Street Rats

In the Disney movie Aladdin, the idea of being a “street rat” was glorified as an honorable way of making a living, with a code of ethics and a comfortable life.  In reality, things don’t work out quite that way.  I’ve seen poor people on the street here in the Philippines and they don’t look like they’re having quite as good a time as Aladdin was.  They’re dirty, they’re hungry and they live in a way that’s dangerous because at any moment of the night someone could take their lives.  It’s not that adventurous when you think about it.  It’s a torment that must be a horrible way to live.  Even at my worst, I’ve always had a roof over my head and a little something to eat every day.  So, I have pity for these people when I see them in the street.

In the Philippines, and perhaps everywhere, that pity has to be tempered by wariness about the real nature of the person holding the cup or the annoying children that flock around me like little vultures.  Here in the Philippines there are organized begging rackets where beggars are put out on corners like a pimp would set out prostitutes in other parts of the world.  The individuals doing the begging are made to look more forlorn than they may actually be, and some of them may have homes that they go home to in the evening.  Most people probably learned about this activity by watching the movie Slumdog Millionaire.  The same practices you see in that film are employed in the Philippines.  So, you can’t be too free with your money when you see these types of people coming up to you in the road, or holding a cup out to you in front of a store.

The ones that really annoy me are the groups of kids that try to surround you and start asking for money.  They even go so far as to start grabbing at your clothing.  My guess is that this is to distract you while their friends start fishing in your pockets for whatever they can grab and run with.  When I first visited the Philippines in 2008 I had a lot of patience for this sort of behavior, to the point that it annoyed my wife.  She always shooed them away as fast as possible.  I didn’t really care.  My attitude about it has changed now though.  I suppose that when you visit a place, those minor inconveniences seem quaint and entertaining, but when you actually move to that place and you know it’s something you’ll have to deal with on a repeating basis, the patience you had before wears thin quickly.  Now, when these kids surround me and start asking for money I give them a very gruff, ‘”No!” and keep walking.  If they persist, or start grabbing at my clothing, I push them away physically and tell them to “Fuck off”.  That message normally gets through to them and they break off their pursuit, often accompanied by a string of expletives in Tagalog, the local language.  I suppose that they think that just by being white, I must have tons of cash and I’m just holding out on them.

If you think that’s a little rough, given that these are kids, keep in mind that it’s typically organized.  They do it every day.  They beg as a job, rather than out of necessity, and I’d rather come across as a jackass than have my belongings stolen from my pockets while trying to play nice.  Life in the Philippines isn’t just hard because the money is worth less, it’s hard because you have to be hard to survive when you’re out of the house.  No one has bottomless pockets and every peso counts.

3 Days in Kuala Lumpur: Part 6: Day 1

Our first day in Kuala Lumpur was really more like a half-day, if that.  We arrived at the hotel around 3 pm and after checking-in and getting our belongings situated, we went out to look for food.  We hadn’t had anything to eat since before our flight, and that was a pretty light breakfast/lunch.

On the way to the hotel, we had seen a Kenny Rogers.  The last time we’d eaten at a Kenny Rogers was on a day trip to Johor Bahru, which is a Malaysian border-town just across the water from Singapore.  The food there was pretty good, and we didn’t want to take any risks.  We were tired and just wanted a good solid meal.  So, we went back the way we’d come and found the Kenny Rogers.

Our meals were good, and the service was tolerable.  I still can’t get over how tasty those muffins are!

After we ate we went into the shopping centers along that same road to find toiletries.  We had to buy soap, shampoo, and some toothpaste.  My wife also picked up some lotion.  We didn’t bring any of that stuff with us, because replacing it in KL was cheaper than paying the fee to check in a bag.  We didn’t want to risk having to throw out our larger, more expensive stuff from home at a security checkpoint.  Besides the toiletries, we also got some water to take up to the room with us.  I doubt the tap water in Kuala Lumpur is drinkable, though I’m just guessing on that one.  Plus, I got a pack of cigarettes.  It was nice to buy a reasonably priced pack for a change.  After the conversion, the pack we bought there in KL was only 3.74 SGD.  In Singapore we have to pay 10.60 SGD at the cheapest, because of all of the taxes.

[Update: When we packed to head back to Singapore my wife put the small travel sized stuff into her carry-on bag and there was no problem bringing it on the plane.]

We hadn’t had much sleep the night before, because we were excited about our flight, so we went directly back to our hotel, washed up and got in bed.  I was so tired that I dozed off while waiting on my turn to shower.  The rest was good.  There was something about that closed-in room, with no window, that made us feel cut off from the world and we were really able to get some solid sleep.

At about 11 pm our stomachs woke us up and we went out looking for food.  On our way back to the hotel from Kenny Rogers we had seen people pulling carts out and setting up stalls in the center of the street.  As we went out again to find food, those same stalls were being torn down.  There was trash all over the place.  It looked like we had missed out on a lot of fun and we were anxious to check it out the following night.

We weren’t sure we’d find anything open, besides McDonalds, but we got lucky.  There were quite a few restaurants still serving customers.  In fact, it was more like they were trying to hook in customers.  As we walked down the street, a server from each restaurant would dart out towards us and press a menu into our hands and start talking about how great the food there is, how low the prices are, and what a good deal it is.  Some would try to entice us by telling us they had cold beer.  It was interesting, but after checking a few menus we realized the prices were about the same (+ or – 1 ringgit) and they were all “tourist friendly”, as in they were overpriced for the country.  We expected that though, since we weren’t straying too far from the hotel at that time of night.  We picked a restaurant and sat down.

Overall, the food was decent.  The fried rice really stood out though.  It was just like the fried rice I was used to in the US.  If I’d known it would be like that, I’d have asked for a larger plate and ate it by itself.

After our meal, we treated ourselves to a cold bottle of Tiger beer (kind of amusing, since we had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Tiger Airways).  Again, it was over-priced, but what’re you gonna do when you’re eating in a tourist area?  It was too late to go anywhere else.

I suppose you could call it free entertainment, even though it was annoying, but as we sat there smoking and drinking our beer, some guy walked up and asked us for a “dollar”.  I was kinda surprised, since the local currency is called ringgits.  I told him I didn’t have any money for him and he moved on to the next table, where he tried his begging on an English girl.  I listened in and heard her waffling with some excuse, instead of telling him to get lost like I did.  She said something about only having “pounds”, because she was leaving for England the next day.  He kept up that way, moving from table to table, getting turned down.  I heard one woman tell him she would give him a cigarette, but not money.  She sounded Australian.  I think this guy had a run of bad luck in the tourists he targeted, because everyone in the restaurant came off sounding as though this wasn’t the first time they’d experienced this sort of behavior and they weren’t going to fall for it.

Here’s a picture of the bum at the table where the Aussie girl offered him a cigarette:

Still, the meal was satisfying and once we’d eaten we went back to the hotel room, showered again, and then watched some TV before calling it a night.  The TV there is really great stuff.  I mean, it’s not great because it’s good; it’s great because it’s funny.  You may have read about the Indian music videos I mentioned in the last post.  Besides that, there was a really funny Indian movie on.  It was overly cheesy, with bad effects, and poor quality film.  We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but we had a blast watching it for a while.  We also got to watch some… interesting… shows on the E! channel.  One was about home redecorating.  That wasn’t too bad!  The other stuff about expensive weddings, society girls, and the sort of crap I could’ve done without, but our viewing options were limited.

At about 3 am we turned off the TV and went to sleep.  Day 1 over!