Travel to Every Single Country in the World? It’s Been Done.

My friend Ray Johnson did it.  He’s been to 319 countries and territories. I’ve only managed to get to 102 countries. Ray and I met at his 65th birthday party in Chonburi, Thailand. We were members of the Pattaya City Expats Club. Eventually, I talked him into speaking to the club about his experiences. He accomplished the feat in conjunction with the Travelers Century Club (TCC). Membership requires that you have been to at least 100 countries. A handful of members, like Ray, have done even better and have managed to get to every country in the world. Some would say that it’s a crazy compulsive thing to do. Nevertheless, Ray is one of the few travelers in the world who has done it.tcc-smThe United Nations only has 193 members. As of January 1, 2016, the Travelers Century Club now recognizes 325 separate countries and territories. The Club has 1400 members and has chapters in major cities of the US and a few located abroad. They have monthly meetings, listen to each other’s travel stories, and run photo contests. Diplomats and international marketing types would have a natural advantage in earning membership. Their employers paid for most of their travel. In Ray’s case, he and his family have a successful building materials and ready mix concrete business. Obviously, it would take some deep pockets to finance all that travel. Ray told me he did it because once his business was successful, he was looking for a new challenge and he loved to travel.

A380 Lounge

Upstairs Lounge Aboard Qatar Airways A380, Nov. 2015

Ray Johnson accomplished the feat several years ago when there were only 319 countries. If you go to the  Travelers’ Century Club website,  you can have a look at what they consider a country or territory. Many of the places listed are just tiny specks in the Pacific or Indian Ocean. In many cases, it would literally be a huge pain in the butt just to get to them and not too much to see when you got there. Some places are dangerous as well. But at least you got your ticket punched as far as the TCC was concerned. Included in the current 325 destinations are the seven regional claims to Antarctica. You have to visit all of them including the New Zealand claim as well as the Argentina, the Chilean, the Norwegian, the French and the American Territories plus the Falkland Islands to have bragging rights that you’ve been to every country in the world. It sounds exhausting. Clearly this is something you need to do when you’re old enough to have accumulated a lot of money, but young enough that you still have abundant energy.

PICT0244

If you consider yourself well-traveled, you can add up the number of countries you have visited with the Travelers’ Century Club Country List  With my paltry 102 countries, I suppose I’m eligible to join the TCC. I don’t think I will, however. I have a feeling many of the members are ex-State Department types that I wouldn’t be comfortable hanging out with. I found from a couple of bad experiences overseas that a lot of State Department people are arrogant jerks. Being from the West and a retired college business teacher, I tend to be a bit conservative and very often my views are considered politically incorrect, especially by Northeast or San Francisco liberals. I have enough strife in my life arguing with my lovable but liberal daughter. I don’t need to add to the list. Having said that, it’s wonderful to look back at all the places I’ve been and remember all the kind people I’ve met. I don’t need to be in a club to do that. It’s been a life rich in experiences.

PICT0284

One caveat: if you do rack up a lot of countries in your travels, don’t become a “place dropper”. Many years ago when I had only been to 40 or 50 countries and thought I was very well traveled, I was accused of being a place dropper by a prominent San Diego businessman. You’ve met name droppers before. They are those annoying people who like to impress other people by mentioning the celebrities they’ve met. When a committee was interviewing me to join the San Diego District Export Council, Speck Barker, a local exporter, called me that. I hadn’t realized it, but I’m sure he was right. I am sure I talked a lot about the places I’ve been during the interview. All those years of travel and teaching abroad had done that to me.  I was appointed to the Council by the US Secretary of Commerce anyway, so I guess being a place-dropper didn’t disqualify me, but obviously I annoyed someone unnecessarily.

mepokhara

Boarding Buddha Air in Nepal

Those of us who have the travel bug need to remember that a lot of people are content just to remain in the United States. They may be outright xenophobes and fear strange cultures, or perhaps they consider having to deal with passports and visas and all that strange money and those strange languages to be more trouble than it’s worth. Many times when you talk about some exotic place with them, their eyes glaze over. People gain their self-fulfillment in different ways. Travel is not for everyone.

Nairobi, Kenya 2003: Masai Mara Safari

I rented an apartment in Nairobi for the month of September. My friend Will, a retired insurance executive, was staying nearby. He had been to Kenya a few times before and knew his way around. After I had visited the main tourist sites around Nairobi, Will kept bugging me to book a safari to a game preserve. I strongly resisted because I disliked organized tours and preferred to travel independently. This is the difference between a traveler and a tourist. Finally, I gave in and went to the Serena Hotel near my Nairobi apartment and booked a Safari with the concierge. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 004 (2)

 

The Serena Hotel is owned by the Aga Khan, a multimillionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader of approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims. Of Persian descent, born in Switzerland but residing in Britain, his net worth approaches $1 billion. He owns many hotels including Serena’s sister hotel, the Mara Serena Safari Lodge, located in the center of the Masai Mara game preserve on the Tanzania border with Kenya. I was able to book a package that included the flight down and back, three nights at the Lodge with room and board and included two game drives a day. The game drives, of course, were the main attraction. The great game migration was on. Literally millions of animals could be viewed up close and personal as they moved north for greener feeding grounds. Many animals fed on the grass while some, like the lions and hyenas, fed on the other animals.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 058 (2) - Copy

 

Since the game reserve is a five hour drive from Nairobi, I flew Air Kenya from the small Wilson domestic airport directly to the landing strip at Mara Serena Safari Lodge. Someone had to sound an alarm when the plane landed to get the zebra off the runway. Seeing zebra grazing right next to our plane when we landed put a smile on the face of the few passengers. A good sign that we had come to the right place. Built in 1973, the lodge was designed to blend into the terrain. My ecologist friends would approve. The rooms were patterned after the local Masai people’s mud huts. Although well camouflaged, the hotel and its 74 rooms had all of the amenities, including a swimming pool, a spa and fitness center. Sitting high on a hill, it had an amazing view of the Serengeti plain and the Mara River below.  An electric fence surrounded the entire area but you couldn’t see it as they had hidden it well in the brush. At night you could hear the lions roaring and sometimes it sounded like they were in the next room.  Even though you knew the beast was at a safe distance and behind the fence, it was still rather startling the first time you head it.

 

When I heard the loud roar, it reminded me of a story that two Masai friends told me back in Nairobi a week earlier. Tom and Regina were brother and sister. They were in Nairobi working and going to school. They recalled that when they were younger, they lived in a mud hut in the Masai area of Kenya. They said their father was a famous lion hunter. He used a spear not a rifle. Very often at night the lions would come into their village looking for food. Although, their family would lock the doors, sometimes the lions would stand next to their hut and roar so loudly it would knock the cups off the shelves and chunks of mud would fall from the walls. They painted a vivid image. Hearing the lion up close that first night made their story even more poignant.

 

The next morning I did my first game drive. The Land Rovers they used were open at the top to allow photography. Very often they were also open on the sides which made it interesting when we pulled up within a few feet of the lions. A lion could have easily pulled one of the passengers out of the vehicle. But we soon learned that we weren’t considered food to the lions. Most of the time they looked right past us as if we weren’t even there.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 138 (2)

We arrived on the scene shortly after a female lion had killed a wildebeest. We listened to her crunch the carcass with her powerful jaws. Eventually, she would leave and the male lion would come over and finish the meal. Female lions did most of the hunting and the male lions slept 20 hours a day. Wildebeests were easy prey for the lions and there were plenty of them, more than 1.3 million in the migration. It was stunning to stand on a hill and look out at animals as far as the eye could see.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 131 (2)

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 054 (4) - Copy

A few hundred thousand zebra were there as well. I learned what the stripes were for. When a herd of zebras is being chased by a lion, the stripes make it very difficult for the lion to focus on a single animal. The lion gets confused by all the stripes moving around and usually ends up without a kill.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 014 (2)

During the three days I was there, I saw nearly every kind of African animal one could imagine. I saw giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and, of course, the “big five”, which are the lion, the leopard, the rhinoceros (both black and white), the cape buffalo and the elephant. These last five are the animals that are supposed to be most difficult to hunt on foot. So now it is a term left over from the Hemingway days. Only 30 Black rhinos have survived and we managed to see one of them.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 032 (2)

While passing through the middle of a herd of elephants, a young bull took offense at our presence. He began flapping his ears and took a few menacing steps toward us. When we nervously pointed him out to our driver, he just laughed, stepped on the accelerator and we drove off.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 128 (2)

 

An even more spectacular way of seeing the millions of animals is to book a hot air balloon ride from the Mara Serena Lodge. They take off at 5:30 AM, skim over the heads of the animals, dip down near the river to watch the hippos and then land out on the plain where they serve a champagne breakfast. After breakfast, a van takes the passengers on a game drive and then back to the Lodge. The current price for that experience is $500 per passenger. Being a budget traveler for so many years, I regret that I didn’t try it. However, I did do something similar over the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt recently and it was well worth it.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 055 (2) - Copy

 

Speaking of prices, high season runs from July 1 to the end of October. The peak of the migration occurs during these dates. A single room will cost US$424 per night while a double is US$638 per night. That price includes full board and two game drives per day. While considerably cheaper other times of the year, you run the risk of not seeing many animals. The lodge can be booked either directly on the Serena Hotel website or at any of the major hotel booking sites like booking.com or traveladvisor.com.

Finally, when I returned to Nairobi, I regaled my friend Will with all my safari tales, he surprised me and said, “now that you’ve seen those animals, how would you like to eat some of them?”. He was serious. A world-famous restaurant was named Carnivore was located in Nairobi. The specialty of the house was “bushmeat”. You could eat zebra, giraffe, crocodile and many other creatures from a long menu. Open since 1980, Carnivore was rated number 47 out of 50 in the London-based Restaurant Magazine’s list of the best restaurants in the world.

Kenya Safari Nov 2003 105 (2)

While I usually delight in being politically incorrect, and I am definitely not a vegan, the whole idea didn’t sound too appetizing to me. I agreed to try it, however, and we invited along Sven, a friend who was working for Ericsson in East Africa. When we arrived at Canivore, we spoke with the staff and they assured us that the restaurant only buys meat from suppliers licensed to cull wild game by Kenya Wildlife Services. Sven and Will ordered the zebra and giraffe. I couldn’t bring myself to do it and ended up getting the ostrich. I guess it was the closest thing to chicken. The bread, vegetables, dessert and the Kenyan coffee were excellent. We all agreed it was a great meal.

 

The following year, 2004, the Kenyan government banned all game meat in restaurants. Carnivore changed it’s format to an all-you-can-eat, Brazilian style restaurant. The only exotic dishes on the menu are farm grown crocodile and ostrich. The restaurant still receives very high ratings. Their website says, “Let the predator loose in you”. Check it out here:  Carnivore Restaurant Nairobi

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka, June 1998: War Weary Paradise

MVC-009F (3) - CopyTaking a direct flight on Air Lanka from Bangkok, we landed at Bandaranaike Airport. Colombo is only 35 km to the south but it took nearly two hours to work our way through all of the military checkpoints set up to keep the Tamil Tigers out of the city. My hotel was  next door to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Since we arrived late, I went to bed soon after checking in. The next morning, I opened the curtains to my room and looked at the bank building a few feet away across the alley and was shocked to see that the front of the building had been blown off. It seems the terrorists had bombed the bank a day or two earlier. The entire façade had collapsed into rubble right below my window. No wonder it was so easy to book this hotel!

MVC-001F - Copy

Normally I did a lot of research on a new destination before I traveled there. In those days it was Lonely Planet or any other relevant travel book I could find. I used to spend hundreds of hours at Barnes & Noble in San Diego researching a trip beforehand. Later, it was Asia Books in Bangkok. In this case, clearly my system had failed to give me up-to-date information. I knew there was an ongoing insurrection in Sri Lanka, but the information I had said that it was confined to the outlying areas. Today, that disruptive force called the internet will overload you with more information than you can absorb. Look for the latest. One should definitely check the U.S. State Department Travel Advisories if you intend to travel to developing countries as I so often did.

MVC-002F (3)

Well, poor planning or not, I was already there and I needed to keep my head on a swivel and make the best of it. I had three main goals; Get to know Columbo, go up in the hills to the town of Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth and finally to relax for a few days at the beach town of Trincomalee. I was able to do two of the three. Trincomalee was occupied by the Tamil Tigers. A good portion of Sri Lanka was off-limits to any tourism. As you may know, the Tamils were originally from southern India and were Hindu. They refused to be controlled by the native Sinhalese who practiced a form of Buddhism, the main religion of Sri Lanka. The Tamil were fierce fighters. It was a bloody insurrection that had gone on for nearly two decades. It had taken its toll on on the economy and on the population. While the people were among the friendliest I had met on earth, you could see in the eyes of the older people that they were war weary.

For a large crowded Asian city, Colombo was reasonably pleasant. Probably because they got very few foreigners, nearly everyone smiled and said hello when we met them. The

MVC-010F (2)

Sandbags and Machine Gun under a Tree

only thing that put a damper on all the friendliness, was the occasional stack of sandbags with machine guns protruding out. It was a constant reminder of what was really happening in the country.

The drive to Kandy wound through the green rolling hills and was uneventful and spectacular. Located in the central plateau, Kandy was the capital of a former Kingdom but now was most famous for the Temple of the Tooth which housed the most important Buddhist relic in the country. Several times a year, colorful ceremonies were held, including one that featured a ceremonial washing of the tooth.MVC-019F (2)

After arriving in Kandy, it became very clear that my research had failed me again. It seems that just five months earlier, on January 25, 1998, some Tamil terrorists had broken through the gates of the temple and had detonated a truckload of explosives. The explosion damaged buildings within a 5 km radius. The Temple was under repair. Scaffolding was everywhere. We could only view the building from the outside. So much for the Temple of the Tooth. We enjoyed the fresh air of Kandy for a few days and then headed back to Colombo.

Since the beach town of Trincomalee was off limits, I decided to check out the beach just south of Colombo. While it was okay, it was nothing like what I had experienced in Thailand and Indonesia. I stayed a few more days and then it was back to Bangkok.

2017 Update:  The war between the Sinhalese and the Buddhists finally ended in 2007. Basically the Sinhalese won. From everything I hear today, Sri Lanka is a wonderful place to visit. Do your research well on the internet before you go.

 

 

 

Fiji 1986: Firewalkers of Beqa

After being rained out in Raratonga, Air New Zealand rescued me and delivered me 1400 miles east to Nadi, the international airport of Fiji. From there I took a short hop across the main island of Viti Levu to the capital city of Suva and began my Fiji adventure. I had heard that some of the nicest beaches were along the south coast of Viti Levu. I rode the bus along the south coast on the Queens Road until I found some beach bungalows that looked inviting. I made that my base for the next several days.

PICT0324

Beach along the south coast of Viti Levu

I found the Fijians were among the friendliest people on earth. Many tourists are attracted to Fiji for the relaxing atmosphere and the friendly locals. While there I was offered the local drink Kava. It was a murky looking concoction made from ground pepper roots and served in a half coconut shell or a stone bowl which is shared communally. Mildly narcotic, it eventually makes your mouth and lips numb and gives you an overall feeling of relaxation.

PICT0325 - Copy - Copy - Copy - Copy

Friendly Fijian lady

PICT0323

German tourist on the south coast of Viti Levu

Besides relaxation, high on my to-do list for the island of Fiji was to see the fire walkers from the island of Beqa. They were being featured at a resort near Suva.

PICT0322 (2)

I don’t know how the hell they do it. But they make a roaring bonfire and walk over the hot coals several times without burning their feet. I was able to actually go up and touch their feet after. There was nothing unusual about them . No thick calluses or anything to protect the feet. Some theorize that they work themselves into a hypnotic trance and it somehow protects their feet.

PICT0320

Firewalker after the walk

I know there have been several motivational speakers who have encouraged their followers to try this with mixed success. The idea is that if one can achieve a degree of self hypnosis then the subconscious sends a message to protect the feet and mask the pain. Apparently these motivational gurus believe that if a person can accomplish this feat, they will gain greater self-control in their overall life. In reality, Some people have been able to do it, but many others have sustained severe burns and lawsuits have followed.

To see a full firewalking ceremony, please check out this YouTube video: Firewalkers of Fiji

A few words about the Fijian government. A long time part of the British Commonwealth, Fiji became independent in 1970 and in 2006 a military government took control and has been in power since. One of the precipitating factors in the coup d’état was the fact that the Indian population of the island was approaching 50%. The Indians were brought in by the British beginning in the 1870s to work the plantations. With a higher birth rate than the indigenous Fijians, they were now posing a threat to native voting power. Even though Indians had been there for more than century, the indigenous Fijians still viewed them as outsiders and that they should not be able to control the government. Like the Hawaiians, the Fijians didn’t have a a hell of a lot of control over their immigration a century and a half ago, but perhaps there is a lesson here on the long run consequences of losing control of a country’s immigration.

PICT0321 - Copy

 

Indonesia 2004: A House in Bali

On my first visit to Bali 35 years ago, it was sensory overload. From Mount Agung in the distance to the lush flowered vegetation and the sparsely populated beaches, it was truly a visual feast. Art was everywhere. It seemed that nearly everyone was a painter, weaver, woodcarver or sculptor. Anyone who was not producing some kind of art was probably a dancer or musician. The ancient Hindu culture was friendly and welcoming. My wife and I visited again in July 2017. South Bali has become overdeveloped, over-touristed and overpriced. Having said that, even today, there are very few places in the world that are a better holiday experience than Bali especially if one goes to the cultural center of Ubud or beyond to escape the hordes of Japanese and Chinese tourists.

Agung by Bob

Agung Volcano by Robert Britt

I officially retired on January 5, 2004 and had been looking for the perfect retirement destination. Of course I’d been traveling to Southeast Asia every chance I had for several years before that. Although I was torn between retiring in Thailand or Bali, for all the aforementioned reasons, I finally settled on Bali. While it is very difficult for a foreigner to own property in Bali, it is possible to negotiate a long-term lease, sometimes 30 years renewable for another 30. One of the best places to find property is in the Bali Advertiser biweekly newspaper. Actually in the two years I lived there, I rented two houses. The first I found in the Bali Advertiser. The second I found while driving my little rented Suzuki Kijang around the hills of Southern Bali.Front view (2)

My first house I sublet from a French-Canadian woman named Claude Clement. She was a very enterprising single mother who was operating a furniture export business. She was bringing in new and used teak furniture from neighboring Java and shipping to hotels and antique dealers in a number of different countries. Claude was very helpful getting me oriented in Bali. I met many of her friends and she was an excellent resource during my stay there.

Bali 2004 081

One of my early art acquisitions

The house was listed as a two bedroom bungalow 50 meters from the beach at Pantai Berawa, a small beach village about 45 minutes north of the main town of Kuta. The design was what was called “open living” in Bali. While the bedrooms were closed off, the living room and kitchen area were completely open to the outdoors. Initially I thought this was quaint. Later it turned out to be a big problem. Anyway, I was taken by the proximity to the beach and the charming neighborhood which included several villas and an exotic Hindu temple or pura next-door. The property was owned by a Brahmin family (they still have caste system in Bali) and Claude had leased from them. I agreed to finish out the remainder of her lease which was less than a year. In Bali, like many Third World countries, you don’t pay rent month-to-month. You pay for the entire term of the lease upfront. Shortly before the lease expired, Rai, the head of the Brahmin family, came by the house and offered me a 10 year lease for $20,000. I could’ve had a house on the beach for the next 10 years for less than $200 a month. I was tempted, but I declined.

Open living in Berawa

My brother, Bob, who, like me, was retired and divorced, was an aspiring artist. He found Bali to be the perfect venue for learning the finer points of painting. There was no shortage of gorgeous things to paint. After living for a time on the beach at Berawa, however, we were both ready to move elsewhere. The open living design of the house turned out to be a disaster for us. We experienced wave after wave of pestilence. The word for fly in Indonesian is lalat. The word for mosquito is nyamuk. We would place flypaper type devices all around the open areas of the house. By the end of the day they would be black from being covered with lalat. At night the mosquitoes were voracious. Then at times we would get waves of flying ants. We were surrounded by rice paddies on two sides. Frogs and geckos loved our home. Frequently I would get up in the morning and find toads hopping around the kitchen area. One time I went to put on my shoe and a toad hopped out. Open living was not for us city boys. I drove my little Suzuki Kijang around the more developed neighborhoods and found a wonderful villa for rent in the southern area of Nusa Dua. Yes, it was more than double the money, but well worth it.

Bob motorcycle

Brother Bob on Wheels

Perched high on a hill in an upscale neighborhood called Taman Mumbul, Number 1 Jalan Pudak had three bedrooms plus a maids quarters. Every bedroom had a balcony with a view several miles down through the rolling hills to the ocean. We were not on the beach but the views were gorgeous. My total cost was $440 a month. As before, I had to pay an entire year up front. I had a slow dial-up internet connection and cable TV, which included the Fox News Channel. Thanks to my friend Claude, I had a full-time maid by the name of Nenga. She cost me about $70 a month. Because I was a foreigner, that was more than the locals paid. Her husband, Putu, worked half time as my gardener for $35 a month. Nenga and Putu used to work for Claude and she talked me into taking them. One problem, however, was that they spoke absolutely no English. As a result, I had to learn basic Bahasa Indonesia. It was actually a lot of fun. I still use it when I return to Bali.

Nenga

Our Helper, Nenga

Once I was moved in and had all the utilities connected, I set out to furnish the place. Bali was a decorators dream. Shops were full of wonderful pieces of teak furniture that could be purchased for $100 or $200 each.You would find the unfinished peace to you liked and have it finished in whatever shade you preferred, light or dark or medium. I liked medium stain because you could still see the grain of the wood. Even today I have some of the teak pieces and paintings I bought in Bali in my Arizona home. To put the finishing touches on the place, I was able to choose from thousands of colorful fabrics. Lastly, I went shopping for a number of Balinese paintings and sculptures. One could get an excellent original painting for $40 or $50. No doubt prices have gone up several times since then.

I look back fondly on my two years in Bali. It was an experience I treasure. Why did we leave? Two reasons really. The primary reason was a horrendous event that happened on October 1, 2005. Three terrorists from the island of Java wearing suicide vests came over to Bali and blew themselves up killing 20 tourists. Two of the bombers stood amidst diners at two different seafood restaurants on the beach in Jimbaran and detonated their vests. The other suicide bomber went to a busy upstairs restaurant in a shopping area of Kuta.

Jimbaran Restaurant site of bombing

On October 4, 2005, a strange, shocking thing happened to me that really made me realize I definitely was in a different country with a very different culture. I picked up a copy of the Jakarta Post to read about the bombing. I was shocked to see a photo of three severed heads on the front page (see below – viewer discretion advised . The headline said “Do you know these men”? It seems that the explosive vests they wore around their torso caused their heads to pop off like a cork. The police were able to retrieve the heads, clean them up, photograph them and publish them in the paper. Sure enough, a few days later, a neighbor in Denpasar recognized them and said the three men had been living in a house across the street prior to the bombing. A search of the house led them to the bomb maker in East Java. Great police work, but a tactic that wouldn’t go over well with the squeamish snowflakes in the West.

800px-2005_Bali_Bombers_Heads_JP_Wikipedia

Newspaper photos of Bali bombers

Even though our house was only a couple of miles from the bombings in Jimbaran, and we had eaten at those restaurants a number of times, we felt safe in our neighborhood. The problem was that this was the second major bombing in recent years and it decimated the Balinese economy. Tourists were afraid to come. Worse yet, none of our friends would come and visit us. So the fact that the bombing took a lot of the fun out of place was the main reason we decided to relocate. The second reason was that brother Bob met a bright young lady from Surabaya. They moved in together and later married. I was all alone in the big house. When it came time to renew my lease for another year, I reluctantly declined. We ended up relocating to the more peaceful island of Penang in Malaysia. That is another story.

Bali Dancers and me

Bali 2004 Ubud Dancers

Philippines: My 54 Angels in Cebu

It all started more than a dozen years ago. I was staying in the old downtown area of Manila known as the Ermita. I awoke just after sunrise and realized I needed some cash for my travels later in the day. I exited the hotel and turned down the first alley to get to the main street. Halfway down the narrow alley, I noticed a pile of rags on my left about a foot and half tall. I thought nothing of it at first. Some people would say Manila is one big pile of litter. As I passed the pile of rags, I noticed it wasn’t rags at all but about five or six street children. They were all huddled like a litter of puppies lying on top of each other sound asleep. They were clearly exhausted from being up all night begging from the tourists. Where was their mother? Where were the police? I knew there was no welfare system in Philippines, but this was shocking! In a Western country, the mother would’ve been put in jail and the children put in foster care. Having traveled throughout Southeast Asia, this was the worst I had seen in many years.  I was angry.

As an ex-international business teacher, I knew very well why the Philippines had fallen behind the rest of the region economically and now had Southeast Asia’s highest misery index. I had spent a couple of summers in Manila and knew what was going on. The free market that had accelerated growth in neighboring developing economies had not arrived in the Philippines. The main reason was that corrupt government kleptocrats controlled by Chinese and Spanish oligarchs were making it very difficult for foreign investment to come to the Philippines. The wealthy elite conspired to keep out foreign competition and were carving up the markets for themselves. As a result, the economy was stagnant. Most of the population was being kept impoverished and forced to work for wages so low that the best and brightest had to leave the country. The Asian Development Bank had been headquartered in Manila for forty years. Charged with solving these problems, their lavish offices are just a few blocks from one of the worst slums in Manila. The ADB is still there and the slum is still there. I knew why the Philippines was still poor when its neighbors were thriving. In the end, however, what good would my anger do for those street kids? That morning I walked on, but I couldn’t forget what I saw.

Fortunately, a few months later I found a direct way to help at least some street children. Through a friend, I discovered the Santo Nino Center for boys in Liloan, Cebu, and their sister orphanage for girls, Our Lady of Divine Providence Home in Talisay.   I was impressed with the dedication of Brother Arturo at Santo Nino Center. They were at capacity with 36 boys. The orphanage was located near the beach and they take the boys there regularly. Before each visit, I would swing by the discount supermarket and load up a taxi with 50 kilo bags of rice, large cans of corned beef and other canned goods, bags of sugar, cartons of powdered milk, and anything else they might need.DSC06640

Sister Corazon Riconalla was the mother superior at the girls’ orphanage. Her degree was in social work.  She was authorized to have 50 children but had 54. I observed her over a number of visits. Her management skills were superb. The facility was so clean you could eat off the floors. The girls all appeared to be happy and smiling. Over the years, Sister Cora and I became good friends. I would pay a visit two or three times a year and sit down with Sister Cora and usually Sister Mila, her office manager. She would tell me how things were going and what problems they were facing at that time. Usually their problems were of a minor nature and were nothing that a few hundred dollars wouldn’t solve. The children attended the local public schools. Sometimes they would be a little short of money for uniforms and supplies. I was happy to help. Over the years I have brought many friends and family members there as well. They have all generously helped.

On one of my first visits, when I asked Sister Corazon what she needed, she told me she had to buy more piglets and she needed money for both the piglets and their feed. It seems that in order to supplement the girls’ diet, they had set up a piggery in one corner of their property.  They would feed the piglets for about four months and then have a local person come in and slaughter them. Filipinos eat the whole pig, including the squeal.

On my next visit, the girls and the sisters eagerly led me to the pen to show me that my piglets were doing well. Later, as Sister Cora and I sat on the front steps, several of the younger girls came over and sang a little concert for me as a way of saying thanks.  They started off with I Have the Spirit in My Heart, and finished with a rousing rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider. The concert was well worth four piglets and enough to melt the heart of an old Asia traveler.DSC06507 (2)

Occasionally, their problems were of a much greater magnitude. Typhoon Yolanda, also known as Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country’s eastern seaboard on November 8, 2013, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 6,300 deaths. A couple of months earlier a major earthquake hit the nearby island of Bohol. The earthquake put some cracks in the walls of the main building at the orphanage, and the typhoon blew away the atrium covering the patio between the two buildings. Before the repairs could be made, they needed an engineer to confirm that the building was safe.DSC05447DSC06488

Fortunately, I had recruited my good friend Will a few years earlier. Will was a retired insurance executive living part of the year in Thailand. For a few years, he had been making regular visits with me to Our Lady of Divine Providence. He agreed Sister Cora was an excellent manager and this was a wonderful way to bypass all of the bureaucracy connected with most charities and make sure the money went directly to help the children. Will and I sat down with the sisters and developed budget to make sure the building was safe and to replace the atrium. We were pleased to see the repairs had been done on our next visit. Unfortunately, shortly after that visit, Sister Cora was transferred to Mindanao to open a new children’s home. For health reasons, I am unable to travel there anymore. I look back on this project as one of the most satisfying times  in my life.

If you would like contact them or visit them:

Our Lady of Divine Providence Home

Congregation of the Sisters of St. John the Baptist

Oldog, Talisay City, Cebu, Philippines

032-273-4905