How not to have a bad day in Manila…

S….or any place else really where time is not valued in the same way as it in the West. And especially if you are a new expat in town.  I see lots of new faces arrive, having never lived overseas before, and it makes me realise that I have learnt quite a bit in my 20+ years of bouncing around the planet.  Here’s what I want to tell them about tackling every day life in Manila:

Have the taxi fare available in small change.  Never, ever, ever get in a taxi with a large note.  They will not have the change.  However much of a rush you are in, you will not save time by skipping this reality.  In fact, you will end up spending more time on trying to solve the problem at your destination and greatly increase your blood pressure at the same time.

Keep small change in general.  When you purchase something from a large store, give them your large bills.  Say no when they ask you for help with “20 pesos” so they can conveniently hand you back simpler large bills in change.  They have a drawer full of change and have been asked to try and get exact amounts from customers.  They have the change to give you, so take it.  You’ll need it later for the small shops, vendors and taxis along the way.

Know how to get where you’re going.  Even if you’ve never been there before.  Taxi drivers typically do not know the roads and have been known to capitalize on this fact by taking you the “scenic” route.  Buy a map book for Metro Manila and photo copy the relevant page so you have some idea of where you are.  Don’t expect the taxi driver to be able to follow the map.  I tried that at first and most of them just glanced at it and threw it on the seat.  They do much better with landmarks. I would study the map and call out landmarks I saw, asking them to “turn left at the BDO bank, for example.  I have a file with a number of well-thumbed photocopies that I used regularly until I got familiar with the city streets.

Build in Enough Time to Get There.  The traffic is very erratic here.  It can be very difficult to be on time.  Sometimes the same journey can take 15 minutes, sometimes an hour.  I try to plan the longest, reasonable amount of time and I try to have something in mind to do (see below) if I’m early.

Set realistic goals for errands  Make a mental separation of what you have to do, from what you’d like to do and expect to have to change your plan.  Popping in to the dry cleaners on the way to your appointment sounds good on paper if you are heading in that direction.  But service is slower than you are probably familiar with and unexpected difficulties can make a quick side trip less than fast.  I put the dry cleaners receipt in my bag and plan to stop on the way there if the traffic is light, and on the way back (or not at all) if its heavy.  Not always possible, but if its not urgent, it can make the difference between peace and sanity.

Ask before you need to know  Another time filler for when I’m early: doing research.  For example, I might have noticed a store opposite my doctors office that sells something I know I’ll need at some point in the future.  When you have extra time and are not in urgent need of something, it is SO much easier to handle the questions and research.  Often you need to ask the question different ways, or talk to a different member of staff, or just figure out the right language to use.  Its much easier and more productive to do this when you’re not madly rushing or frustrated.  Plus I become that rude, arrogant foreigner when I’m panicked and I hate that.

Take responsibility for your own bad experiences  I certainly don’t follow my own advice all the time- I get pissed off and frustrated plenty— but my days are much better when I do.  Sometimes bad days are just unavoidable.  But more often  when everything’s going pear-shaped, its frequently because I’ve veered from my own rules.  Taking responsibility for my own mistakes doesn’t calm my frustration when I’m in the moment, but it does redirect it back to me and not the poor unfortunate sales assistant who might otherwise take the brunt.  And think it helps me cope better next time.

Sign Language: Bawal Umihi Dito

“Its forbidden to pee here”
bawal bawal2

The everywhere sign. Plastered on every conceivable vertical surface all over the city.

I choose to translate it as “Don’t stand around here. People use this spot as a toilet so frequently, they put up a sign!  Not that the sign makes any difference:


There are signs that forbid everywhere.

Bawal Tumawid Dito. Its forbidden to cross the road here:


Bawal Magtapon ng Basura Dito. Its forbidden to dump garbage here:


Are you spotting a trend?

Christmas Cupcakes


Making lots of Rudolph cupcakes!

I’ve never done a cupcake tree before, and I got it into my head this year that I’d like to do one for Robert’s FM department Christmas party.  There’s over 120 employees that attend.  That’s a lot of cupcakes, but when I broke it down into manageable chunks it didn’t seem so scary.  I had a lot of fun last year making a themed Christmas Cake, but I wanted to see what I could manage this year with little individual cakes.

Unlike last year, I didn’t have the help from Latham, who was tied up in school activities.  So I baked the cupcakes a couple of weeks before and froze them.  Icing can easily be prepared a week in advance, and I spent a couple of weeks sourcing all the various candy embellishments that I needed for the designs I chose.

The day before, I sat down with everything and started the production line.

There was about three dozen melting snowmen, at least a dozen Rudolfs, fluffy Christmas sheep, iced candy canes, Christmas present bows (and a number of other designs) that needed to be pumped out.  It was fun but — as always — more time consuming than planned.  It took 5-6 hours to get all of them finished and packed up for transportation the next day.  Just getting the cakes down in the lift to the car was a production.

Here’s the final result:

FAC 013 FAC 016

I think it went over very well at the party.  (But note to self:  Learn from the last two years!  Frosting and candy do not mix well with 80 degree heat, no matter how well I think I’m transporting them in AC-controlled conditions.  The second they get out into the humidity everything starts sliding apart!)  Next Christmas we’ll be in Nepal in cool weather, so  problem solved I guess…

Sign Language: Slippery When Wet


I liked this sign for a number of reasons:

Its located at the bottom of a small, man made waterfall next to a restaurant set in a stream.  Everything is wet, all the time.  Kids were constantly jumping from the very slippery, alga-covered rock ledge. There could never be a moment when everything within a 100 yards would not be soaking wet.

The English is perfect but charmingly quaint.  We do indeed “suffer” injuries,but  elsewhere we have just forgotten that fact in favour of language crafted by lawyers.

Located in a tourist restaurant, the waterfall location was a lot of fun, but very treacherous in places. It would have been extremely easy to slip and break something, or worse.  A warning sign would surely have not been enough for the law suits elsewhere.  Here it stands demanding common sense and good parenting skills.

But will you go back?

IMGP4353We just did our first repeat visit to a resort here in the Philippines.  After almost exactly one year, we went back to Coco Beach resort in Mindoro last weekend, relatively close by road, with their own bus service from Manila, its then just a short boat ride to the resort.  I was looking to replicate our previous experience and enjoy a quick, relaxing trip out of the city during a 3-day weekend.  But, of course, things are never the same as last time.  Especially here.  Robert was sick at the last minute and couldn’t come.  The resort was quieter than before, and the trip down was a little easier.  We were also more experienced with life here and our perspectives had changed somewhat.  As I say, nothing is ever the same.

We had a good time, but I didn’t leave with the same warm feeling that I had the first time I visited.  Exactly why may be a combination of different factors, but the killer for me was the resort-provided boat we took on the first morning. We decided against a longer, all day trip, and instead took the shorter 2-hour free boat ride to a nearby beach that the resort offers daily.  We just wanted to snorkel a little as the resort beach front wasn’t so great for this. The boat took us to a small beach about 15 minutes away, and as we approached it was clearn this was going to be another one of those Filipino experiences.  As the 12 of us disembarked, a feeding frenzy ensued with boatman, pearl salesmen and a zillion vendors all trying to sell me something before both feet were even in the sand.

Overwhelmed, we headed for a shady spot to weigh up our options, and I glanced over at a Filipino family on the beach a few feet away.  They had the usual beach gear, towels and a cooler with food for the day, simply enjoying the beach, which is all we wanted, but this wasn’t an option for us on so many levels.  The vendors just kept coming and it was hard to even think straight.  Our options were few.  We couldn’t even really go swimming as previous experience taught me that someone was bound to take our stuff, even if it was just towels that we left behind, unless we went one at a time, which is no fun.  The shoreline was covered in little boats that formed a discouraging barrier between the beach and the sea, blocking the vista.  Then of course, there were the vendors.  We had no choice, our boat wasn’t leaving for two hours and we were now just bait stranded on the beach, so we reluctantly paid one of the boat guys to take us out snorkelling.   We headed out to a nearby spot where another 20 boats were just a few feet away doing exactly the same and it was too dangerous to swim, leaving us holding on to the boat boom and watching the fish swimming below.  (When I snorkel, I love to follow the fish, and swim along with them. Its a wonderful feeling of freedom and peace, I found it very frustrating to be stuck in one spot.)


The fish were beautiful

But I was most frustrated at myself for being a knucklehead and putting myself in this situation and frustrated that sometimes I feel I just can’t crack the Filipino tourist nut.  Why had I fallen for this?  I had presumed a free boat was provided by the resort as an add-on, improving their service at little cost to them.  But clearly there was a deal going on.  The resort or boatman was taking a fee to deliver guests to the beach.  The same boat could easily have stopped at the reef and we could have snorkeled or swum in a lot more peace directly from the banca that brought us there, instead we were delivered as shark bait.  I understand that these are poor people that are looking to make a living, and I really don’t begrudge paying for their services.  But not like that.

Last year we went on an amazing Kayaking trip from Coco Beach that was an unforgettable experience, unfortunately marred by a couple of significant negative experiences.  Not unlike the trip to Pinatubo — unmissable — but, boy, was the organization messed up.  But in this instance, it was more than inexperience or lack of equipment. I can forgive the lack of finesse but not the lack of respect.

I can look at these experiences as learning curves, I can recognize that the Philippines is still in the early days of learning about tourism, I can recognize that poverty can be a driving factor over all other considerations. But that still leaves me — the weekend tourist here wanting to experience the Philippines and spend my tourist dollars — frustrated in a way that threatens to cripple my enthusiasm for the place.