The country got a bit of a diversion last week when a young Polish traveler named Agness Walewinder posted an article provocatively titled “I Would Rather Go Hungry Than Eat Filipino Food Again!” (later edited to specify “Street Food”) on her blog. As is usually the case when someone not of this land makes uncomplimentary remarks about some aspect of Filipino culture, the unfortunate Walewinder was subjected to a storm of criticism from offended locals.
And naturally, since I am obviously a foreign person who even more obviously enjoys eating, everyone looks in my direction when someone who shares my color spectrum posts a bad review of the cuisine. For the record, I do not agree with Walewinder’s assessment; Filipino food, ever of the unsophisticated sort found on the street corner or in a grubby canteen, is perhaps not the most unique or memorable food in the world, but it is on the whole enjoyable and occasionally even brilliant. But to Walewinder’s credit, I do not entirely disagree with her, either, and if those who were understandably offended by her remarks could keep their emotions in check and think about what she actually wrote, they would realize she did make a couple points worth taking to heart.
In her blog post, Walewinder expressed her despair at finding much of the local fare overloaded with oil, salt, and sugar, and the evidence of how generally unhealthy that is was starkly obvious to me when I sat through my children’s end-of-the-school-year awards program the other night. Combine unhealthy everyday cooking habits (such as adding “vetsin” – monosodium glutamate – to absolutely everything) with aggressive advertising of the message “chubby equals healthy,” unrestrained young appetites for unhealthy snack foods, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles in which the playground and the backyard are quickly being replaced by the iPhone or tablet, and it is little wonder that the second- and third-graders already sporting neck rolls and jelly bellies are providing a constant supply of statistics to add to the country’s epidemic-level issues with diabetes, hypertension, and other lifestyle ailments.
It is not just a public health issue, but a significant economic problem as well; acquired illnesses have enormous direct and indirect costs. Unfortunately, it is a problem that does not seem to have an effective institutional solution; even in developed countries like the United States, efforts to improve education and even regulate some excesses – like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s much-ridiculed attempt to ban “super-sized” soft drinks at restaurants – are having no effect on expanding waistlines and the health problems that go along with them. In the absence of other solutions, then, perhaps the uncomplimentary observations of people like Walewinder are more helpful to us than we’d care to admit: Stigmatizing what is an unnecessary and unattractive aspect of Pinoy culture may be the only way to effect the change the culture needs for its own sake.
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Should Walewinder and her traveling partner ever decide to return to the Philippines and give the local fare another try, I could certainly show them where the good stuff can be found. Provided, of course, we can actually get to it; if that requires traveling via the Metro Rail Transit (MRT), it looks increasingly likely we would be completely out of luck, in much the same way a couple hundred thousand other commuters are finding themselves on an almost daily basis. Twice in three days (last Saturday, and then again this past Monday), the troubled commuter rail line along Edsa was forced to halt operations between Shaw Boulevard and Taft Avenue – the entire southern half of the line, in other words – because of problems with the system’s computers, adding to the misery of commuters who already are forced to contend with blocks-long lines just to board a train and constant mechanical breakdowns causing other delays.
The MRT was supposedly designed for a capacity of 350,000 passengers per day but regularly operates at nearly twice that, and clearly, the excessive use has taken its toll; so much so that the system has become unreliable enough to seriously consider whether or not it should be declared unusable. While desperately-needed system upgrades, particularly a fleet of new rolling stock, are in the works, the optimistic estimate is that the first of these won’t arrive for at least 18 months; given the pace at which major infrastructure developments generally proceed in this country – somewhere between “glacial” and “not at all” – the smart bet is that no noticeable improvement will happen in less than three or four years, by which time the system might very well have broken down completely.
If that happens, what is now a serious transportation crisis will become a full-blown disaster. Yet the government continues to display its typical inability to grasp the concept of “urgency,” instead proposing ludicrous solutions like a P135-billion subway and an additional extension to a light rail line to Cavite, even though the latter is a project which in 15 years of discussion has never actually advanced beyond the Department of Transportation and Communications’ collective imagination.
While it is an admittedly imperfect, stop-gap solution, making better use of former Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando’s system of designated bus lanes and organized stops along Edsa presents the government with an opportunity to ease commuters’ pain to some degree through the simple method of enforcing some traffic discipline. Segregating and strictly enforcing at least one “yellow lane” for buses only, and then keeping those buses moving through the stops (as opposed to halting for a number of minutes in an effort to collect more passengers) will not completely ease the burden on the MRT, but it will help, and do so at a cost that is practically nil. If nothing else, it would be a gesture with a great deal more meaning than “Sorry for the inconvenience” to persecuted commuters, and that alone would be a small step in the right direction.