Four thousand pesos in the Philippines is equal to exactly $89.68 in the United States. And 4,000 pesos is right around the maximum Lorenzo earns per month working seven days a week as bartender, receptionist, handyman and everything else under the sun for Paddy’s Hotel in Sabang, Puerto Galera.
“I want to work abroad to save money for my family, and then come back and start my own business,” Lorenzo told me over beers on my first night in Sabang. “Maybe construction. I like to build and fix things with my hands.”
Later, Lorenzo reminded me that he wants to settle and raise a family in the Philippines, even if he makes his fortune abroad. But, as he described it, in a rural Filipino culture where parents retire as soon as their sons can work, men take pride in being the sole provider, and mothers are not expected to hold jobs, it will take Lorenzo many years and some good fortune to accomplish everything. At age 29, he wonders if that window is closing too rapidly. He can hardly afford to send money home as it is, despite getting his housing and most meals comped.
Claudia serves beer on a floating bar in the harbor of Sabang. The barge is regularly packed with thirsty customers, has a beautiful view of the waterfront, and affords Claudia the opportunity to snorkel, swim and socialize as much as she wants.
But, Claudia also works long hours (about 12 hours on a slow day) and puts up with a flurry of mostly white, American, misogynists who frequent the bar on a daily basis. And in her 23 years, though neighboring islands are plainly visible on the horizon, Claudia has never even been able to afford the one-hour ferry trip out of her hometown. She says she likes her job, but has a dream of traveling to different parts of the world. She mentioned that she would love to see New York someday, while acknowledging the unlikelihood of that ever happening, and shrugging indifferently at the thought of never leaving.
Lorenzo and Claudia live in and near, respectively, Paddy’s Hotel. Many of the structures in the neighborhood are characterized from the outsider’s perspective by faded tin roofs, dirty, crumbling walls and poor ventilation (despite unbearably hot, humid conditions during certain parts of the year).
Stray dogs and cats litter the streets, and those people who can’t pony up a few pesos for a ride down the hill in a Jeepney use battered dirt bikes to reach the downtown and waterfront areas.
Once there, many locals spend the day cooking, cleaning, tour guiding, driving, and otherwise serving the tourists that pour into Sabang every day, and are happy to score an extra handful of change throughout the day. Many of the young Filipino women openly admit to trying to woo wealthy visitors of any age and background, in the hopes that they will get whisked away to a more lavish lifestyle.
There are no weekends, ballgames, beach days, camping trips or movies at the mall.
Sitting in my closet-sized room at Paddy’s after meeting Lorenzo and Claudia (separately), straining for the airflow from the single fan mounted on the wall, just down the corridor from a cockroach-infested bathroom lacking toilet paper, hand soap or hot water, it hit me just how damn lucky I am. How comfortable my life is, especially at home.
I’ve never had to worry about the simple things many people in Sabang worry about every day. I come from a culture that mostly embraces men and women earning wages that can support a lifestyle that gives us a fighting chance and a little time off to relax. A culture in which being verbally abused at a workplace wouldn’t be accepted. And which not only practices travel and exploration, but encourages it.
I won’t pretend I would have my life any other way; I know how fortunate I am, and my hobbies and indulgences probably won’t change because of this experience. But it does make me think about my general attitude towards those daily annoyances that draw a frown or a honk or the occasional sarcastic comment.
You know, the little things we find ourselves complaining about and taking for granted. They seem more petty after meeting people who seem to be more fulfilled by their place in life, even with so much less.
In the interest of not becoming a broken record (because you’ve read this story a million times), I’ll just leave you with that thought: Maybe life isn’t so bad, and we should spend more time celebrating what we’ve been given and what we’ve earned, rather than fretting over what we haven’t.
Because I spoke with some folks who would really enjoy having those problems we have.