Denver Bar Association
March 2011
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A Flight Through the Phillipine Islands (Without an Umbrella)

by Marshall Snider

U mbrellas don’t fly in the Philippine Islands. Well, they really don’t fly anywhere, unless you’re Mary Poppins, but in the Philippines, this statement must be taken literally. On a recent trip to this Southeast Asian nation of more than 7,000 islands, my umbrella was confiscated at the security check for a domestic flight. I have taken an umbrella through security in airports all over the world, but this was the first time I was told that an umbrella was an implement of destruction and could not board an airplane. 

Umbrella seizure was not my only unique experience in the Philippines. I traveled to the capitol city of Manila on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Judicial College to train government electric utility regulators and utility company employees in dispute resolution techniques. At first blush, this appeared to be a challenging task: how do you teach the “Getting to Yes” concept of negotiation and mediation in a culture in which the word “yes” can have a variety of meanings, ranging from “OK” to “I’ll think about it” to “I don’t want to disappoint you, so I’ll say yes, but really, there’s no bloody way?”

A jeepney near Lake Taal and the Taal Volcano, near the town of Tagaytay—about 35 miles south of Manila.

Horse-drawn carriages in Vigan, outside of Saint Paul Cathedral.

My fear of these cultural challenges turned out to be ill-founded. The Philippine people I dealt with were quite attuned to Western concepts of dispute resolution. They have a marvelous sense of humor, so the feeble jokes and cartoons I used to illustrate various teaching points were well received. (When I tried to describe who Calvin and Hobbes were—to introduce a cartoon that made a point about compromise—the audience immediately stopped my explanation. “Calvin and Hobbes” appears in their morning newspaper, just as here.) Filipinos also love to act—all of the role-plays they engaged in during the training were conducted with gusto and drama, with the hearty support, appropriate laughter, and applause from the rest of the group.

To add to my comfort level, Filipinos are without doubt the most polite and accommodating people I have ever met. My wife and I were greeted respectfully everywhere we went with a melodious “Good morning, sir” or “Good afternoon, ma’am” constantly hitting our ears (“ma’am” was pronounced “mom,” making us wonder whose mother they were constantly greeting). Everyone is addressed by a title, such as “Engineer Reyes” or “Attorney Lucero.” If I did not have a specific professional title, I would have been called “Sir Marshall,” regardless of the absence of a knighthood by some queen.


¿Habla Español?

An interesting aspect of the work in Manila was the Spanish names of the participants. In a country where Spanish is not spoken, I was looking at a room full of Asian people with names like Alberto Martínez, Federico Reyes, and Maria Corazón Gutierrez. Spanish colonial rule in these islands ended in 1898, but with the exception of a few words that have crept into the national language of Tagalog, Spanish is not spoken in the Philippines. Still, people, street names, and geographic places retain their Spanish appellations. Sitting in an outdoor café on cobblestoned Avenida de los Reyes in Vigan, a northern Philippine city with some of the country’s best remaining examples of Spanish colonial architecture, we had to constantly remind ourselves that we were not in Mexico or Central America.

This absence of the Spanish language is an interesting facet of Philippine culture. Despite more than 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, and less than 50 years as a colony of the United States, English is the official language of government, business, and education.  Although most people speak Tagalog or a regional dialect as a first language, they intersperse their conversation with English words in an entertaining fashion. It is not unusual to hear two Filipinos conversing, with one sentence in Tagalog, the next in English, and the third sentence combining the two languages. Television and print advertisements provide classic examples of this linguistic mix. For example, a billboard advertising international telephone service was primarily in Tagalog, but in the middle it announced in English that calls were “As low as 2.50 pesos per minute” (that’s right, the currency is still the peso).


Skip the Food, Take a Ride

The absence of spoken Spanish is not the only way to remind yourself that you are not in Mexico. Just try the local food. Ever notice that among all the delicious foreign cuisines available in the United States, you never see a Filipino restaurant? There are many lovely aspects to visiting these islands, but food is not one of them. After sampling several Filipino dishes our first few days in Manila, we reverted to pizza, burgers, and Thai food.

Modes of transportation are another clue that this is not Mexico. In smaller cities, a few horse-drawn carts take the place of taxis, but the major form of public transport is the tricycle. No, this is not your kid’s three-wheeler—it is a motorcycle or human-powered bicycle with a very tiny side car. Getting two average-sized Westerners like my wife and me into one of these things, (along with our packs) was akin to a thousand circus clowns getting into a Volkswagen Beetle; even without luggage it was a tight squeeze. Still, you can travel the length of a small town for less than a dollar.

In larger cities, the jeepney keeps people moving. This contraption combines the front end of a World War II-era Jeep with a pickup truck bed, with bench seats along the sides. Each jeepney is brightly painted in its own unique design and theme—it is as if there are thousands of mobile art exhibits cruising the streets of Manila. Jeepneys provide cheap, if crowded, transportation throughout Philippine cities. Given the constant gridlock and resultant aggressive driving in Manila, it is humorous to see the “How’s My Driving?” sign painted on the back of every jeepney (with a telephone number that I’m guessing will never be answered).

The geography of the Philippines is as varied as the languages. Whether your preference is for mountains, volcanoes, white sand beaches, rice terraces, or mega malls in crowded cities, it’s all there. The culture, people, architecture, language, and physical beauty of this country make for a unique travel experience. D

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