How to Spend Ten Miserable Days in the Philippines

roadside circumcision

     “Honey, stop the car!”

     The first way to ruin your ten days in Philippines might be a roadside circumcision (1500 pesos = US$33) but the main thing is to have Easter be in the middle and a dental visits on both ends of it. I only realized when I landed that I was coming right before the biggest holiday of the year. Is there a more Easter-loving country on the planet than the Philippines? There aren’t many. Everyone was on the move, and most stores were shut down for days.
     On Good Friday I was lamenting to the owner of a 7-11 convenience store that everything was closed. Normally garrulous, this Filipino went quiet for two beats before saying with pity, “You aren’t Catholic.” I said no, leaving out that not only am I not Catholic, I don’t even know what the significance of Easter is. If I confessed to him that I also went to a catholic high school for four years and made a graduation speech, his head might have exploded.
     It was hard to find decent food to eat over the holiday, but truth be told, it’s a problem any time. I have to say it: the food is horrible in the Philippines. Last time I was here a friend took me out to great food meal after meal, but they weren’t “regular” places “normal” people go. The food that is most accessible is a nightmare of fatty, greasy, and fried with sweets, sweets and more sweets.
     The preponderance of junk food is absolutely incredible. (As an American I’m uniquely qualified to judge.) Every mall has exactly the same chain stores, the supermarkets have whole aisles devoted to packaged cupcakes, and anything at a bakery tastes like a sweet hot dog bun. It’s unbelievable. In the “wellness” section of one supermarket I saw pancake mix, brownie mix, boxes of condensed milk and cream, and baking chocolate.
jollibee locations

     Jollibee is a horrendous Filipino fast food chain but I love this list of locations, particularly the deep drop-off after New York. Daly City is a suburb of San Francisco that had long been a first destination for fresh-off-the-boat Filipinos and is therefore a place a surprising number of Filipinos here know, whereas I don’t think people who live 30km away in the East Bay can find it on the map.

     When I arrived at Manila airport I went to the shuttle bus (there is finally a shuttle bus! It took only six years to organize a ragged old bus to take passengers to the nearest train station—“You go, Manila!”) sat down, and heard the radio blasting “When Smokey Sings” by ABC. Now that’s a welcome, Filipino style! It’s a pretty obscure 1980s song, but you can’t faze a Filipino by saying that for they are at the vanguard of resurrecting classic songs. (I’ve always claimed this: the singers of 1980s power balladeers, Air Supply, can declare tomorrow that they are Filipino citizens and want to run for President, and they will get 95% of the vote without trying.) It’s one thing I deeply love about the Philippines. In the most random of places I will hear old nuggets. I was in a mall trying to distance myself from video game white noise when I suddenly came across someone on a karaoke machine passionately belting out “Lying Eyes” by The Eagles (no link—I hate The Eagles, and it’s the worst band name ever) and it’s like that anywhere you go. Rock on, Pinoys!
hitchhiking philippines

     That’s pretty good form, I must say. This is in Malvar, one exit away from Lipa City, about 100km south of Manila where I spent the Easter holiday. The hitchhiking went OK. It’s not commonly done here, but Filipinos are all-time gracious hosts and are usually happy to help the weirdo who is smiling awkwardly on the side of the road with his thumb out for some reason. An Aussie family drove me back to Manila. Speaking of which, I was surprised to see that the land down here reminded me of Australia: rust-colored soil, haphazard vegetation, and what looked like gum trees from afar, none of which are evident in this photo. Thank me later.

hitchhiking lipa

     These two women picked me up hitchhiking and insisted on driving me straight to the hostel.

hitchhiking paranaque

     These two women plus a thirteen-year-old girl picked me up hitchhiking in front of my dentist’s office in the dark in Paranaque, a southern suburb of Manila.

lipa rental

     Think about this: it’s 44 pesos to the dollar, so you can have your own apartment for 3500 pesos ($80) a month! (“CR” means “comfort room”, or bathroom.) My parole officer—I mean, anyone’s parole officer—will never ever find you!

uniforms kings

     Another thing unique to the Philippines I like are the basketball jerseys always being made or repaired by small mom and pop shops.

uniforms heat

     Dubai Heat. That’s a good name.

g dorm

     This is a great idea America desperately needs: cheap temporary accommodation. This is called G Dorm. The men’s dorm was empty over the holidays so I had my own room for 150 pesos (US$3.30) a night. These places are meant for transient workers, in this case the call center next door. Since it isn’t a hostel per se, they don’t supply sheets or even a pillow. Finally my sarong shows its usefulness! Another boarder let me use her pillow while she was away. There is camaraderie, safety, it’s cheap, central, and it facilitates the movement of workers to where jobs are, which is a problem in America.

     Any time I meet call center workers I apologize for past rudeness, explaining that it makes me berserk when they read off a script instead of listening to me. One girl at G Dorm said that they focus on a list of keywords they have to help them move to the next step in case their English is lacking. She said her present company was better as it dealt with Australians, saying that Aussies were “less mean” than everyone else.
     The day before I met a policeman who moonlights in a call center. He wasn’t bothered by the negativity he has to deal with every day. Besides, he said, some people just hang up the minute he starts talking. I said, “That was me. Sorry.”
     I’m not sure what to say about my dental tourism here. It was cheap: US$380 for CAD/CAM (aka Cerec) restoration on a back molar by a German dentist(!) but it took 11 hours in total over three visits. It might not be the end either as I have something called a “balanced contact molar” which is not as benign as it sounds.

     All hostels in Manila are awful. Trust me on this. Don’t waste your time looking at reviews on TripAdvisor or whatever. It’s all rubbish. Every hostel will have the same tired, worn look to match its faulty plumbing, filthy rooms and flimsy beds. Even if they advertise themselves as “new”, find out how new because newness dies quickly and irrevocably in relentless Manila.
     I like a place I often stay, Pension Natividad, in the heart of the hell of Malate (don’t ever go left when you walk out of the hostel, even in daytime) because it’s hardcore Catholic, meaning it’s clean and austere. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t show up on any hostel search engines, too, because they don’t take reservations. Unless I am mistaken, the oasis is only first come, first serve.
     I moved closer to my dentist in the southern suburb of Paranaque at Green Mango Hostel where a dorm bed is only 250 pesos but where I woke up with weird, bright red spots on my legs. I’m pretty sure this is a hot sheet hotel, too, judging by the number of people who avail themselves of the “12 hour rental” with no luggage. I moved to a 12 hour rental room after I had an “incident” with a Japanese boxer staying in the dorm. I had to wear headphones. And use two pairs of gloves to touch the remote control.
     There are two miserable people staying an indeterminate time at the hostel. Make no mistake: there’s nothing sadder than a foreigner staying long term in a cheap Manila hostel. Nothing. I see them, I know them, and I strenuously try and avoid becoming one of them.

     If you were into this blog post there are more from my visit last year:
     If I wrote for the Filipino version of The Onion…
     Palawan, Philippines, the Last Frontier (of Mister Donut)
     Narrowly Avoiding Death (from Obesity) in Davao, Mindanao
     Camiguin and its bubonic plague-free lanzones festival
     Cagayan de Oro, best (ping pong) city in the Philippines
     Malate + Makati = Manila?
     A mild defense of Filipino food
     And this is a Philippines section from my old website, a very retro-looking thing that still makes me smile when I see all those ebullient faces. I show a place where you can get a free circumcision, too, if you are curious.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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How to Spend Ten Miserable Days in the Philippines — 27 Comments

  1. Hey there Kent, you are too funny! That orange T-shirt is certainly looking as bright as it did in Ubud… I’m moving on this week but still don’t know where, as a lone female traveler I have started to attract unwanted attention of the male-who-needs-a-good-cheap-and-thorough-circumcision kind, a sure sign that I have lingered too long in the one place. Opening your blog inspires… Cheerio!

  2. Thanks, Dorothy. You might find those males everywhere you go, though, you know. I am sure you know. Good luck finding that spot!
    You could go to Padang Bai then Kuta, Lombok, but it might be too quiet for you.

  3. “Make no mistake: there’s nothing sadder than a foreigner staying long term in a cheap Manila hostel. Nothing. I see them, I know them, and I strenuously try and avoid becoming one of them.”

    Don’t we all, though.

  4. Nice blog. Glad to hear the Pension Natividad is still going. That’s where I used to stay back in the late 80’s. Sounds like things have gotten a bit rougher. I always preferred the PP over Thailand too, much to our mutual friends dismay. πŸ™‚

  5. Did you go to the Philippines specifically to have dental work done? Is it cheaper than Mexico? How good are the dentists there?

  6. Yes, but I was already in Asia. It is cheaper than Mexico which I had also looked into. They used a new technology to do it, which was the attraction. I should have probably gone with the first Filipino dentist I saw last year. 20/20 hindsight…
    I never know if I should trust online reviews.

  7. Oh puleeeaaaase. While the rest of us sit here shackled to jobs, family responsibilities, car loan and mortgage payments you are out there having a miserable time in the Philippines. My heart bleeds for you. It does. Really. Nooooot.
    Nevertheless, another very entertaining blog entry.

  8. Oh please do tell. I am prepping for a colonoscopy I am to have tomorrow. So anything “runny” I can definitely relate to.

  9. Now I am puzzled. Should I hit the Philippines or Indonesia when I get to that part of the world? Every blog entry you post makes me think about new destinations. You need to go tour the south pacific islands and find me a nice quiet sandy beach to sit on for a week or two. πŸ™‚

  10. It was a good read. I am following Just One Way Ticket and her link got me interested to check your entry out. I’ve lived in Manila for more than 7 years and I never want to live there again, at least not more than a week.
    Its a good thing my permanent address is in a province. You get everything edible fresh and cheap.

  11. 7 years in Manila?! Wow, that’s a lot. I am not so down on Manila; it just takes some getting used to.
    I do wish I got out of town more last time!

  12. Others are exploring other provinces, they only get to see Manila for layovers. Yes, go out! Go to Palawan. That’s where I’m heading next summer. πŸ˜€ Safe travels!

  13. I enjoyed Manila a lot. But I stayed in a fancy condo in Makati with a pool on a roof. Couchsurfing πŸ˜‰

  14. Funny guy, you are. I loved this read. You had me at your disdain for The Eagles. I only spent one night in Manila and fortunately, spent all 20 hours in luxury (thanks to some friends living and working there at the time). But this was an informative and comedic take on an…..interesting?….city in a beautiful country. I’ll be following along from now on!

  15. funny that you don’t like Jollibee :D… im sure many Filipinos will hate you for this.. but thanks for being honest, we do have different perspectives.. if you think Filipino food is very sweet, we think Western food taste bland ^_^.. hope you still had fun despite mishaps

  16. I’m a Filipino born and grew up in the Philippines and migrated to the western world. I’m a Filipino who is not at all comfortable going to Manila (I’m a countryside boy). And in the western world, I never recommended Manila as a place to visit, I always advise my mates to visit the up north (Banaue rice Terraces), or the southern islands like Palawan, Bohol and Davao. But never Manila. If you want to see the dark side of the Philippines then go and venture to Manila!

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