A Girl in Manila

{Advisory: This is a Long Read}

I’ll begin this true story with this famous picture…


I’m sure many of you know this picture well and remember the first time you saw it. Taken in war-torn Afghanistan December, 1984 by Photo-Journalist Steve McCurry, this photograph spoke to the millions who saw it. Myself included.

Nearly 30 years after I had first seen it, this was the first image that flashed through my mind the instant I saw…. A girl in Manila.

I had arrived in Manila three days before, in preparation for my Fiancée’s long awaited K-1 Visa application interview which was to be conducted at the United States Embassy in Manila. As the American petitioner, I wasn’t required to be there for this part of the process, but I’d chosen to accompany her to offer my support, and to demonstrate to Embassy officials the authenticity of our relationship. Proof of a legitimate relationship is the major focus of the K-1 approval process. Over 500 other applicants for American   K-1 Visas were also present the day of our interview, all were female, and all of them were unaccompanied. Only one other couple would appear together.

Situated on the edge of Manila Bay, the area immediately surrounding the US Embassy is a seedy mix of businesses, hotels, and assorted shops that are primarily designed to cater to the parade of International  visitors who frequent the US Embassy in vast numbers, combined with Third World poverty of the worst kind.

A surrealistic sort of place where Starbucks and starvation literally sit side by side, watching the other side of Roxas Boulevard as throngs of Filipino people seeking a better life, stand outside the American Embassy gates in mile long lines; Day after day.

Night View of Roxas Blvd. From The Filipino-American Friendship Footbridge.
                                                      Night View of Roxas Boulevard in Manila.

Knowing this in advance, we had chosen to stay in the nearby Makati District. Makati is the primary financial and business district or (CBD) of the Philippines, and as such is much more suited for the safety and security of International visitors. Although Makati is unlike any other district in the Manila area, the same stark contrast between “International visitors” and the surrounding Third World country is equally as obvious, if not more so. It is a city of many distinct contrasts. A place where bright yellow Ferrari’s speed through miles of Manila slum areas, to have lunch at their favorite trendy restaurant with their fashionable friends; While low paid workers repair the bomb damage caused by the most recent Muslim terror attack in the Mega-Mall next door. In Makati.

Philippines Explosion

“Security” and “safety” are relative terms in the Philippines.

 While security in Makati is more tailored to suit the International crowd, it is also designed to conceal the realities of the extreme poverty that surrounds it. Beggars are forbidden to enter the city proper, armed guards are posted at the entry of all major public buildings, intersections, and entry points, (In Full Disclosure: Armed guards, searches of vehicles and persons, and other strict security measures are commonplace throughout the Philippines to counter widespread Muslim terrorism) the streets are kept clean, traffic is more well regulated, and a concerted effort is made to project a more “modern”or “attractive” image.

Skyscrapers tower overhead interspersed by giant modern banks, super mega-malls, and high-rise residential buildings. And of course, the prices are much higher. Makati is rapidly booming in wealth and growth, the view from our hotel window provided a panoramic view of the impressive Makati skyline. I counted 14 giant skyscrapers under construction, it was truly an astounding sight. A sight that I never expected to see in the Philippines.

Makati City Skyline-Copy

 I was constantly amazed by the extravagance and scale of the expansion in Makati, and I was completely baffled by it as well. I couldn’t understand how a Third World economy could support such rapid growth, much less the expense of things like imported American and European restaurants and luxury items. As an American I was very thankful to have much of what Makati has to offer, the security was a major factor, but so too was the availability of American food.

Greenbelt Mall-Copy

 While having lunch at the Super Mall across the street from our hotel one day, I spotted an obviously American man wearing an unmistakable Texas Longhorns (University of Texas) baseball cap strolling by.

UT Longhorns-Copy

 Being a Native Texan myself, we invited him to join us for coffee (which he respectfully declined) but we did have a brief conversation.

Greenbelt Coffee Shop-Makati

He explained that he had recently been transferred to Makati from Houston, Texas as part of the relocation of the entire operational headquarters of Shell Oil from Houston to Makati. I was rather shocked to hear this for many reasons, Houston has long been known as the Energy Capital of the World. Several other multi-national oil and gas companies are also very active in the Philippines. The elaborate expansion and luxury that has become Makati, was beginning to make more sense.

Palawan Platform

A huge influx of foreign trade and investment is pouring into the Philippines from numerous sources worldwide, and Makati is the epicenter.

But venture outside of the small Makati District, and the reality of Manila quickly rushes in to confront you.

Manila Traffic-Copy

Manila-Streets-Philippines - Copy

After a 2 1/2 year long fulfillment of all the legal requirements and paperwork needed to reach this point, we were finalizing our last steps of the immigration process before boarding a Boeing 737 and a new life together as Man and Wife, in America. Everything, depended on the outcome of this interview. We would spend the next two days resting and preparing before the big day.

The morning of our interview, our concierge had a licensed taxi waiting for us in front of the hotel lobby promptly at 3:30 AM. By 4:00 AM we were standing in line at the first stage entry point of the US Embassy. There were already well over 100 people ahead of us, and the line would soon extend far behind us. Maybe it’s because I’m an American, but as we all stood there in line, it struck me as very strange that no one did much talking. It was still well before sunrise, but the tropical heat of Manila had already enveloped us signaling the hours ahead would only be worse. It was the beginning of a very long and arduous day. A day that I will never forget.

By 10:00 AM or so, we had progressed through three separate stages of security checkpoints and were then issued a small paper stub with our case number printed on it. This allowed us to enter a covered area neatly lined with row after row of chairs, and large ceiling fans to provide much needed circulation.

We would wait there among approximately 500 other people for our number to appear on one of the large digital screens prominently mounted above us. The covered area made the weather tolerable and snacks and cold drinks were available, but we had still not yet gained entry into the newly constructed annex building. The actual US Embassy building itself was located nearby as part of a much older and larger complex, the new annex building we now patiently sat in front of was assigned solely for the purposes of immigration processing. Everything was done in stages, and security was tight throughout.

After a long wait, we finally see our number flashing on the screen. As we proceeded up the steps we were met by a USMC Embassy Guard who verified our names and case number before allowing us to enter the Embassy building. We were greeted just inside the doors by a Filipina assistant who politely asked us to turn over our paperwork, then promptly informed us that the entire United States Embassy complex would be closed for lunch! We were then issued a re-stamped version of the same stub we had received before, which would allow us to exit the US Embassy grounds temporarily to have some lunch at a nearby café, and then return through a predesignated entry point without waiting in line again. The Embassy was emptied, the doors were locked, and all 500 + people in our group were told to return two hours later.

As we exited the Embassy compound, the line we had stood in before sunrise now extended as far as the eye could see. We would walk past them in the opposite direction as we approached the footbridge that crosses the heavily traveled Roxas Boulevard. Standing there under the searing Manila sun, beads of sweat on every brow, each was neatly dressed, and oddly quiet. I could see the stress, and the hope, reflected in each of their faces.

As we climbed the first set of steps of the Filipino-American Friendship Footbridge which crosses Roxas Boulevard, I knew that most of them would not be granted the American Visas they so desperately sought.

Filipino-American Footbridge Complete-Copy

But little did I know, what awaited me on the other side of the bridge was….

A girl in Manila.

This was my second trip to the Philippines, I had been in Manila before, and I had also traveled throughout the southernmost regions of Mindanao. During my first trip to the Philippines, I had seen firsthand for the first time, what true poverty really was.

And for the first time in my life, I fully understood what it really meant to be an American.

I was never afraid to be an American anywhere I went in the Philippines, in many ways I was proud that I was, and I tried to present myself as a good example. But I must admit; I often felt ashamed of myself. Not because I am an American, but because I had taken it for granted.

I never knew poverty, because I am an American. If ever I had a seminal experience, this was mine.

I also now fully understand why so many people all over the world stand in long lines in front of the United States Embassy gates every day. They will stand by the thousands under a blazing sun day after day, clasping folders full of paperwork that they don’t even understand, often only to be rejected.

Just for a single chance to have Freedom.

I had seen many beggars before, and as sad as it may be I had been warned to avoid them when possible, and I did for the most part, but it was very difficult for me to witness or accept. Often against the wise counsel of my in-laws, I couldn’t resist doing what little I could to help those who truly needed it most. As a basic human when you see that kind of suffering and extreme poverty, especially for the first time, caution becomes irrelevant and compassion kicks in. It’s really an automatic response, or at least it is for me.

My Fiancée had previously mentioned some distant cousins who lived in Mati, a hotbed of Abu Sayyaf and NPA terrorist activity. A family of six, they would visit my Fiancee’s home once a year around the week of Christmas to ask for hand-me-down clothing or other unwanted goods, they would come only once a year. Upon each returning visit, they would often be dressed in the best clothing they owned, usually it was the same clothes they had been given the year before. They were humble people who were ashamed to ask for anything, and it showed in their faces. My Fianceé’s family always had boxes awaiting them each year before Christmas.

They lived in a two room dirt floored Nipa hut constructed of bamboo, the thatched roof that covered their small home often leaked tropical rain, turning the dirt floor into mud that squeezed between their toes, and clung to their bare feet. Surrounded by thousands living in the same conditions or worse, hunger is their constant companion.

Again, maybe it’s just because I’m an American, and despite being repeatedly warned of what they referred to as “rebel activity” in the area (ASG – Abu Sayyaf Group Islamic Terrorists) and (NPA – New People’s Army) which specifically targets American and European visitors for kidnapping; I recruited the entire family to help me purchase clothing, shoes, school supplies, groceries and a 100 lb. sack of rice. We then drove for three hours directly into the heart of Abu Sayyaf held territory to deliver the meager supplies to a family that desperately needed them.

S.Mindanao Map-Copy

 The entire Mindanao region is under an ever changing Travel Warning by the U.S. State Department. I was always treated extremely well wherever I went in the Philippines, Filipino’s are the friendliest people I’ve ever known, I never really felt threatened nor unsafe. (Although parts of Manila did concern me) With one exception. The Wet Market in Mati.

We had brought all of the supplies with us on our trip, everything except fresh vegetables and meat. Due to the time and distance involved we planned to top-off our supply list with a last-minute stop at the local Wet Market in Mati before proceeding on to our destination.

Mati Wet Market-Copy

It was my first trip to a Wet Market and it really was quite an experience, the sights and smells were as exciting as the experience itself. I could see the obvious surprise of everyone around me as I browsed the market, Americans are not often seen in Mati, but everyone was as friendly as they were curious about my unexpected visit. With the exception of one rude young man with a cell phone.

As I walked through the market, distracted by the variety of goods and wares on display, I wouldn’t have even noticed him if I hadn’t literally bumped into him. I would soon come to realize that it was he whom had “bumped into” me. I was surprised when we physically walked into each other, it was abrupt and felt harder than the typical bump in a crowded market. When I turned to see him, I could see that his head was down and he held a cell phone in his hands. He appeared to be “texting while walking” but he was walking briskly and never lifted his head nor did he acknowledge our little collision. He just briefly cut his eyes at me as he passed and I could clearly see and sense that his actions were deliberate. Very unusual behavior for a typical Filipino.

Being aware of my surroundings, my first thought was pickpocket. But I knew if that’s what had just happened, he would be very disappointed. I carried nothing with me, not even ID. And I deliberately entered the market unaccompanied while my Fiancee and her family went about the purchasing. They blended in to the local population well and they carried the cash and my passport. No one knew they were connected to me as we went about our business, until we later left together that is. I brushed the incident off as the failed attempt of a small-time pickpocket to exploit what he thought was an easy mark. But my alert level went into the red.

As I approached the next vendors stand (a meat cutter) which was operated by two women, Mother and Daughter I suspected, they both looked directly at me, paused, then turned and nervously walked away. They were not interested in selling me any meat, and I got the message they nervously delivered. I instinctively took stock of my surroundings and immediately noticed other “red flags” nearby.

The rude kid with the cell phone was now positioned near the main entrance of the building, talking as he watched me. A quick glance at the other main entrance confirmed my suspicions, another kid with a cell phone. I immediately knew these were not the tactics of “small-time” local thugs, these were textbook examples of Al Qaeda tactics and training. I then slowly maneuvered myself into position for a strategic exit. I didn’t let on that I knew they were watching me, I just continued to play the part of an “easy mark” until I was in sight of my Fiancée. She was completely unaware of what was happening and I intended to keep it that way. I was aware, that was good enough.

As I considered how best to exit without raising alarm I noticed another red flag. What had been a busy section of the market full of patrons and vendors only minutes before, was now virtually empty. This was the same corner of the market I had just passed through, it was time to make an exit. I had spotted a small exit that was across the market and near where we had parked, with eye contact and a tip of my head, I subtly motioned for my Fiancée and her family to join me. I then turned and briskly walked between several tightly packed rows of vendors towards the small unguarded exit. With Fiancée and family in tow from the other side of the market, we made a rapid exit and headed for the parking spot which also obscured us from the two “observers” stationed in the market.

Although everyone was surprised by my sudden urgency, they followed my lead and no one was aware of what had just happened. We quickly loaded the vehicle  and drove away undetected to our destination without further incident. I was relieved on both counts.

The guys in the market didn’t expect our arrival that day and they were not well organized, but had I given them more time, they might have been. Situational awareness can make the difference between life and death in many places around the world, Mati is no different.

Widespread corruption and Islamic Terrorism are everyday facts of life in the Philippines. The overwhelming immensity of the poverty in the Philippines is obvious to all, but it is never easy to look at. Least of all through the eyes of those who live it every day.

I thank God every day for being born an American. Because now, I know what it truly means.

{Note: And please pardon the intrusion. But as I wrote this, I had a revelation that shook me to my core. I feel it is important to share it now, so that you too may someday be spared the same painful realizationSometimes, the double-edged sword of the truth can be merciful.}

Present day 2015. While writing the above account of what I thought at the time was a “charitable act”, I suddenly remembered. As we walked past, I remembered the look on a girl’s face .

Only this time, it was a girl in Mati.

Our arrival had been immediately noticed by everyone in the slum area simply because we had arrived in a new SUV, cars of any kind are not often seen there. Especially not those who come bearing gifts. A few curious residents, mostly children, did gather around the vehicle as we unloaded the supplies we had brought for my Fiancée’s relatives, but the majority were watching from behind places unknown to us. But they were indeed watching.

And that is what I realized while I was writing this.

They were watching us.

We had to make our way through several narrow passageways that were lined on both sides by rows of interconnected Nipa huts. The eyes of their inhabitants watched from every doorway or makeshift window as we paraded through their homes. I was aware that my appearance as a six-foot white American man would draw much attention, but that was true everywhere I went in the Philippines. What I failed to realize at the time, and much to my own dismay now,

I failed to understand what it meant for all of those people to watch us, as we carried arms full of basic essentials that they themselves, would never see.

I had expected the narrow passageway to be crowded with other people who live there, but apparently news travels very fast in a small, tightly knit community like that. Most of the locals had scurried behind the scanty doors of their homes before we approached.

Save for one young girl, about five years old.

As we walked, I looked up to see her leaning against the front wall of her home on the left side of the narrow passageway. Standing there on one leg with her other leg crossed in front and resting on her toe tips, arms crossed across her chest, eyes defiantly peering directly into mine only feet away, with what I perceived to be a look of both curiosity and anger on her young face. I had recently seen that same look, a few days before in Manila. I was taken aback by this but continued walking, as we passed her it was obvious that her posture was deliberately intended to provoke recognition. Her eyes were locked on mine until I passed, but she never spoke a word.

Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I will do things much differently the next time I naively attempt to be “charitable”. And I realize now what I should have done then.

Everything should have been for everyone. And there should have been much more to give.

I will never again allow myself to misguidedly cause shame or suffering in the name of charity. It is now a bitter lesson learned. A life lesson that has now been shared, with you.

That innocent little girl in Mati was the only local who defiantly stood in the passageway that day. Looking back on it now, I know why. I will never forget the look on her face. Nor her innocent bravery.

Just like I will never forget the look on the face of the girl I had seen in Manila.

~ Back in Manila ~

As we walked across the footbridge that crosses Roxas Blvd. I was a little surprised that the traffic was light, I had almost grown accustomed to the overcrowding and tightly packed walkways that are so common there. And then just before we reached the other side, I was stopped dead in my tracks when I looked up and saw a girl in Manila.

It all happened in an instant. It’s one of those very rare and very real times in anyone’s life when everything just seems to synchronize down to one singular point all at one time. Like gravity has pinned you to the ground, and there is nothing else in the world outside of the glance you exchange. It’s an experience one never forgets.

First, I see these eyes, a girl’s eyes, piercing and focused like a laser, she was looking directly into my eyes. I hadn’t really seen her face yet, just those eyes, and my first sight of her piercing eyes instantly caused the long forgotten Afghan girl picture to flash through my mind. It was only a matter of a second or two, but it felt like an eternity. I must painfully admit that my next thought was, “I wish I had a camera“. The instant I saw her piercing eyes for the first time, I knew it would’ve been the same kind of picture that Steve McCurry had taken many years before in Afghanistan. Then and now, I realized the futility of it. I had the camera in my iPhone and for a split second I even considered using it, but the look in her blazing eyes made it impossible for me to further embarrass her by taking such a photograph.

A professional photographer literally lives for the chance at a shot like this, they would have gotten the shot because they would have immediately recognized the power of it, they train themselves to be impartial observers and capture the raw emotions of a dramatic scene. A professional would have taken the shot because it told a million stories in an instant, it was literally “the shot of a lifetime”. But I am no professional, I felt ashamed for even considering taking the photo at all.

Keep in mind this is all happening within a matter of a few seconds, hundreds of thoughts and images are flashing through my mind, and in this brief period of time I have still not yet actually looked at the face of the girl, only her eyes. Immediately after being embarrassed to admit to myself that my first impulse was to take a picture of what I was seeing, I was profoundly and immediately humbled. In a strange sort of reverse order effect, suddenly it was I who was ashamed. I was literally ashamed to even walk past this poor girl. Instead of my phone, I reached for my pocket. That was the only thing I could think of to do, I was suddenly afraid to dare pass her without offering whatever I had in my pocket. I only had a few Pesos at the time, I remember feeling even more ashamed by that sad fact.

As I stood there with what must have been a look of utter shock on my distinctly American face, and again with a flood of thoughts and emotions rushing in all at one time, I actually looked at the girl from Manila for the first time. And I saw her face. But only for an instant.

As quickly as the glance itself had occurred, she turned her face away in shame. I could no longer see her blazing eyes, only the shape of her tattered body crumpled upon the cement and steel steps. She held a dirty Styrofoam cup in her right hand with her arm extended, but she turned her face away. A whole new flood began to pour in. All in an instant.

As I stood there transfixed, I visually saw a flood of emotions literally scream from her tortured face. She wore a filthy scarf to cover her head and conceal her face, not because she was Muslim, but because she was ashamed. Hidden underneath the rags she wore was a girl of obvious beauty, the kind of beauty that gets girls like her hurt every day in the mean streets of Manila. The trauma of that ugly reality was only one of the many distinct emotions that “screamed” at me in a singular brief glance from a girl in Manila.

She had positioned herself at the top level of the steps, I assume this was a prime position to be in as a beggar. And I’m sure she had to fight to get it. Americans are known to frequent this footbridge, she was not there by accident. She sized me up long before I ever saw her, she saw me as soon as I entered the other side of the bridge. She watched me walking hand in hand with my  Fiancée and I’m sure she thought of me as an “easy mark” because she knew exactly what we were doing there.

But the instant I saw her eyes, I also immediately knew that she was jealous of us both. I could see it in her eyes, and that was when I became aware that “she” was still in there. Buried deep inside herself was the girl she once was, a girl who was just like any other girl, replete with dreams and hopes of a better life, in a better place. A girl who still had the capacity to be jealous of what she did not have herself, and still had the capacity to feel ashamed.

She” was still in there! Her eyes screamed it! And even though she hid her face in shame, I caught a glimpse of her through her eyes. The same kind of eyes I had seen in the photo of the girl in Afghanistan many years before, and the brave little girl in Mati.

True poverty has many faces, you too will know it when you see it. I’ve seen it many times in many places, but none more so than through the eyes of….a girl in Manila.


2 thoughts on “A Girl in Manila

  1. I was first intrigued by the title of your blog. I believe in love, even though I’m turning into something of a biddy. The title is beautiful in a profound way. I thought I’d skim through and see what I could see. I had no idea I’d so quickly stumble upon a story such as this. My heart is broken for those young ladies. But I feel inspired by the defiance of the one standing against the wall, and hopeful for the one on the stairs. Adversity does not strengthen everyone, imaging the fire in their eyes, I felt ashamed at how soft I am should I encounter the smallest wrinkle in my day. I imagine that those two are going to stick with me a while.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Elle,

      Thank you!

      I am beyond flattered that you took the time to read this story and found a way to comprehend my poorly presented story line. I am however thankful and appreciative that those two girls will remain with you forever, they and millions of others just like them deserve to be remembered…and I think they would be proud to know that they will serve as vivid reminders to all who read their story.

      They will forever remind us all that, “There but for the grace of God, go I”.

      Thank you Elle, sincerely.

      Liked by 2 people

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