In three days, I will be leaving the Philippines. Not exactly for good – somewhat anti-climactically, I’ll have to come back for a few days later this year before I fly out again. But I’ve largely cut my ties with the country, both logistically and emotionally.
My desire to leave developed slowly. The first time I lived in Manila, way back in – God, I’m not saying how long ago – my work circumstances forced me to leave before I had gotten my fill of the place. I spent the next two years in Vietnam trying to dream up a way to come back to Manila, and once I managed to finally move back with the option of staying indefinitely, it became awfully hard to tear myself away.
Right from the beginning – or at least once I got through my “everything is wonderful” phase and moved past the initial thrill of being on my own with my own money for the first time in my life – it quickly became apparent that there were some major pros and cons to living in Manila. The pros were obvious: there was the special energy of being in a bustling 24-hour city, a place that, more than even other megacities, truly never sleeps. With well over twelve million people somebody’s always going to be awake, all the more so when hundreds of thousands of them are working in call centres on all sorts of bizarre shifts to match office hours in North American, European and Australian time zones. There were the one dollar haircuts and the two dollar taxi rides, and the temptation – which I have mostly resisted – to simply pay other people to do anything that you consider even slightly inconvenient to do for yourself. Then there was also the temptation – which I completely gave in to, at first – to go out every single night and get totally soused on cheap beer and frozen margaritas at one of Manila’s kazillion bars, drinking yourself into oblivion while enjoying the energetic sounds of those famed Filipino cover bands. And then there were the people, who I still consider to be overwhelmingly decent, easygoing, good-humoured, and just generally fun. I’ve never had so many good friends anywhere in the world, and I seriously doubt that I ever will again.
But many of the downsides of living in Manila were painfully obvious, too. There was the nightmarish traffic, a daily topic of conversation and complaint among the locals. There was the horrific air pollution, which sent me off on a multi-year voyage of medical self-discovery as I tried everything under the sun to avoid the constant illness that came with breathing bad air. I squeezed mountains of calamansi (local limes) to suck up their Vitamin C; I sprayed all manner of substances up my nose, from salt water to steroids. I did it all in the hopes of avoiding yet another respiratory infection and yet another course of antibiotics – and I’ve gotta say that, by the end of my six years, I may not have felt great every morning after another night of breathing tainted air, but at least I was no longer popping Co-Amoxiclav like Tic-Tacs.
For a while, I accepted that these downsides were the price I paid for living in a massive megacity in the developing world. But over time, gradually, something happened: I began traveling more and seeing a bit more of the planet, and it changed my perspective on Manila. In the past, I had to train myself to hold my tongue when the local way of doing things seemed disorganized, inefficient, or strange. Quite rightly, locals would find this annoying, and would sometimes reply that I can always go back to my own country if I don’t like it. A good lesson in manners, to be sure, but the stated or unstated assumption was that Manila had to be the way it is because the Philippines isn’t a rich country like Canada or Australia or the US. The feeling of inevitability is probably strengthened by the Filipino orientation toward these rich lands of opportunity – for many people here, the world basically consists of the (relative) poverty of the Philippines on end side, and the wealth of the US, Australia, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and similar countries on the other. Poorer countries aren’t on the map, and neither are other lower-middle-income countries that seem to have found their own path toward sane urban development. But as my map grew, I realized that Manila’s unique dysfunctionality isn’t simply a function of its level of economic development. There’s something special about Manila that truly makes it the best and the worst of everything, and I still only partly understand what that is.
I learned how to avoid traffic jams and cope with the pollution, but the other downsides to life in Manila – the ones that the locals rarely touch upon in their 24-hour rants about traffic – were what really started to wear me down psychologically. There was the incredible crowding – not only because of the high population, but also due to Manila’s unfortunate geography, with the business centers covering a narrow strip of land a few kilometres across, squeezed between the coasts of a lake on one end and a bay on the other. Given that, it’s no surprise that 3 of the 5 most densely populated cities in the world are in Metro Manila. There are now approximately 100 million human beings crammed into the entire nation of the Philippines, with the Catholic Church doing its damnedest to ensure that this population boom will not end anytime soon; and each day, countless new souls squeeze their way into Manila from the countryside in search of a better life, pushing rents and population densities ever higher.
It’s not just the high density of people per se that affected me, but also the fact that every single square metre somehow has to justify its existence by making money for somebody. The profit motive overrules every other impulse toward broader planning or the public good, with rampant official corruption further reducing the chances of any meaningful oversight. Every space that might have been developed into a public park instead becomes another dense commercial development. Sidewalks are crowded out by vendors and filled with illegally parked cars. The few genuinely public places that exist end up in desrepair, poorly maintained or overrun with beggars. Massive corporations may step in to fill the gap, generously setting aside a few square metres for a less blatantly commercial purpose, like the sprawling bayside promenade at SM Mall of Asia. Or they may even build an actual park, like the old-Spanish-money Ayala Corporation with their well-manicured Ayala Triangle Park in Makati; but these gifts to the public can be revoked at any moment, as evidenced by Triangle itself, where a large chunk has already been sealed off and is being redeveloped into a five-star hotel.
It’s not only the supremacy of money over all else, but the way this money promotes a deadening sameness. It’s the endless procession of chain restaurants, with independent food options mostly being consigned to either the low end – sidewalk peanut vendors and identikit cafeterias selling ten kinds of pork in sweet sauce, all of them slowly turning in the midday heat – or the high-end – 4th-wave coffee shops and gourmet bistros with insufferably hip minimalist warehouse decor. Inbetween, everything seems to be a McDonald’s or a Yellow Cab or a Seafood Island franchise. (And of course, I say this as someone who is, quite unironically, a total corporate whore for McDonald’s!) It’s not like this everywhere in the Philippines: I’m writing my post from the uptown area of Cebu City, where you can’t walk a block without passing a handful of friendly-looking, modestly-priced independent restaurants and cafes – homey places that, unlike the “gastropubs” of BGC, do not use their independence as a mark of their luxury status.
A fisherman desperately trying to eke a living out of dynamited coral reefs in Romblon might validate the theory that things can’t work perfectly in the Philippines because it’s not as rich as Norway or Luxembourg. But when you see the amount of money swimming around Manila, especially in places like Makati and BGC, it’s obvious that lack of money isn’t really the problem. Compared to most of the country and much of the world, Manila is a rich place. Unfortunately, though, this wealth just seems to create hermetically sealed bubbles of prosperity in places like McKinley Hill. And when people are forced to venture outside into the “real” Manila, they bottle themselves up in their air-conditioned cars and Ubers to insulate themselves from the chaotic realities of dysfunctional roadways and dysfunctional public transit.
The chosen few can afford to live and work in these pods, thereby potentially avoiding the need to ever experience Manila as it actually is. But the privilege of living among the beautiful people ain’t cheap, of course, and I was always too stingy to take shelter in the full-on Manila Pod Experience – especially with the number of square metres I needed for my dear dogs. On the plus side, I did have the freedom to manage my own time and avoid the most egregious traffic jams, and I eventually found myself a cozy little nook in the suburbs. And for a while, it worked. I wrapped myself in the simple comforts of the local market and its coconut vendors, the friendly lady who wandered past my house selling lumpiang gulay and kutsinta, and the weirdly out-of-place local cafe that made kickass Americanos for 55 pesos. I took my dogs for laps around the subdivision and savoured the handful of large trees that hadn’t been bulldozed to make way for barred-in suburban Manila McMansions that devour their entire lots. And when I got tired of eating alone and hanging out with my dogs, I took an expressway bus up to Makati to meet friends.
Even after I became disillusioned with many aspects of living in Manila, my incredible friends gave me a damn good reason to stay. Some of my favorite people in the world live in Manila, and moving away hasn’t changed that. Manila may not have the delicious street food of Kuala Lumpur or the affordable and delicious restaurants of Davao City, but the company of good friends over a plate of Chickenjoy or a cup of Family Mart coffee was good enough for me. Until it wasn’t – until the downsides became too much to bear.
New people arrive in Manila every day in search of a better life, coming from provinces with fresh air, beautiful beaches, and, in many cases, dismal economic opportunities. They give it all up in exchange for the middle-class dream, which in Manila is defined as living in a way that shelters you from the daily realities of the very place where you live. And as more people aspire to this dream, and cram more condo towers into every square inch of free space and more shiny new cars into the Metro’s exhausted roads, the reality that they are trying to escape from becomes more dismal. But whether they face the city from inside a jeepney or an air-conditioned SUV, they endure. In fact, endurance – or making tiis – is such a virtue in the local culture that it almost seems perverse, and it may help to explain why a select few have done such an exemplary job of pillaging the country while the masses allow themselves to go without such basic rights as sidewalks and clean air. And anyway, for those who truly can’t bear it, there is always the option of leaving the country and sending their overseas wages home to one’s family.
My best friends, who mostly represent the educated elites, cluster together with their quirky upper-middle-class friends or try to escape – not due to economics, since they tend to be the lucky ones, but out of a desire to live somewhere with a culture and a way of life that they can relate to, or where the mere act of getting from point A to point B is not a grueling ordeal. Many of my favorite people have already succeeded in escaping, and I don’t want to be left behind anymore – so, I’m leaving before everyone else does.
Of course, there are signs of hope. New public transit projects seem to be forever in the planning stages, like MRT lines that exist only as imaginary maps, but I sometimes feel there might finally be enough political will to overcome corporate greed and bureaucratic gridlock, and finally start making Metro Manila liveable outside its bubbles of privilege. Standards for food – even fast food – have visibly risen in the time since I first arrived. (And if you don’t believe me, just see what 100 pesos will get you in the Makati Square food court.) As more Filipinos have the luxury of traveling for leisure, and not just to support their families, I hope that we can move past this false dichotomy between the Philippines and the developed world. “It’s not Singapore” should no longer be considered a valid excuse for Manila’s dysfunctionality. A metropolis where uncontrolled greed substitutes for effective planning should not be considered normal or simply be accepted, no matter how resilient and enduring its residents may be.
Of course, living in another part of the Philippines could be an option. I tried that when I moved to Davao City for a year. On paper, it seemed like a great place: low cost of living, delicious food, and nature and great beaches nearby. Unfortunately, after relocating there I discovered that the initial friendliness of the locals didn’t seem to last, and I soon ran up against a closed-off culture that didn’t seem too eager to embrace outsiders. (Or perhaps I just wasn’t a good fit?) I still miss the kinilaw, tsokolate and durian, though.
I more recently became enamored of Cebu City, which seems to offer some of the cosmopolitanism of Manila with much better food and somewhat less nightmarish traffic. But my experiences with the people here have been weirdly inconsistent, too, making me feel like I’m still missing something obvious about Filipino culture as it exists anywhere outside Manila – a place that sometimes feels like it’s not the Philippines at all, with all the good and bad that comes with this weird uniqueness.
And so, caught between my inability to tolerate Manila and my failure to find my place in any other part of the country, it’s time to explore the rest of the world. In a few days I’ll fly to Taipei, another metropolis with amazingly friendly locals, but one that seems to promise a more orderly form of Asian big-city bustle. I’d like to spend a month in Puebla, a Mexican city that seems to capture some of the gracious and laid-back charm of the Filipino people, only with freshly baked tortillas and real cheese. And perhaps, like all the other times I’ve tried to find happiness outside of Manila, I’ll realize my error and just end up right back where I started, riding a jeepney to McDonald’s. Because happiness is far too elusive to be defined by a list of pros and cons, and maybe I’ll once again discover that this chaotic mess, with its unceasing energy and its amazing people, is still the single best place for me to be.