12 Things Travelers Should Know About the Philippines

The Philippine’s Independence Day is celebrated on June 12th. In honor of the number 12, I’m making a list of 12 important facts for anyone wanting to travel to this beautiful island nation. I’m sure more lists are soon to come as I begin to dissect everything I’ve experienced. 

  1. ATMs are located in major cities but charge Php 200 (USD $5) for a foreign card transaction. Bring American money which be used in certain places or easily exchanged.
  2. Taxis are relatively cheap if you find a metered cab, identified by an orange sign on the windshield. A taxi ride should never be more than Php 200. Once I jumped into a cab outside an airport just to find out there were set prices for locations. I had to pay Php 1800 (USD $42) for my error. The driver gave me Php 100 back because he said I was beautiful and I told him I should get a discount.
  3. Bring toilet paper in your purse or pocket whenever you travel around the city. Many public bathrooms, including those in malls, often do not have toilet paper. Also, put the paper in the trash bin because there is a very fragile sewage system that gets clogged easily.
  4. Movies and food are cheap! I went to see Harry Potter 7 Part 2 in 3D and paid about USD $10. Which is half the price of some malls in the United States. The food sold in stalls on the street are only a few cents but finding a nice sit-down restaurant with meals and drinks will only put you back about $10.
  5. If you are staying with family or friends and you decide to take a short trip, make sure to bring back a small gift. This can be a package of the local food, a painting etc. just to show that you were thinking of them. This gift, called a pasalubong, is an integral part of the Philippine culture and many stores advertise pasalubong in the airports.
  6. Titles of people are very important. Men and women who are slightly older than you are referred to as Kuya or Ate (for older brother or sister, respectively). Older people are either Sir or Mam with their first name ex. Sir Martin, Mam Jean.
  7. All meals are eaten with a fork and a spoon. The spoon is usually held in the right hand and fork in the left. The fork is used to push the meat and rice into the spoon before being brought to the mouth. Most meat is boiled, fried, or stir-fried so does not require a knife blade.
  8. There are two distinct languages spoken in the Philippines: Tagalog and Bisaya. While Tagalog is the official language, it is only spoken in Luzon. In the other two major regional areas, Visayas and Mindanao, varying dialects of Bisaya are spoken. All signs are in English and many people speak English fluently within urban areas. To see map: click here.
  9.  Be very wary of porters at bus stations, ferry ports and even airports. If you do not want to pay someone to move your luggage, you must be firm and vocal as soon as you board or unload. They expect a Php 15 or 20 tip. See earlier post.
  10. Become a scuba diver! The Philippines boasts some of the best dive sites in the world and offers a variety of short day trips and live aboard experiences to see coral reefs, ship wrecks and whale sharks. Some dive instructors offer student discounts but generally the course will cost between Php 10,000 and Php 18,000. Contact me if you want dive instructor recommendations.
  11. The country is fairly modest in terms of dress, probably due to the prevalent Catholic religion throughout the country. Outside of the very modern areas of Manila you will not see people in spaghetti straps or short shorts. Even in the hot weather, people wear jeans. In terms of beach clothes, buy a rash guard or some shirt and shorts combination that can be worn during swimming. Outside of foreign tourist beach resorts, walking around in a bikini is not appropriate. 
  12. If you are staying more than 21 days, get a visa. This can be done prior to your trip or after arriving in Manila. Also, double check the dates and length of time you are allowed to say. I was forced to pay an extravagant fee because I overstayed my visa, a mistake made by the Philippines Embassy before I even left the United States. 
The Philippines is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. The abundance of natural beauty ranges from mountains to rice fields and white sand beaches. It is considered a biodiversity hotspot and houses an incredible number of endemic species. The Filipino people are beyond friendly, welcoming travelers into their homes and offering helpful advice as well as long-lasting friendship. A week before I left the country, I was already on Google searching for flights back from New York to Manila. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. 
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iPhone is now hisPhone

About an hour after my last post, I was walking back to my friend’s apartment in Dupont Circle looking for directions on my iPhone. I was still getting used to all the features of a smart phone after using my small Nokia for the last 3 months in the Philippines. I had forgotten that phones had cameras, boasted color screens, and needed to be charged more than once a week. The whole world was at my fingertips and I was submerged again into maps, picture-taking, and uploading new apps just because they were free. Technology had sucked me away from my tangible surroundings into a LinkedIn library complete with Facebook and Twitter. (Read  Tech Crazed by my college roommate for a further discussion on our technological dependence.)

And so, I had my attention so closely focused on my iPhone that I didn’t hear anyone come up behind me. Before I knew what had happened, a young black male had taken my beloved touch-screen friend out of my hand and ran until he disappeared down the street. I screamed after him and even tried running, but my large purse and flip-flips were no match for his sneakers and nerves. It was hopeless.

It struck me that I had spent a total of 11 weeks in a country known for kidnapping, murders, Muslim rebel groups, and prostitutions rings just to have my phone stolen 2 days after returning to the US. As a traveler, I had let my guard down as soon as I stepped foot off the plane at JFK. I felt safe in my country, walking among trusted Americans. But even here, the pursuit of happiness is difficult for many. What kind of life did this young man lead, causing him to steal from others? I do not think the thief felt my pain, did not pity my sense of loss or isolation. I had more than he did: more money, more opportunity, more possibility. I would feel upset, buy a replacement phone and move on. What would he do? Sell the phone for a couple bucks before worrying again how to make some quick cash again. I did not envy the path he took that eventually led to our brief encounter. Even with my phone, his life would continue to be much harder than mine.

And while that young man will never read this blog, nor meet me again I hope that my phone gives him some joy, helps him in some small way to get out of his current situation. However, I also want him to look back and feel regret for his petty crime, feel the need to repay that debt by performing good deeds to strangers instead of ill will. The world has too much hate and suffering already. It does not need any more.

My replacement phone should come tomorrow and I would love texts/messages/e-mails/calls/tweets welcoming me back into the addicting world of technology. Until then, the buzz and ring associated with instant communication is replaced with the sound of the rain falling against the leaves outside my window.

Home Sweet America

My Philippines adventure has come to a close. I returned to America as a smarter, tanner version of the girl who boarded the plane 11 weeks prior. Fortunately I still have a couple more Philippines adventures to document so this won’t be the last post. However, it is the end of my time in a place that now seems so very far away.

And how far away it was. I boarded a plane bound for Tokyo at 8:00am on Sunday August 8th and arrived in JFK at 3:15pm the same day after a $120 fee immigration fee and 17 hours in the air. I envied the small Japanese boy in the seat next to me with his blue stripes pajamas who slept almost 9 of the 12 hour flight from Japan to the USA. I made a mental note to buy some of those pjs for my next trip. After retrieving my luggage from the not so merry-go-round at baggage claim, I made my way through the sliding glass doors and into the arms of my beaming parents. Home at last.

So as I sit on this park bench with a Starbucks in hand, it seems fitting that I would return from the Philippines to the heart of America for my welcome home. The Washington monument looms in the distance as a beacon and landmark for Americans and tourists alike. The choreographed ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic is accompanied by foreign tongues, languages I recognize and many I do not. I know this city, understand the street grid of lettered and numbered streets extending outward from the capital. The red line still connects Tenleytown to Farragut North, my daily commute as an intern last summer. Cities, like old friends, can be loved and missed.

I returned to my old office to thank Carl Burch for recommending Attorney Oposa. Carl was the connection between me and my summer journey, the initial spark that evolved into an unforgettable experience. I walked past my old cubicle and thought about the other interns I had met, now off to jobs and law school. How much can change in a year…

There are just 10 months between me and college graduation. I cannot imagine where I will be next summer at this time. A job? Applying to law school? Either way I can count on Abraham Lincoln and that iconic stone monument to welcome me back, whenever that may be.

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As Many Miles as Shoes

Shoes. The only thing between your feet and the rest of the world.

Marikina City is known as the shoe capital of the Philippines, a fact I learned while exploring the Shoe Museum last week. Many Filipinos don’t even know that a shoe museum exists in Marikina but by the powers invested in Google I was able to find the most obscure of tourist locations. Even the guard at the door looked surprised there was a visitor.

There is a reason the museum isn’t well known. The entire shoe exhibit takes only 20 minutes to walk through, including detailed reading of labels and inspection of dusty glass cases. The museum boasts 749 pairs of shoes, almost exclusively donated by Imelda Marcos, the wife of President Marco. And I will admit the woman did own quite a lot of shoes but when shoes aren’t dancing, climbing stairs, or running through giant mud puddles they aren’t much to look at.

I had so much time after the exhibit that I decided to explore the city. I walked into a large covered market, common in the Philippines. Rows upon rows of small stands held everything the average customer could possibly want, ranging from clothing and necklaces to household appliances and plastic toy guns. The stands are mirror images of one another and it’s a shock that any of the vendors turn a profit. When twenty other people are selling the exact same items at the exact same price, it’s difficult to distinguish yourself from the rest.

Next to the goods is the wet market with meat, fish and produce available for the evening meal. I watched the men and women fanning away flies that flocked to the ribs, chicken breasts, and other cuts of pork and beef. The market feels raw and uncensored. Bar codes and printed price tags are replaced by hanging handwritten signs and open air.

The vendor booths continued into the adjacent building, reserved for souvenirs, seamstress and tailoring shops, and you guess it…shoes. Tons of them. The Shoe Museum had nothing on the assortment here and all the displays were for sale. I was overwhelmed by the variety of flip-flops, sandals, flats, and heels – lined up and extending in either direction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many shoes in my life.

So if you find yourself in the shoe capital with a free afternoon, skip the museum all together and wander over to the market. Walk through each aisle, conscious of hurried mothers or rowdy teenage boys. Stall after stall bulges with things you probably won’t buy but appreciate each vendor individually. Everyone is just trying to make a living after all.

TIME CHECK: Exactly 38 hours left before flight bound for JFK. Better make it count.