The Gritty Side of Paradise

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 now, many years later, here I am in ‘the tropics’.  Balmy weather.  Swaying palm trees, beautiful beaches and more lovely, demure women than you can manage to focus on in ten lifetimes.  I love swinging in the hammock after the sun has gone down.  It’s typhoon season which means plenty of lightning and thunder almost every night, something I really enjoy.  (Aside from the power outages, those suck.)   It’s ‘paradise’.. right?  Well, for me it is.  I love it here!  I have a life of leisure, expenses are low and I don’t have to impress anybody here.  I can just do what I do.

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. 


Author: Reekay V.

Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat and spent 1999 living in Vietnam.

Share with me my ongoing adventures of life in the Philippines. Hopefully you find my observations helpful in your own adventures.
— Reekay


  1. Henry, i came across your website few days ago & have read all your entries….it is very entertaining, informative, so true of what you said abt the Philippine glad that you are enjoying your stay..i was born in the Philippines but have lived in NJ for the past 40+ yrs, recently retired & planning a visit to my hometown in the bicol region in about a year..good luck to you and be careful out there, nel

    1. Thanks, Nel! It’s good to know folks are enjoying the end product of the time and energy I put into each entry. It encourages me to continue. 🙂 There is so much going on here, so much to explore still! I wish you the best in making it to your home-town here soon.

  2. Henry, I have been reading your blog just a few weeks before you left for the Philippines. I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your articles. Excellent writing and story telling! One of my pet-peeves is badly written blogs, probably because I myself is not a very good writer and my grammar is atrocious, so I don't want to read bloggers who's worst than I am but, I digress.

    Anyway, you are very brave to visit the "ghetto" part of the Philippines. I would be too afraid to go in that part of the city. I agree, that if I have to be poor, I would rather live in the province instead of a big city.

    1. I actually break the rules.. a lot, when writing. But so does every writer who finds their 'style' or voice. I guess there's a difference when you know which rules you're breaking as opposed to just not knowing what the rules are. ha! I'm kinda OCD when it comes to spelling, one of my pet peeves. I go over every draft at least three times and still miss things occasionally.

      Perhaps one of these days I'll have the better sense to avoid the 'bad' parts of town. But for the most part what I see are not criminals, but simply poor people trying to make a living. Desperate people do desperate things, so I try to keep as alert as I can. But I'm no Superman, at some point I suppose I'll retire to the white sandy beaches and be happy with my coconut drink in hand while watching the beach girls from my hammock. 🙂

  3. You getting religious on us Henry with all this God this and that. Philippines must be washing off on you. LOL I am a little lost on which Mactan you are on but the one I know has beautiful subdivisions and beach areas. There is the gritty side of things in all the cities. Again I would suggest you take a look at Dumaguete as a place to consider hanging your hat. 5 Universities, tons of students, Cock Fight Arena, beautiful seaside Blvd unlike anywhere else in the Country. just about everything you could imagine for a nice comfortable life and an easy jump off to some other islands.. Then there is Valencia over 2,000′ in elevation above Dumaguete. Head South and there is Tambobo bay. And finally many expats which is both a pro and con but a beautiful seaside town. Frankly, where you are now is not the Philippines. Get on the overnight ferry and check it out but for crying out loud get out of Mactan and Cebu. Just my two cents after seven years.

    1. I went over the article again just to be sure, but the only ‘God’ references I made were the following;
      “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.” And..
      “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.”

      That’s hardly giving a sermon or getting ‘all religious’ on anyone. I simply believe that when making plans for the future I should account for the variable that perhaps God has different plans than my own. Heck, when I was 17 my plans were to move to Brazil by the time I was 21 and live ‘off the grid’. But things obviosly took a different turn. (I was on the right track though, still ended up in the tropics.) As for the people sifting through the garbage to survive, they do deserve heaven far more than these Jersey idiots or ‘Real’ Housewives of wherever, in my opinion. I don’t know anyone who could make a good argument for the reverse.

      And like I said in my quote, I don’t plan on staying in Mactan forever. This is my first landing base to get situated. One reason I chose here is because my g/f is in Cebu. Dumaguete sounds like my kind of place and I have it on my list of places to check out. It may be out of my price range, I’ll have to scout around and see since I’m on a short budget. Plus, in Mactan I can see my g/f with a $4 cab ride in about 15 minutes, it’s less than 10 miles to her place. Living in Dumaguete would put me 86 miles from Cebu City. So, for me at this point in time, Mactan is a workable and temporary location.

  4. Hi Henry,

    I really like all your articles and non biased views on my home country. You really tell it how it is and compare things to the US. If you don’t mind me asking, what do you miss about the states?

    FYI: I too loved the provinces and have a home in Pangasinan and rarely visit Manila during my 6 year stay there. I love the even lower cost of living, minimum traffic and most of all the people are a lot friendlier.

    PS. If you ever need any tips or advice on anything send me an e-mail and I’ll answer to the best of my knowledge.

    Good luck and stay safe!


    1. After giving it a bit of thought, here are the only things I miss about the U.S. My parents and kids (all my kids are adults now in their 20’s). In fact, my only reason I’ll be making a visit in Christmas of 2013 is to see them. One of my sons is having my first grand-child this November, so I’ll be catching that on Skype until I get there. That’s really it, as far as missing anything of importance. I do miss the Carl’s Jr. Steakhouse Burger with Bleu Cheese. But those things weren’t doing my arteries any favors so, I guess it’s for the best they don’t have them here. 🙂

      1. Family as well, is what my wife and I missed and that eventually landed us back to the states. And I just had a Carl’s Jr. Chilli Cheesburger for lunch… it was delicous! 🙂

    1. I’ve only ridden the Jeepney once. I love the price, but for me it’s still kinda confusing knowing which one to catch for which route to get to a destination. I do enjoy riding the Tricycles, but usually get over-charged, so lately I’ve been taking taxis for anything more than 3/4 a mile away.

  5. Another good story Henry…btw there is noting wrong with having the true God in ones life or talking about it!

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