I’m back from R&R after 9 flights, countless hours on air and in airports, lots of reunions and tons of (you guessed it!) Target shopping trips. I’ll post more about it this week (I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as I hoped, boo!), but for now a bit about Manila.
Jill is having another Foreign Service Blog Round Up, and the topic this time around is the 5 pros/cons of where we live. Always a great topic for those researching future posts, specially when bidding season comes around.
Earlier this year, I wrote a post of what makes me happy in Manila so needless to say, the 5 pros will be repeated, as nothing has changed since then.
The cons part is definitely a touchy subject: how can you be honest with the cons without offending the local folks that will come across this post? So for any pinoys reading this, it’s my opinion, coming from a foreigner perspective, but a foreigner that has actually traveled a lot around the world. I do have my share of cons about living in the US, and even about my own country, Brazil. So please don’t get too caught up in the cons without also taking note that I certainly appreciate the pros.
Without further ado…
5 Pros of Living in Manila
After the amazing opportunity we had to travel around Asia, I can’t help but again mention the travel as the top pro. After all, you have many amazing islands of the Philippines to be explored (must like water!)…
And so many amazing culturally-rich countries just a short flight away…
If you know how to get the best travel deals (“like” Cebu Pacific on facebook, and once a week deals pop up, and go on their site to book. Be somewhat flexible with your dates – if one weekend is sold out of the promo, try another one, and you can score great deals), you can travel within the Philippines for less than $100 round trip (most often we pay about $50 for our round trip tickets), and travel around Asia for between $100-$150 for your round trip tickets. The most we paid for a ticket was for our new year’s trip to Singapore, which was NOT during a promo, and bought just over a month before the flight on the busiest travel time of the year, so we spent about $250/person on them, and that was definitely a splurge, but at the end, it was the best option for us, since we wouldn’t be spending money on a hotel so it was still cheaper than traveling locally but paying for hotels during that time. (We did spend quite a bit when traveling with my parents to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but that was due to the odd routes and not using discount airlines.)
Stressed out with work, traffic, pollution, or who needs an excuse to be pampered, damn it?! The Philippines is the place for you! It is super affordable to get great massages here (we get a full body or foot massage about once weekly, and it’s heaven), manicures, pedicures and facials are also a fraction of what you’d pay for it in the US. The options of spas are endless – I have about half a dozen massage places within a couple of blocks from my building!
3) Household staff!
Yep, in Manila you can actually afford to have a staff, and most people here have a helper (maid/nanny/cook/does it all) and a driver. We also have both, and we’ve been very happy with them. Our helper leaves our place spotless, does our laundry, walks the dog, pet sits when we’re out of town, does our grocery shopping and cooks us dinner (and she would cook me lunch and breakfast too if I asked). We even bake our own bread and grind our own chicken (and by we I mean she), and she is actually excited to learn a new recipe or try something different. Both our helper and our driver have never rolled their eyes at us, or answered anything without a smile on their faces. They’re not perfect – who is? – but our life in the Philippines is definitely easier with them than without them.
My parents loved her too when they came to visit, and were also impressed by how careful our driver is, in a country where no one is really careful behind the wheels.
Though I do miss driving (in roads like the US, not here), we are so so screwed when we move back to DC and all of a sudden dishes are not magically taken care of, and laundry washed and folded daily…
Sure, diving is not for everyone, but if you have ever wanted to learn, this is the place to do it. Getting certified is not super cheap (thanks to PADI’s fees), but certainly more affordable than the US. But diving IS affordable here, and there are so many places to explore! Sure, you have to get OUT of Manila, but you’re within driving distance or a short flight to some amazing coral reefs!
Just like you can afford to travel, dive, hire household staff and get others to pamper you, you can afford pretty much most things in general (except shopping at the mall – that’s expensive!). But want to go out to dinner and have drinks? Assuming you’re not ordering US/Australian steak, anything else (yep, even sushi!) is a super good deal. Taxes are already included in the prices, so there are no extra surprises, and gratuity is 10% so not much is added to your end bill either. It’s nice to go out to eat without breaking the bank, specially when you first arrive and you have none of your kitchen stuff so most of your meals are eaten out. I’m still not a fan of Filipino food, but they can cook the hell out of any other cuisine, so you won’t go hungry! You can find anything from sushi, to Korean, to Indian, to Italian, to vegetarian…
5 Cons of Living in Manila
1) Traffic and drivers
Yep, traffic here sucks. We’re lucky enough to live in Makati, so we walk most places and not have to endure much much (and Karl’s commute home is before things get really bad so he’s home within 30-40 minutes after leaving the embassy most days, which is faster than my commute from DC to Arlington used to be), but traffic here is a pain. On the bright side, if you do get into an accident it’s unlikely that it’ll be serious (you’re never going much more than 25 miles per hour after all).
Plus, people here are HORRIBLE drivers. Filipinos are super nice and friendly, but I don’t know what is about them that once they’re behind the wheels of a car/jeepney/motorcycle/bus/truck they become, for the lack of a better word, a—holes. Sorry, but true. I’ve gotten close to being run over MANY MANY times while crossing the street with the pedestrian light in MY favor, with a driver running a red light ignoring the fact that I’m already in the middle of the road (yes, I’ve slapped my share of car hoods to make them stop).
Traffic and drivers here make me angry, it stresses me out, and there are days I say out loud “I HATE THIS COUNTRY!” – in general, I don’t hate it here (if you’ve been reading, you know that’s true), but as I walk everywhere I do get frustrated how this is never a “pedestrian have the right of way” (even when they do!) culture. Plus, a friend of mine once had to find a jeepney to get her and her students across a flooded area, and they needed to make sure the driver had a driver’s license before loading the student. It took them 45 MINUTES to find a jeepney driver that was licensed. 45 minutes to find a public transportation driver licensed!!! So when I say people here don’t know how to drive and don’t know what the hell they’re doing, I’m really not exaggerating.
2) The Jeepneys
Ah, they were so exotic at first, and we thought they added so much character to the city! And then suddenly you can’t stand seeing the sight of them, how much black smoke comes out from their exhaust pipe, how badly they drive, how they stop in the middle of the road to drop/pick up passengers and clog up roads all the time, making bad traffic even worse. And SPECIALLY how for some convoluted reason, they think headlights = using more gas, so even though their steel construction is a great camouflage at night, they keep ALL their lights off surprising you in the dark and scaring the bejeesus out of you.
I know lots of people depend on them to get around, but making sure their drivers are licensed, that they have emissions and other inspection, and that they must follow traffic laws or get ticketed, would go a long way here. Personally, I think replacing them with larger/cleaner buses would be the way to go. And do you think a jeepney vs a pedestrian, that the pedestrian would have any chance of survival?
You know the Asian efficiency you hear so much about? Yep, that doesn’t exist here. Blame it on their Spanish settlement, or heck, blame it on the Americans if you’d like, but if there’s an efficient way to get something done, trust me that is not what most Filipinos in the Philippines are doing. Part of it comes from the fact that anyone in the service industry here is either bad at it, or they’re learning. Because the good ones? All leave and go overseas.
You know how you order an appetizer and/or a drink with your meal? It’s not unusual for the appetizer to arrive after your entrée, and even for your beer to show up then (don’t they get it that they’d make more money if people were drinking more?). I usually ask for water, and that is also a 15 minute ordeal, at least! Ah, and also not unusual for my food to show up a good 10-15 minutes before Karl’s (or vice-versa). Eating in a group makes it even more frustrating. Once with a group of 20 people, some folks got their entrees over an HOUR after the first people had finished eating. Seriously.
And if you’re not convinced of their inefficiency at a restaurant, go to the airport. Oh my gosh, the lines! At this last trip, from the time we arrived at the airport, to the time we got to the gate, it took us ONE HOUR. And we had priority check in, thanks to upgraded tickets AND we get to go through the diplomatic line at immigration. I can’t even imagine how long it would take if we had regular lines for both.
And your luggage? It will easily take almost an hour to show up. You know when the belt gets full, in other airports there are handlers picking up the luggage putting on the side to make space to the other luggage that’s arriving? Not here. They will stop loading the belt instead until there’s more space, then the machinery will kick in again. It’s a very frustrating process (specially bad with Terminal 1, they have their crap together much better at Terminal 3).
Need more examples? Once we arrived just on schedule and the immigration line was open only to “Filipino passport holders only” – in other airports, the officers would instead take one person from each line to get them both moving, until the other lines opened up. Here? Foreigners had to wait TWENTY MINUTES until the people handling the foreigners line showed up (with Jolibee bags – nice to know that they were out getting breakfast, while the rest of us were tired from a redeye flight just wanting to go home). We were the first ones in line, by the time they showed up, more than one flight had arrived and the line behind us disappeared around the corner. No apologies for the wait either.
So yeah, inefficiency. I have hundreds of example of similar situations. It really gets to you after a while. One more reason why traveling outside the country is important (even if you do have to endure the airports, luckily, Cebu Pacific flies out of Terminal 3, which can handle the crowds much better than Terminal 1, sadly where most US and foreign carriers fly in/out of).
4) “Wait a While, Ma’am”
If I can never hear the sentence above again, it won’t be too soon. Though Filipinos speak English, there’s a lot of things that they say in one context and it means something else, but they don’t get it. For the American being told “wait a while” means that I’m going to be here for a loooong time. What Filipinos mean is “just a minute” – but they NEVER say “just a minute” instead they tell you “wait a while” and your blood automatically boils.
Another one that happened to us? Asking the hostess how long was the wait to be seated if we wanted to put our name on the wait list, we were told “Maybe an hour, if ever” – and she honestly wasn’t trying to be a bitch!
5) The crowds, poverty and contrast between rich & poor
Karl would kill me if I were to make a social commentary (such as how the rich are all against the reproductive health bill, which would provide free birth control to the poor, because *they* can afford their birth control fine, and if the population number got under control, there wouldn’t be so much poverty, so they wouldn’t be able to afford so many household staff – yes, the rich usually have more than one helper, and they pay them a third of what us embassy people do).
But anyway, no social commentary, right? But the poverty here is heartbreaking, the rich are VERY rich (and not nearly as nice and polite as the poor, I guess they don’t need to know manners, because why bother, they’re rich) and seeing that on a day to day basis really gets to you and frustrates you even further (learn how to cope with frustration if you’re moving to Manila).
I’ll refrain from commenting more, since being here on a diplomatic visa means I should keep these social commentaries to myself (or at least is what my husband tells me, so we just discuss these things among ourselves), but gosh, people, please get it that when your poor ascends to a better status the whole country goes up with it! If you already have a population problem today, 30% of your workforce work overseas, English is no longer taught in schools (and let’s face it, it’s the fact that your workforce speak English the reason why they get those overseas and call center jobs to begin with), what the hell are you going to do with all these people in ten years? The country cannot accommodate them now, do you really think that as the population keep increasing it’ll get any better?
Anyway, enough about the cons. There are more, of course, like the pollution, the dirt, the public urination (even by adult males in a playground in the middle of the day!), but there are many other pros too that I didn’t talk about, so we’ll leave it at that.
But let’s just say that after being gone for 2 weeks and enduring Terminal 1 on our arrival (it took 50 minutes until our bags showed up, fun times, and I was even questioned in a not very nice way why I was standing near the belt when my husband was there – I HAVE AS MUCH OF A RIGHT TO STAND HERE AS YOU DO, AND IF YOU WANTED MY SPOT, GET HERE FIRST, AND WE HAVE FOUR BAGS AND THERE IS NO WAY HE CAN HANDLE ALL FOUR IF THEY ARRIVE ALL AT THE SAME TIME, WHICH THEY DID, AND I’M MUCH BETTER AT IDENTIFYING THEM THAN HE IS, AND STOP HITTING ME WITH YOUR BAG AND TOUCHING MY CARRY ON, AND I’M SO GLAD THAT MY BAGS ARRIVED BEFORE YOURS, YOU IDIOT, SINCE YOU HIT ME WITH YOUR BAG FOR NO REASON WHEN YOUR FIRST BAG ARRIVED, “EXCUSE ME” GOES A LONG WAY, AS WELL AS ASKING FOR HELP IF YOU’RE TOO WEAK TO LIFT YOUR HEAVY BAG BY YOURSELF). Uh, enough of a rant, but it sucks to be right back into the frustration less than an hour after landing.
*Deep breaths* *Deep breaths*