Saturday, May 11, 2013

Things I didn't like about the Philippines

It's that time again - several months into a relationship where I start to think unnecessarily far ahead and consider the long-term ramifications of being with someone from a different country, specifically the matter of where I could end up spending most of my life if we settled down. I'm not selfish about this: if I can continue working freelance forever, I'll have the freedom to relocate wherever I'm needed. Jackie's close to her family so naturally she'll want to be close in a geographical sense too, I have no problem accommodating that. The only problem I have is that this place is a complete shithole.

That's the sort of unreasonable, over-privileged white man intolerance I know you love to read from me, but this isn't a few weeks in grotty hotels I can laugh off later, I'm talking about the place I'll be living for (probably) most of my 30s, 40s and however many more decades my poor nutrition allows. I got a bit bored of seeing the same streets in Edinburgh when I lived there for three years, but at least those streets were clean, paved and not filled with ignorant people staring and yelling at me (not filled, but there was the odd sod).

So since I've cracked open this can of intolerance and I'm taking sanity leave from the Philippines for a couple of months, here's the latest instalment in what was meant to be a regular feature to explore my real or imagined problems with every country I visit. Due to a packed travel schedule in the second half of last year and quite enjoying Australia in January, I haven't taken the time to make a formal complaint about anywhere since China, which makes things look a little unfair and specific - I'll try to remember to be racist about everywhere from now on, alright?

Here are assorted things that have annoyed or depressed me about the Philippines from my privileged, judgmental and probably hypocritical perspective. I'll be back again and again between our trips, but I don't know if I could stay.

The smell

The ubiquitous 'Watch Out For Pickpockets' signs are bad enough, but things must be really dystopian when there's a market for these signs

The Filipinos themselves smell lovely, but their cities bloody stink. After a couple of months in Australia where the cars exhale peppermint and posies, I had to hold my breath when crossing bridges over trash-strewn streams in Cebu, and the jeepney journeys I used to find quite fun in 2011 became feats of endurance, so I've been taking a lot more taxis than usual.

The noise

He brings shame on the Daves

Until this blog becomes 4D, I can't give you a clear idea of how big a problem noise pollution is in South East Asia. This might seem like the definition of a pointless and unreasonable rant, but when you're here for a long time and subject to a constant din every time you leave your hotel (if you're lucky enough to have any kind of soundproofing) it does become a serious problem. You only have to take a look at hearing loss figures in countries like Thailand to appreciate the impact of this aural bombardment, where exhausts are cut open because loud is fun and malls are filled with hawkers yelling though loudspeakers unintelligibly even if you speak the language.

Things aren't quite that bad in the Philippines, but jeepney drivers still like to blast soft rock at passengers at a higher volume than my own headphones can even reach and there are still plenty of street sellers who like to 'practice their English' by shouting racial slurs at me. On the positive side, drivers here don't abuse the horn as much as their counterparts in Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam, so at least I'm fair in my rants. The Philippines really isn't the worst offender for most of these things, with one notable exception:

The sex industry

You can get your 'hands on' my 'staff' any d... oh wait, that's what they mean

It's not as easy to remain blissfully ignorant of the depraved sex trade in the Philippines as other parts of Asia, as it's plain to see in all the tourism hotspots and cities. Any time I head out to the convenience store past 9pm, I have to dodge prostitutes and turn down 'massages' from women sitting outside neon establishments that really don't look like massage parlours, and even worse is when you're sitting in the hotel lobby to use the Wi-Fi and get a sales pitch from a 'travel companion' who's just come in off the street.

I looked to the hotel staff for assistance, but they just stood by and let her reel off her questions that I supplied the briefest and most disinterested answers to (this would be my approach even if I didn't already have a girlfriend) while continuing with my work until she realised we probably weren't going to get on any planes together and left. She looked about my age, which means I was about 40 years too young for her anyway.

The prevalence of prostitution also makes me worry that people might think something similar about me and Jackie, though we probably get the benefit of the doubt for me being less than two years her senior rather than three times her age.

Dirty old foreigners

That's the biggest problem I have in the Philippines, the 24-hour spectacle of old, mostly white men and their young, local 'girlfriends.' I know it's none of my business, but I can't walk down a street or get some food in my hotel without having to see it, and I think I'm justified in finding it repulsive and slightly horrifying. I hope that doesn't make me as intolerant as my Nana, changing channels whenever a mixed race or same sex couple started showing their affection, but those things are normal and beautiful. This is just horrible and sleazy.

There's the argument that they're both exploiting each other (I've read these guys' flimsy, wholly selfish justifications on websites when trying to understand how people can treat other people like this), but that's not really true is it? Only one of them chanced to be born in a high income country and made the decision to travel somewhere they could buy what they can't get at home (the ones who aren't on vacation from their wives at home anyway), either due to their age or the fact that they are clearly morally repugnant arseholes with no respect for women. I wouldn't find that particularly attractive in a guy either.

If these dirty old men's primary motivation was really to 'take care' of these struggling Filipinas, they could just send them charitable donations rather than subjecting an 18-year-old to the wrinkled flesh of someone old enough to be their grandfather, or at least old enough to have been involved in the bombing of her grandfather's home to drive out the Japanese. I used to feel guilty just for watching porn, but these men are in a completely different league. I don't know how they live with themselves or face their friends and family again, though I guess if you were their friend you'd probably be a bit of an arsehole too.

It's true that you shouldn't judge all the age-gap couples you see walking around in the streets and the malls, as close family ties means it could be an innocent stepfather and stepdaughter or uncle and niece out shopping, like if I was walking somewhere with the adult Eshen in 20 years' time (not that Eshen's allowed to grow up). But that's certainly not the case for those wheezing, hobbling pensioners getting a teenager to cut up their food in the hotel restaurant before heading back to the elevator. I wished Oliver was here, so he could at least encourage me to find it amusing rather than depressing.


Once we've worked through the human rights problems
I'll have time to worry about the animals

I don't openly stare at those age gap couples, only the occasional glance of morbid curiosity or surreptitious photo which is just as intrusive but at least covert. One of the constant annoyances of walking around any country in South and South East Asia as a foreigner (not North East Asia where they're brought up to be more polite) is being openly stared at. Maybe they're just surprised to see a Western person under the age of 65.

Worse than the staring are the cat-calls. Shouting 'hey, Joe!' at a white person doesn't have the same connotations as yelling a racial slur at minorities, but it's still not a very polite thing to do, and would be the same as me sitting on a wall in Edinburgh and shouting 'hey look, an Asian!' when a Japanese tourist walked past, which might not make them feel especially welcome. Though it might be more along the lines of shouting 'hey look, a Chinese guy!' at said Japanese tourist, as there is the underlying assumption here that all white people are American. Someone once asked me if Australia was in the UK, I said it wasn't quite.

Taxi drivers

The sidecar of the beast

These guys can be dicks in most countries, but Filipino taxi drivers are among the worst I've experienced, especially in Luzon where they really try to take advantage of what they hope to be a naïve tourist who hasn't done his preliminary Wikitravel research. And even when you finally negotiate a fair price, they try to divert you to brothels along the way.

By contrast, it seems they're a lot less likely to rip you off further south in Visayas and Mindanao, but my girlfriend was still cheated 10 pesos on the jeepney, so the problem is rife. It doesn't matter if I can comfortably afford to be scammed a little, this can really damage a country's reputation. Every traveller I've spoken to about the international scam capital of Vietnam since experiencing it myself has said they won't go back there for that reason alone, and I have to agree with them. The Philippines isn't that bad, but if it deals with some of these other problems and attracts more international visitors, the taxi drivers could get even cockier.


Just don't look up the exchange rate and find out this is only about £3.50,
I need you on my side (international departure fees are much higher)

Sure, there are nightmarish bus and ferry trips you can take between these islands if you have 26 hours to spare and aren't planning on getting any sleep, but with a tight 21-day visa waiver for most international visitors (another justified complaint) flights are the only convenient way to navigate the archipelago.

The country's largest and cheapest airline Cebu Pacific is bloody rubbish too, and not as cheap as things first appear when you get to the last page of the online booking and they pile on all the sneaky taxes and surcharges. Even Air Asia stopped doing that last year after people like me complained about it, and when you can't live up to Air Asia's extremely low benchmark, things must be pretty bad.

My flights are delayed by at least 90 minutes 100% of the time, and during the flights the cabin crew never ceases in trying to squeeze as much as possible out of you by strolling up and down with that bloody trolley for the entire duration. To add insult to injury, they also charge you to leave the country or even when taking domestic flights or ferries with terminal fees, which I haven't seen anywhere else in the world. Apparently Filipinos have to pay extra to be let out of their country for work too, and that's before they face racist immigration hassle in all parts of the world and are judged to be illegal workers or prostitutes until proven innocent tourists.

NBI's needlessly cruel queueing system

I can understand flight delays at least, but Philippine government offices make the lethargic Italians look like Sonic the Effing Hedgehog. Before being allowed to leave the country, my girlfriend had to get clearance from the National Bureau of Investigation (a dodgy situation in itself, but let's stay on track) which meant we had to wake up at the unreasonable hour of 3am to stand in an already depressingly long queue outside a building that wasn't going to open for another five hours, otherwise there'd be little chance of getting served that day.

Not unless NBI hired staff for all five available counters apart from just two, but why would they bother making a system more efficient and less of an ordeal for hundreds of people who've travelled from all over the province to meet their demands when you know they'll do whatever it takes to get the hell out of this country?

Rampant prostitution and devout Catholic upbringing means there's a disproportionate number of buildings like this

This country can be a nightmare and no one else seems bothered about that, with any criticisms I make of the Orwellian government being turned back on me for daring to speak their name. In my experience of the Filipinos and the Thais, it seems that the more freedom you take from people, the more blindly patriotic you make them, and I expect to attract some zealous commentator in the future pointing out why I'm wrong with no evidence to the contrary and accusing me of being a typical lying, stinking American (Britain's probably in America, right?)

After giving a fair overview on a travel forum of some of the bad experiences I've mentioned here along with some of the good, one Filipino threatened to find out where I came from so she could turn the tables and criticise my government to see how I felt about that. I wasn't massively intimidated by that threat. I can't recall anyone having anything positive to say about the Coalition government in three years of power, apart from one extremely optimistic viewpoint that widespread anger might result in some good art.

I've only spent a few months in the Philippines so far, but these problems will only get worse in the long haul, and I know that life for a lot of Filipinos can be a constant hassle too. I do have sympathy for those seeking escape in the decrepit arms of an aged foreign husband, I just wish they felt they had other options beyond selling out their lives.

Philippines route map part II
(January - April 2013)

F Cebu
G Davao
H Puerto Princesa
I Sabang
A Angeles (again)
C Manila (again again)
J Baguio
K Sagada
L Bontoc
M Tacloban
N Bay Bay
O Ormoc
P Port of San Ricardo
Q Surigau
G Davao (again again)
C Manila (again again again)


  1. For some reason this made me laugh out loud: "there are still plenty of street sellers who like to 'practice their English' by shouting racial slurs at me"

    Age gap couple thing is depressing, and I reckon it's actually bad for tourism in these countries. For example, I was in a taxi with my mum last year and the (middle aged male) driver was going on about how much he loves Thailand. As soon as we got out the taxi, my mum turned to me and said "Paedo."

    I tried to explain to her that that's a bit of an intolerant viewpoint, but you know how mothers are.

    1. It would take a lot to dent Thailand tourism, even police attempts to cover up the rapes of tourists don't seem to do the trick. The Philippines is doing a good enough job turning off international visitors on its own, though the old foreigners are probably helping.

      Both countries can be really nice when you get out of the big cities, especially the people. Bangkok and Manila seem to have stripped away all the positive associations you might associate with their countyfolk based on the sort of lying travel articles we write.