Note from MindanaoBob
As I have previously announced, this is the 10th Anniversary of LiP, and I have invited back some previous writers on the site to give us an update about how they are doing, what they are up to and how their lives are going.
In that interest, I would like to welcome back Jack Emery. Jack wrote on LiP for a while, and I see Jack face to face from time to time, as we both live in Davao City. So, with that said.. welcome back, Jack! We are happy to get your update!
Five years have now passed since my wife and I pulled up stakes in Arizona and moved to Davao. Friends sometimes ask me how I feel about the expat lifestyle after being here for a few years — what are the plusses and minuses compared to the US? What parts did I get right, and what things did I miscalculate on? Here’s my list — just my opinions, your mileage may vary . . .
- The culture here is very much one of common sense and tolerance rather than endless rules and armies of busybodies to enforce them. Here, as long as you aren’t directly harming someone else, you’re free to live as you please. Want to paint your house purple, or run a convenience store from your front window? Go ahead, it’s your house. Want to ride across town in a jeepney with your fighting rooster on your lap? No problem, we’ll make room. Want to drive your motorcycle (or taxi) down the wrong side of the road? As long as you don’t hit anyone or block traffic, go for it, no one cares.
- With very few exceptions, people here are pleasant, polite, and cheerful. Gutter language and thuggish behavior is still regarded as low class. There is almost none of the pushy “in your face” aggressiveness that seems now to be accepted behavior in many places in America. Even in government offices here — where the bureaucratic procedures can be unbelievably slow and aggravating — one is nevertheless treated with courtesy and, usually, a pleasant and helpful attitude, very different from the kind of bossy disagreeable rudeness that we Americans have become accustomed to from the TSA, the post office, the MVD, the IRS, etc.
The culture is very children-friendly. Everywhere you go here, you see happy children playing in the streets. Schools are open — there may be a security guard, but there is none of the “prison compound” feel. Teachers do not seem to be micromanaged or obsessed with standardized testing, and in the elementary grades, at least, children seem to very much enjoy going to school. Boys are not dosed with Ritalin when they get rowdy — they’re just told to knock it off, and they do, because they know there will be consequences. Children here have quite a lot of freedom to explore, because pretty much everyone looks out for them — it’s ok, in fact expected, that any adults present will intervene when needed.
- The cost of living here, at least for necessities, is far less than in America. We support two houses, a car, three kids living with us full time, private school tuition for same, a few more kids on weekends, partial support of elderly parents-in-law, frequent extended family emergencies, university tuition for wife and a niece, etc., all in reasonable comfort on a budget that would barely have covered the monthly payment on the very modest 50 year old 3BR tract home that we left behind in Arizona. Skilled labor here is inexpensive and usually very effective. Car repairs, plumbing, electrical work, even fairly major construction such as room additions — all readily available at very low cost, and nearly always competently done, albeit not necessarily in the way that westerners expect.
- The lifestyle is healthier. Most of the food that we eat is fresh and locally grown. Most of the unhealthy food that I might otherwise eat isn’t available here. In neighborhoods, there is always activity, people chatting, children playing, street vendors, etc., so it’s a very sociable and walking-friendly environment.
- Medical and dental care here is accessible, inexpensive, and of good quality if one is reasonably careful to look for qualified providers. It’s usually possible to arrange to see a doctor or dentist of one’s choosing within a day or less, either with a phone call or by the simple expedient of showing up at their office and waiting. Charges are paid immediately in cash and the cost of a typical routine doctor or dentist visit ranges from less than $10 (US) to a few times that, depending on what is required. Medical professionals take the time to explain and answer questions. The cost of hospital care is a tiny fraction of what Americans are used to. Example: nephew with dengue, 6 days in hospital, three of them in intensive care, total cost about $1000 U.S, half paid by PhilHealth (for which we pay less than $100 a year to cover the whole family plus a few others). An added bonus: as non-US residents we’re exempt from the horror that is Obamacare.
- Public transport is practical, cheap, and effective. Jeepneys are everywhere, a ride typically costs about 25 US cents, and they’re much more convenient than the bus systems in US cities — jeepneys go pretty much everywhere, not just a few main routes, and there are so many that you hardly ever have to wait more than a minute or two for a ride. Taxis are similarly abundant (except when it rains), and a 40 minute taxi ride from one end of the city to the other costs about $4 US. We have a car, but most of the time I prefer to ride jeepneys or taxis — quicker, cheaper, and no hassling with parking and traffic.
- The separation from family and friends back home is a much bigger negative than I expected. My (adult) son lives in Oregon, and I naively figured it wouldn’t be that much harder to go visit from here than it was from Phoenix. Wrong. We still have no direct flights from Davao to anywhere in America, so as a practical matter any trip requires a transfer in Manila, which basically adds a very tedious (and expensive) full day to any trip — both directions. Any trip to the US from here is an exhausting and unpleasant ordeal.
- Phone, internet, water, and electric power range from unreliable to pathetic. We had to give up on living full time in our island/seaside house because of long, almost daily power outages, and internet that started out unbearably slow and evolved over time to become completely useless. The power I could solve with a generator, but I can’t fix the internet and my work requires it. Even in our house in the city, the best internet bandwidth we can get is (nominally) 5M, which is slow by modern standards even if it were delivered reliably, which it isn’t — page loads come to a standstill, skype calls are dropped, and the service goes out completely at random intervals. And, even in the city, we have had occasional periods of several weeks at a time with daily power outages for “rationing”, as much as 4 hours a day at completely unpredictable times. Bottom line, because of the infrastructure issues, it’s very much more challenging to “telecommute” from here than I was expecting.
Noise: if there is anywhere in the Philippines that is quiet, I haven’t found it. I’m fine with the roosters and the street vendors, but the dogs barking all night and the karaoke, not so much. A popular activity here is renting a souped-up karaoke machine with speakers the size of Hummers, planting it in your driveway for the weekend, and regaling the entire barangay with San Miguel-fueled interpretations of 70’s cover tunes at full volume, often for many hours at a time with all the neighbors lining up for a turn at the mike. On such occasions I have to remind myself that “this is the sound of freedom”, and get out the earplugs.
- A great many things that one might like to buy are simply unavailable here. Items that you could find in a typical mall department store in the US, you can usually find here. But the sorts of hobbyist items that you might find at Fry’s Electronics or even Best Buy, or order from Amazon — usually not available at any price, and not practical to have shipped in unless you’re okay with (literally) double or triple costs and delivery times measured in weeks or months. My advice to anyone coming here who has hobbies that involve specialized physical things (electronics, music, sporting goods, tools, etc.): bring everything you want with you, because you’re very unlikely to be able to find what you want here.
- It is sometimes amazingly difficult to get simple things done here. A routine transaction like paying a utility bill (usually done in person, in cash) or making a bank withdrawal can often take an hour or more. Any interaction, however simple, with any government office – better set aside half a day. Finding an item that you need may require visits to multiple stores. It’s nearly impossible to get accurate information over the phone, on anything — for some reason that just isn’t done here, you have to show up in person.
So, what would I say to someone thinking of relocating here? No place is perfect, and each person’s experience is different. My positives might be someone else’s negatives, and vice versa. I have friends who are very happy here and wouldn’t dream of leaving, and others who gave it a try and have left, or are planning to. For an expat, life here is always going to be very different from what we’re used to “back home” — for sure, Philippine culture isn’t going to adapt to us, we have to adapt to it. As long as you’re okay with that, you’ll be fine here.