home countries. Maguindanao is literally on the other side of the country from Manila. It would be like people cancelling tours in New York when the LA riots happened, ridiculous.
This ignorance of Philippine geography is not only prevalent amongst foreign travellers but also amongst some Filipinos and some expats living in the Philippines. Many times I hear from people in Manila that Mindanao is dangerous and a no go zone. I went to Northern Mindanao last year and had a great time. I also met a lot of really friendly locals who helped me as much as they could on my travels. I travelled by taxi, tricycle, ferry, local (non air conditioned) bus, multicab, a friendly stranger’s brother’s van and also just walked. There was no point along the way that I felt like I was in danger. I also hear from foreigners who live in or travel in the more notorious parts of Mindanao, that they had similar experiences to mine. Perhaps it just comes down to having some good old fashioned street smarts when you travel.
Earlier this week, I was looking at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s travel advisory website and was surprised to learn that their level of caution for the Philippines is exactly the same as Thailand. Thailand has bombings in the south just like the Philippines but that’s about where the similarities end. Thailand also has border skirmishes with Cambodia, Bird Flu, the Thai Government has declared a state of Emergency and people are dying on the streets of Bangkok amidst grenade attacks, shootings and the current protests by the Red Shirts. I was also surprised to learn that the site warns about the eruption of the beautiful Mayon Volcano in the Philippines. This volcano did have a small eruption back in December (concerned relatives in Australia asked if I was in danger even though Mayon is about 450 km away from Manila) and tourists actually flocked to Albay Province to take pictures of the streaming lava at night. It has since died down and I took my mother there last month and it really didn’t seem like a “hazardous magmatic eruption” was going to happen, as the DFAT suggests. In fact, PHILVOLCS agrees with my observation stating:
“This is a notice for the lowering of Mayon Volcano’s status from Alert Level 2 (evidence of magmatic intrusion that could eventually lead to an eruption) to Alert Level 1 (no hazardous eruption imminent).”
Even though PHILVOLCS issued this update on March 2, 2010, the DFAT website currently states that their advice on the danger of Mayon erupting “…is current for Friday, 16 April 2010.” It is sites like this which present a dangerous Philippines that just doesn’t seem to exist in reality.
Is it safe?
On our Tourism Philippines Facebook Fanpage (www.facebook.com/TourismPhilippines) the other week an American man asked if it was safe to come to the Philippines. Here is my response in which I quoted http://www.nationmaster.com/index.php :
“For murder per capita (US #24/Philippines not in top 62), rape (US #1/Philippines not in top 84), burglary (US #1/ Philippines not in top 68), executions (US #7/Philippines not on the list) the US is far more dangerous than the Philippines.”
Photo by Dave Ryan
The question of safety in the Philippines has to be one of the most common ones I hear and I believe it is so prevalent due the spread of misinformation and uninformed opinions that have spread across the internet and the media in general.
I have asked many people in the Philippines if they think it is dangerous here and the most common responses are either “No.” or “It’s no more dangerous than any other country, you just need to be a little street smart.” I totally agree with these comments. I wouldn’t walk down a street in a bad area I’m not familiar with at 3am in Manila. I also wouldn’t do the same in London, New York or Sydney for that matter. I’m also not the kind of traveller who arrives in a destination without knowing anything about the place. As travellers we must have some personal responsibility. On landing in Hanoi back in 2006, I hadn’t read up on the best way to get from the airport and was quite sleepy so my internal currency converter wasn’t working well. As a result, I was majorly ripped off by an unlicensed taxi driver. Ultimately, it was my own fault for not being prepared.
Crab Mentality / Tall Poppy Syndrome
After my previous article on the Philippines being portrayed negatively in foreign media was posted on countless blogs, a lot of people had their say about what I wrote. While a lot of the feedback was positive, there were also countless negative responses. One Filipino referred to Manila as a “festering sore” and others focused on corruption in the Philippines or poverty. While I have never stated that the Philippines has never had problems, I do feel that the over promotion of the negative aspects of this country has managed to squash most of the good that comes out of the Philippines. I also view this as a vicious cycle which gradually diminishes the pride of country that Filipinos have and erodes the international image of this nation further. I say this because it is exactly what I witnessed on the blogs. I wrote something good about the Philippines and many Filipinos ignored the positives and went back to saying how terrible the country is.
Our own Worst Enemy
Jojo A. Robles wrote on this in the Manila Standard in response to my article stating that:
“no one can out-criticize Filipinos like the Filipinos themselves, as we do every single day in our own media……. if we are to stop people in other countries from thinking that we live in a hopelessly corrupt, poor and dangerous country, perhaps we should begin by ending our own persistent and oft-stated belief that we do so in the first place.”
Last December when I took a walk through Quiapo in Manila with Carlos Celdran, I saw many of the things that may lead a person to think of Manila as a ‘festering sore’, however, I really enjoyed the experience and actually went back the following month. The culture and history of Quiapo is really quite amazing and all you have to do is walk down Hidalgo Street or around the occult stalls beside Quiapo Church to see it for yourself. I guess that one man’s trash can truly be another’s treasure and to quote Carlos Celdran, “You can’t change the way Manila looks, but you can change the way you look at Manila.” This country really needs a vast number of its citizens to change their perspectives in order to create a better image of The Philippines on the world stage.
Photo by Scott Allford
What it all boils down to in the end is that no country is perfect, but each is unique and beautiful in its own way. Sadly, the image of the Philippines has been under attack from all angles for quite some time. Nevertheless, many Filipinos and foreign visitors are starting to discover that while the Philippines does have many problems, it also has so many amazing experiences to offer if you’re willing to seek them out. As more people experience this country and word gets out, the perceptions of both locals and foreigners are becoming more informed. Ryan Buaron recently posted on our Facebook Fanpage (www.facebook.com/TourismPhilippines): “When we see something amazing in the Philippines, we usually exclaim “Parang hindi sa Pilipinas! (Looks like it’s not in the Philippines!) – WRONG. It should be – “Ang ganda talaga ng Pilipinas!” (The Philippines is really beautiful!).” As a result of this change in thinking, Pinoy Pride is slowly on the rise and the astounding ecological and cultural beauty of the Philippines and the warmth of its people are starting to become more than dull whispers to travelers around the world.
Scott M. Allford has lived and worked in Australia and South Korea and has travelled extensively throughout Asia- Mongolia, China, Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan – fell in love with the Philippines and decided to allocate at least two years to comprehensively cover the country.
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