Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Letters from Port Moresby - Of dollars and euros sent home

A worker counts dollar bills being exchanged inside a money changer in Manila, Philippines early this month.

Of dollars and euros sent home

JPHS Batch '65
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
I SHOULD be home in Manila by the time the 11th edition of your news tunnel – the MWBuzz – comes online.
Coming home for month-long break has always been an exciting event for anyone who works overseas. But more so with your love ones who are just ready welcome you with open arms and open hearts.
You work for 11 months and on the 12th month take off for a grand holiday, that is, if you got money.
If not, and that you’re just relying on your employer’s generosity in the form of a one-month vacation pay, then you just go straight home. All the while you try to figure out -- and wonder -- how long would such a vacation pay last.
Most OFWs, especially those with families back home, return for a much-needed break with only a few currencies in their wallets.
It really can’t be helped. Whatever they make from their job just breezes away by the palm and goes straight to their friendly money remittance service.

       Families of OFW’s filling up the forms to convert  their currency into pesos. A 
       common sight at SM money exchange counter. -  Photo  courtesy of Dreyes
Especially now when the hiring rates in the Middle East have gone down due to stiff competition from other nationalities who are willing to work for peanuts. That means you’re sending less this time, but still thankful that you have a job.
But its natural – everyone has to survive, and accepting a pittance is survival in a sense.
And back home, the family expenses would usually overwhelm the wife: bills on electricity, water, cooking gas, cable TV, school fees, school bus fares, transport fares, weekly grocery and many more.
Not to mention medical emergencies such as hospitalization, in which one has to cough up at least P10,000 before the doctor lets you occupy one of the beds in a crowded ward.
As more money flows into the family coffers, more money also flows out soon after.
I wonder if 70 per cent of our OFWs are able to stash some money on the side “for the rainy days” after getting their pay checks.
It goes without saying therefore that an OFW is just left with some spending money – for food, gasoline, cell phone load and some money that would afford him to sip a cappuccino at a gourmet coffee shop – and in my case here in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea – at Figaro.
Many years ago, I often heard my mom giving her two cents of advice to “paalis na mga OFWs” who were relatives.
She told them: “’Wag mong ipadala lahat ng sinasahod mo sa asawa mo …magtabi ka rin kahit paunti-unti para sa gayon, hindi ka naman mag-mukhang kawawa pag-uwi mo sa bakasyon… alalahanin mo na pag nandoon kana sa bahay mo, malalaman mo na marami palang dapat ipagawa sa paligid ng bahay, pero wala ng pera ang asawa mo … yong naitabi mo eh makakatulong ng malaki…”
It was the same advice that mother gave my father when he worked overseas.
Mom knew how hard it was for any OFWs like my father to survive and still possess that spirit that would keep him up and in one piece till the next “going home time”.
She had never questioned him as to why he only sent that much. She did understand my dad’s needs at work so she just welcomed whatever that came through the bank every month.
But as always, my father had seen to it that we had enough back home - especially now that everybody was in school.
And true to my mom’s speculation, father had some money stashed in his “maleta”, which he gladly turned over to her as soon as he came home for a break.
At the very beginning, that’s when my father first went overseas -- to Guam -- in the 60s, mother had already practiced frugality, aware that he won’t be working overseas for long.
Although she had enough to splurge on something – she was never tempted to waste it, reminding herself that “bakit ako gagaya sa kapitbahay natin …?” who had OFWs in the family and were feeling one-day millionaires every time their remittance came.
Such mentality had become their undoing later.
And mom had told my father in letters that he should also keep some money for himself and that if he can save it, the better.
All this paid off.
My six siblings and I all went to school and earned degrees, without much financial hassles. We did not have that surplus, but we sailed on comfortably.
Mom had saved for the rainy days.


                                                          Tintin and me last year at home.

Turning 64 in the next few days, I wonder about my financial future.

Would my employer still hire me once I turned 65 -- the age of force retirement here in Papua New Guinea?

If the company could not continue doing so, me being an old cow at 65, what do I do?
Do I go home and enjoy my retirement or find a new job just to keep my engine running?

On a happy note, I should be able to work some more and continue being productive.
As an expatriate here in Port Moresby with still employable skill, I should do fine.

Luckily, I have solved the nasty problem arising from working permit that every foreigner in this country is required to have.

About six months ago, the Immigration Office granted me a PR Status, making me a Permanent Resident of Papua New Guinea. It’s the poor counterpart of the US Green Card. 

But then, this is just as good, because I would no longer be required to produce a working permit from the Labor office, without which you are considered illegal alien.
I could stay in the country and float around as long as I don’t commit crime, and could go back home and stay there for at least six months and come back again without having entry visa problem. And jump from one employer to another without having to present a valid working visa.

But since the only job I know is newspaper work, how do I fare outside? 
There are only two mainline newspapers here – my employer The National,  the biggest daily in the country, and the Post-Courier, an alleged pseudo-racist daily, whose paper I don’t bother to read.

That’s the biggest question I faced right now – I got no place to go for a living.
And I have an 11-year-old daughter who is just starting to see the wonder of being in school, and looks forward to taking a nursing degree many years from now. “I’d like to take care of you daddy, when you grow old … so I want to be a nurse…” 

How can you not work continuously?

But by then, I would be a dry prune, with lesser earning capacity. How do we survive?
Well, as I have always believed: God will provide.

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        Departing OFWs mill around the OFW lounge at the NAIA while clearing their travel 
        papers with OFW staff.

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