The Expat's Guide to Surviving a Manila Tour of Duty


30 December 2002





The Philippines is one of the poorest countries in the region. Deal with it. The sooner you numb yourself to the omnipresent medieval-standards of poverty, the swarms of public servants that are always ready to extend a "helping" hand, and the numerous problems you observe that seem to cry out for obvious solutions yet have festered for decades the sooner you will be on your way to actually enjoying your tour-of-duty in these steamy islands. The trick is to turn this underdevelopment to your advantage (using your suddenly purchasing-power-enhanced dollars).

Staring is a national sport in the Philippines. So be prepared to be given the celebrity treatment even while performing simple errands like going out to buy a pack of cigarettes. Don't be offended however if Filipinos don't look you in the eye when they converse with you. Most don't. They may be making up for all the staring they do. Most Filipinos also assume that all caucasians are Americans. Just nod when they call you Joe and bask in your new-found celebrity status.

Keep a can of biscuits in the vehicle you travel in. Usually, mobs of street children and teenage mothers patrol major intersections and traffic choke-points around the metropolis. At P50 for a can of a hundred-odd biscuits, giving these underage panhandlers a couple of biscuits is a more economical alternative to handing out one-peso coins to get rid of them. Make believe you are the Messiah and they are your prodigal flock whom you liberally shower with mannah from heaven.

Feel free to indulge in the pleasures and conveniences offered by abundant and cheap labour. Most Filipinos who can afford household help (and even lower-middle class households can) do with gusto. You will notice such families frequenting the city's numerous airconditioned malls with entourages of servants that rival maharajahs on a tiger hunting expedition. Many such families live in two or three bedroom houses yet maintain two or more maids (their sleeping quarters are often improvised in garages, dog houses, or under staircases so don't fret about having to give up room you would otherwise reserve for your home enterainment system). On top of this, they may also employ a non-stay-in man-servant to chauffer them around in their late-model Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas.

Most places of interests and trendy hangouts in Manila are accessible by major highways and elevated expressways that bypass routes that offer sceneries that are, shall we say, too much of a reality check for most expat tastes. Once you are familiar with the more scenic routes, you will be able to serve your entire tour-of-duty and still get to hangout in all the trendy malls, bars, and clubs surrounded by beautiful Filipinos in blissful ignorance of the rot that afflicts the city. Occassional reality checks never hurt but are best viewed on CNN and ABS-CBN in the comfort of your home-entertainment room with the remote handy in case one gets tired of too much reality TV.

Keep your driver's license housed in a plastic jacket along with some spare change (encourage your chauffer to do the same although you will have to provide the spare change yourself as what you consider "spare change" usually represents several days' wages for most Filipinos). Traffic officers who may stop you once in a while usually require little encouragement to settle fines on the spot (dispensing of any of the official documentation of course). The more spare change in the plastic jacket, the less encouragement they need.

Most public toilets do not have toilet paper or paper towels so you may want to keep a roll of toilet paper handy (and maybe a small bottle of rubbing alcohol). You never know when you will have to go for a Number Two in a public toilet. You may also need to wipe off footprints from toilet seats once in a while before you go about your business. Given this toilet situation in Manila and the absence of running water in most cases, wash your hands after shaking hands with Filipinos as a health precaution.

Remember to keep your car airconditioner in top shape by following the proper preventive maintenance schedules. You do not want to find yourself stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of the city breathing in its corrosive atmosphere because your car airconditioner suddenly went on the blink unexpectedly.

Follow these simple tips and you may actually enjoy your stay in the nation's capital. Make sure though that you do not overindulge in Third World pleasures and save a good chunk of your salary and benefits so you do not have find the need to sacrifice your health, sanity, and marriage in a future expat stint in a Third World country again!

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