10 Things I’ve Learned in Manila

Bert, I said, do you realize it’s been three-and-a-half years since we moved back to Manila?

Yes, my husband said. You ready to go back to the States?

Ha, ha! If aging, they say, is not for sissies, well, returning to the Philippines isn’t for prissies. You can’t be going Eww! and Yuck! every time you see something strange on the sidewalk, or when you’re driving and the jeepney driver gets off his vehicle in the middle of the road and stands motionless facing his rear tire.

It’s a different country out here, and if you’ve been gone a long time, and no matter how often you come to visit, you have to be ready to be shocked. You see, the Philippines may have a lot more people now – millions more, to be exact – and everyone is texting on a cell phone; but nothing else has changed. And that is what’s unnerving. After being away for decades, why do I find that everything is still the same?

Knowing that moving back is an experience I am not about to repeat in my lifetime, I have been keeping a diary of things I’ve learned coming home. I am happy to share ten lessons with you if you promise to make a list of your own when you come to stay.

1. The words you use may mean nothing to locals.

I went to a grocery story for Kleenex. In a rush, I asked a stockman where to find Kleenex. He looked puzzled. I said, “Uhm, tissue?” He pointed me to toilet paper. I asked another stockman. He said they did not have them. I said, “Impossible. What do you use to blow your nose?” He said, “Nothing.” I said, “I want paper for my nose!” After more of that I asked for the manager. The guy got scared. I said, “No, I just want nasal convenience.” Huh??? Face paper? “No,” I cried, “toilet paper for my nose!” I gave up and walked every aisle. Finally I found great big boxes of Kleenex. I asked the stockman what they called Kleenex. He said tissue. And that's when I nearly screamed F***!

Kleenex (Source: wikipedia.org)

Kleenex (Source: wikipedia.org)

2. Carbon paper is expensive.

Woohoo, I'm a registered voter! I went to City Hall and got the deed done in about half an hour. That's because I was the only client in Precinct 1 today. I filled out a long form with lots of info and when I was done the guy said, "You have to write it all down two more times because this form has three pages." I said "What?! Don't you have carbon paper?" When the guy said, “No,” I offered, "Can I donate some?" Haha. He did not laugh. I'm in the Philippines after all.

Carbon paper (Source: wikipedia.org)

Carbon paper (Source: wikipedia.org)

3. Stamps, on the other hand, are cheap.

I had an envelope to mail to the States, so off to the post office we went. It was a huge building, so it took a while to find the right window. When I did find it the woman said, "It will be P100." Fine. She gave me two P30 stamps, four P5 stamps, five P2 stamps and ten P1 stamps. "Whoa, that's a lot of stamps," I mumbled in surprise. And then she pushed an open jar of paste through the window. "What for?" I asked. She said that's so the stamps don't fall off.

What a clever idea, I thought. I spent the next ten minutes pasting my gazillion stamps around the front side of my envelope. I'm sure the US Social Security office will find it very pretty.

QuezonCity philippine stamps dot net.jpg

4. Never trust a used car salesman.

We found the car we liked in a used car lot and planned to go back the next day to pay cash and drive off with the car. But the next day Bert was on the phone with a car insurance salesman saying, “OK, we need to have the car inspected first to make sure it has not been in a flood.”

Then my brother warned, “When you give the guy your money you’ll have the car but no transfer or deed of sale. What happens if the guy goes to the police and says you drove off with the car he was selling?” Further, he warned, the papers should be notarized or they serve no good. I asked, “How and why would the salesman have all those papers ready if we have not paid for the vehicle?” His response was, “Ah! That is a problem. You can’t trust someone you don’t know.”

5. There is no such thing as privacy.

My girlfriend called to ask if I could recommend a new dentist. She was uncomfortable with the last one, she said, then explained:

“The dentist is great, but beside her is another dentist with another patient barely five feet away from your dental chair and it is a little unnerving when your dentures are all out of your mouth and right that minute the other patient gets up and sees your mouth wide open, toothless.”

6. Just because he’s a cab driver doesn’t mean he’s Filipino.

The message I received from the guy I had been in contact with said that a certain Dave would come and get us at the Dumaguete Airport. So when Bert and I arrived we headed straight outside the airport and looked for my name on cardboard held by shuttle staff.

It was Welcome this-and-that but no one held my name. Disappointed, we turned around and looked to see if there was a text message on my phone. There was. Good morn, this is Dave. Am in carpark with green shirt and cap. 

I looked for a guy in a green shirt and cap. As I panned the onlookers I stopped when I saw a tall white – as in Caucasian -- guy looking right back at me with a grin on his face. I shrieked, “Dave!”

Here we were in the Philippines, in an un-cosmopolitan city, being picked up at the airport by a gringo cab driver.  It turns out that Dumaguete, like many Visayan cities, is teeming with foreigners married to locals and they need to earn a living, too.

7. If they learn you’re from the States, they might cower.

I was happy to see a guy by our house on a bike peddling Hasa! Hasa! I stopped and asked if he would sharpen my hedger, dull after a couple of uses. The guy rode around our neighborhood on his bicycle, which doubles as a traditional foot pedal grinder that sharpens anything with a point. It requires great skill to use, but he had it mastered. It’s a craft he learned from his father many years ago and it has been his only source of livelihood. 

I asked if I could take his picture with the grinder bike. He looked at me and said, “No.” I said, “No?”

He said, “You will send the picture to America. Their sharpeners are much better, more modern. Mine is an embarrassment.” I said “No, please don’t think that way! Theirs are just different, but that does not mean they’re better.” He bowed his head in defeat and repeated, “Theirs are better.”  I paid the guy, turned around and cried.

8. Rich kids are different from you and me.

I stepped out of our gate and saw a kid, maybe 11 or 12 years old, riding a brand spanking new all-terrain vehicle (ATV). But the sun was out so he had a house help sitting behind him holding an umbrella over his head. A few months later I saw the same kid, again on his ATV. But it was a cloudy day so he did not need an umbrella. A few feet behind him, however, was the same house help riding a scooter, ready to pick him up if he should fall.

A mini-ATV for kids (Source: extremesportsphilippines.com)

A mini-ATV for kids (Source: extremesportsphilippines.com)

9. Home delivery might be a bit slow.

We were driving down Commonwealth Avenue when we saw doors, lots of wood doors displayed on the roadside. I told Bert, “Stop! I have to check them out!” The next 10 minutes saved us quite a bit of money. The lady had an album of pictures cut from magazines. “Tell me which one you want,” she said. Surprisingly I found exactly what I wanted and even more surprisingly, it cost about $100 less than a similar door I had seen in a hardware store. She said there would be a $4.65 delivery charge because our house was a bit far.

On the promised day and time of delivery she texted, We are waiting for the glass to arrive. Please be patient. God bless. At 4:12 p.m., another text: We are on our way. God bless. At 4:26, another: We are leaving. God bless. At 4:30. they asked: Are you near the LTO? God bless. We were nowhere near any LTO so I picked up the phone and gave them directions. From where they were it shouldn’t take more than 15 or 20 minutes to our place. An hour later my phone rang. “M’am, we are at the (neighborhood) gate but the guard won’t let us in because we are on a tricycle.” What?!! The gated community we just moved into had a ban on tricycles. I ran to the guard house and saw two smiling men holding a big wood door and a door jamb beside an old green tricycle. They were apologetic for any trouble caused. “We will just carry the door to your house,” they offered, “God bless!”

10. It costs money to save money.

My bank was bought out by a bigger bank and I did not like the new bank, so I pulled all my money out and looked for a new bank.

The first one told me I needed to have a minimum savings deposit of half a million pesos or $10,000. I asked why and was told, “We have a target clientele” and it obviously wasn’t me. The second bank had a minimum deposit of $500 but they required two days’ notice to withdraw money. Not good. I went to the third bank. Their minimum deposit was $2,500.

Why do you want to open an account?” the banker asked. “I need to move funds from my US account so I can maintain myself,” I replied.

You’re a US citizen?” she asked. “Dual,” I said. “In that case I will need your US and Philippine passports, your original oath of citizenship, either your tax ID or your electric bills and your latest income tax return filed in the US,” she said. “After you give us all that we have two days to decide if we will accept you.”

Those are our rules,” she emphasized, and continued: “You have a choice to bank with us or not.” Arrogant s.o.b. “How much do you plan to deposit, if ever?” she asked. If ever? I told her how much. Immediately she said I was approved. Phew! “However,” she added, “you will be charged $6 for deposits and $6 for withdrawals. You will be charged when your balance falls short of the minimum. You will be taxed on your account. You will be charged 3 ½ percent when you use your ATM card overseas. You will be charged $5 to $20 for every incoming wire transfer and, while we are still trying to establish our relationship, you cannot write a check to deposit to your account.”

Have a good day!” she added.

Yes, we’re having a good day in Manila.

Bella Bonner, UP Mass Comm graduate, moved back to Manila after 30 years in Texas and is trying life as an urban farmer. Between growing arugula in her neighbor’s yard and making artisan cheeses, she contemplates on raising goats in her own yard. Would her neighbors agree?

More articles from Bella Bonner:

Lovelier The Second Time Around
May 6, 2014
When these seniors got married, they partied like teenagers.

My Niece, The Cake Artist
December 31, 2014
How Judy Uson became Philippine high society’s go-to wedding cake maker.