I thought I’d try to write an article that would help the westerner prepare himself for the likely shock of what you will encounter once you’re here. I’m not sure I can fully prepare the first timer and I really don’t think I want too. Part of the fun was being ill prepared for what I discovered in the Philippines. Now if you’re a veteran traveler and have visited other developing nations, you’ll likely be ahead of the first timer.
My First Moments In The Philippines
I was a first timer and the only word I could use was shocked. Now this shock was not totally in a negative way. For there was a lot of beauty and interest in what I saw. Other than Canada, I had never been out of the country. I was pretty much clueless when I thought of what the Philippines would be like. Now I should say, I have not spent any significant time in Manila. There are parts of Manila that appear to be as modern as anything in the US. So far, I’ve been limited to Cebu and Leyte Province. I look forward to exploring larger areas of this wonderful land. Areas of Cebu are also as modern as the US.
If you’re like most of us, you’re a guy, probably middle aged or older. Many expats have a pension but some come with very little more than the clothes on their back. It is likely you’ve ignored the people you know here, and flew 12,000 miles to meet a girl. I hope you have a backup plan as that usually does not go well. If you have that special person that you’ll be with as much as you would be with a wife, she can help your transition a lot.
My first hint that things would be different is my arrival in Manila to catch my connecting flight to Cebu City. It was hot! There was no aircon. If you say A/C here people generally will not know what you are talking about. But you’ll see aircon painted onto many cabs and that is what the air conditioner is called here. By the way, a fridge here is a ref. They likely wont know what a fridge is. But back to the airport.
I had to go through line after line once I arrived. There were at least two security check points. One Immigration Officer commented to me that next time I should bring my wife. While it is best to just say okay, I told the truth. I told him “I just got rid of her and I’m looking for a new one.” He laughed. Never be rude or talk back to anyone representing the Bureau of Immigration (BI) here. Doing so could quickly get you blacklisted and turned around to go back where you came from. Try to say no more to BI than you must and always be respectful. It is very likely they will be very respectful and polite to you. There is the chance the difference in cultures could cause you to say something that may be misunderstood and escalate into one big mess for you. A mess you’re likely to come out on the short end of.
The heat going through that area was hard for an overweight and out of shape American that is use to everything being air conditioned and I was sweating profusely. This heat was my first clue as to how different things would be.
Besides BI, I also got to go through customs at least twice. Once I got through all that an airline employee picks me out of the thousand of people in the basement of the Manila airport to weigh my carry one luggage and she insisted I go through another line to check one of my bags as it was too heavy. Why I was the lucky one, I don’t know but the bag had three digital cameras in it! They guy at the check in asked me if there was anything valuable in there. He grimaced when I told him what as in there. He asked me more than once. I was trying to figure out if I should give this guy some money or not but I wasn’t sure. He put some security tape on the bag and off I went thinking I had seen my cameras for the last time.
This time I managed to get through all the lines and up a level or two and back into civilization. And most important, air conditioning. Now it was warm here, not the good old 70F that I’m use too but at least not the steamy 95F of the basement. Once I managed to sit down at my gate, which, as always, was the very end of the long terminal, I could cool off. But I was exhausted and sweating profusely by the time I found my gate. You probably won’t have as hard of a time as I did, I was in really poor shape when I first got here and not at all use to the higher temperatures.
Once I arrived in Cebu, I had to go through customs again! But that went without issue except they sent me to the wrong exit point. And my greeting party (Jessie) was where I was suppose to be. My phone was not working as it couldn’t find a signal so I could not text her (My phone started working fine later. If you should have international service but it did not at first, try turning your phone on and off if you run into this.) An airport employee insisted, he would not accept no for an answer, and started pushing my luggage. I finally gave up and let go.
Once he figured out I was having problems with my phone, he got the number from me and called Jessie then handed me the phone. Okay, now the guy had earned his tip. Jessie was not far away and made her way to me. I’ll refrain from going through how stunningly beautiful she is. Except to say Jessie is from the tribe Waray Waray and has wavy hair making her even more beautiful than your average beautiful Filipina and there are a lot of beautiful Filipina. She stands out even among those.
I had planned to put on a dress shirt and tie once in Manila. Jessie really likes that. But the heat of Manila caused me to reconsider that. It would have been about the worst thing I could have done. Besides after a day an half on airplanes and crossing the international date line and thus loosing a day some where along the flight, I was completely wilted. The excitement of being in the Philippines and with Jessie gave me new life.
Part of the casual atmosphere here is found in the dress. Not a lot of suit and ties here, even among the executives. It is just too hot for that nonsense and I considered it nonsense way back in the day when I wore them.
I had sent a package with my medications ahead of me. There were lots of them and they filled an entire carry on bag by themselves. So I sent it via UPS ahead of me. Jessie tells me they want $300 in tariffs for the package. What! This is a disaster as I had spent most of what I had getting over here. And this $300 hit would have made for a hungry expat my first month here. I only had $400 left and that’s all I needed as my rent had already been paid.
So we head off to the UPS store. Not what you might be expecting in a UPS store, especially in the States. This is where I ran into my first shotgun carrying guard. We had gone in the wrong way and he was on full alert. Once the two Filipina told him what we were doing, he relaxed and sent us to the correct door. Not speaking a word of the language I’m lost. I have no idea what is going on. You will see many guards at places of business and many of them carry shotguns. If you go into a mall, you can expect to be frisked. I had real problems with that at first, now it is second nature and I”m glad they do it. They don’t do that in Bogo, they don’t do it as thoroughly in Cebu City as they do in Manila. You’ll be patted down at the airport too.
After some negotiation, I managed to get the $300 tariff removed but it took a couple more days. It seemed someone had made a typo and added a zero to the value of the medications.
I didn’t know that I wouldn’t need a prescription to get most of the medications I take. Jessie didn’t know I had to have a prescription in the US so she never thought to tell me. In the Philippines, you only need a prescription for what would be a controlled drug in the US and probably most other parts of the world. Another important clue to just how different a world I was going too.
Something interesting happened while at UPS. I was with two women but a UPS employee got out of his chair from behind the desk and pushed his chair out to the customer area and offered it to me. I’m like whoa. I certainly can’t take that seat with two women standing. I told him thanks but no. I asked Jessie am I suppose to tip him and she said no. She must have seen my perplexed look and she said get use to it, you’re white. That doesn’t happen often and I still don’t understand it. It is not just about money.
On my way to UPS, I asked if this would be a safe place to walk around. There were lots of Filipino in the streets but from the looks of it, it would not be a safe place where I was from. In Memphis, Tn. walking around a place like this for a guy like me would probably be a death sentence. But they all assured me it was a completely safe place to be.
I found it a place screaming to have pictures taken. Nothing like this in the US. Everything needed painting. Street vendors trying to sell water. Their eyes often pleading for a sell. Everything was dirty and in need of paint but at the same time it all has a simple beauty about it.
Then I noticed the driving. It is a style of complete chaos to the unfamiliar. I called it commando driving. I couldn’t believe these people were not killing each other. They style is often described as left overtake. Meaning expect to be passed at any time. Though it is usually on the left, by no means is it only on the left. They pass on the right too. And what happens at corners cannot be described. It can only be witnessed. I have video tape, it will be coming.
Then we came up on Fuente Osmeña Circle and I think I literally closed my eyes when we negotiated our way into that. Obviously we survived but I’m still not sure how. It is a beautiful area of Cebu City, Near the governor’s home and capitol of the province.
I saw the sign on back of one taxi that displayed “hows my driving” which brought laughter from me and the comment your driving is horrible, just like everyone else. The Filipino in the van didn’t seem to understand my observations though.
I noticed that the driving seemed to be working. After several months here, I’ve seen very few wrecks. Only two, one of them serious and caused by too much speed while growing through a small mountain town in Leyte. Now that I’ve been here for a while, the driving seems mostly normal to me. Jessie still reminds me to avoid the corners and we usually don’t cross the street at a corner as it is safer to do it before you get there.
Another thing you’ll notice quickly is the amount of horn blowing. Such behavior in the US could likely get you shot. Just last week there was a road rage incident in Memphis resulting in a gun being drawn and a fatality. Some of the horn blowing is almost polite, to let you know they are there as they overtake you, that is pass you on the left. Often they will overtake you in the same lane. But some of it is to tell you to get out of the way. A normal thing to do here. The same behavior in Memphis could very likely get you shot. There are no limited access expressways in Cebu Province. If there are any at all, it would be in Manila.
Filipino are far more polite and a bit formal at the same time. It is a curious combination of casual yet formal. When you do business with people here, they are for the most part very formal. Yes sir Rusty, yes ma’am. Some what rigid. I notice it more in women, they stand very straight. I do what I can to rip all this pretense down and I’m usually pretty good at it. If I could speak the language, I’m sure I’d be even better at it. I can get only so far though.
Lots of Adjustments for The Expat
Jessie would often tell me to get use to the changes, so now I use her own words on her. At 79F Jessie is cold, so much so that she often wears a scarf when we are home. I laugh at her. She made this scarf for me, mostly just to practice this new craft she is teaching herself. I asked her where I was going to wear a scarf at and we had a good laugh. Then I suggested she wear it next time she is cold at home. She “reminds me” that it is cold at 79F about 26C and when she reminds me she is cold you might guess what it is I tell her. Yep, “get use to it” and she usually responds with laughter.
Getting use to it for the expat can be made a bit easier by using a shipping company in the Philippines known as Johnny Air Cargo (JAC). I know they are in Luzon and Cebu. I don’t know about other locations. The cost of getting things here through JAC is much less than it would be by UPS or FedEx and often faster than UPS. More important to me is they handle customs for you. I’ve been forced to pay custom duties when none should have been due. Let alone it taking three months to get to me and then half a day going through the process to actually get the item and the $75.00 I had to pay in customs duties. There should have been no duties as these were used items and below $1000. Either one of these reasons should have exempted the items from duties. But my protest went unheard, the customs official simply said this is what it is, P3000. With JAC you’ll have none of those issues. I’m not related to or connected to JAC in anyway other than as a customer, they have just provided excellent service. Even if money is of no concern, I would still use them. It takes about a week. If you don’t have a credit card, they will even purchase the items for you from the US or other country. For me there are some things I must get from the US. Because of lupus my skin is extremely sensitive and being a diabetic it is hard to get sugar free items. There is a Sugar Free Haven in Cebu City though and that is very helpful. Selections are limited at Sugar Free and not everything is sugar free there. If you’re on a limited budget, I would use JAC as little as possible. But if you must have something from the US, this is the way to do it! I’ve decided I’ll just have to “get use to it” and do without some of my favorites. What I miss most is Nestle’s Quick No Sugar Added for my milk. If you decide to use them call or text Jesse at +639176233910 or email her at email@example.com. You can mention my name if you like, she will know me as I have recommended her online before and have her permission to put her information online. It is not required though as I gain nothing from it. She calls me Mr. Sir Rusty as many Filipino will do, even some Filipina friends that I am not doing business with. Part of that curiously casual formalities you are likely to find here.
Remember, you’re the one that is different here. They don’t do things strange here, you do! So make the adjustments as best you can, try to learn to speak the language too. I think I’m going to look for someone at one of the schools to help me with the language. Jessie is not the best choice in my case because she is Waray Waray which speaks a dialect of Tagalog. Cebu speaks a dialect of Visayan called Cebuano. Jessie’s accent is one from a warrior tribe and you can hear it in her speech. The other day she tried to ask a girl how old she was in Visayan\Cebuano and the girl looked confused. So she repeated the question in English and the girl answered that she was four.
Your in the Philippines, be ready for some adjustments. Not all of them will be easy but some of them are quite required. While American’s are rather rebellious in nature and don’t like to just accept things the way they are, Filipino are often said to be far more compliant. While it is often a source of irratation for the westerner, including myself, it is important to remember, you are the one that is different. It is a society formed through thousands of years and to be a part of a society, you must make the changes or be an outcast and probably bitter.
Rusty Ferguson is an American Expat living in Bogo, Cebu.