Metro Manila has a reputation, not entirely unwarranted, for being a rather chaotic, messy place – the Tagalog word for this, magulo, is much more mellifluous than any English equivalent, and I’m not sure that any one English word can really capture its spirit. And while it’s true that Manila can get pretty nuts compared to what most westerners are accustomed to, the fact is that people’s experiences of the place vary greatly. The spoiled expat (of which I am not one!) and the humble sidewalk cigarette vendor selling his wares on a polluted highway obviously have very different experiences of the place. But nonetheless, it is possible to lead a comfortable existence here.
When I say “comfortable”, I do not mean comfort in the preferred local sense of entirely avoiding ever doing any of the things that 75% of Filipinos have to do, like riding public transit, washing their own dishes, or going to places that they don’t especially like. For me, doing things comfortably involves a reasonable balance of efficiency, relaxation, and relative freedom from crime, pollution, traffic, extreme heat, and the various other pitfalls of urban living. But by my definition, comfort doesn’t have to mean living one’s entire life inside a hermetically sealed, air-conditioned bubble, free from any awareness that the Philippines is, in fact, a subtropical country, or carefully avoiding the slightest unwanted intrusion from poor people in non-servile roles. A full, varied adult life has at least a bit of room for discomfort, confrontation, frustration and stress, as long as we ultimately have enough moments of serenity and joy to balance them out. I consider myself comfortable because my life is, by and large, ridiculously easy and low-stress; but I am not unfamiliar with the smell of diesel, the rivers of sweat that pour down my forehead on a hot summer’s day when my jeepney is stuck in traffic, or having a stranger’s nose in my armpit on the MRT (better them than me, at least!).
For most people in Manila – certainly office workers in cozy air-conditioned buildings – the main discomfort of their day occurs while in transit through Manila’s mind-boggling traffic jams and its byzantine public transit system. And for that reason, one of the biggest parts of a comfortable life in Manila is traveling comfortably. A comfortable life may not be one where we spend hours of each day stuck in traffic, squeezed up against strangers on the bus or choking on pollution, but a comfortable life can include all of those things, as well – in moderation.
So here, now, are some ways to travel comfortably in Manila:
1. Have A Lot of Money
This is, by far, the easiest way to live and travel comfortably in Manila – assuming, of course, that you actually do have a lot of money. By Manila standards I am not exactly rich, and I live like someone who earns even less – living below my means, so to speak. I prefer to live a simple life, and having a lot of money isn’t a requirement for my version of comfort. But, all other things being equal, it sure doesn’t hurt to be rich out here! In a place where Cash Rules Everything Around You (C.R.E.A.Y.), having buckets of money will let you take constant shortcuts in life while never leaving the lap of luxury. Got an overflowing basket of dirty laundry? Pay somebody to wash it! Want to get to work comfortably? Buy a car and pay somebody to drive you! Want to get to work even faster? Buy a condo next to your office! Need somebody killed? Well, you really shouldn’t, but that can be arranged for a price, as well.
Even Metro Manila traffic can be bypassed if you have a whole lot of money and can afford a helicopter. But even if you can’t, at least you can be comfortable while sitting on EDSA for hours in your chauffered car, updating Facebook on your iPad with LTE Internet while cheerfully oblivious to the outside world.
Unfortunately, those of who do not have enough money to breathe the sweet air that is reserved for only the upper-middle and upper classes cannot simply will money into existence, and not all of us have the determination or stomach to achieve unimaginable wealth by exploiting cheap labour. Luckily for the rest of us, there are also other ways to achieve a reasonable degree of comfort.
2. Work from Home
Saving the most obvious for second, traveling comfortably is much less of an issue if you can just stay home! Many people in Manila and around the Philippines now work online from their homes, either handling their local office work remotely or working for clients thousands of kilometres away. Some of them are freelancers, breezily hopping from one project to another, but many more are full-time salaried employees with quite strict working hours. Many of these full-time workers are virtual assistants, catering to the whims of stingy and demanding foreign employers while working ten hour shifts through the night – not quite the work-from-home dream. Still, for those who don’t crave the constant interruptions of co-workers (and many people do find it quite maddening to work at home by themselves), it probably still beats being stuck on Taft Avenue on a payday Friday in December.
3. Live Near Your Work
If you can’t work from home, working near home is the next best thing! Surprisingly, many locals could exercise this option but don’t. For every person I know who rents a room or a bed in a dormitory near their office, and then goes home on the weekend for their mother’s cooking, I know another one who commutes, with grim determination, from Cainta or Bulacan to Makati every single working day of their lives. They might do it to save a bit of money on rent, for the comforts of home, or because their parents hate the idea of them sleeping away from home. These are all legitimate reasons, but if you have no family within commuting distance of Metro Manila or if your family has completely disowned you, then this option is as good as it is obvious!
4. Have Access to Good Transportation
I have made sure to phrase this one as broadly as possible. That’s because I’m not trying to make this blog post a socialist tract about how everyone should take public transit all the time in Manila, including the many well-to-do people who consider it beneath them (even though I do believe traffic would be a lot better here if people drove less). But honestly, for some commuting routes, the available public transit options might be so unpleasant – say, three seriously polluted jeepney rides just to get from Makati to CEU Manila – that driving becomes a much more desirable option. And it’s not just a question of physical comfort, but also of sheer practicality: given Manila’s inconsistent public transit, in some cases a 15 minute drive could easily turn into an hour of transferring, walking long distances between rides, waiting for jeepneys to fill up at the terminal, etc.
On the other hand, I’m lucky enough to have easy access to my office and other frequent hangout spots through express aircon buses and the MRT (more on that later), so for me, taking the bus is a great option. For someone who would have to take three or four rides to get to work, has the money to get there more comfortably and faster in a car, and isn’t open to moving, I guess that shiny new car is a great thing to have, even if it’s making life ever-so-slightly worse for everyone else.
5. Work Midshift
Manila is, more than any other place I have ever been to, a 24-hour city. I don’t only say this because of how easy it is to buy socks on the sidewalk at 3 AM. It’s also the fact that people here work the widest range of working shifts I’ve ever seen anywhere. With the number of jobs provided by the call center and Business Process Outsourcing industries, I wouldn’t be surprised if millions of people here work on night shift alone.
Of course, not all shifts are created equal. Working the regular day shift will expose you to the full horrors of rush hour traffic. Night shift might not be much better, if you still have to leave for work in evening rush hour or get home in morning rush hour. And aside from that, there’s the iffiness of commuting in some parts of Manila late at night, along with the toll that years of night work can take on some people’s health.
But if I was someone working in an office on a fixed schedule (which, mercifully, I am not), I would like nothing more than to be on midshift – say, 1 PM to 10 PM. I might still have the chance to grab a quick drink with friends after work, I would get to indulge my love for sleeping late, and would manage to avoid the greatest horrors of Manila traffic while keeping a schedule that my body could tolerate. I assume!
Incidentally, traveling to and from work outside the regular rush hours is one major aspect of how to…
6. Travel Without Traffic
When I talk about Manila traffic, some locals dismissively declare that every single place in the Metro inevitably has traffic, so there’s no point in trying to avoid it. I’m not sure if this blanket statement means that every place has traffic all the time, or just that every place can potentially have a traffic jam at any time. Either way, this would imply that the only way to really be accessible to something is to live near it. But anyone with a sense of traffic flow patterns in Manila should realize that this is patently false. I can speak from experience, having just gotten from EDSA Magallanes to my home in Muntinlupa by bus and tricycle in 44 minutes at the peak of rush hour. Someone who’s not from Manila may not find this very impressive, but people who take two hours or more to travel from Makati to their homes in Tandang Sora – actually somewhat closer in terms of distance – will be more appreciative. Heck, even getting from Makati to BGC – a stone’s throw away – can easily take about an hour in bad traffic.
There are two factors at work here. First, there is the fact that Metro Manila’s expressways are the best thing ever, something that I have discussed at great length here. Of course, how you travel before and after the expressway is also relevant, as proven by the poor souls in Sucat who may reach the Sucat exit in 12 minutes from Makati, but need another 45 minutes to reach their house amidst the mega-sized parking lot that forms on the roads connecting Sucat’s various car-loving villages.
And of course, you don’t just have to be near the expressway – you have to actually be near the toll gate. Getting to Makati from one of the villages in Parañaque that is marooned equidistantly between two toll gates can take significantly longer than traveling to Makati from the far reaches of Muntinlupa. This is because those poor souls from Parañaque will be required to reach the tollgate via the nightmarishly congested service road, or more accurately, the “We Hate You Because You Aren’t Paying Toll and So We Have Deliberately Made This Road Terrible” road – too bad for those who are merely trying to reach the tollgate, or who don’t have cars and have no option but to take a service road jeepney.
Whatever time of day you travel at, life in Manila is also going to be a lot easier if you can travel against the predominating flow of traffic. Traffic flows in Manila are a bit complicated, but the safest generalization is that people generally travel south in the mornings from their houses in the northern suburbs into the Makati, Ortigas and Fort Bonifacio business districts, and return home en masse in the evenings. (Even the mass movements from the car-crazed southern suburbs to the business districts isn’t quite as bad – Thanks, Skyway!) The Great QC-Makati Migration means that EDSA and the MRT will put the uninitiated into deep shock when traveling southbound in the morning, and northbound in the evening. The evening line-ups outside Makati’s MRT stations are an especially horrifying sight, like the hour-long queue that snakes endlessly around the sidewalk at Magallanes MRT station. (I suppose is a grim tribute to EDSA traffic that these people still think it’s better to wait for an hour just to board the train than it is to actually try their luck riding a bus on EDSA.)
But the flip side, which is rarely commented on, is that traveling against the prevailing traffic really isn’t that bad. I often have afternoon meetings in Quezon City, and the MRT is completely tolerable when riding from Quezon City back to Makati in the middle of rush hour – I’ve only seen lines at the stations when there were serious system breakdowns, which are luckily much less common than they used to be. Avoid going south in the morning and north in the evening and the MRT is actually pretty tolerable – Really! And most importantly, it will get you from North Avenue to Makati in 20 minutes.
Of course, this doesn’t help you if you’re not willing to ride the MRT under any circumstances, whether it’s a breezy Sunday or a Friday payday. And that’s why being really comfortable without the benefit of unlimited money may also require you to…
7. Keep An Open Mind
As my good buddy Car Man taught us, many people here feel that how you travel is an important reflection of your social status. Someone who lives in Forbes Park wouldn’t be caught dead riding the MRT, simply because it would be beneath their social status. But really, unless you’ve got that chopper, time wasted in traffic is time wasted in traffic whether you’re inside an SUV or a tricycle. That doesn’t mean that comfort is a non-issue – As I’ve written clearly above, some Manila travel experiences are definitely uncomfortable enough to be worth avoiding. But it getting from North Avenue to Ayala in the evening will take you an hour by Uber and only 20 minutes by MRT, why not? You can even easily get a seat, since North Avenue is the first station. If Makati traffic is so bad that even pedestrians go faster than cars, why not walk? The standard answer from the well-heeled is that anything other than being in a private car in Manila is “dangerous”. There are absolutely places in Metro Manila that I would not choose to go in the middle of the night (care for a 2 AM stroll on C5 Extension?), but on the other hand, the risk of being stabbed by a renegade stockbroker on Ayala Avenue is pretty minimal. In many cases, the real “risk” is that you might encounter people of lower socioeconomic status who could potentially fail to call you “sir” or “ma’am” without risking the loss of their employment. But if money is supposed to buy freedom, why are you letting your class prejudice deprive you of the option to travel in the most practical way at any given time? That doesn’t sound comfortable at all.
Hopefully these completely obvious tips will help you to travel more comfortably in Manila, even if you aren’t outrageously well-off. After all, you don’t need a lot of money as long as you can choose where you live and where and when you work! Of course, with fierce competition for good jobs and many Filipinos having no choice but to live with their families, no matter where that may be, very few Manileños actually do have control over these aspects of their lives. In other words, that this post will be of use to pretty much nobody. Still, I’ll see you for Part 2, assuming I ever get around to writing it!