It’s my guess that nothing in this world is ‘all’ any one thing. Los Angeles is not ‘all’ bad. Nor is it all good either. I’ve only been to New York once, years ago during a light snow. In some ways it was very nice, I could see where some people relate to themselves as ‘New Yorkers’ and love it there. But, oh my God.. some parts of it were like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. I was in a rental car with some buddies and we got lost in some housing area that actually looked like a nuclear test zone. Gutted buildings, deserted city streets, weeds in the road. Darkness everywhere. But you knew there were people hiding in there, in the night.. watching us, waiting for us to run out of gas. It was a bad scene and I’m glad we made it out of there in one piece.
So, yesterday I decided to catch a movie on a neighboring island since my island is too small to warrant a movie theatre. I’m just thankful they have an excellent dance-bar on this coconut filled spot in the ocean. So I get myself to the neighboring island called Cebu, see the movie I wanted to watch (at 1/3 the price of ‘back home’) and then catch another cab. I tell the cabbie to take me to ‘Mango Square Mall’. It’s a place I’d heard referred to by other ex-pats and was told there’s a giant night-club there.. bigger than anything I’ve ever been to and I wanted to take a look-see. Not to go in, it’s only a Wednesday and it’s still 4pm so I figured they’d be closed. But I wanted to know the layout so I wouldn’t be so lost if/when I return at night in the future.
As the cab snakes his way through the urban blight I notice the further I got from the shiny and polished SM Mall in Cebu, the grittier and nastier the scene became. And it just kept on getting worse. New York has some nasty spots but at least the architecture somewhat distracts you. Not here. Finally he pulls suddenly over and says, ‘Here, Sir!’. I slide him some dirty, frayed Pesos and step out onto the cracked and uneven sidewalk as he speeds off. Now, over the years I’ve walked some pretty nasty areas of Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada, Chapatulpec, Los Angeles and some towns you’ve probably never heard of, so I’m no stranger to the desperate sides of town. For some bizarre reason as yet still unknown to myself, I feel gravitated to such areas. I once had to kill two hours on Rodeo Drive in L.A. for a casting call audition and that place gave me the heebie-jeebies. I didn’t trust a face there. I didn’t know their motives. I didn’t share their views. I couldn’t wait to get out of that place and take a shower.
But give me the exhaust filled air of the bad side of town and then I can relax. I know what this side of town is about.. survival. I know a street hustler when I hear one. Same deal coming from those pretty-girls with cement scratches on their once-shiny stiletto heels. They aren’t making conversation with me because of my subtle charm. No, it’s all about the dollar in these parts. And here it was, just a few blocks from Velez College.. as gritty as it gets. No white, sandy beaches here.
After a bit of footwork I finally located the ‘Mango Square Mall’. It was right where the cab had left me, but I had walked away from it because after going around the block and coming back it was so much NOT like anything that should be called a mall that I’d failed to see it. What the heck.. I walked in. First thought that came to my mind was, “Wow.. what a dump.” I mean, I’ve been to better malls on the poor side of my own island. This place has 3 levels to it and only perhaps 10% of the available suites had any kind of business open. The rest were just abandoned, dark suites nobody in their right mind would try to run a business in. It was like looking into the mouth of an old street woman with four teeth. Nothing about this place had any shininess to it at all. Aside from myself, there were perhaps three other ‘customers’ there. And they seemed to be just taking a shortcut to the other side of the block.
After my two-minute tour, which was two minutes too long, I was outta there and back on the streets. Not much better. I picked a direction at random and started walking. It just got worse. I took a left at the main street and walked along in no particular hurry. (Side Note: I later found out, had I taken a ‘right’ instead and gone another seven blocks I’d have arrived at the Robinson’s Mall.. one of the nicest in Cebu. Just my luck, go figure.) I didn’t want to waste time though finding the club I was looking for so I stopped a guy at random and asked, “Hey, you know where is Club Juliana’s?”
“Oh yes!..”, geez, first guy I talk to and I can tell he’s a hustler, “..follow me, I show you! Right this way, Sir!” He’s walking quickly so I let him get way ahead of me. A few minutes later I’m a few blocks down the road and he’s there standing in a big parking lot. “It’s not open, not until tonight.. then, many girls.. much dancing, drinking!” His enthusiasm was getting on my nerves because at some point this is going to lead to him wanting my money in some way. “But what can I get you now? You need a girl? I get you Filipina.. you want Japanese? I get you sexy Korean girl, very small.”
“No.. I just wanted to know where the club was, for some Friday night. That’s all, thanks. Bye.” Now, what about that was unclear? But this guy wasn’t going away. I walked away, getting my bearings so I could find the place again in the dark. It was two blocks down from a place with a big sign that said, “PILLS AND MORE”.
Long story short, not even trying to lose him in a crowded store worked. This hustler was dogging my trail for five blocks. I finally decided to just buy him off and reached for whatever pesos and change I had in my ‘low-pocket’. (I separate my my high bills from my low bills when in sketchy areas of town). I said, “Thanks for the club info.. here, I gotta go.”, and shoved a 20 Peso bill with some change into his hand and walked away. I flagged down a cab and was lucky enough that the first one I waved down pulled right over. Again the hustler was now at my cab door, “Sir, this is not enough.. I need money.” “Me too.”, I responded as I closed the door and waved the cabbie to get a move on. He gunned it back into traffic as I locked my door. I eased back into the seat after telling the cabbie where to take me. He knew the way and it was gonna be about a 30 minute ride so, I figured I’d get comfortable. What is it with the radio stations in these cabs in the Philippines?.. are they all required to play the same Richard Marx song at least once while driving a fare?
So what have I seen and what thoughts come to mind after exploring the various levels of the unpleasant side of paradise these last seven weeks? Well, to me it boils down to one simple reality. And it is this, that being dead-broke poor has everything to do with location-location-location. In my mind, one of the worst places to be poor is in the Big City. In the big city, paradise is the last thing on your mind. There are no natural resources anywhere and the city blight alone is enough to depress almost anyone. Everything is covered in cement or asphalt. Very few trees. Just broken down buildings with graffiti and trash instead of leaves or flowers. And to add insult to injury, constantly being surrounded by people doing much better than yourself. That’s gotta suck.
But even this is not the deepest, darkest ring of poverty. There is one place worse. The outskirts of the city where everything the city does not want is tossed into a pile where some people make a ‘living’ looking through it for something remotely edible or of value, even if only to build a shanty-home with near the dump. That’s about the absolute worst it gets, to me. God have mercy on these people in the afterlife because they’ve already lived through hell on earth, in my opinion. If anyone deserves heaven, it’s these people.
The next level ‘up’ in locations to be poor is in the small towns. There.. you got a chance. You can pull together a small business selling just about anything. I’ve seen people walking around selling clean rags sewn into pads. Selling rags, and people buy them to clean their kitchen counters or dishes. People make brooms out of dried branches and sell those. They sell boiled corn. Some of them sit there selling a mound of fresh coconuts they yanked down from a tree the day before. In the small towns, you can make it if you really try. Maybe not rich, but people there make ends meet. Even send their kids to school so they can become nurses and such.
But, if you ask me, the next (and best) level ‘up’ in location for being poor is the folks who live out in the provinces. For one thing, out there.. most everyone else is poor too. Nobody is looking down at you. No people passing by every few minutes in nice clothes you can’t afford. Everybody knows everybody and everybody is just ‘living the life’ of life on the farm. And scenery.. I went out to the province and it’s some of the most beautiful countryside God ever created. The ocean nearby, jungle everywhere. Green, green and more green! No cement parking lots. No graffiti. Just mango trees, coconut trees, banana trees.. all with edible fruit you can grab with a rope or pole and EAT. These ‘poor’ people may not have indoor plumbing in many cases, but they have the sounds of the jungle at night, the stars overhead and the moon shining on true paradise in every direction. It’s a simple life. No smartphones, no iPads, no aimless television shows.. just beautiful country, simple meals and old-school living. If I had to be poor in paradise.. that’s where I’d want to be doing it, in the provinces. Give me that jungle life over the urban squalor any day.
So why do I tell you this? For the same reason I tell kids there’s no Santa Claus. It’s better to deal with reality than fantasy. And the great part is, both sides of the story are true when it comes to the Philippines. There really are white sandy beaches, with clear blue water that is warm.. all year around. The food is cheap and Filipinos are for the most part wonderful people. It really can be paradise.. if you just come in knowing it’s not ALL paradise. Ask anyone who has actually LIVED in Hawaii and they’ll tell you. There’s the ‘tourist areas’ of Hawaii where people rush around for a week or two catching all the wonderful sights, beaches, hotels, restaurants, pools and beautiful sunsets along the coasts. And then there’s the inner-city life, at the middle of the island. Where all those hotel bell-boys and female waitresses go home after work each day. There’s the same urban blight that is inherent anywhere there are too many people in too small an area. Not even Hawaii is paradise. Singapore?.. yah, maybe now you’re getting close as far as no urban blight. But the cost of living and legal restrictions are a direct trade-off.
For my money, and life.. it’s better in the Philippines. It’s all about where you decide to live. You want my advice? Unless you love places like Central Los Angeles, CA.. don’t move to Manila. Choose a smaller, less populated island. Find yourself a nice little barangay (village) along the coast or jungle where you can still get to a decent sized town in an hour or less. Building a home is cheap, less than $30k depending on your square footage and it’ll be paid for when it’s completed. Try doing that on $30k back home. For now, I’m on Mactan. It’s a little island less than 14 miles long and less than 8 miles wide. It’s what I call ‘mid-gritty’ compared to what I’ve seen over the years. I love it. I’m not here to impress anyone and the people are friendly enough that I don’t even have to try. Cost of living is cheap and I feel I’m doing some good spending my Pesos on the local economy, supporting small businesses run by families.. as it should be. Eventually I’ll find myself some small barangay, away from it all.. build a house with the love of my life and spend my final days with the sand between my toes as I look out over the crystal blue ocean. That’s later, God willing. For now, give me the gritty street life that’s still stirring at 2am any night of the week.
I can always grab a cab and catch a movie if I want. Visit the Big City and deal with it on my own, short, terms. Or take a Trike-ride to the nearest dance-club on a whim. The beach is never more than four miles away in any direction. I’m in a peaceful community away from the minor traffic of the four-corner area where the mall is a few blocks away. New York city? They can have it. Los Angeles? Keep it.
Life is a little gritty and real here in paradise, but for me.. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Henry ‘Reekay’ V.
About Me.. In 2011 I made the decision to move to the Philippines within a year. Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat. (Mactan, Bohol, Panglao, Moalboal, Dumaguete, Bacong, Boracay, Cebu) I recently spent the year living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Share with me here my ongoing adventures of life in the Philippines. Dating, vlogging, cooking, traveling and sharing the information with you needed to make your own plans for living as a full-time expat in Southeast Asia.