Wow. It’s January, 2013 and already it’s been a full six months now that I’ve been here in the Philippines. I feel like I’ve only been here a few weeks, time has really sped by! I was asked recently if I had any second thoughts about coming here. Nope. In fact, it is all the more clear to me that, for me, this is where I belong. As I often say, “It’s not for everybody.”, but in my case it’s the happiest I’ve been in a long time. But not to say that it’s been easy or without it’s travails along the way. Through experience I’ve learned a few things during my time here. Some were new things, others were reminders. In no particular order, here are the ones that come to mind.
“Everybody sees Everything”
When I first arrived, apart from two people, nobody knew who I was or where I came from . I was a complete stranger.. for about a day. To me, I passed hundreds of unfamiliar faces as I went about the small, city blocks looking to secure water, internet, groceries, houseware items and more. I saw so many new people there was just no way to keep track of who I saw a day ago or 2 hours ago. But from the local end.. it was pretty obvious there was a new guy in the neighborhood. I now see that from the local’s point of view.. they only had to keep track of “that new foreigner” (me) who just arrived. It was only months later that I realized quite a few people had made mental notes of where they saw me in town, who I spoke with, where I went. I had some small idea this would happen from what I’d heard about the ‘bamboo telegraph’ of ‘chisme’ here.. but I way underestimated it.
Around here, the cheapest way to keep in touch is by texting. Just about EVERYONE, no matter what their income, has at least texting capability. Many are on unlimited plans so.. they text anything and everything they see. It’s like the unofficial internet of the Philippines. You think 14 year old American girls text a lot? You haven’t seen nothing til you take a look around here and see all the texting going on. In the US, I sent or got a text maybe 3 times a day. Here.. everybody texts me. Sometimes, a whole hour will go by just responding to texts coming in from two or three people at once. “Who wuz that girl u wer walkng wit ystrday?.. your wife? girlfriend??”, “saw u in marktplace, who u visiting?”, “who wuz that u had lunch wit a jollibee?” I mean, it’s just off the scale here, really. But I’ve gotten used to it. I was never into texting before but here, it’s become my new way of communicating. I’d say I use my phone for text about 95% of the time and make a voice call about 5% of the time.
Perhaps if you move to Manila or downtown Cebu you might slip in a little less noticed. But even then, the local neighborhood would still have made notice of your coming and going. And I’m not even the white skinned, blue eyed, blonde haired foreigner that can be spotted from 300 yards in a mall either. Despite my brown skin and dark hair it was easy for people to make note that I “wasn’t from around here” simply by way of the fact that they already grew up with and KNEW who was already in their own neighborhood. Add to that there is only one way to walk to the mall and people here remember when was the last time you passed by. Here, some people blow the whole day just sitting by the road selling some bbq or fruits and take note of when you pass by. After just two months, I was walking to the mall one night and some kid from across the street yelled out, “Where you going, Henry?“. Who was this kid? How did he know name? Why does he want to know where I’m going?
So the first thing I had to adjust to out here was a loss of the sense of anonymity. Back home in the States you just go about your business and nobody remembers seeing you. But here, if I so much as stopped on a street corner to talk to some woman for five minutes, two weeks later a bartender is commenting on how pretty the girl was that I was talking to, asking if that was my girlfriend. True story, the female bartender saw me from through the window and across the street. How do they remember this stuff? And why? Another time I took some photos on the other end of the island of some kids that were in the marketplace. A month or so later one of those kids stopped me at a mall on the other side of the island to let me know she’d seen her photo on my website. What are the odds I’d run into that same kid or that they’d remember me? I’ve sat in a chair just having a conversation and people passing by.. that I don’t even know, are pointing at me and talking like they recognize me from somewhere. It’s a whole other dimension to life that kinda took some getting used to.
“There are worse things than giant cockroaches.”
Before coming here, about the nastiest creature I’d ever seen was a ‘big’ cockroach that was almost an inch long. Here, not only are they almost two inches long.. but these bastards can fly too. But a bit of strategic spraying got them under control from my living space. But I soon learned there was something much worse than seeing a giant cockroach in the bathroom. It was the ‘Kissing Bug’. I swear.. I hate those evil things and have only encountered two. (so far) With a cockroach, they will spoil your appetite and freak you out. But for the most part are basically more loathsome than harmful. But these Kissing Bugs, also known as Assassin Bugs are pure evil. They come after you usually while you are asleep. Some of them have long range effects that don’t show up for almost 30 years with heart and stomach problems. But not the ones here in the Philippines. If one bites you, you’ll know pretty quick. The ones here cause what is called ‘necrosis’ of the flesh at the bite area. One of these evil creatures bit me on the foot at some point in time and within 12 hours it went from a strong itch to an open wound the size of a dime! All the skin was gone and it was as if someone had burned a cigar right into my skin. I kept alcohol and alcohol gel on it to keep it clean and dry it out. But it took almost 3 days for it to get a scab and stop from being a soft, open wound. I HATE these little bastards with a passion. (I would show you a photo I took of the wound, but it’s pretty gross so, I’ll spare you.)
That wound healed up within about ten days. But then about a month later I got bit AGAIN, on the back of my elbow. This time it’s taking longer to heal since I lean on my elbow a lot while typing and sometimes forget to keep antiseptic on it. They don’t move fast and they are kind of small.. just a little bigger than a tick and I absolutely hate them. The good thing is that by spraying a bit of Baygon under the bed and around the perimeter, he finally came crawling out to die within an hour. Which reminds me, time to spray again. Damn.. I hate them. They are categorized among the Top Ten World’s Most Dangerous Bugs. People here seem to be convinced the bites are from the cockroaches. Everything I read up on it says that is a myth and it’s this Assassin Bug that is the real culprit.
While I’m on the topic of bugs.. next on my list is definitely the mosquitoes. Up until now I’ve lived pretty much in the city so only once in a while do I end up in an area that has lots of mosquitoes. They need standing water to breed so it’s not so bad in the city. But the few times I’ve been in the province.. geez, I just wish I had a flame-thrower to deal with how many there seem to be. They mainly go after my lower leg area and arms. Around here there’s not much worry about malaria, that’s mostly in Northern Africa. But the concern I have with mosquitoes, aside from the annoying itch they give you, is Dengue Fever. That can lay you out for a week or two of feeling like crap. And in this heat.. no thanks. I’ve only heard of one or two mentions of it from ex-pats I talk to online over the last year and a half. But lately the news has been talking about up to a 25% increase in reported cases.. all from these pesky mosquitoes. I was told to get ‘shots’ before coming here. While that might have been a good precaution, there is no vaccine to prevent infection from Dengue. Like they say, “It’s the little things that get you.” I’ll be moving to the province in Bohol soon and am already planning to gear up with ‘mosquito coils’ (a burning incense coil with a smoke repellent), mosquito net for the bed, OFF! lotion and Baygon.
“Choose your friends carefully.”
I wasn’t even fully unpacked my 2nd day here when I was suddenly welcomed into a group of locals here working at the food mart in the mall. I was trying out the franchises here that were new to me as well as the street food, so they got to know me right away. As a new guy in town, it seemed like a great idea to suddenly get to know about a dozen people who were all being so very friendly and attentive. Well.. that turned out to be my first lesson in getting conned. Yes, they were very interested and all, but it didn’t take long before the expectation was that since they invited you ‘out’ for a night on the town.. your job was to pay for everything. Stopping in the mall to get myself some lunch suddenly went from talking with one person at a table to (through the miracle of texting).. having 6 to 8 people sitting at the table with you while you are the only one eating. Someone always ended up mentioning they didn’t have any money for food.. everyone else chimed in they were in the same position and there you are.. trying to enjoy your lunch in peace, which now you can’t.
Prices are cheap and so I started by offering to buy some rice and fried chicken. Then of course everyone wanted drinks. At first I thought, no big deal.. it’s just $7 or $9 USD to feed five or six people and everyone was having a great time. But the next day.. same expectation. Pretty soon I hadn’t even sat down and someone was asking, “So what are WE having for lunch today?” Even at $7 a pop.. it doesn’t take more than a week or a month before it starts to add up. Pretty soon I felt like, “How the hell did these guys survive before I got here anyway?” And mixed into this were the eventual ’emergencies’ of needing “just 200 pesos” but pretty soon I was being hit up for 500 then 800 pesos. Plus ‘transportation money’ so they could get home after work. Now.. the thing to keep in mind here is that 500 pesos may only be about $11.50, but that’s also nearly a full day’s wage here. So this would be the equivalency of someone back home constantly asking to borrow $60 to $80 every other time they saw you.
I finally had a serious sit-down with the main person in the group and said, “I don’t mind being generous once in a while.. but it should be MY idea, not an expectation.” They said they understood and apologized. And the next day went right back to doing it again. I found there was only one real way to bring it to an end.. I got a new SIMM card for about 50 cents to change my phone number and found new places to hang out for lunch.
Now, don’t get me wrong.. not all Filipinos do this. What I’ve found after six months is that there are plenty of people who genuinely are friendly and hospitable, expecting nothing in return. A family who had only met me once later put me up in their home for three days when I was in Bohol and simply would not hear of me giving them any money. They fed me, gave me a room and transported me to town and back several times. And they really didn’t know me, only on the recommendation of a family member of theirs. There are a lot of people I have now known as genuine friends here, just like my friends back in the States. But there is also an element of people who only see dollar signs when they see a foreigner. Like I said, I know now that the day I walked into that mall my first day off the plane.. these particular food-court employees KNEW that I was new to town and capitalized on it. So.. my first actual lesson here in the Philippines was to be a bit more patient in deciding who my new friends would be and not being so trusting, or generous, so quickly. I will sacrifice to help a true friend in need, but people you’ve only known for two weeks should not be leaning on you for money. It really is inappropriate to say the least.
“Always be drinking water.”
This wasn’t so much something I had to learn as something I had to make sure I practiced every day. I wasn’t here more than two hours before I got set up with a 5-gallon filtered water dispenser in my studio. Plus I keep about five bottles of water throughout the studio so that next to my bed, my desk, the table, the fridge.. I always have water in arm’s reach. With the humidity here.. you’re gonna sweat. Winter is not so bad unless you are outside mid-day. I also take a light backpack with me when I take a taxi across town, specifically so I have water with me. Not only is it a good idea to drink lots of water in general, but specifically.. if you sweat in this climate and drink more soda than water.. you run the risk of a urinary tract infection, kidney issues (stones) and/or fever and stomach issues. Too much rice and not enough water will definitely mess with your regularity. So.. I am all about drinking water here, especially with the hot season coming up in March.
“Never be in a hurry.”
It’s not just my perception.. things really do move slowly here. If you are not a patient person, you better become one.. quick. I have only been in a hurry twice since I got here. The rest of the time I can plan stuff a whole day ahead of time and deal with the local pace. It’s not that people don’t care. It’s just that things are often hampered by the lack of technology or infrastructure that we are accustomed to. Also, an important thing to keep in mind is that just about everyone you meet who works at any business here is usually working 10 to 12 hours shifts.. every day they come in. You might be catching them on the 10th hour of their shift, they’ve been on their feet all day and perhaps not as perky as they were 8 hours ago and still have two more hours before calling it a day. So.. try to factor that in before going ballistic about the pace of service you might be getting.
I went a while ago to get my driver’s license. First, the taxi driver took me to the wrong building. When I found the right building, I had to go make copies first. This was done by a lady around the building who had one job.. to push the ‘Print’ button on the copier for you.. and no, she wasn’t in a hurry. Then I went to get my drug test. That went fairly quickly, since I was the only one there. Almost done, just need to do the eye exam. Problem is.. the eye-exam guy went home for the day, I’ll have to come back tomorrow. Oh, and by the way.. they can’t issue me an actual card, only a paper license, because the lamination machine is broken. I could go to the other office across town.. but theirs is broken too. That’s pretty much par for the course here.
Now, to their defense they are very professional and thorough. Everybody here is willing to take the time to confirm your identity, follow up on finding an item you’re looking for, give you directions, etc. I went to a hardware store for an extension cord.. I ended up having eleven associates taking part in showing me the variety of cords available and at the ready to answer any question I had. Try getting that kind of attention at Home Depot.
Now, the time that I wanted to rush to the other side of town in a taxi.. all the taxis were gone because school had let out. Not a taxi to be found anywhere. So a line starts. I’m telling you, I’ve seen some foreigners get totally unglued, loud and irrational at the fact that they want to leave and there is no taxi around. It’s really sad to see. Grown men yelling and griping to no one and everyone around at the fact that there SHOULD be a taxi awaiting them. Well.. good luck with that. They’ll get there when they get there.
“It’s not ‘Lunch’.. it’s a Relationship.”
One of my favorite things to do back home is call up a female-friend and meet up for some lunch on a whim. If they’re available, I’m available.. what the heck, let’s meet in town.. have some lunch, get caught up. Well, I learned that is not a fad that caught on so casually over here. Asking a girl to meet up for some lunch is pretty much the same as telling her, “I want to meet so we can discuss our marriage plans over our first date.” It took me a while before I actually accepted that this is how it’s perceived over here. But lunch is not seen as just lunch between a male foreigner and a Filipina female. She’ll bring along her Mother, Aunt or sister.. partly because she wants a chaperon and partly because now that you’re “having lunch“.. you might as well meet your future in-laws.
Now, I’m a bit stubborn about this and I’ve managed to introduce the concept of “doing lunch” and kinda-sorta gotten a few girls to understand that lunch does not equal a marriage proposal. In fact my closest buddy, Kristine, and I will do lunch every so often and she’s totally cool with it. We eat.. get caught up on the latest and continue with our day. That’s how it ought to be. But ladies like her are rare so, if you ask a Filipina to meet you for lunch.. just save yourself some time and bring along an engagement ring.
“Sorry, no monkeys today.”
I had this hope that when I got here I would have a local monkey who stopped by to eat fruit from my patio that I’d leave for him in a wooden bowl or, preferably, half a coconut shell. We’d get to be friends and maybe he’d bring along some of his close monkey friends for some photos and maybe I’d even teach him how to ride a bike or paint or something. Basically, I figured monkeys were going to be part of the whole package of moving here to the Philippines. I didn’t want a caged monkey or one on a leash, mind you. Just a local monkey who was free to come and go on his own schedule and make the day interesting every so often. You know, just meet up and ‘do lunch’ when it fit both our schedules. I wasn’t expecting gorillas or chimps.. but some macaques would work out just fine. A Capuchin monkey if it wasn’t too much to ask.
Six months and.. still no monkey.
Now.. the big-eyed Tarsiers on Bohol are primates and all but.. they don’t move around much in the day. They are, as monkeys go, pretty damn lazy actually. What I want is a macaque who likes to play with kid’s toys and laser pens and hopefully doesn’t end up stealing my cell phone or throwing crap at me. I’m moving out to the province area of Bohol next month where there are miles and miles of jungle to be had around my place. People tell me there are no monkeys there but.. with all those trees and bananas everywhere, I say there’s just GOT to be at least one monkey. We’ll see when I get there. But so far, here on Mactan.. no monkey.
I’ve learned quite a few other things as well but these are the main ones that come to mind. Oh, one last one would be, “Expect the power to go out sometime during the week or month. Guaranteed.” And also, “Keep a basin of bathing water on reserve, for when the pump to the water tower breaks.. again.” We’ll see how things go between now and my first full year here. I’m sure it will be every bit as much an adventure as it’s been so far. Despite the seeming inconveniences and issues with bugs, all in all I love being here in the Philippines. The people overall are very polite and kind. The food is delicious and the women are just amazingly beautiful. The beach water is warm every day of the year. All I need now is a monkey and I’ll be in total bliss.
After 49 years living in Southern California, USA, I decided to move to the Philippines despite never having been here before. In July, 2012, I took a leap of faith and transplanted myself to the amazing Philippines. I am a single man taking an honest look at all that the islands here have to offer, one day at a time. I hope you find my LBTSea site informative, entertaining and hopefully a bit of each. 🙂 Be sure to visit the Forum and other parts of what the site has to offer. Browse around and be sure to sign up for updates via email. Enjoy!