Puerto Princesa Intermezzo

Expat Diary July 2, 2018 – Growing Into Your Surroundings

Tomorrow I wrap up my 12 day stay in Puerto Princesa and head to Cebu for a week, where I’m going to play two (2) shows and do a little research about the livability and music scene in that town. Then it’s back to Manila briefly and then most likely to Siem Reap for a month, though I haven’t yet locked down a place.

Being here has been a really interesting experience and for what I have been trying to do – which is figure out what living here as a digital nomad would look like, and how feasible various places are – it’s been perfect. Much to my surprise, the internet and the food – the two things that turned me against the Philippines in the first place – have not been a problem. I only experienced internet problems twice (compared to three power brownouts, which I sailed through by having a local SIM) and with two decent vegetarian restaurants within a half mile of where I was staying, I ate healthier than in Manila. In fact, I’ve lost a substantial amount of weight since I got to the Phils – a whole belt notch – and after being plump for the last several months I’m starting to get back to fighting trim. There’s something to be said for living in a country where you don’t really like the food. You eat less.

Another reason I lost weight is I’ve been walking even more than I did in Bali – probably about 10km a day on average – and that brings me to the main issue I’ve had on Palawan which is transportation. There’s a reason I haven’t regaled you with photos of other parts of the island and that’s (at least while I’m still trying to keep to a strict budget) because I couldn’t really afford it. Car rentals start at about $36 per day without a driver (but are generally closer to $60, which is really expensive for this kind of environment), and it’s not something I can absorb right now. But more problematic than that is the lack of a taxi service or GrabCab here. I’m at the mercy of the local tricyclists (this is a contraption – see above photo – where someone builds a metal frame with primitive back seats and places it over and around a motorcycle) who almost to a man try to charge me 2-4 times the going rate and when I refuse to pay it, they just drive off. So, I walk.

The surprising thing, though, is how much Puerto Princesa has grown on me. I was certainly a bit taken aback by it when I first got here. This is the most funky environment I have stayed in to date – but after two or three days I got used to the general ramshackleness (bordering, but not quite crossing into, squalor) and started to pick out its charms: the hidden Swiss deli filled with noisy male expats, the vegetarian restaurants, the improbable existence of a newly opened bamboo-walled espresso bar (with yummy cakes) in an otherwise poor area, the tuna sisig and homemade fruit concoctions available at the breezy Baywalk promenade. The people who had seemed unfriendly at first warmed up after seeing me walk around repeatedly (which never really happened in Vietnam) and I started to notice the nicer houses and interesting byways that lay behind the humble shacks that lined the road.

Puerto Princesa is a bit of a backwater. But I could make it work. As an experiment in living in the provinces of the Philippines, that’s a huge thing to discover.

It would work better, though, if I had more money to explore and travel, and on that score I’ve made some real progress. I’ve started putting plans into action to reboot Karma Frog (my music business) and already it’s starting to bear fruit. June was only the second month since I left where I managed a four figure income, and July I have a decent shot at actually meeting expenses.

Moreover, as I get further into the process of figuring out how Karma Frog is going to evolve, I can see very clearly that it’s going to work, and how I can take full advantage of my environment and the resources I have here to help grow that and also stay open to other possibilities. I’m excited again about working – and with work coming online, I no longer feel like I’m living half a life. Things are locking into place and I can see, with luck, a prosperous and stimulating future ahead not just for me, but for people around me. One thing that I’ve always been good at is making connections for others, bringing people together. With all the strife in the U.S., it’s exciting to think about the possibility of bypassing all that b.s. (at least in my work and social life) and helping people form new connections around it.

I had two interesting encounters with other foreign travelers here last week that I wanted to share. It got me thinking about how peculiar my own path is and how lucky I am that I’ve finally figured out how to own it. One was just a brief encounter with a portly older German gentleman who was dozing off in the coffee shop at the mall but woke up when he heard me speaking Tagalog and asked how it was coming. “It comes and goes,” I admitted. He said, “I’ve never been able to get the hang of it. But then, at my age I don’t feel like learning anything,” and then his Filipina wife and their newborn son turned up and she delightedly started speaking to me in Tagalog (and I responded with the universal language of “nod and pretend you understand”).

This is one of these lovely things you see here all the time. The Philippines has this reputation of just being full of perverts and pedophiles – and there’s sadly a good bit of that – but what people don’t realize is how many foreigners come here and just find a good woman – usually quite a bit younger, but not always ridiculously so – and settle down and it works out fine and they’re happy. It’s not at all uncommon. And however you might think about a 60 year old guy with a 30 year old woman (or sometimes even more of a difference), they are both getting something that they want, and it’s not simply about money. It’s about companionship, finding a stable place in the world. A home. And in those terms, older foreigners’ and Filipina women’s interests often tend to align quite well.

But that wasn’t really a new thought for me. What really struck me about the conversation was what he’d said about not wanting to learn anything at his age. It was so weird to hear that – because that’s what thrills me about doing this. One of the biggest reasons I got fed up with the United States, its culture of misinformation and political and social stratification, was how fricking hard it was to learn anything.

People can say what they like about how messed up these countries I’m in are but you know what Puerto Princesa is full of? Schools. It is lousy with elementary schools, high schools, colleges. Everyone is studying something. There are literally banners hung on buildings congratulating people for passing the bar, the nursing exam, the engineer’s exam. People in the third world don’t have time for the kind of anti-elitist, anti-knowledge conceit that the United States so often has functioned under. They understand education is the key to getting out of poverty. Or, if you’re a middle-aged white dude from out of town, learning is the key to getting out of a rut in your life. Every day I’m finding out something new, whether it’s the language, or the culture, or how to use a scoop toilet. I LOVE THIS. I feel so young. It thrills me.

The other story came about a few nights ago. It was perhaps 1 a.m. and I heard shouting from down in the street. I thought at first it was locals having a fight, but I soon realized from the repeated F bombs being dropped that it was an English speaker who was on a tirade. Soon I was able to pick out a figure talking on the phone pacing around in the street. It was one of two beefy Australian guys that had been staying in my pension house (that’s Filipino for “really cheap hotel”) since I got here. This was the less sketchy (and less fat) of the two guys, a fellow in his late 30s who favored wearing singlets (Australian for “wife beater”) and had been in the company of a Filipino woman in her early 30s, who I had guessed from her relative age, clothing and body type (it would take me too long to explain what I mean by this, just go with it) to be from the city.

I had seen her for the first time sitting alone in the second floor lounge earlier that day, and it became clear from the C bombs that were interspersed with the F bombs (and her voice coming over a speaker later when the guy took his conversation into the cafe part of the hotel, directly under my window), that this woman was the target of his ire.

Despite both of them speaking English (and me, curious, cracking a window) they were both too heavily accented and far away for me to make out the conversation, other than that he was irate and she was speaking slowly and calmly, like someone that had made a regrettable decision that nonetheless she was planning to stick to. The only part of the conversation I made out clearly was the guy saying that “my father would say you were a [double bomb here],” and, at the end of the conversation, one line that told the whole story: “Well, I’m not going to travel across the Philippines alone. It’s too dangerous.” I heard him go to his room about 1:30 a.m., shortly after he uttered this and hung up the phone. In the morning he was gone.

I reflected on what I’d heard. My first major exposure to this country – and to Palawan – was back in 2014 with my first girlfriend here, who reminded me a little of the woman who apparently left this guy to fend for himself (though my girlfriend at the time would never do that, probably because I never would have called her a [double bomb]). And I do remember how terrified I was at some of my surroundings at that time, how I berated her at one point for leaving me alone for 20 minutes in a crowded marketplace, which seems a little laughable now. If she’d dumped me on Palawan by myself, I would have been pissed too…though I wouldn’t be surprised, given this fellow’s temper, if there were reasons for this action.

But what hit me listening to this guy – who looked to be a good bit younger, stronger, and tougher than me – was that the prospect of being in this country alone scared the crap out of him. Four years ago, I might have felt the exact same way. Now, particularly after 12 days in Puerto Princesa, a little backwater city in the provinces, it’s just something I do without giving it a second thought. What scared this guy so much is what I’m now comfortable doing, more and more, every day. And that was kind of cool to think about.

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