An unlikely itinerary
“Take me to Smokey Mountain.” Whenever Anabelle Real hears this from Japanese tourists, she knows exactly where to take them. She needs not explain that Smokey Mountain is not a magnificent sight like Mt. Mayon or Mt. Taal, or Japan’s very own Mt. Fuji.
After more than two years of guiding Japanese tourists in the Philippines, Ana knows that if tourism deals with masking things beautifully, traveling by itself takes one to territories often not listed on the itinerary—and not so pretty sights need to be unmasked at times.
Having worked in an appliance factory in Japan for years, she has learned what image of the Philippines was often shown on television. “In Japan, they usually show the bad things happening in the Philippines,” she said. From their television sets, tourists would want to see things in actuality such that visiting the country may not just mean going to places considered as tourist attractions, but those considered to be tourist distractions as well. She cannot just restrain determined guests from going to these places.
Tourists visiting Payatas see the ugliness of poverty, but theirs is not a nearsighted vision. Scavengers sifting and sorting a bounty of trash especially make a big impression on them. Ana recalls guiding a Japanese student who, upon seeing Payatas, could not help but take pictures of residents mired in poverty. One can only surmise how images of hapless human beings moved the student who had just seen the emaciated bodies of residents in the so-called biggest slum in Asia. She promised to go back, after finishing her studies and help the people of Payatas. So did other Japanese tourists. Many others had, in fact, already gone back. Some with boxes filled with canned goods and toys. One brought several sacks of rice and another gave money. Perhaps it is through traveling that one sees the link that ties everyone together, for compassion and charity transcended geography.
But Ana does not want tourists to carry along with them an impression of Payatas as the entirety of the Philippines. She counters this impression by bringing tourists to the beautiful sites like Boracay. Boracay, along with other beaches, is flooded with tourists during the summer. Moreover, the taste and smell of Filipino cuisine is palatable to the Japanese. Ana recalls guests requesting sinigang and lapu-lapu served during meals.
No matter how relaxing traveling sounds, being a tour guide has its downsides. At exactly seven in the morning, Ana has to fetch Japanese guests from the hotel. She knows about the Japanese being critical of the Filipino’s philosophy of time, although most of them would rather laugh it off. In some unusual cases, the tides are turned. A conflict within a group of Japanese, for instance, could keep her waiting in the lobby for minutes, or hours even. Since every minute has its place on the itinerary, any delay would undoubtedly alter the entire travel plan. For someone as meticulous as hers, each step done in a hurry could save them another trip.
One sunny morning, the tide turned indeed. Ana waited for an hour. Fortunately for her, the group of Japanese was staying at a hotel near Rizal Park, the first stop. Ana, who worried incessantly about the disrupted schedule, rather revealed herself in a welcoming fashion and patiently attended to each of them. “A tour guide serves as the dictionary for guests. You need to answer everything they ask you,” she says. Even as Ana spoke in Nihongo, their gestures are enough indication of what questions tourists throw at her. A Japanese in his seventies gazed at the skies bidding Ana to come and say something about the weather. A lady in her forties then walked toward her asking for the name of every flower she saw on the way. Commonplace questions such as these were to be expected from her guests. During trips to museums and historical landmarks, she had to discuss history. The Japanese tourists seemed to be overtly curious as she speaks that Ana had to learn even the minute details. She had to master the type of materials used in making a piece of furniture or a structure.
The Japanese that she attended to that day were relatively more silent than the other tourists. A Chinese couple tagging along tried to look for someone conversant with historical sites and articles. They spoke a few lines in broken English and ended up talking with a security guard because Ana had to attend to her guests and speak in Nihongo.
Along with the old man and the lady in her forties, were a couple, a man in his late twenties, a teenage girl, and a prepubescent boy. The rest, except for the man in his twenties, showed interest in the country’s history as she spoke. After years of living and interacting with Japanese people, Ana has come to know that what is interesting for the old may not be interesting for the young. The old ones, she explained, were so much interested in other cultures that traveling for them has become a hobby. The young ones would rather want to see the cities alive in the night, like the man who has already walked several feet before them. He seems to be in a hurry. She predicts that he would likely spend his night going to bars in compensation for the day’s boredom.
The Japanese are a historically literate people. Merely looking at how they gaze at the portraits, move their hands, and talk with Ana, one can easily perceive that they know extensively about presidents Marcos, Estrada, and Arroyo. But it is a portrait of a lady in kimono that intrigues them most. They are probably wondering where in the country’s history had a Japanese woman figured so prominently. It is O Sei San, whom Ana describes amusingly as ‘one of Rizal’s girlfriends.’ And they all grinned upon hearing it. Yet tourists visiting war-related sites, particularly those involving the Japanese can no longer grin. Most importantly, Ana cannot tell them in an amusing fashion what the Japanese did during the occupation. She can never tell it to their faces that most Japanese soldiers were ruthless, although she presumes that they know their wartime history. Most of her guests would ask her for a visit to historical wartime sites.
Half a day’s walking tour is already tiresome, let alone guiding a group for a day or two. Walking along with them, one can infer that a tour guide’s job is quite tedious and demanding. Ana, who has acknowledged the thought of being a Japanese tourist’s walking dictionary, constantly checks on her English-Japanese pocket dictionary. Relieved from having said the Japanese words correctly, she guides them back to the company van at the end of each stop.
At almost every stop, it has been part of her job to check if each has his share of bottled water and pamphlet for tourists. She instinctively opens the door for the elderly Japanese. It is however odd that she maintains her distance from the elderly Japanese who seemingly dislikes having somebody to support him from behind despite his crooked posture and crooked ways of walking and sitting. Whatever cultural implication the type of assistance rendered to the Japanese, it is clear that Ana extensively knows her Japanese guests. She is the last person to enter the van.
After two years of being a Japanese tourist guide, Ana has enjoyed her flexible hours of work. It is only when her company calls her to fetch tourists or conduct some walk tours does she leave home.
Her employment was not only based on her academic credentials. Aside from finishing her bachelor’s degree in tourism, Ana also had to attend a month-long seminar conducted by the Department of Tourism where she was taught how to handle issues, even medical and legal ones. Doctors, policemen, airline employees, and professional tour guides pitch in during the training.
Hers is a powerful profession. Powerful enough to imprint on the minds of tourists what kind of place the Philippines is. She would, for instance, remind those who are afraid to go south that Mindanao is not the entirety of the Philippines.
The itinerary has become the bible of many travel guides. But Ana begs to differ. It is the intermingling ugliness of poverty in the country and the beauty of its places and people that Ana wants her guests to bring home. True enough, capturing the captivating contrast of the country is not possible when one solely depends on the company’s itinerary.
Montage Vol. 11 • September 2008