The bumpy trail for child tour guides
My companion and I struggle to catch up with our guide Johnny* in the rock cliffs in Minalungao National Park, Nueva Ecija.
Though it is a tourist trail leading to World War II Japanese hide-out caves, the path is treacherous. One wrong move and you could end up with a large gash across your leg.
But 12-year-old Johnny is as nimble as a mountain dog, jumping from boulder to boulder, feet clad only in well-worn rubber slippers.
As we scramble from sharp rock to even sharper rock, I find out Johnny has been guiding tourists through the park since he was 7. With the money he earns as a guide, he has been paying for his own schooling without the help of his family who live with him in the village of Minalungao for which the park is named.
One year of saving up has even allowed him to buy himself a scooter which he proudly rides to school every day. He is the envy of his less independent peers.
Johnny is the perfect guide. He is serious and focused when guiding our bamboo raft past limestone boulders along Minalungao’s famous turquoise river.
He explains, with the gravitas of an academic, how the remains of two Japanese soldiers were found in a nearby cave and how locals don’t dare go deeper because of a metal object jutting out from the cave walls that may just be an undetonated bomb.
He quickly learns how to use our camera and expertly takes our cliff-jump videos.
Taste of independence
One of the first guides to start out very young, he has inspired other kids to take up the same livelihood. Two groups behind us are guided by kids even younger than Johnny.
While the tourists eat their lunch, the kids approach Johnny, obviously the leader of the pack.
Johnny and company are not the only child tour guides I’ve come across or heard about. In the more famous Mount Pulag National Park in Benguet, the growing number of climbers have attracted a new demographic of guides and porters.
These days, you may see girls and boys as young as 10 carrying bulging backpacks of well-paying climbers.
It’s understandable why kids would want this kind of work. It pays well and allows them to help their families. In the case of Johnny, it’s a source of pride and an early introduction to independence.
As far as employment goes, this racket can even be fun. Get paid to take tourists to the most beautiful spots in the country? Why not?
But as guides, these kids must also look after their tourists. When the trail gets bumpy, who will look after these kids?
Like any form of employment for children, tour-guiding forces these kids to grow up fast. Taking care of people older than you in extreme or potentially dangerous conditions requires grit and maturity.
Child tour guides must also expose themselves to the possibility of getting scammed as not all tourists are well-intentioned. Their young age might even make unscrupulous tourists think they can get away with it.
Guides like Johnny often don’t have the luxury of choosing who they will guide. In the end, they will just have to trust that the people they are guiding to a deserted neck of the woods are kindly, honest people.
There are obviously many risks in this kind of work. So what then should be done about child tour guides?
On one hand, some kids do it of their own volition because it helps their families and opens up opportunities. What right does anyone have to get in their way?
There are many other forms of child employment that are accepted by society. Have you seen Ryzza Mae Dizon’s latest commercial? Didn’t the whole country celebrate the launch of 9-year-old Lyca Gairanod’s singing career in “The Voice Kids”?
Is there a middle ground?
On the other hand, there are risks. They can be exploited, not least by their parents who now have another source of income to count on. Child tour guides may just be another form of subsistence in poor communities.
This lucrative livelihood could also be distracting kids from pursuing their education. At least Johnny is smart enough to use his earnings to put himself through school but do all kids think like Johnny?
I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do know the topic needs to be discussed openly. Knowing these kids exist is the first step to helping them.
Perhaps there is a middle ground. Maybe the Department of Tourism or Biodiversity Management Bureau who both handle ecotourism sites should establish regulations that would make it safe for child tour guides?
Maybe child tour guides should only be allowed to guide in certain parts of these sites and regulators should make sure they are not skipping school?
One thing I know for sure is no matter how serious these kids seem, they are still kids.
As we dock the bamboo raft into a riverbed marking the end of the tour, Johnny asks us one question.
Where can he find the biggest Ferris wheel in the country?
We make some suggestions and he takes note of them quietly. One day, perhaps, he’ll get to ride it. For once not the tour guide, but a tourist himself enjoying what the world has to offer for kids like him. – Rappler.com
*Author has changed subject's real name