Expat Diary June 22, 2018 – Adam Digs Deep In The Philippines.
For the next three months I have a pretty loose agenda. I’m ready to divert if something comes up, but for the time being, it’s all about seeing if I can locate a cheap base outside of Bali to locate myself, perhaps rent a place to stow my things when I bring them back from the U.S., and get some work done.
After deciding against the Philippines back in 2017 I am giving them another chance now. The arguments against are pretty obvious. While it’s not the raging hellhole that you see on TV (though I did, for the first time, hear gunfire in the streets night before last), it’s a pretty chaotic place with real infrastructure problems (most specifically the internet and travel) and the food is generally not to my liking.
It has some serious advantages, however, that are making me give it another hard look. One is that the health care (in the best hospitals) is to western standard, it’s cheap, and the doctors speak fluent English. Another is that the visa terms are the most lenient in Asia – you can stay for as long as 18 months without leaving the country if you get monthly renewals. I also very much like the people and can speak a little Tagalog – though in some parts of the country English (which is more widely spoken here than any other Asian country) is better since they have a different local lingo. I have learned that speaking the language, even just a few phrases, makes a huge difference in how well you can get along. It takes many months, or years, to get fluent. In another country I’d be starting from scratch. Also, frankly, the PI’s relative unfriendliness to tourists (though they do make a token effort) can be seen by some as a feature and not a bug.
One thing’s clear, though – as things stand, I can’t do Manila. While I like it in small doses and have many friends there, it’s crowded, it’s polluted and it’s expensive. It makes a great hub, since flights in and out of NAIA are cheap, and it’s good to be close to a big city infrastructure and first world health care, but for me to want to stay there I’d need to have a real compelling financial reason.
So, I’m going to be looking around. The first thing I want to do is take a closer look at places in what Filipinos call “the Provinces” – basically anywhere outside Manila – to see if this is even doable. I know that this broad term encompasses modern urban and suburban areas like Cebu (where I will be in a few weeks) and Bacolod, all the way to tiny islands with bamboo huts. In between, there’s a lot of options that fit the price range and are scenically beautiful but might be considerably rougher than I am used to and want to deal with. If that’s the case, great, off the list and on to the next thing…but every new experience I have arms me with more knowledge that I can share and toughens me up for whatever lies ahead. That’s definitely the mindset I am adopting the first day in Puerto Princesa, the capital of the Philippines’ most prized tourist island, Palawan.
On The Road Again
I had spent four days in Bali going through listings to pick out a place here (and in Cebu) that had the combinations of things I needed – laptop space, aircon, good wi-fi, hot water, larger bed – at the lowest possible price. Basically, to meet my current budget, anything above $19/night is not doable (particularly since I have a week’s worth of expensive condo stay in Manila to offset), and the further I can get below that the more wiggle room I have to do fun stuff.
After much finagling I did find a place that got me in at the low, low price of $14.50 a night. Technically it does meet all the criteria (except the wi-fi, which has not worked yet, but since I can get online through my local SIM it has not been an issue), but it’s an extremely small room. This is where the years I spent on the road sleeping on couches and in guest rooms has really paid off. Despite my neck issues, if you give me a certain set of things I can usually make it work and I was pretty pleased at how I was able to set the room up and even have a space to do yoga.
I’ve been to Palawan before, twice, but that was with a local to show me around in more swanky digs or being around upper class Filipinos. I had no frame of reference then and though I apparently have been to this city before (because I found the old ticket in my gmail inbox), I have little recollection of the airport and where I was and nothing so far looks familiar. I picked this lodging for its proximity to what I assumed the city center would be but it’s actually somewhat outside of that on the edge of a somewhat iffy (though I would not to go so far as to say dangerous) part of town. My room itself is up two flights of stairs (no lift) and is the absolute farthest walk possible from the front entrance. Since the place seems to be mostly empty except for two heavyset Australian fellows on the second floor, I assume that’s the room I get for paying about 60% of their posted rate. Fair enough.
The TV has snowy reception but on the plus side, actually is cable and has a lot of channels, many in English. The bathroom is the smallest I have yet experienced, with no dedicated space for the shower…you just kind of stand over the toilet and there’s a drain under the sink to take in the water. The pressure is not great but the stream is at least hot (which is not a given here). You can get a breakfast downstairs for 125 pesos (about $2.40), though it’s all Filipino breakfasts – meat on the bone or longanissa (like a sausage) and eggs – which is not my thing. I did have pancakes this morning which were decent. So that’s my room.
My first thing I do after I unpack in any new place, unless it’s too late, is walk around to get my bearings and see what’s nearby, expanding outward more and more with each day I stay.
On my first day, I seem to have a knack for immediately walking towards the sketchiest areas, away from all the amenities like a laundry and a coffee shop and a drug store that I want to locate in a new place as quickly as I can. My wrong assumption this time was that heading for the point of the shoreline of this city’s gorgeous bay would take me to a tourist area, but it actually took me to the port and the poor residential communities that surround it. There were myriad run down homes, salo-salo shops and shacks, and in the middle of it all stood a huge, gleaming, shimmering white church. I remember from reading about Puerto Princesa that this is something of a tourist attraction, but I don’t know much more about it.
I did stop and engage in conversation with a bunch of locals at a local bar – really a couple of porches attached to a one story house – and has often happened when I’ve wandered into poor Filipino areas where white guys usually don’t go, as soon as they found out I spoke a little Tagalog they wanted me to sit and have a beer and talk forever. It was a little early in my investigations to commit that much to one spot but my prospective hosts, a small white haired bearded man who proudly claimed his sister lives in Cerritos, and his toothlessly smiling wife, were friendly and interesting and I promised to return.
I did eventually get over to the actual beachwalk area, which was very pretty and quaint – very much a hometown attempt at a tourist spot rather than a real one, with the “tourist police” shack looking as ostentatious as it was abandoned – and a lot of little stands serving fish and local delicacies. I did not take pictures because by then I had realized I was waaay too conspicuous and obviously overloaded (bulging pockets) with attractive theft targets.
I do not want to make too big a deal of this…I am only marginally more paranoid about this after having gotten ripped off in Bali, and the only way you can really get to know an area on a local level is to walk around and take a look. The benefit usually outweighs the risks of this approach, to my way of thinking. But when you are the only white guy (and I was) in an area where most, though not all, of the people around you are in a much lower economic sphere than you, you’re already extremely conspicuous. You don’t want to be walking around like an idiot saying “mug me.” My main goal for going out had been to find some food, which I hadn’t, so I resolved to get something quick to stave the hunger pangs, and then get home and shed a bunch of valuables before going out again.
On my way back I ran across the first urban shopping center I had seen. It was bustling with activity. I actually went inside a crowded department store to wash my hands after buying the Filipino version of Doritos out of hunger desperation and getting my fingers covered with red Filipino Dorito dust. It was interesting to note that everybody in the store, with almost comically narrow aisles for someone of my size and bulk, that was not an employee or a child was female, and the majority of people that were hanging around on the streets were male. I noted this for future cultural contextual reference.
The energy of the city area, while like Manila a bit polluted and chaotic (though manifestly less so), was really invigorating and intriguing and despite everything being several layers more challenging than what I was used to, I started looking forward to coming back and exploring when I was a bit less weighed down with tempting theft items.
If you had plopped me down in this environment when I first came to Asia, I would have freaked out, frankly. In fact, I remember my first trip to Asia without a local guide staying at the Beacon – a condo in Makati where I now stay regularly and feel quite comfortable – and my first hour encountering that comparatively benign but still chaotic environment by myself had me so on edge and questioning my decision to make the trip that my dear friend Laura Andres, who met me for dinner, had to talk me down from the ledge (and indeed, by the next night the trip had turned from terrifying to magical). If you’re used to the west, the Philippines can be pretty intense. Hell, all of southeast Asia.
What I have learned through experience, however, is that sense of fear and being overwhelmed is just your brain being unable to process too many unfamiliar, and thus scary, things at once. We don’t realize to what extent our sense of comfort with our environment has to do with benchmarks our animal danger-processing brain can exclude from consideration. Privileged Westerners are also conditioned to equate poverty with danger. This is true in a sense that you don’t want to walk around (as I was, inadvertently) advertising yourself as a target with money and pawnable items to lose, but most people are not wired to want to hurt you or steal from you, and reacting to them with fear just puts their guard up and increases your danger for just that very thing happening. The locals here don’t speak much English, but I quickly learned they do (thank God) speak Tagalog, and as always, the wary dead looks gave way to lit-up smiles as soon as I burst out with a greeting of “magandang hapon, po!” The translation is “good afternoon sir/ma’am” but it really means “it’s cool, I belong here, bro.”
Anyway. Once you have accustomed yourself to your surroundings, and your brain has organized and processed them, they cease to be uniformly scary or uncomfortable and then you can begin to assess the things that actually are scary and uncomfortable. Likewise, once you identify the things you need to feel comfortable yourself – for me these tend to revolve around the availability of decent coffee and a good massage – you start to make the place feel like home. Then, you can see how it fits for you. So, to the extent that the whole experience stirred up my lizard brain, I just ignored it. This is how first days go. It’s temporary.
After I got back, changed, realized how tired I was but also noted that if I laid down I would wake up starving after all the places to eat had closed, I set out again, in a different direction this time. And of course, on the very last direction of travel I chose I hit the jackpot. I was able to find in quick succession a vegetarian restaurant (in the Philippines this is a massive win), a cheap laundry (also key), a pastry store (though sadly already closed) and a massage parlor (mediocre massages, but the people seem friendly enough and it’s not a clip or a jerk joint, so that’s good). I then headed back to try my luck on the bed. It’s hard as a rock and to discourage people running the A/C all night, they give you a bare sheet to sleep under. As tends to happen when I have hard beds, the CPAP pumped my gut full of air and I woke up with a headache. So it goes. End of day one.
I’m making this all sound pretty horrible. That’s not where this blog is going. Part of traveling, or living somewhere new, is adjusting. Like everything else, that is a skill, one that needs to be honed and expanded. I’ve had things pretty much my own way for the last nine months – for all but about a month of that, I was in familiar places with familiar amenities. That’s great but I need to expand my field of knowledge and, if I am going to try to live long-term cheaply and in an increasingly uncertain world, I need to toughen up a bit, get more resourceful, start adjusting to and learning from different perimeters. The room is small, but my internet access through my phone is good and the aircon is bombing. That’s what I need to get my work done (and I have a lot of work to do in the next few weeks, between Karma Frog stuff and a couple of shows I am supposed to do in Cebu that I have not prepared for at all).
It was also interesting to note that, when I thought for a brief time that the internet did not work, I had this desire to spend hours doing yoga. That’s a mental reaction I’m going to flag for later. Another great thing about changing your environment is how much it teaches you about your true needs and reactions to things.
Palawan is, actually, the jewel of the Philippines. I know from previous visits that it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the country and, because of the relative lack of foreign tourism here, more unspoiled than similar parts of Asia. I don’t really have my bearings yet, but I know I’m sitting on a back lot somewhere away from all that, and that’s actually good, because for what I need to know about living here, I need to not have a tourist experience. I need to figure out the nuts and bolts of the place. If it doesn’t work out, it’s going to be valuable learning experience as I assess other places.
Now I’m going to head out and explore. There will be pictures at a later date. Talk to you soon.