February 2017, Manila, Philippines
Last year, I finally decided to come back to the Philippines every year. This is the second year of my annual pilgrimage and I am still getting used to the country I left when I was in my 20’s. The traffic is horrible but I am continually amazed at the resilience of the Filipinos who commute daily 3 hours each way. It is especially difficult to be here during the Christmas season. Many Filipinos abroad, fondly called “balikbayan”, start arriving around the first week of December and they come with everybody in their households. Filipinos are also well-known for being shopaholics and all shopping malls, at least those around EDSA (main Manila thoroughfare), were teeming with thousands of shoppers. Trying to get home from a shopping excursion was literally a nightmare. Even if you could afford to take a taxi all the time, finding one, even through apps like GrabTaxi or Uber was almost impossible. One night before Christmas, it took me 2 hours to find a taxi for a 15-mile trip and I ended up paying a premium fare.
So there were lessons learned from my second trip:
1. Do not come back in December. Or least come back late December after Christmas. The weather is great until mid-March so there is still time to enjoy the country. It gets cool enough at night that I have actually turned off the air-conditioning before going to bed.
2. Continue to use Airbnb. I booked several condos in the Metro-Manila area, even tried a stand-alone house, and realized that it is difficult to find any accommodation that exactly mimics my own lifestyle in the U.S. So I have learned to be flexible. As long as the place is quiet, safe and clean, I am on board.
3. Use public transportation as much as you can. I try to book a condo close to the train stations. Travelling by train is an efficient way to navigate the city. The fare is also easy on the wallet. The main train travels along EDSA (main thoroughfare in Manila) and several LRTs connect to its stations from other smaller towns. Then as you get closer to your intended destination, get off the train and take a taxi. That taxi ride is probably only going to cost around 100 Philippine pesos ($2). The most important benefit, depending on your final destination, is that you have shaved at least one hour from your travel time.
3. It is great to be a senior (60 years old and older) in the Philippines. Some restaurants and buses accept any IDs that show your birth date but for most, showing a Philippine senior card is a must. Seniors get priority seating in public transportation, lines at stores or any public venues, airline boarding and most important of all, around 20% off on any purchases at restaurants, even spas and hair salons.
4. Filipinos love to eat and eateries, food courts, markets and restaurants are everywhere. I have realized though that since I am retired, saving money is very important to me. It does not mean that the quality of food that I eat is sacrificed. The portions, even here, are large and trying to maintain a healthy weight could be rather difficult if one eats out all the time. I have relied on supermarkets for my basic sustenance, especially for breakfast meals: eggs, water, bread and yogurt.
My advice to those who are thinking about world travel for the first time: be patient and be flexible. If you do not have those qualities and still want to travel, try cruises and organized vacations. But if you have those qualities but still like the comforts of home, be your own travel agent and find the cheapest ticket and book your accommodations.
Time is getting short so get your passport and dip your toes in the water.