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  • Valerie Stunning

Hindsight Is A Dish Best Served Cold (Greetings from the Philippines)

Someone who was trying to sell me something once, paid me a compliment by saying I was a weapon. Having built an entire career out of engaging conversation and paying people compliments, I am typically a tough sell on flattery. But visuals are my kryptonite, and if the stars are aligned use of strong imagery can act as a speak easy entrance to my skeptical mind. 

I disliked the messenger but took to the message. Mostly because I interpreted being called “a weapon” as being atypical, underestimated, and dangerous. It was a solid line and confirmed my bias. Who doesn’t like to be considered a little dangerous?

Today as I write this, from the second floor of an Angeles City cafe, squeezed into a wooden booth that was intended for a population that does not woman spread or grow past 5’3... I am a dulled weapon. A dulled gluten infested weapon. If I were a knife you’d get better use of me by throwing me at the person you were trying to stab. 

To be fair, I knew this was likely to happen, it is the Philippines after all. And after years of working to holistically heal my body of chronic inflammation and G.I. issues, I know the first thing to go when I’ve been gluten-ed is my clarity, focus, and an ability to think objectively. Some call it brain fog, but catchy phrases are like assholes, everyone’s got one. Or something like that.

I ended up in the Philippines because Boo had a work trip and now that I’m no longer at the mercy of the strip club’s “busy season” (read about my stripper retirement here) I was fortunate to tag along. After all I could contemplate my next career move and vacillate between celebrating the end of an era and existential crisis from anywhere. Mabuhay! 

Because business, this trip is taking place in metropolitan Philippines not remote island Philippines. Which is a blessing because the archipelago this time of year is an absolute inferno, and I need to be indoors with reliable AC. So far I have learned that the thing about being in the cities here is once you leave designated tourist areas, you are confronted with the the day to day survival of people living in a developing country with a GDP per capita of about $4000.00 Compared to the US’s GDP per capita of about $75,000. 

It is a far cry from the turquoise waters, frolicking bikini clad babes, and jungle adventure bros that travel magazines and influencers' social media posts might have you believe is the entire experience of the PI. I was also mentally prepared for this. But it doesn’t seem to matter how prepared you think you are to witness extreme poverty, seeing it IRL and sensing the humans it directly impacts is always hard to hold.

What I wasn’t prepared for was just how much this heat would kick my ass. I thought after 10 years of living in the Mojave Desert, one of the hottest places on Earth, that I could handle heat. But not this heat. Have you ever been so hot that you unknowingly black out in a fit of anxiety and near combustible rage? Only to realize once you’ve cooled down that you didn’t hate yourself, your life, and everyone in it, you were just heat exhausted.

It’s so damn hot even the locals are cursing the conditions. The only people outside are dumb tourists, folks going to and from buildings or cars, construction workers, and Edward, a 62 year old Filipino man with a coiffed bouffant and an empty cell phone holder clipped to his belt. 

Edward was kind enough to corner me at the park as I was making my way to this cafe so he could tell me his entire life story. Maybe it’s my tattoos or the leopard print shirt, but Edward knew I wasn't from there, and as he approached me demanded to know where I came from. Over the course of our conversation I learned Edward divorced his wife because all she did was talk, and that his daughter was currently trying to get a visa to work as a butcher in Canada. I may have told him I was Canadian. 

That said, since we arrived to the Pearl of the Orient* my biggest complaint, besides the heat and the jet lag (I haven’t slept a full night in 5 days) is that there has been a trace amount of gluten in pretty much everything I’ve consumed. The mineral water, gluten. The papaya, gluten. The watered down tequila and herbal cigarette (that garnished a cocktail at a jazz joint in Manila), gluten. *Pearl of the Orient is a nickname for the Philippines bestowed by some Spaniard Missionary in the 1700’s and later adapted into the Philippines national anthem.

Admiral Hotel. Manila, Philippines

The point is, my precious western gut is struggling to not be that precious western tourist who just can’t deal. Yet here I am throwing back handfuls of digestive aid, searching for the traveler I once knew my twenty something self to be.

The wide-eyed young woman who could show up with nothing more than a backpack and sheer will to a developing country and thrive. The one who could carry on in spite of 400° weather, eat whatever she wanted, and filter the local way of life through a nonchalant lens without internalizing it. The one who would look disapprovingly at the other Americans she observed abroad who appeared unable and unwilling to participate in local cuisine and customs. 

As I suck down the last of this iced peanut butter soy latte, trying to focus in spite of an indoor temperature of what’s got to be 106° and the aroma of human excrement wafting from a modern looking restroom with archaic plumbing and zero ventilation, I think it’s safe to say… that bitch is gone. And good riddance!

Twenty something traveler me was new to the world but somehow above it all. She thrived on calling out supposed bias in others but never considering a reality where multiple truths exist, or gasp, that she may have been privy to a partial truth of a situation. Or no truth at all... Between the heat and the brain fog I could not with her amateur disdain and self righteousness. It was fun while she lasted, but buhhh-bye.

This cafe’s stench coupled with the overall heat and humidity brings up memories of when I went to Cuba in 2017. The friends I travelled with had planned to explore both Havana and Trinidad, but I came down with travelers flu two days after we arrived and was only able to experience Havana. 

Being in Cuba was the first time I had ever been to a country where the GDP per capita was only a sliver of what it is in the US. It was also the first time I observed how failed governments blatantly ignore general public health and safety, and hoard resources at the expense of their constituents livelihood. (I know from living in poor urban areas in the US that even here an obvious disparity exists with what low income neighborhoods lack in comparison to middle and upper class neighborhoods. But Cuba gave me a new perspective on what we in prosperous countries consider poor.) 

Based on what I learned from the film Scarface, high school history class, and the internet, I had known better than to have grand visions of opulence for the place. But I naively hadn’t considered that basic infrastructure such as running water, safely constructed buildings, and city sanitation were emblems of being rich. 

I remember roaming the capital’s streets and being taken aback by the juxtaposition of state wealth and civilian poverty. Havana is the most populated city in Cuba with about 2 million people, and there in the city center, a lot of the apartments barely stood. I saw collapsing roofs, places without front doors, and in general the kind of shoddy infrastructure that would have deemed a building condemned in a wealthier country. The occupants of these apartments, adults and children alike, many without shoes, crowded around doorways and flowed into the streets. Some folks were sitting and shooting the breeze, others were hawking whatever they could, and a couple hollered at the gringa strolling by.

Decaying matter and trash accumulated along the curb, and there was a noticeable squish beneath my sneaker of whatever gunk hadn’t properly drained into the sewers. Which now collected in the crevices of the cobblestone. It smelled the way I imagine a hospital waste bin smells after fermentation. 

Every so often I’d walk past a gleaming white government building standing proudly erect. Their properties showed no signs of decay and there was no trash. They all appeared to have doors and roofs, and to be in comparatively pristine conditions. I wondered what the workers inside were wearing. Did they have shoes? Did they go home to dilapidated remnants of what was once a an apartment building?

I left Cuba feeling the same way I’d eventually feel when I left Morocco, parts of Colombia, and likely the same way I’ll feel leaving the Philippines. With a checked sense of privilege.

Something my twenty something traveler self was incapable of.

Seafood Kare-Kare. A local dish from the Pampanga Region, the culinary capital of the Philippines.

When I left the US for the first time I had the tolerance for diversity and street smarts of a kid who grew up with multi-cultural exposure. But even so, all I knew about the world when I ventured off was still only derived from the limited experience of having ever lived between northern New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York. 

It took me one passport stamp to pick up on the reputation American tourists have for being entitled, ignorant, and at times sloppy. We request chicken fingers and soda on foreign menus, rarely learn the 101’s of a nation’s spoken language, and don shorts and flip flops everywhere. In a historical plaza packed with multi-national visitors, 9 out of 10 times Americans are critiqued as the ratched ones. 

I remember feeling deeply embarrassed by this revelation. Being relegated to such stigma would have devastated me. I may have been an amateur traveller, but I desperately wanted to prove myself as an un-American American. Cool and worldly in ways the others weren’t. 

To overcompensate for this insecurity I adopted the habit of leaning on my niche exposure to various ethnicities, races, and immigrants back home as some kind of international affairs degree. As if somehow growing up in a melting pot gave me license to critique or be dismissive of the social and political climate of whatever country I was in.

Even if my opinions were in agreement with the local I was talking to, what did I really know? And how could I? I wasn’t from there. 

It could be argued that’s probably the most American thing I could have done in spite of my effort to be above our ratched reputation. I wish I would have asked more questions and passed less judgement. Or had been able to sit with the disillusionment of the world not living up to its idealized version in my head. But hindsight is a dish best served cold. Or something like that. 

I will say after fourteen years and more than twenty countries traveled, I no longer have the convenience of delusion. It has been proven time and time again that running our mouths about things we don’t really understand is not a uniquely American characteristic. Just ask the Swedish guy Boo and I recently met at our hotel bar. 

The Swede (let’s call him) appeared to be about late forties to mid fifties and was in the PI visiting his wife’s family. Born and raised in Sweden, he also held a German passport, and had spent a good amount of his adult life doing business and living across Asia. Which apparently made him an expert on all things America. It took about four whole minutes of us conversing before the Swede’s initial quippy banter turned into impassioned Eurosplaining: How, Where, Why, and When Americans gets it wrong. 

My favorite part of the diatribe was when the Swede lost track of his point and began peppering his one sided argument with the US television, film, and pop culture references he adored. I found his internal conflict of being deeply influenced by US culture but feeling a need to take an “anti” stance against US politics and how Americans live their lives, interesting. 

My least favorite part was when he invoked his own misogyny, racism, and xenophobia to draw parallels between what he believes is the current downfall of Europe to the US. If it weren’t all so unremarkably cliche, I might have felt compelled to push back. Instead I listened, and occasionally interjected to ask why he believed what he did. Because the news and social media, of course

This interaction left me wondering about the fine line between observing and being curious about why things are the way they are, and writing off an entire population because of stances we feel we must take. It's a line that seems to blur based on whatever our lens of the truth is.

Is it a lens of ignorance and idealism due to youth or inexperience? Is it a lens of inherent privilege that citizens of wealthy nations will never unknow? Is it a lens controlled by for-profit companies who strategically manipulate content to increase advertising dollars while padding their bottom lines with our outrage?

Sometimes it seems in order to qualify in taking resolute stances when talking to someone about their country’s political, societal, or cultural affairs, all we need is to also be from a nation with a horrific history of dehumanization, colonization, and exploitation. The selective memory has a way of automatically kicking in, allowing us to look down from our high horse as we tell people all about themselves. 

Looking around this Angeles City cafe, I see teenagers taking selfies, a group of young professionals sporting khakis and lanyards having a meeting, and a couple of construction workers seeking refuge from the blistering heat. The swamp cooler in the corner of the room is struggling to keep everyone from blacking out and murdering each other. A week of travel between two Philippine cities does not make me an expert on anything Philippines, yet I get the feeling there’s not a person in this room who would ever feel so entitled to tell me about myself. 

Crabs N Crack. Angeles City, Philippines.

**I am taking the Summer off. Next blog post: September 18.


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