It has been about 6 weeks since I decided to stop biking and go to an orphanage in the Philippines. There is nothing like spending time with those children that puts perspective back in your life and I am now refreshed and ready to go again.
One of the highlights for me was taking a trip back to Tacloban where I spent almost 6 months last year. As I had noted earlier the children are not actually orphans but have been admitted to the Missionaries of Charity due to severe malnutrition. It is hard to understand how in 2012 and with so much wealth and prosperity that there are parents who cannot afford the 50 cents or less it cost to provide their children with rice and fish. I would often hold the young kids and think about the latest fighter jet or warship being built that could feed thousands of children for a year. Billions of dollars are spent on arms yet the defenseless kids go hungry. Trying to rid the world of poverty is a nice goal that is often repeated but the reality is far different and things are getting worse despite the overall increase in wealth. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
The children I worked with in Tacloban were all sent home at Christmas but a few were brought back as they were still not strong enough to manage without assistance. There was a set of twin girls; Angel and April that I was very fond of and heard were still at the orphanage. They are 2 years old and I wondered if they would remember me after being gone since Christmas. I walked in the door and April was sitting on the floor and she started making a noise and walked towards me. I lifted her up and gave her a big hug and she was beaming and slapping me on the back. It was a moment I will never forget. I then walked to find Angel and she also remembered me so I spent the next few hours just walking around holding both at the same time. They both showed remarkable improvement and it was a testament to the good work that the Missionaries of Charity are doing not only in Tacloban but also around the world.
I spent a month in Davao volunteering at another orphanage. There was one noticeable difference between the two and it involved television. In Tacloban, the Sisters insisted that they were working with the poorest of the poor and did not want donation money going to luxuries like television sets. In Davao, they had a set donated and it changed my entire experience. In Tacloban the kids found ways to entertain themselves. The little boys would go outside and fight or chase insects and the girls would play games, dance or just sit and talk with each other. In Davao, I would go into the children's playroom and most would just sit and stare at the television for hours on end. The kids lost their interest in creative play and instead sat still with no interest in play or interaction. I spent most of my time with the toddlers, carrying them around the premises and just talking with them. They really enjoyed it but it was such a shame to see the impact of television on the older children.
On Thursday June 21st I flew to Singapore to restart my bike trip. I was here briefly before but still had a few days to look around and see a few sights, as my bike was getting tuned up.
Singapore is a different world from the Philippines and it is noticeable as soon as you land. If I could I would just stay in the airport for a few days, as it has all the comforts of a luxury resort, but there are rules against staying there. Everything is orderly and clean. All of the bathroom faucets work, there are hand dryers and paper towels and you could almost eat off the floor.
Singapore is a new country, officially becoming independent in 1965 when the first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew started from scratch to create a dynamic workforce. In a few years they created an army, a port, an education curriculum, a banking system and the infrastructure required in a country without natural resources and starting from scratch. It is a remarkable story and a testament to the hard work and entrepreneurship of a dominant Chinese and minority Indian and Malay population.
One observation from my short time here is the balance between individual rights and freedoms and economic prosperity. There are lots of rules here with harsh punishments and careful monitoring by the authorities. There are cameras all over the place and it's easy to get the sense that you are being monitored closely. For example, I went to see the Marina Bay Sands Resort and Casino. I had to check in my backpack and was asked to show my passport. They took down the information and wrote it on an official receipt. I then had to go into a line, one for foreigners and the other for Singapore passport holders. At the entrance to the line I had to show my passport again where the man behind the desk entered the information into a computer. I then went about 20 meters further and showed it for a third time to gain entrance. I only stayed to look around, as I wasn't interested in joining some of the poker tables with $1,000 minimum bets. When I left, I had to show my passport again and then for the 5th time to collect my bag. I used my passport more in that half hour than I do when I fly at an airport.
On one hand the rules can be cumbersome and you feel restricted and monitored but the trade-off is a country with low crime, order, cleanliness and prosperity. It is an interesting balance and I can see the appeal when you compare the living conditions here with much of SE Asia's other large cities. An example of some of the rules can be seen on signs around the City. I had to laugh over the $1,000 fine for chewing gum compared with the $500 fine for urinating on a lift.
I was in a taxi to get from the airport and the driver had an electronic card on his windshield and I asked about it. He is from Malaysia and only allowed to enter Singapore for 20 days per month. When he crosses the border they can monitor his progress. He told me that one-day he took his card out to pay for a parking meter (the same card can be used for parking, border crossings, attractions etc.) and forgot to put it back on the windshield. He got to the border and was flagged down and fined. The border patrols noticed on the monitors that he passed one checkpoint and not another so he was fined. The integration of the ticketing system, parking and border crossings is remarkable.
As a comparison, I moved to the U.S in 2002 after 9/11 and after the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security that was set up to consolidate a number of government agencies with the purpose of making the country safer. They would be able to track people coming into the country and give the public confidence that any potential terrorist could be found. I moved to Phoenix and was issued a visa. A few months later I moved to Boise, Idaho and went to the Immigration Office to advise them. They said they would forward my file to the office in Boise. A month later I went to the Immigration Office in Boise and they couldn't locate me despite my assurances that I did indeed exist and was standing right in front of them. It took a few months before someone found my file sitting in an office in New Jersey about 3,000 miles away. I told them where I was and where I was moving and they still couldn't find me so it's pretty easy to see how people can come into the country and disappear. If I ever hear that governments consolidate departments to streamline operations I will wonder how combining 2 inefficient organizations with different systems will create something efficient. In Singapore (admittedly a much smaller country) they were able to track a taxi driver because he forgot to put his card on a windshield for a few miles. It's nice to see that some government offices can actually work well.
One of the highlights of Singapore as it is in Malaysia is the food. The Chinese, Malays and Indians are all well represented in terms of restaurants and roadside stalls. My favorite breakfast in Malaysia was Roti Canai that is also available in Singapore but known as Roti Prata. I had that each day for breakfast with a glass of tea and milk.
Here is a view of the Marina Bay Sands Resort. The resort includes a Casino and Mall where all the designer stores for clothing and jewelry call home. I just read that there are now more millionaires in Asia than in the U.S and a good percentage of them were probably here.
I had to get my bike prepared and buy a few things for the road ahead so didn't have a lot of time to look around. On Sunday June 23rd I will cycle through Singapore and cross the bridge into Malaysia and start heading north towards China about 2,500 km away. I hope to stop in Udon Thani in the northeast of Thailand to visit another Missionaries of Charity there so it will be a chance to see how the orphanages in Thailand operate. My first stop in Malaysia with is the historical city of Melaka and I am really looking forward to the visit.