As I relaxed in the crystal blue waters off the coast of a utopic Philippine island, I gazed out at the coconut palm trees that neatly traced the ivory shore – and then back at the incredible skyline that could only be painted by the hand of God and thought: Surely this is Paradise.
All the camera angles; all the cleverly crafted word descriptions and all the artistically compiled video footage could not do justice to this glorious place. One literally had to walk the streets of Cebu, ride a tricycle in Manila and walk along the sandy beaches of Boracay and beyond to truly absorb the incredible beauty of this land of 7100 islands- The Philippines.
In contrast to the colorful, cheerful energy of the city life, the dramatic splendor of the palm trees, the exquisite cuisine and hospitable inhabitants, was a rather depressing side. I witnessed something that gripped my heart more than the evident poverty, more than the natural disasters, more than the petty crime…I witnessed the rampant prostitution, particularly of really young girls who believed they had no other choice.
It has been estimated that there are 800 000 prostituted persons in the Philippines, up to half of them being under- age. Some reports claim that the number of prostituted persons is equivalent to the manufacturing workforce of the country. Although prostitution is illegal, it is widespread and police officials turn a blind eye as they benefit from the lucrative revenue stream.
Prostitution and human trafficking are world wide concerns. However, I had never witnessed it as blatantly as I did in the few days I spent in Manila. The more I gasped, the more stories I heard, and the more evidence trails I witnessed.
At first glance, it truly is paradise. However, when you actually see the hardships many locals endure, you’re reminded that there is no Utopia on earth. Nothing worldly is perfect. Poverty is a significant concern; as are typhoons, flashfloods, earthquakes and other natural disasters; not to mention crime, corruption and terrorism. Is this the price one has to pay for living in “paradise”?
As I reflected on this glum picture, I witnessed a young girl with a tattered shirt and worn out shorts playing on the beach beside me. She was lifting a fistful of sand in the air, dropping it and then quickly spinning her entire body around in order to kick the sprinkling sand as if it were a soccer ball. She was clearly a local and more than likely did not own much, judging by her appearance. However, her pure happiness captivated me. After several gleeful body twists and minor sand explosions, she ran into the clear water, bursting with uncontainable joy and screamed with laughter as she splashed about in the heavenly blue sea. It was then that I was reminded of my first impression on the islands- the warmth and genuine happiness of the people.
All the individuals I encountered, both young and mature; wealthy as well as those begging for change; business owners as well as those working in humble or even illegal industries- all believed they live in the best place on earth. They did not take the beauty of their surroundings for granted, in spite of the harsh elements of life they may face. There seemed to be a blanketed happiness that spread across the nation. Certainly, there is no true Utopia on earth; however there can be utopia of the mind. One can smile in the rain as well as the sunshine- it’s a choice.
Africa, too, has its problems. There, too, are many people who appreciate their surroundings and are genuinely happy even in troubling circumstances. We may not have direct control of some of the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we can choose our current state of mind. More of us need to be reminded of this.
India Arie’s song, “There’s Hope”, illustrates this notion beautifully and therefore I’ll end this piece on her musical note:
It doesn’t cost a thing to smile
You don’t have to pay to laugh
You better thank God for that
Off in the back country of Brazil
I met a young brother that made me feel
That I could accomplish anything.
You see just like me he wanted to sing
He lived a simple life and was extremely poor
On top of all of that he had no eye sight,
but that didn’t keep him from seein’ the light
He said, what’s it like in the USA,
and all I did was complain
He said-livin’ here is paradise
He taught me paradise is in your mind
You know that