While travelling around South East Asia, I've stayed in some less than comfortable hostels, guesthouses and bungalows. Some towns I've liked less than others. Some cities I have downright hated. However, I had successfully avoided staying in the middle of the sex industry. Until I got to the Philippines at least. Let me start from the beginning...
For the first time on my trip, I was anxious about visiting a new country. Many travel sites and blogs had gone on at length about how difficult it can be to travel around the Philippines 7, 100 islands. I read warnings that the taxi drivers are not only aggressive, but down right deceptive. Having already been to six other Asian countries and never seen these kinds of warnings, I was nervous. With over 100 million people, the Philippines has massive traffic issues that are only made worse by the laid back nature of Filipinos and their lack of consideration for time. In addition to that, I’d read that its capital city, Manila, was an absolute web of chaos and that it should be avoided at all costs. Therefore, my immediate task upon landing was to find my way out of the city as quickly as possible.
I had done my requisite research on how to get out of the airport, which transportation service to use, and how to get to my first destination. In hindsight it's clear that I had focused more on how I was going rather than where I was going. In my defence, here’s how I had to find my way to my eventual destination...
I collected my bag from the carousel and proceeded to the arrival hall. I braced myself. In Indonesia, this is where the taxi drivers began to yell and harass tourists until they either accepted the outrageous fare or told them to "Get lost!" (For the record, I had done the latter.) Unexpectedly, I exited to the regular hum of an airport. With taxi drivers held behind a line outside, I was able to get money and find the local shuttle without being accosted. Already, I was breathing easier.
After about half an hour the shuttle arrived and for 20 pesos ($0.55) I was on my way to the bus terminal. My good luck continued... No sooner had I found a seat did the Filipino lady sitting next to me start shoving food and drinks into my hands. I quickly realized that she would not take my Canadian-esq "No, thank you" for an answer so I accepted the crackers and juice box gratefully. Having woken up at 4am in Malaysia, it was a welcome snack. Forty-five minutes of crawling through just 15kms of traffic, I arrived at "the bus terminal" - a parking lot with busses pulling in and out with no ticket office in sight.
Next, I had to find a bus heading north. A driver called out his window for my destination. "Angeles" I hollered back. He slowed down and waved me on. For 150 pesos ($4.16), the bus took me to another bus terminal two hours north of Manila. After walking a few blocks, I was able to flag down a jeepney - a souped-up jeep with an extended back similar to a school bus (photos below). Each one is painted colourfully and named (usually with religious phrase such as “God is Great”, something cheeky such as “I have three kids”, or with what I assume is the name of the owners like “Maria and Matthew”). Each also has its own destination. For eight pesos ($0.22), I got to the jeepney terminal which was basically a street with a lot of jeepneys waiting for riders. After finding the right one (as explained over email by my guesthouse owner), a jeepney took me to "the big church" for just 7 pesos ($0.19). From the big church, I was able to walk a few blocks to the guesthouse. I had finally arrived at my destination in the City of Angeles.
I had booked this guesthouse because it appeared to be close to Mount Pinatubo which I would hike the following day. I had wanted to stay in Capas - a town even closer, but every internet search returned places located in Angeles. There were only two of us in an eight bed dorm room – a fact that I probably should have found stranger. The sweet lady that ran my guesthouse gave me a map of the city and showed me where the restaurants and museums were located. She then pointed to “a very touristy area” and insisted that I stay away from it. My puzzled look led to her explain that “it’s not the good kind of tourism – it’s sex tourism.” Oh.
For all the research I had done, I had failed to come across the fact that the nearby city of Clark had hosted a US Air Force base for nearly a century (1903-1998). Apparently, the near by city of Angeles – still far enough from the peering eyes of Clark – became the host of many men in their hours off. Today, old and primarily white men from around the world keep nearly ten thousand women and girls in business. It's estimated that when the airbase was in operation, ten times as many women were employed. Once I knew what to look for, a quick Google search revealed the stories of this sin city with headlines such as "Filipino slum filled with children fathered by Australian sex trade tourists".
To my relief, I’ve not met another traveller who was any more aware than I was of Angeles' seedy undercurrent. However, the many local Filipinos I’ve met along the way have found great amusement in my visit there. While we share a laugh at my expense, I feel deeply sorry for the hardworking and lovely owner of my guesthouse who has been saddled with Angeles' ropy reputation. Over a beer one afternoon, she told me of how sex tourism haunts the city and keeps honest tourism away (albeit apparently not me!). She admitted that it was nearly impossible to make a profit given the guesthouse was not in the business of catering to the sex industry. Maybe it’s my naivety or idealism but it just seems so obviously wrong and disheartening to me that sex tourism industries continue to flourish. Thanks to men from abroad – men with educations, men with money, men who ought to know better, and men who are showing up in droves - thousands of Filipino women continue to be pulled down into the bowels of society.
In the end, I never actually felt unsafe and I enjoyed my short stay in Angeles. It's important to remember that the sex industry isn't the only industry in Angeles. The bulk of the population actually works in the international call centres operated there. You’d also be hard pressed to find friendlier people who are eager to talk to you, ask you questions, and help you find your way. To my surprise, even a protective security guard outside a bank insisted that I “be careful” as I walked by one afternoon. It may have been because I stuck out like a sore thumb being a young white female. I never did see another one in my three days there. While there are likely places to stay much closer to the beautiful Mount Pinatubo (I had to wake up a 4 a.m. and take five different modes of transportation including two jeepneys, a bus, a tricycle, and a jeep, to get to the starting point of the hike), Angeles should be considered a good base camp. Why sex tourism continues to thrive in Angeles remains unclear to me. What is very clear, however, is how I ended up in the middle of it.