Foreign But Not Exactly Strange

My First Time Here
By Henry Boy (

This is the first of I donít know how many parts. That depends on when the editor tells me to just "go away!"

I will give some words about being a foreigner working in the Philippines. My first time here.

Now I could just give you the experiences of travel and jeepneys and merienda, but if I donít give the emotional side then it wouldnít be a true article. See, working overseas (or just travelling overseas for an extended period of time for that matter), for any of you that may not have tried it, is an emotional time. Where are my friends? Where is my family? Where is my wife? (Hang on just a second Ė I havenít got one of those yet).

So Iíll avoid anything crude or unsavory, Iíll give my observations and impressions, and I'll give an insight to the emotional.

In 1964, I was born on the end of a hospital bed in Scarborough, England. Two weeks overdue and in too much of a hurry to get to the delivery room. I was born to two English parents and a year later was living in Australia.

Thirty five years later, Iím working in the Philippines as a consultant to AusAID (Australian Governmentís Overseas Development Assistance), helping out in the financial sector doing this and thatÖyou know, keeping busy and trying to make a difference. The period between í64 and í99Öwell, that's a story unto itself!

So the phone call came through just before Christmas: "Can you go to the Philippines to work for six months?"

"Sure," I said and quickly gathered as many maps and Lonely Planet travel books on the Philippines as I can. As an Australian, I am well aware of the existence of the Philippines, but even a well-traveled Australian such as me doesnít necessarily know that much about the Philippines.

The first thing that I had to come to terms with and prepare my self for was the weather. Even though I would be arriving during the slightly cooler month of January, coming from the cold southern end of Australia (Melbourne), I am better adapting to the cold rather than the heat. And it is not so much the heat as the humidity that it is the challenge. So I packed plenty of light fabric business shirts, lots of sun-screen, sunglasses, some personal bits and pieces for those occasional lonely nights (guitar, music CDs, photos) and landed at Manila airport in the early evening.

The airport was quite organised and efficient; Iíve certainly had a lot worse. The hotel had sent a driver to pick me up as promised, but what taxi driver could resist testing the knowledge of acceptable taxi fares with a new arrival?? So I got slugged with a very healthy taxi fare, but truth is, after a flight, I just wanted the key to the room; the shower turned on, my body under the water. This happened fairly smoothly after the obligatory bombardment of paperwork when checking in to the hotel for the first time.

Night One: Played with all the buttons, gadgets, and remote controls in the hotel room.

Day One: Getting around.

Walking any great distance in Manila, or any place in the Philippines except Baguio perhaps, is a guarantee of sweating for me. Monday to Friday I wore business clothes. On the first month or so of being here, I persisted with the collar and tie even when walking to a place of work. This was never going to last and the people wearing loose open shirts started to appear much smarter than me (and a lot less hot and bothered).

So did the options of getting around. The taxis looked liked a good idea: air-conditioned and not stopping and starting like jeepneys do. But after I realized that hotel taxis will sting me for a big bill even if I am not going far, I quickly learnt where to stand to get a taxi. Away from the hotel taxis and hopefully away from one of the people who insist that they should arrange the taxi for you.

On this point, and it is a minor thing but worthy of noting, one of the things that really pisses me off is the guys that will insist on Ďhailingí the taxi for you. What, Iíve never hailed a taxi before? Do I look so stupid that I donít know how to put my hand out to hail a taxi? Itís almost an insult to my intelligence. OK, OK, I know they are just trying to make some income. I am not opposed to shelling out pesos here and there and as a well-dressed foreigner I canít leave the hotel without being asked for money wherever I go. But these guys even look at me with their faces up to the window asking for a tip when I do succeed in getting the taxi by myself Ė you have to laugh.

Ok, so Iíve got a taxi, avoided the hotel taxi guys, tipped the guy for saving me the embarrassment of showing the world that I canít hail a taxi, and we were on our way. The taxi pulled away from Harrison Plaza and I convinced the driver that the meter is the better option. Then he asked, "Where to Sir?"

"Pasig," I answered. The guy stepped on the brakes, his face went pale, and he started shaking his head from side to side like Iíve just asked him to run into BSP with a gun held above his head.

"No, no, much traffic, no, sorry, too much trafficÖ"

Ok, I understood where he was coming from with that comment, but after four knock-backs from four taxi drivers, I was starting to wonder how I was supposed to get a taxi from Pasay to Pasig. Finally, I bribed a driver with a healthy peso amount to venture out into the wilds of Ortigas.

Watching the jeepneys, I kept thinking that if it wasnít so humid, it looked much more fun to hang off the back step of the jeepney as it flies through the heavy traffic without a care for road rules than to sit safely and quietly in a taxi. But it would be a while until I tried that.

Being the prepared lad that I am, I brought a few maps along for the trip to explain to the taxi driver where I wanted to go. It didnít take me too long in the Philippines to realize that Filipinos are not that great with maps. Maps are not a common part of people's knowledge. On the other hand, peopleís knowledge of Manila is pretty good. Taxi drivers seem to be able to get to most places without needing to ask any questions although I have also noticed that occasionally, instead of saying they donít know the location of the place that you request, and instead of actually asking if you know, they will just wander around the general area of the destination until you start seeing the same landmark for the third time and ask the driver if he does indeed know where he is goingÖ [to be continued]



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