When I was about to move to rural Japan to teach, I bought some used furniture from a teacher who was leaving the school. A sofa, two small bookshelves, a mirror and a coffee table. He stored them at the school (we needed 3 levels of approval for this) and when it was time for me to arrive I asked the school secretary to have it moved to the apartment we had waiting for us, 2 kilometers away. She didn’t know how to do this. In Japan, you don’t say, “Hey Muto, your brother has a truck. How would you like to help me out? This guy will pay you.” For some confusing cultural reason, people in Japan don’t seem to know how to do anything or how to solve life problems that are outside of their very narrow work specialty.
It was explained to me that this is because “Japan is a Corporate Society and we are taught to always ask the corporation how to solve any problem.” So, her only strategy was to call a local company. “This is how we do things in Japan.” The bill they presented me with was 45000 yen or 420 USD.
To get ready to move to Japan from Cebu, I packed 12 Balikbayan boxes filled with stuff we thought we’d need there. I was going to pay excess baggage on Philippine Airlines and take my stuff to Tokyo with me. No box could weigh more than 22 kg, so it was about 270 kg total. It was a reasonable cost, cheaper than shipping and the stuff would arrive with us. I asked around my Cebu neighborhood if anyone had a truck and hired two guys to take my boxes to the airport, 15 kilometers away. Their truck was small so they had to make two trips back and forth, but everything arrived safely. They charged me 1000 pesos, 20 USD. I gave them another 1000p tip.
I love the cost of services in the Philippines, but you’ve gotta be careful because everybody calls themselves something. There’s a real difference between self-described “Professionals” in Cebu and those who truly have experience. I learned about this the hard way a few times. But when you find a good worker, the cost of their services is incredibly cheap by US and 1st World Country standards. It is one of the things I truly like about my life in Cebu.
10 years ago, when I first came to the Philippines, I remember asking a woman I met in Leyte what her father did for a living; she said: “He’s a mechanic.” During the time I visited her home over a three day period, one guy showed up at the house; he wanted to remove a busted and rusty rearview mirror from his motorbike handlebars. My friend’s “Mechanic Father” spent 15 minutes smashing the mirror bracket with the butt end of a screwdriver until the mirror finally broke off. It was hardly the “5 Star Certified Mechanic Training” I’d seen at my local Toyota dealer.
I’ve had people tell me, “He’s a driver.” This often means that sometime in the past 6 months, this person drove something, somewhere and got some pesos for it. It’s hardly an 8-5 job description.
In my wife’s province, people call themselves farmers which means twice a year they go to the mountain and drag coconut husks (copra), down the hill and sell it for pig feed in Tacloban. There is no farm or anything to farm, just some coconut husks.
Being a fisherman can mean that sometime during the last month you caught some fish, kept some for yourself and sold some to your neighbor. Again “the frequency” of this job is highly suspect.
Given these credentials, by 12 years old in my California suburb, I had qualified as a farmer (my mom made me pull weeds in her flower garden and my dad made me mow the lawn before I could hang out with my friends on Saturdays) and a newspaperman (I was a “once a week” paperboy for the local ad newspaper.)
But these stories aside, quality services are available everywhere in Cebu and they are cheap.
Medical and Other Professional Services
Early in our relationship, my wife discovered two lumps in her breast that seemed to be changing size. We went to a local hospital; she was examined (400 pesos) told to go to the lab for X rays (900 pesos) and to come back to the doctor (who was a teaching surgeon at the local hospital-university). He decided the lumps needed to be removed.
“When can you do this surgery?”
“We can do it this afternoon. She will be a few hours here and you can take her home afterward.”
I sat in the waiting room in a place where I could actually see the doctor and his assistants through the window in the operating room. 5 people: an anesthesiologist, the surgeon, and 3 nurses. The procedure lasted a bit more than an hour. When they gave me the bill, including the doctor’s fees, the surgical room and some medicine my wife needed to take, I was shocked; the total was $315 or at that time 14000 pesos.
Though I knew it would be cheaper than the US, for patients not covered by health insurance in the US, a lumpectomy typically costs about $10,000-$20,000 or more.
In the years since we have been to the doctor and the hospital a few times in Cebu. I have never felt that the care was substandard or less than professional; it is incredibly cheap, informative and compassionate, and it’s very affordable.
Similarly, I have needed the services of an attorney a few times here, mostly to create some legal document or other. Before his recent retirement, my older brother was a California divorce lawyer (they say “Family Practice Attorneys.” It sounds so much nicer, eh?) At the end of his career, he was charging $300 per hour. That’s for every phone call, every question you ask, every drive across town to pick up something. Here in Cebu, my quite competent attorney usually charges me between 500-1500 pesos ($10-30) for everything he does for me including writing and filing documents. He even delivers them to my house.
And on down the line…
I pay our helper, Marilyn, 3000p a month (60 USD). For this, she comes to our place 5 days a week. She cleans everything, does the laundry, sews buttons on my shirts, irons clothes, runs errands in the city and helps my wife cook if she’s asked. When we were away from Cebu I would send her money each month to pay our utilities. We even shipped our two cats home from Japan to her; she waited 7 hours at the airport to get through customs. The last time I had a house cleaner in the US was 10 years ago. She came once a week for 3 hours; we paid her $300 a month.
When I had a flat tire on my motorbike, the woman in our housing development office called a guy. He came to the house, took the motorcycle to his shop, fixed the flat and delivered it back to me in less than 3 hours. He charged me 50 pesos (1 USD)
On a larger note. We wanted to remodel our kitchen and I’m no builder. New cabinets (no pressboard but solid wood) a new oven and stove, stainless steel sinks and fixtures, lighting, a range hood, tile work…you know, a nice, modern, remodel. I was worried. I went to a home improvement show in Portland Oregon about 10 years ago and remodeling your kitchen cost anywhere between $15000- $50000. Our kitchen isn’t too big, but I didn’t know what to expect. A friend recommended a “real contractor,” you know, with training and experience in building kitchens. He was professional, fast, went over each stage of the building and materials. The total cost turned out to be $3800. We liked his work so much we tiled the floor of the great room and finished the area outside the second bathroom. Once again, a very reasonable service cost for quality work.
My Dumb Ass Side
There are lots more good stories where the cost of service is the star character here in Cebu. But you know how you get. After a few successes, you’re a little cavalier, a little cocky, a little “I know how stuff works here. I can wheel and deal in the streets and I’ll really save some money. ” Wotta Dope I am!”
There are certain things you shouldn’t buy even if the price is good. “Perpetual lunch meat” for example. Tacos with eyes. Expired-date insulin. Dinner from the “Barbeque- Going Out of Business Sale. Streetcar parts from “Street Mechanics.”
When I moved here in 2011 I bought this funky 1997 Toyota Camry from a local ad. I’d had a Camry in the States and it was great, super reliable, a nice ride, roomy and quiet. I may have bought the only “lemon” Camry in Asia. I paid 160,000 pesos for it, but in the first 6 months, I had to put another 150000 pesos into it at a local car shop. Transmission, generator, brakes, you know…older car stuff. When it was fixed, it ran fine, nice ride, all the comforts of home. Then I met Ernesto. He was a guy who worked at the local “on the street” carwash in my neighborhood. I was having trouble with my windshield wiper and asked him. The other guys said, “He’s a mechanic.” I gave him some money; he went somewhere and got a new motor for the windshield wiper, installed it, and hey… it worked great. He was cheap too and seemed thankful for the work. The next time I had a problem with my squeaky brakes I went back to the car wash. Ernesto was there, sleeping on a cardboard box, but he woke up, messed around with my brakes with his tools and “Eureka,” another bargain rate repair. I was really feeling cocky now, saving all this money. I’d found the fountain of youth for my car.
When my dashboard lights went out, Ernesto said I needed some new fuses. “Ok. Get what you need and install them.” He did. Little did I know, he’d gotten a real bargain on “discount” fuses.
One week later, a bit late for work, I bolted out of the neighborhood in my sleek, newly washed Camry. Two blocks from my house, smoke started pouring out of the dashboard. The smoke turned into flames. I jumped out of the car. I didn’t know the word “Tubig” for water yet and so I yelled “Water”. People were standing on the street, watching, doing nothing. The flames were getting bigger. “Jesus, I’m thinking, is the car gonna explode like in The Godfather?” Just then a guy runs out of a store with a bucket of water and throws it on my dashboard. The flames changed to steam. People crowded around to get a closer look at my “Melted Dashboard Toyota.” We pushed it to the side of the road; I walked back to the house and got my Suzuki motorbike and drove off to work.
People said I could fix it, but I don’t know. Getting a new dashboard for a ’97 Toyota in the Philippines wasn’t an easy thing. Besides, we were leaving for Japan in a month. I ended up giving the car to our helper’s husband who said maybe he could fix it. He paid his neighbor 75 pesos a month to park it, but after he got tired of paying for that, he gave the car to someone else. I changed my car wash; I’m sure Ernesto wondered why I never came back for more “he’s a mechanic” service.
There’s a saying we’ve all heard, “You get what you pay for,” but it’s also “Who you pay,” too. It’s worth checking out, always, and asking around. And if you do, the cost of services in Cebu makes life a lot more affordable. If you play it smart and don’t get cocky, you won’t have to spend too much time with your “Dumb-ass” side.