What We Can Learn from Visiting “Developing” Countries

playingI visited the Philippines – mostly Manila – over the last couple weeks and was impressed with the life there on a number of fronts. I stayed with a fairly well-off family in Makati, a central area and business district in Manila. Here are some of my takeaways from the experience.

dinner tableHospitality

This is what the dining table looked like every morning, afternoon, and evening. To say we were well-fed would be understatement. I put on 3kg on the 9-day trip and not just from 3am Ube ice cream and an epic halo halo that no one would help me with.1 Many traditionally-minded cultures place great significance on how well they care for guests and the Philippines is no exception. Our hosts prepared meals, washed our clothes, ferried us around town, taught us to cook the local cuisine, let us usurp their kitchen to cook some of our favorites, and even bought us gifts.

Though this level of pampering softened us for the harsh return to self-sufficiency back home, it made our vacation exceedingly awesome. In fact, it let us have a vacation, in the true sense of the word. It was an inspiration for how to treat guests in the future, and we would all do well to remember the nearly-lost art of traditional hospitality.

family reunionFamily

Closely related to caring for guests is the reverence for family that the people in the Philippines hold. Why do Western families pride themselves so much on separation and independence? We force our newborns into separate rooms at the ripe age of one week, ship them off to school from 3 to when they are ready to leave for college, and then see them at Christmas or Thanksgiving annually for their adult lives.

Not in the Philippines. The house we visited consisted of a grandmother, her daughter, the daughter’s niece, and two helpers, one of whom had been with the family for forty years. This type of extended family cohabitation makes so much more sense in terms of conservation and familial care compared to our Western model, where all of these people would live in separate abodes, even in the same city. Though self-reliance is certainly important and something I pride myself on, we don’t need to sacrifice this to practice an open-door policy with our families, friends, and even the wider community.


conservationThough wealthy by Philippines standards, our hosts were paragons of conservation of food, water, and energy. Food, though, abundant, didn’t go to waste. Uneaten food made the rounds through next meals and new recipes until it was eaten. Egg shells became fertilizer.2

They hardly used electricity from what I could tell (though we did visit in the “cool” period of the year), relying on breeze through the patio doors for cooling and sun for light. At night a couple fluorescent bulbs helped guide the way, and there was an air conditioner in the guest bedroom, which we used, guiltily. They had no central hot water heater, but did have a small one attached to one of their showers.

Their water use was the most impressive. They had a rain collection tank with simple coal filtration. Their shower had buckets to collect water and reuse for bathing and cleaning. They set up their washing machine to send the spent soap water to a separate basin, which they then used to wash rags and mop the patio floor. Pretty efficient!

philippines pollutionThe Flip Side

Of course it’s not all sunshine and smiles in the Philippines. The diet lands on both sides of the coin – while there is a major emphasis on home cooking and people are disciplined in the quantity and times they eat, the diet is heavily weighted toward meat and animal products. The rich overeat in order to become portly as a status symbol, while the poor remain fit and thin but only because they can’t afford to buy enough food.

Then there’s the air, which is polluted enough to outweigh the cheap cost of living in a place like Manila. And there is the cultural divide between haves and have-nots, which binds the latter group into a form of indentured servitude, working long hours for minimal pay just to make ends meet. Regrettably, this divide is accepted as the natural order by both groups.

verdictThe Verdict

As always, take the good and leave the bad. The emphasis in the Philippines on caring for guests and family, and using resources efficiently is inspiring, and I hope to carry those practices with me wherever I am. If I ever do live in the Philippines, or any “growth” country, I would look outside of the congested city centers, cook my own food, and work on educating the people so as to close the gap between haves and have-nots. Then I would be left with all the good and none of the ill. Given the much cheaper cost of living, it’s something to consider as I move forward in this blue belt life.

Now I’d like to hear from you – am I too negative as always on Western values? Too positive on “developing” countries’? What experiences do people have of living in each? Let us know in the comments!

1 btw anyone visiting the Philippines will want to check out Kanin Club, a restaurant serving traditional Filipino cuisine at good prices – and they have a solid list of vegetarian selections, rare for any restaurant or household there.
2 they actually didn’t compost scraps and waste, which I thought was curious given that their outdoor area was full of plants.
3 a/c is one area the Philippines needs to improve on outside the home – they blast it unnecessarily in malls, planes, and cars