The week in metro Manila has been amazing, but the last full day brought home the true blessings of being an American.
The unique relationship between our two counties is often forgotten on our side of the fence, but in the Philippines, the relationship brings immense pride. The Philippine population living in the states is four million strong, meaning you hardly meet anyone who doesn't have family in our country. The country feels like a bridge between east and west, a marriage of Asian, Hispanic and American influences, though the identity is clearly more west than east. They know our national issues -- sometimes better than us, embrace much of the culture, and watch our sports, particularly the NBA.
At times, at least in relative terms, our trips were sterile. We traveled by embassy bus, often under escort (for traffic navigation, not safety) and met with government officials, many of whom had prepackaged presentations. And everywhere we were greeted with a fanfare and distinction unworthy of our traveling motley crew. Banners greeted us everywhere and most of the time it felt like we were being followed by paparazzi, with 10-20 fotogs recording every handshake and every expression.
But nothing matched Manila, where we were met City Hall with a red carpet and the city marching band playing Stars and Stripes Forever, as literally hundreds of people - surely mostly curious, watched from the sidewalk or their windows. It was a moment I'll never forget. In Manila, we were also escorted by the historical society director on a tour of the historic walled city, and met with the country's youngest Senator, Ban Acquino, who in his historic family's legacy is very bright, thoughtful and committed to good governance. In a country where birthright dictates political prominence, there is no doubt he is on a path to the Presidency and frankly, in my short hour with him, he showed the tools of a great leader of his country.
Yesterday, we also ran into poverty on an unimaginable scale. Shanty towns built inside flood drainage tunnels by the river, old barges and boats permanently docked as housing for construction workers, naked children diving from an abandoned crane into the polluted river to swim -- the same river adults were bathing in 100 yards away, while others fished for their dinner down stream, and everyone collectively living in a smog that literally chokes off a complete breath.
What was stunning is rarely did public officials speak of this, and until the last 48 hours, I was afraid to ask. It felt as though poverty was a "don't ask, don't tell" issue. But as I got courage, the answers were interesting, from stock "economic development" to more thoughtful ones. Senator Acquino was easily the most versed in actual policies to create opportunity through education and micro economics. Many of their solutions hardly make sense viewed from a US right - left ideological lens, which also created in reverse interesting questions. One woman flat asked me why our country, as rich as we are, was even debating whether everyone should get good health care. Forgive the editorial comment, but frankly after being in the Philippines, it's hard for me to understand that question either.
That being said, you can't come here and not come away with a more fuller understanding of how lucky we are as Americans -- and how the vast majority of people here look to us to be the world beacon. Yesterday I found my Philippine sea legs, often walking away from the group and finding people to talk to. Everywhere people would talk of their dreams to visit or ask about something happening with their family in the states.
At City Hall, I met four young college students, each studying tourism, all who wanted to see Disney World. At a historical site, I met a woman who had visited 30 states to see her "almost 500 relatives" in the states. And even the photographer from the National Movement of Young Legislators, who escorted us the entire trip, talked of coming to the states to one day see his son box.
But one particular moment got me. I was boarding the "coaster" (our bus) and this lady was standing on the sidewalk about 50 feet away waving, holding her child. She was obviously quite poor, but smiling ear to ear. I walked over to greet her, and as I got close she pointed at me smiling and said to her kid "America." I touched her kid's hand, who looked by development to be 16-18 months old and said to the mom "he's beautiful -- how old?" Two and a half she said. Despite the obvious love of his mother, poverty had clearly stunted this boy's development. I choked back a tear before walking away.
The Philippine leaders haven't always had the right priorities. Senator TG Guingona, who chairs the equivalent of the Senate Ethics Committee estimates that 40 percent of all government revenue is lost to corruption, a number that if even half right is stunning. And we certainly met at least one local leader who seemed more than willing to let that persist. One even blamed anti corruption laws for slowing economy progress. But most real people I talked to held the opposite view, that the country's woes, from poverty to infrastructure were a direct result of corruption.
But for all of the problems, this not a sad place, in fact, it's quite the opposite. In the face of gripping poverty, there is a contagious vibe here, and we met countless young leaders committed to better governing and innovative progress. And with 40 million people out of 97 million living on less than 2 dollars a day, it's going to take those leaders to help move the country from developing to developed status. That being said, I found lots if reasons to be hopeful, surrounded by problems of a magnitude that our elected leaders cannot imagine.
One of the country's great former leaders Manuel Quezon once said words that can still apply today -- universally: "All that is necessary is that every public official, from President down to the last police officer, is to know that the office is not given to him for the purpose of his own personal aggrandizement or profit, nor with the idea of permitting him to abuse the powers of that office. Public office is given to a man in the interest of the people of the country." Leaving, I'm confident that a younger generation is truly embracing this, both here in Philippines, but also in the USA.
Most of the Philippines I didn't feel well, due to the combination of food, 16-18 hour days, bus rides that were indescribable (imagine weaving in and out of traffic on a motorcycle -- except instead of a motorcycle, you are riding on a bus), lack of sleep, poor air quality, lack of western sanitation standards and jet lag. For two days, I subsisted on Advil, Imodium, Jamba Juice, Gatorade and Gu. But regardless, I definitely go to Malaysia a healthier person, with many new friends from a country that generally loves ours, and a renewed appreciation and pride of the blessing that comes with American birthright and citizenship.
Everyone in America should be so lucky to experience a similar journey.