14 Observations about The Philippines

I just got home last night after spending two wonderful weeks in The Philippines. It was a great expierence, and allowed me to escape NYC during some of the coldest parts of the winter. Here are somethings I observed about The Philippines on my trip:

1. Chaos

Unlike orderly NYC, Manila is very chaotic. There are tons of people popping out everywhere you go. Hagglers are on the street asking you for money, selling you merchandise, or trying to get you to patronize their establishment. There are fewer stop signs and street lights and very little respect for traffic rules in general. There are crazy drivers who have no fear going the wrong direction into oncoming traffic while you hold on for your life in the tiny confines of a tricycle taxi.

2. Traffic

One of the most surprising things I found out about Manila was that the entire city is seemingly always engulfed in horrendous traffic. The one thing I had planned before I left was to go to a Ruby meetup one night. Google said it would take 20 minutes to get there, so I budgeted 40 just in case. About half an hour into my ride I ask the driver how close we are, and he says it would take another hour and a half or two hours to get there. Needless to say I missed the meet up, and learned the hard way about the impossibility of getting around Manila.

3. Island Time

People here weren't really punctual. I met a few cool people, and set up some times where we could hang out. Each time I was waiting between 30 minutes and an hour for them to show up. Even with the one professional business meeting I set up, I was unfortunately running extremely late (90 minutes!) due to traffic. Fortunately for me instead of being embarrassingly late, the person I was meeting was running even later, and showed up 40 minutes after I got there. I guess punctuality isn't terribly important in The Philippines!

4. Quazi-English

Coming in, I assumed that everyone spoke English, since that is the national language. However, this isn't really the case. While most people did speak English, there were plenty of people who didn't. Furthermore, even for a lot of English speakers, it was borderline impossible to communicate with some of them - especially the elderly. Despite not meeting my expectation of ubiquitously perfect English, I have to say English is prevalent enough that it was far easier navigating around and communicating with people in The Philippines than in any other country in Asia I've been to.

5. Danger

Manila is apparently a very dangerous place. One person gasped when I told them I was traveling here alone. Many people advised me to lock the all the doors the second I get into a cab. I was told never to show my full wallet, instead put just enough cash in my pocket before I go to pay so that I don't seem too rich. I wanted to go visit a slum, but was advised it was just too dangerous. Having said that I was never mugged, nothing was stolen from me, and I made it home safe. However, all these warnings made me constantly vigilant, and I never was able to let my guard down.

6. Friendliness

One of the things that I liked the most was how friendly Filipino's are. I was always helped when asked, and was given great service nearly everywhere I patronized. It also helps that since English is spoken a lot, I didn't feel too excluded from conversations. Unlike in other parts of Asia where people either didn't make eye contact or looked at me funny, people would look at me here and smile. People here also laugh a lot, and openly display their emotions (which were mainly cheerful) in public. I spent a few months in Thailand, and thought they were the friendliest country in the region, but now I'd say The Philippines is friendlier!

7. Malls

Shopping malls are a big deal in The Philippines. They are the new town square - and a place where people gather to shop and spend time with friends and family. In general they are very nice - perhaps some of the nicest real estate developments of all. They are also very expensive, with some prices on par with those in the US - so I'm not sure just how many people can actually afford to purchase items here.

8. Smoking

While it's not as bad as in China - smoking is still very much prevalent in The Philippines. The presence of smokers inside of restaurants made many of my meals unbearable. Being exposed to even more second hand smoke is by far one of my least favorite parts of traveling. I am very impatient for the rest of the world to start catching up to the US and ban smoking in public places - it would have made my time here much more plesant.

9. Food

I didn't have high hopes about the food coming in. The food I ate was acceptable, but not something that stood out. I think I may have gotten food poisoning twice - which put me out of commission each time. The best food I had was Lechon from Lydia's Lechon Restaurant in SM Mall. I think if I went to an actual pig roast it would have been even better, maybe next time!

10. Inefficiency

I went to 7/11 and similar stores a handful of times to buy basic supplies. Each time I went to actually purchase my items it took 2-3 employees a few minutes to check me out. They would manually have to look up each item I bought, write down the price, take out a calculator (even though they had a built in cash register) to figure out the total, count my change a few different times, and then slowly bag my items. This kind of thing should take one person a few second to accomplish, but for some reason took multiple people a few minutes. This example (among many others) leads me to believe that there is a lot of low hanging fruit to improve labor productivity here.

11. Skin Tone

At one point I ended up watching around an hour of TV - some reality competition. I was astounded at how every single person both on the show and in the commercials was light skinned to the point where they were basically white. This is stark contrast to the skin tone of most Filipinos, which tends to be darker. I have come to realize that light skin is a very important beauty standard throughout Asia, and in many parts of the world. I personally find it bizarre, coming from a country that (while clearly still working through racial issues) fully embraces and even idolizes darker skinned musicians, politicians, athletes, and military leaders.

12. Poverty

There were a lot of poor people everywhere I looked. Entire families living on street corners. Kids wandering around on their own and in packs. An old lady with dementia defecating on the side of a building. This kind of poverty is heartbreakingly sad, and the scale of the suffering is just enormous.

13. Walking ATM

Almost every single wandering kid (who I suppose were either homeless or orphans) that I encountered looked up at me with big eyes, an outreached hand, and a request for money. I imagine to them anyone who is a foreigner, especially a western one, is very rich, and therefore can afford to give them something. It was almost like I was a walking ATM to them. Now, I was mighty tempted give these kids a few pesos each, but never did. Despite knowing that direct cash transfers are very effective at helping the poor I'm still uneasy about randomly giving money to someone who begs for it. It would mean nothing to me financially, and a lot to them, but my weariness for scams prevented me from executing the cash transfer. Thinking about the poverty here, and specifically how I could personally help, is one of the biggest things that I'm left pondering after coming home.

14. Opportunity

I think there is huge potential for economic growth in The Philippines. With the right reforms and investments in infrastructure and education, Manila could easily become the next Singapore in a few decades. In particular it would be awesome if the government built a few hundred (maybe a thousand!) miles of subway, lured real estate developers to build a ton of skyscrapers, and put a huge emphasis on education. There are so many people here capable of doing so much. I really hope that some of these policy decisions are made to help kickstart some more robust economic growth, and give Filipino's a chance to shine.