Some of the comments I get are people saying that they enjoy my description of daily life as an expat in Manila, so I thought I’d write a little more about that. Warning: you may be bored.
I’ll usually wake up around 7 AM (even though my alarm is set for 8). I go downstairs and grab a can of Coke Zero out of the fridge (I rarely drink coffee), go back up to my lair (it can’t be a dungeon if it’s on the second floor, can it?), switch on the computer, light up a cigarette, and find out what the day has in store for me. Personal email (90% gets deleted without reading), news (depressing), stock prices (depressing), social media and finally business email. I’ll get washed and dressed (I don’t eat breakfast) and sync my phone to make sure I’ve got the latest episodes of the various podcasts I subscribe to (latest addiction: NPR’s TED Radio Hour – the episode from December 15th titled Going Undercover is killer).
Commuting to Work
Eventually I’m ready to face the outside world. I’ll start the car, cue up something to listen to, and fire up Waze to see which level of Hell I’ll be facing that morning.
The village I live in has more than 5,000 houses and only three entry/exit gates. People start leaving for work around 5 or 6 AM and at that time it can take an hour just to get out of the village and get to their work by 9. I don’t have to get to my office that early so I have this window – from roughly 8:30, when there are no longer any lines at the exit gates, up until around 10 AM, when the trucks are allowed to be on major roads (there’s a loosely enforced truck ban from 6 AM to 10 AM and 5 PM to 10 PM).
To make matters worse, Pasig City has these bizarre odd/even laws (you can only drive on certain streets on certain days depending on the last number on your license plate) which means that Monday, Wednesday and Friday I cannot drive out the main gate of the village. I have to use the back gate. This means driving on a government road called C-6 which one day will be a beautiful road (two lanes in either direction running alongside a huge lake) but for now resembles driving on the surface of the moon.
Eventually I will have to get off of C-6 and that means driving down tiny, narrow streets, at first going past a series of shacks in squatter areas, areas where people just walk in the street and don’t much care if there are cars coming or not because they know you won’t hit them so they don’t bother to get out of the way, they don’t even bother to look when crossing the road. “Blow your horn all you want, kuya, I ain’t moving till I finish examining this crack in the road.”
Now I’ll pass some of the newer housing developments, gated areas with new apartment buildings with “resort facilities” (translation: swimming pool) with cars pouring into the streets, no traffic lights, just go, one continuous game of chicken at the intersections. Then I’ll reach C-5, a nightmare of a road, where drivers routinely ignore the lanes (the white lines are faded into obscurity in many places and along some bends the lanes are actually too narrow), don’t signal when changing lanes, and what passes for public transportation (jeepneys and mini-vans referred to as “FX”) will stop 2 or even 3 lanes deep or shoot across 3 lanes without warning to pick up and drop off passengers.
It will take me somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes to drive the 8 miles to “BGC” – Bonifacio Global City, formerly Fort Bonifacio, and which old-timers like me often just refer to as “The Fort.” It’s part of a city called Taguig, though the city of Makati claims part of it and the two cities have been fighting this out in the courts for years. It’s an area that has developed over the course of the past 15 years. It’s modern, it’s orderly, it’s safe, and it has some of the most expensive condos, office spaces and restaurants in the city.
Finally at Work
I’m in a modern 24 floor office building. The ground floor of our building has a Family Mart, a Starbucks and three restaurants (Bucca di Bepo, Tomatito Sexy Tapas Bar and Gelatofix). Infosys, the massive Indian IT firm, has four floors in the building.
My company’s office at the moment is on a corner of the top floor, leasing space from a serviced office company. We have a huge open space, about 85 people and a couple of conference rooms. There’s a shared pantry area with free coffee, tea and water and a guy who shows up three times a day selling boxed rice meals and local snacks to the people on our floor.
My boss is a Brit who has been in Manila for 7 or 8 years. Everyone else in the office is local. Some people call me “sir,” even though I’ve asked them not to do it. It’s the local custom – it has nothing to do with my being white, it’s just how people address each other.
I’m generally happy at work, even though it can be stressful at times. As I’ve written before, I’m genuinely grateful to have a job, and I’m working with a lot of good people and there’s certainly no shortage of things to get done during the day.
Eventually lunch time rolls around. Lunch is a problem for me. When I was working in Ortigas, I had tons of options for cheap lunches under P200 (about US$4). There’s far less at that price in the more upscale BGC. If I’m joining people from my office, they’ll be heading to the food court at one of two nearby shopping malls (Uptown or Market Market). When our office moves (sometime in March), these places will no longer be in easy walking distance.
If I’m on my own, if I want a quiet hour to just sit and read, you will generally find me at one of these places: P.H.A.T. Pho (Vietnamese), 8 Cuts (burger joint), Fowlbread (an outrageously good fried chicken sandwich), Chihuahua (reasonably good tacos and burritos), Senor Pollo (really good roast chicken), Motorino NY Slice (a small branch of the chain that sells pizza by the slice, not as good as in their larger restaurants but good enough). Some days I head to S&R (a Costco clone that has cheap meals alongside the warehouse shopping) or I just say what the hell and go to Burger King. I wish there was a Subway or even a Quizno’s so I could just get a simple tuna sandwich but no such luck (each had a branch in BGC, each closed, sandwiches are not a thing for Filipinos). Some days I’ll get a sandwich out of Family Mart or Circle K, a decision that I immediately regret.
Trying to Get Home Alive
The end of the day approaches. It’s getting dark outside. The traffic is building up. Everyone wants to be in BGC and there are still dozens of new office and condo towers going up. But no one paid any attention to transportation here. It’s total gridlock and each new building going up will mean hundreds more cars per day – because public transportation in Manila is a sick joke and the major roads are crumbling under the weight of daily traffic.
If you’re using public transportation, that means you’re either going to the back of Market Market to wait for a jeepney or an FX (expect to wait an hour as these vehicles only hold 10-20 people and there are hundreds or maybe even thousands of people lined up) or you’re making your way to EDSA to catch the MRT (an elevated train line that breaks down daily).
If you’re driving, as I am, it’s a different kind of hell. Traffic is a solid wall from 5 PM until well after 10 PM. It can sometimes take me one hour just to get the one mile to C-5. Merging onto C-5 would be comical if it wasn’t so sad, because many people here don’t understand the concept of alternate merge. If you’re coming from 32nd Street, as I often am, you get to the point where you reach C-5. It’s supposed to be 3 lanes here, but somehow it becomes 4 (and sometimes 5) as cars attempt to shift to the left while two lanes of traffic try to merge in and people on motorcycles and scooters look for little openings to cut you off and get ahead. It’s bad every night for hours and no one attempts to do anything about it.
How bad is it? It’s so bad that there are people here whose jobs are to stand in the middle of the highway selling drinks, snacks and smokes. You can buy just one cigarette (not one pack, one stick) or individual pieces of gum. Bottles of water and Mountain Dew, bags of chicarron and other snacks. This is their life – standing in the middle of a highway, rain or shine, heat that can reach 35 degrees C or higher during daylight hours. But you have to respect these people – at least they’re trying to earn an honest living.
I could choose to go south on C-5 for about a mile and exit and go through this little tunnel that cuts under the highway. But that means that before the tunnel you hit this intersection where there are two lanes trying to make a left into the tunnel crossing two lanes making a left coming out of the tunnel. No traffic light; it’s a free-for-all. And then the increasingly more narrow streets filled with people until you reach C-6, which at this point is clogged with construction vehicles.
Here’s a great example of Philippines road rage.
Watch the segment that starts at 0:48. It may seem boring at first but stick with it. Much like politics in the Philippines, driving here can often seem like a game of Who Has The Biggest Dick?
While it may seem that the Philippines is home to the most bad drivers in the world, apparently we’re a distant second to Russia.
Either way, it will usually take me 90 minutes to get home – on a good day. I’ll get home around 8:30 or 9. Most nights my wife waits for me so we can have dinner together. By 10 PM we’re in bed watching a movie, or half a movie as my wife usually is asleep well before 11. At that point I’ll grab my Kindle and read until I hit the point where I realize I’m not comprehending the words in front of me any more and it’s lights out.
I can guess what you’re thinking. You’ve probably decided that my life is miserable and now insane must I be to realize it and still be here.
I think I’ve said this here before – Manila was my last choice of a place to work, primarily due to the commute. I definitely find myself missing many things about Hong Kong – although the cost of living there is one thing I don’t miss.
Aside from the commute, I’m quite happy with my life here. I love our house. I love how much cheaper it is to go out for a good meal – but I don’t feel the need to go out as often as I used to.
And therein lies the problem with this blog. My life is not that interesting as it used to be (assuming for the moment that some people found it interesting). I haven’t traveled anywhere in almost 3 months. I don’t go out that often. Politics? It’s redundant to write about my revulsion for Trump and the Republicans because others are doing it far better than I ever could and it’s quasi-dangerous for a foreigner to write about his or her opinions on Philippines politics (unless I was to make some attempt to hide my real identity, which I stopped doing years ago). I remain very active on social media – ten years ago I might have done quick posts that were just a link or a picture, now those are on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, not here.
I’m not going to stop blogging, at least not for the foreseeable future, although you have no doubt noticed that I blog a lot less frequently these days. Something will always come to mind, eventually.
I also have another couple of potential projects in mind, so stay tuned for info on those.