Living in Manila: An expat guide

Feature by Damien Cifelli | 01 Feb 2016
  • A Bar in Manila

Last year my girlfriend and I moved to Manila.

The choice was something of a ‘spin a globe and point to a place’ type decision. Although not literally, we don’t own a globe. It was probably more of ‘zoom in on Google Maps’ decision.

When we announced the plan we were met with a universal response of ‘Why?’

It’s a pretty reasonable question. The limit of most people’s knowledge on the place is the Thrilla in Manila and the type of brown envelope. Neither of which tell you much about the place.

A quick google revealed some interesting facts; Manila is, in some estimations, the third biggest city in the world (35 million in Metro Manila) and the second riskiest place to live. Combine this with the fact it was revealed to have the worst traffic on the planet and it seems like a pretty tasty proposition.

We had no jobs lined up and no particular knowledge of the city but, like a junkie with a habit, we refused to budge from the deal and booked the flights.

Here is what I have learnt since then.

A bar in Manila

Safety

Every Filipino I spoke to told me I would be murdered as soon as I got of the plane. As a result I arrived with some trepidation. But after I discovered myself to be stab wound free in the arrivals area, and when my first trip to the toilet didn’t result in my achilles being snipped with bolt cutters, I began to relax.

Despite the fact it is the biggest city in the world (apart from the two that are bigger) it will make you feel like a local within a couple of days. Even though, obviously, you aren’t. This is due mainly to the openness of the people. Less murdery and violent, more friendly and smiley. This isn’t an 'aren’t the locals friendly'-type generalisation; this is a place where smiling functions as a default currency at times. I think they could have just caught you in their living room wearing a balaclava and holding their TV, but as long as you give them a smile they’d probably invite you to stay for breakfast.

Food

The cuisine is generally great, as long as you’re not too picky on which part of the animal it is you’re eating. It can actually become quite a fun game – I call it ‘meat roulette’ (or is that a website?). Generally the answer is either nipple, chin or eyelid. If, like me, you love dairy to a borderline inappropriate level, prepare to be disappointed. The revelation that the shop next to my flat sold a carton of milk for £14 had me furiously searching Skyscanner for return flights.

Manila Nightlife

Nightlife

Out of the whole of Asia, the Philippines has easily the best nightlife. It is probably something to do with the Spanish influence that means they genuinely know how to have a good time. The options range from live music bars and superclubs to the slightly more dubious offerings (the bar across from my flat has a rotating bill of midget fighting and wet lady wrestling). This is all combined with the fact that the beer is cheap, good and local. It’s one of the few Asian countries where Carlsberg and Heineken haven’t managed to strangle the life out of local production.

For the cost of a couple of pints at home you can wake up at the side of a motorway in a dress with pockets full of Monopoly houses and a tattoo of a Chris Akabusi on your neck.

Traffic in Manila

Traffic

If you like taxis that physically move, you are out of luck. On a number of occasions I have had to check they weren’t one of those optical illusion street paintings you see in Spanish plazas. If you are trying to get to the other side of the city, perhaps leave home the day before, pack a change of clothes and some food and leave a note for your loved ones. 

The constant honking does get annoying, then it gets infuriating. Eventually it will drive you insane to the point you end up stripping off in the street, laughing hysterically as you pet an imaginary dog (I’m OK now, they let me off with a caution).

Work

There are jobs everywhere. 'Why don’t you have a job then?' you ask accusingly. Is it because I value creative freedom and the ability to control my own decisions unencumbered by the vicissitudes of a Capitalist society? Or is it because I’m lazy? I don’t know, you decide.

I have had to hide from job offers, more prevalent than elaborate doping programs in elite high performance sport. Like Messi weaving through a defense of working class Englishmen, I have skillfully avoided any kind of employment. Most seem to see my skin’s capacity for melanin production as a qualification suitable for instant employment. Being white seems to equate to a doctorate in recruitment terms.

Mall is Life

It is a well known fact that you can walk the 1200 miles from the north to the south of the Philippines without actually exiting a mall.

The Expats

They are to be avoided at all costs, not all of them, but a specific type. Those, almost exclusively, fat balding white men who will lecture you for an hour in a bar about how the ‘world has gone to shit’ before going off to meet their 13-year-old girlfriend. These people are easy to avoid, they often lurk in pubs called things like The Carpenter’s Knuckle or they are out on the street negotiating with women like they are buying a used Ford Focus.

Being Rich

By getting on a plane and coming here you instantly become a rich person. It is difficult to come to terms with. Poverty is very visible: the city has quite a few large slums and street children regularly approach you for money. Being suddenly on the lucky side of a large wealth disparity creates some confusing feelings like ‘I want to help the poor but I also want a nice flat, just as long as the infinity pool doesn’t have a view of the slums.’ It is the stuff of nightmares for any self-respecting middle­ class liberal.

It's really just a question of proximity. Wherever you live in the world these people are still poor. The view from your private observatory might be blocked by a family of eight, sitting down to a meal of the licked-out contents of an old McDonalds bag. That’s what’s created that feeling of guilt. It’s just harder to ignore when they’re in your eye line.

I am by no means rich – to live in a nicer area here costs more than my lifestyle did back in Britain – but compared to those a few streets away I might as well be an oligarch being carried around in a sedan chair made of baby fur.

(Continues below)


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In my experience the best course of action is just 'don’t be a dick.' It is more about a positive attitude and being involved at a local level. Eating at local stalls and buying food in the markets means money flows into the hands of the right people. Even those things that sound decadent like having your laundry done or hiring a maid can contribute sustainably.

Many foreigners have not, like my girlfriend and I, moved here by choice. They were sent here by GloboSynergy to spearhead a slum clearance operation. They eat imported steak in their fortified bunker made of foreign newspapers and barbed wire. They begin their time here as a superior to the savages and continue in that mindset. If you are here to experience a new culture you must accept all that goes along with it, good and bad.

In 1899 Rudyard Kipling changed his poem The White Man’s Burden to reflect the American colonisation of the Philippines. He puts forth the idea that western nations have a duty to impose civilization the barbaric nations of the world (i.e. The Philippines). Though it was written nearly 120 years ago the feeling still prevails in some people. Regardless of what Rodger the pissed executive might have slurred into your ear, sweaty hand clamped onto the back of your neck , we don’t know better. There is no need to impose our pity and misjudged ideas of civilization on a population we know nothing about. It is also very important to resist the urge to helicopter over the slums throwing down copies of Good Housekeeping and pine-scented Yankee Candles.