Crime in Paradise, an Unfinished Story

I promised in a previous post that I would explain why I went to the Hall of Justice, and then discovered behind it the Mahagony Market, where I later broke my rib. I went there again today. My rib, by the way, is healing nicely, very little pain now.

This all began when we moved to our rental house in Tagaytay on January 16, 2011. It’s a 4 bedroom house with a large outdoor pool. I had never had a private pool before, although my parents had. I knew there were important pool maintenance tasks that if neglected could impair the health of people using the pool. There was a caretaker at the house, who had been working there for several months, a man called Junie (his real name is Dionisio T. Bragil, which becomes important later). Junie (his nickname) had worked for the owner for several years, on construction projects, and the owner was good friends with Junie’s brother, Jerry. Based on the owner’s recommendation, and on talking to Junie, who has limited English, we agreed to hire Junie to take care of the pool, the extensive grounds, and clean the house. Initially we were not comfortable with having a live-in caretaker, so we were planning to have Junie come 4 days a week and live elsewhere. Attached to the house there is a hallway which includes a very small bedroom and bathroom, where Junie had been living. (To his credit, Dindin was at first very uncomfortable with Junie, but got used to him as he got to know him.)

Somewhere along the way it changed to Junie living in that bedroom, with his 3-year old daughter, and working for us 5-6 days a week. Overall he did very good work. He was good with the pool and the grounds, spending most of his time outside. He was very helpful in fixing things in the house and hanging pictures as we got settled. He was reluctant to enter the house to clean, as he didn’t want to disturb our privacy. Eventually we told him to clean the house twice a week.

The caretaker’s quarters has 2 separate entrances, at the front and back of the house. There is a door from that hallway that leads to the kitchen. Junie told us that he does not have any keys to the house. We would lock the doors at night, or when we went away, so that Junie only had access to the hallway and his quarters.

Both Dindin and I seemed to keep misplacing things. Dindin lost his new wallet, with his ID cards in it. We thought he might have left it at the mall, and inquired there. I lost one cell phone, then another. We had bought 2 small locks when we moved in, then could not find them, even with Dindin’s whole family searching the house. Some food also went missing. I was particularly upset about losing my Blackberry phone, as it had all my personal data in it. Of course I asked Junie if he had seen it, he said no, he hadn’t seen it, he doesn’t know anything about it.

It wasn’t until the middle of March that we started to suspect that perhaps Junie had something to do with these disappearing items.
Finally, on March 23 we invited Junie up to clean the upstairs, where our bedroom is. Before Junie came upstairs Dindin placed a small Nokia cell phone in a drawer in the bedroom, and closed the drawer. After Junie was done cleaning, the cell phone was no longer in the drawer.
We went down stairs and confronted Junie. He continued to claim he knew nothing about the missing items. I was not yet ready to fire him. I felt I either needed more certainty that he was truly at fault, or at least to sleep on it. We had been very helpful to Junie and it seemed like we had a good relationship. It was difficult to accept the betrayal, I guess.

The next morning, Junie talked to us, he was crying, he said he’s leaving. He asked us if we wanted to take his 3-year old daughter! Of course, while I was and still am concerned about the child, I want no connection to him.

After Junie left, our neighbor told us that Junie had tried to sell a cell phone to the neighbor on the other side, Darwin. I talked to Darwin, and asked him what kind of cell phone it was. Darwin said, Verizon. Verizon is a US company that does not operate in the Philippines. Darwin also said that he looked at the cell phone and saw that the contacts were all in English, not Tagalog. He told Junie that this cell phone must have come from a foreigner. He did not buy the cell phone.

Well, at this point we now had evidence that Junie had stolen from us. Over the next 2 weeks, the owner, who also felt betrayed by Junie, worked with Junie to try to recover some of the stolen items. Junie told us where to find Dindin’s wallet. He recovered the wallet and the ID cards, which saved him a great deal of hassle. The money of course (about $75 worth of Philippine pesos) was gone.

In all Junie stole 4 cell phones, one gold ring, seven silver rings, and a great deal of other items. After he left we found books, magazines, and other things of ours in his quarters. We also found a set of keys. We didn’t know what these keys were for, and thought they might be to another house where Junie had worked. We discovered today that one of the keys on that key ring unlocks the door that leads from the caretaker’s quarters to the kitchen.

Junie had already sold the cell phones, and we were not able to recover any of them. Three of those cell phones had extensive personal data that is worthless to anyone else but very important to me, and is now lost. Hundreds of addresses, phone numbers, emails, birthdays. Records of all my personal appointments for the last 6-10 years. Memos, passwords, etc.

I was able to talk to a woman at a local pawn shop who bought the gold ring and 4 silver rings from Junie. She returned to me one silver ring, and 1500 pesos (about $35), which was her profit on the other rings. They were already melted. The gold ring was my class ring. It was a special design that I chose when I graduated Princeton in 1983. I contacted the company, which still exists, but that design does not. No one currently at the company recalls it, and they have no pictures of it.

We decided to file a case against Junie. I went to the police station around the corner. After discussion with them, we followed them to the main Tagaytay police station, behind city hall. I typed up a statement there, including a list of the stolen items and their value. The items we knew about at that point added up to 76,400 pesos ($1,777). We were told to bring our witness, Darwin, to the police station so that he could make a statement.

Overall, despite the repeated warnings (and bona fide reports in the news) of corruption, incompetence, and outright criminal behavior by police in this country, my dealings with the police here have been very good. They’ve been very professional, very concerned with getting the facts straight. The one aspect that is very different from my US-based expectations had to do with the witness. In the US, the police would have gone to Darwin’s home and talked to him. That was not going to happen here. I was responsible for bringing Darwin in to make a statement, which took about 2 weeks because Darwin has a job and is a busy man. But it turned out fine. I was told to expect a subpoena from the prosecutor, but they could not tell me how long that would take.

On Friday, April 29, Dindin and I left the house at 3 pm to do some shopping. Jerry, who works most days for Darwin, was working in our yard, cleaning the pool and the yard. We returned at 4:20 pm and saw mail on the front door, which Jerry said had arrived at about 4 pm. I opened the mail to find my subpoena, which of course I was very excited to receive. However, the subpoena said that I was required to appear at 3:30 pm on Friday April 29! In other words, about an hour ago.

The subpoena said I had to appear at the Hall of Justice. No one seemed to know, but I assumed this was in the very large City Hall building. I got in my car and drove right over there. The guard at City Hall however, explained that the Hall of Justice is a separate building, in a part of Tagaytay I had not yet been, about 1-2 km from City Hall. I followed his directions and found the building. It is a 3-story white building that says Hall of Justice at the top. The front was obscured by 3 stories of scaffolding. The front door had a chain around it and a padlock. There is a traffic police building next door, where they explained that the Hall of Justice is closed already. It probably closes at 4 or 4:30. They told me to come back Monday.

So, for two days I was a fugitive from justice! (cue music from Mission Impossible) I had not appeared at the required time. It was nevertheless an uneventful weekend.

Monday morning I went to the Hall of Justice again. As it turns out, the locked front door was irrelevant, although the building had been closed. I had to use the side entrance, and walk up the stairs to the third floor, where I met the prosecutor. He explained that the preliminary hearing had already been rescheduled for May 27 (today) at 11 am. He told me to bring Darwin to the hearing on the 27th. He explained that the reason it was scheduled so far out is that Junie is in another province, Pangasinan, which is very far. We had given the address of Junie’s family there.

Today Darwin and I left at about 10:30 am to go to the hearing. Junie had been texting Dindin occasionally over the last month, which bothered Dindin, who did not respond. He had also been texting Darwin. so we knew before we left the house that Junie was already in Tagaytay. We arrived on the third floor at 10:50 am. The small office was crowded with people, but no sign of Junie. We were told to wait, as the prosecutor dealt with other people. A very well dressed older Filipino man, we think he is a judge, talked to me while we waited. He wanted to know where I lived, and did I have a Filipina wife. No I have a Filipino boyfriend. Oh, you have a girlfriend! No, a boyfriend. Oh, that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with having a boyfriend, he announced to the whole office. He seemed sincere, just unprepared for the reality I confronted him with. It’s a common kind of reaction here.

Around 11:05 the prosecutor called my name. There is no wall or divider between the waiting area and the prosecutor’s desk, where Darwin, Junie, and I all sat down. The prosecutor asked if Junie could make amends to me. I said I don’t think he has any money. The prosecutor said to Junie, Mr. Saiff here is a reasonable man, perhaps you can work for him to pay the debt off? I said, no, he cannot come to my house, that is not safe. He lied to me too many times, I do not trust him.

The prosecutor set the next hearing for June 10 at 11 am. He explained that Junie is entitled to a public defender at no cost, who will help him prepare an affidavit. We all left the building. Junie, who had brought his daughter with him, had been talking to Darwin. Darwin suggested that we all go to his house to talk. I said, I don’t know what there is to talk about. Junie has lied to me so many times, why should I believe whatever he says?

We ended up talking briefly outside the building, as it began to rain. Junie showed us the slip of paper listing the requirements he must fulfill to be able to get a lawyer. He needs certification from his Barangay (like a village) in Pangasinan that he is indigent, and also from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) there. He said he doesn’t have the money to go back there. I said that’s not my problem. The conversation dragged on for a few minutes, then I said to Darwin, I think you and I should leave, which we did. Meanwhile Dindin was making lunch for the 3 of us. Dindin made bulalo for the first time, which was very good. Darwin came over for a very nice lunch after we returned.

I’ve heard differing opinions of how long Junie is likely to be in jail – from 2 years to 8. I’m willing to leave that up to the court. I think it’s important that he have a record so that future employers can be forewarned, and I’d also like to see him serve time in jail. We don’t yet know what will happen to his daughter, who of course is not to blame for his crimes, but unfortunately she may be made to suffer for them. If no family member will take her the DSWD will likely place her in some kind of facility. That part is very troubling, but it’s not something I can change.

I haven’t gone through this kind of process in the US, so it’s difficult to compare. It seems that the system here places a great deal of power and decision-making authority into my hands, as the “complainant.” If I did not file a case, nothing would happen to Junie. If I agreed to work something out with him, he could stay out of jail. It’s an unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable place to find myself in. But I feel quite certain that Junie going to jail is what needs to happen, and that I should not stand in the way of that.

We did of course learn things from this experience. After Junie left we decided we would not get another live-in caretaker. We (mainly Dindin) have been cleaning the house ourselves. We can hire people by the day to take care of the pool and the grounds. Before we settled on Jerry (not Junie’s brother, but another Jerry who works next door for Darwin), we interviewed another man. He had been recommended by his brother-in-law, who is a local friend who also works occasionally for the owner. Nevertheless, we took all the precautions with this new man. We requested and received from him a police clearance, a barangay clearance, and a resume with a list of references. Two of the references were from a local rural bank, where he had worked for 8 years. I talked to those two people, who had a glowing report about him. They described him as very trustworthy and industrious.

The first time he was scheduled to come to our house without his brother-in-law, he was 90 minutes late. The next time, which was a Friday, he never showed. He didn’t respond to text messages for 2 hours. Finally I texted the brother-in-law, who said he was with him. Then the man himself texted, apologizing and promising to come Saturday or Sunday. On Monday, after hearing nothing from him, we hired Jerry. A few days later the man texted again, offering to come the next day. I told him no thanks, we found someone else.

I actually ended up doing business with that bank, and when they asked me about him, I told them what happened. I said, You told me he was trustworthy and industrious, but you didn’t say he was reliable! Although he caused us a minor amount of trouble, had I not met him I would not have found out about the bank, which has some very good programs. So I have not named him here.

Of course, the story of Junie is not over. Stay tuned for further developments!

Advertisements

Weather or Not

For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself one of those people who chose where to live primarily based on the weather. I grew up in New Jersey, where we had 4 seasons, hot summers, and snow in the winter. After college I moved to San Francisco, but not because of the weather. I was volunteering for a cause I was (and still am) passionate about, The Hunger Project (http://www.thp.org), and I couldn’t have cared less about the weather.

But then I discovered weather extremes. I remember a trip to New Orleans maybe 14 years ago, the last weekend in August. Wrong time to go there. It was unbearably hot and muggy. I remember I’d walk maybe 5 meters and then look for an indoor, hopefully air conditioned environment to take shelter in before trying to walk further. Of course, 4 hours east in Destin, FL, it was quite comfortably hot.

Well, here in the Philippines the weather is often extreme, as in extremely hot. There are really only 3 seasons in most parts of the Philippines. November through February is the “dry, cool” season. It’s not cool in most places, but it’s not unbearably hot too many days. December and January are marvelous, very comfortable even in Manila and Batangas (however, airfares to and from the Philippines are 150-300% higher in the last 3 weeks of December). June through October is the rainy season, when it is either hot or unbearably hot, and it sometimes rains, sometimes storms. March through May is summer. It is unbearably hot. But it’s usually not exactly March 1 through May 31. This year summer came late – starting in very late March.

Of course, the weather is radically different in my home city, Tagaytay, which is over 600 meters above sea level. The weather here is much closer to San Francisco than Manila. For example, today, in the middle of summer, it’s quite hot here in Tagaytay. According to AccuWeatherGlobal (http://www.accuweather.com), the high temperature today is 27 degrees celsius (80.2 F), while in Manila it’s 34 C (93.2). However, the “real feel” is 39C (102.2F) in Tagaytay, and 43C (109.4) in Manila.

It’s been difficult to find weather data on Tagaytay. Many sites do not include the city (for example, the Philippine government weather agency, PAGASA). Other sites give temperature readings for Tagaytay, but the readings were taken at the Manila airport! Yes it’s only 55 km away, but the weather is not even close. It is hot here today. I was out at the hottest part of the day walking, I was going to walk to the downtown area (Olivarez Plaza), about a 25 minute walk each way. I turned around and gave up after 5 minutes, it was just too hot. So maybe it does feel like 102F.

I was afraid of being here during the summer. Twice before I was visiting Tagaytay in late May and it was quite hot. But so far the summer has been quite mild. I’d say in April and May so far there have been maybe 10 days when it was at times uncomfortably hot. Usually fans are enough to make it bearable indoors, and there is usually a breeze outdoors, even on the hottest days here. Manila or Batangas is another story. I’m very glad I’m living here and not elsewhere in the Philippines. There is one other city that I’ve heard is even colder, Baguio. However, Baguio is a 5 hour drive north from Manila, and the airport in Baguio is now closed.

Of course this is all very subjective, your mileage may vary. But if you are comfortable most of the year in San Francisco, you’ll be fine in Tagaytay. If you like it slightly hotter than San Francisco, then this is the perfect place for you. It rarely gets down to 50F here. A few months ago the headline in the newspaper was that Baguio had record low temperatures, a record low for the entire country. What was the temperature in Baguio? 9C (48.2F). Here in Tagaytay there are storms, with high winds and hard rain at times, as well as fog. But we have quite a few partly cloudy or sunny days with a cool breeze that are perfect for a jump in the pool.

Speaking of the pool, I can hear the sounds of childrens’ laughter from there right now. Dindin’s family is here enjoying the pool and the house. My broken rib is healing but the doctor told me not to go in the pool – cold water seems to make the pain much worse. I’m sitting upstairs with my shirt off and a fan on, and it’s quite comfortable, on one of our hotter days here.

So if you are thinking of visiting Tagaytay, any time of year is fine. Airfares are higher in most of December because so many Filipinos come home for Christmas, which is a great time of year, weather-wise. If you come in April or May, and perhaps in March, the weather elsewhere in the Philippines may be unbearably hot for you, but in Tagaytay you should be OK. If you are visiting Manila you’ll probably be staying in an air-conditioned hotel and travelling in air-conditioned taxis, so the heat may not be such a problem. Elsewhere the availability of air conditioning, and taxis, may be spotty or non-existent. I’ll cover transportation in another post.

A Broken Rib, and an Invitation

On Monday I went shopping at the Mahagony Market here in Tagaytay. After living here for almost 5 months, I discovered this market only because I had to go to the Hall of Justice, which is located in front of it. (In a future post I’ll explain why I went there.) The Mahagony Market is a public market. Public markets are the poorer, less sophisticated version of the mall for Filipinos. You can often get better goods, or better prices, at a public market. And at a very large public market such as Mahagony Market, you can also get a very broad selection of goods.

The front part of the market has stalls selling everything from packets of tomato paste to newspapers, as well as services. Car insurance and legal services predominate, but haircuts are available, all sorts of dry goods, hardware and household items, etc. At the back of this section are some restaurants, with parking behind them. The back part of the market consists of two large concrete-floored structures with booths inside them. The one on the left is the “wet market” where all sorts of meats are sold. The one on the right sells fruits and vegetables.

The produce available at this market is fantastic, in most cases much better than, and less expensive than, the large supermarkets in the shopping malls. This is the only place I’ve found really good tomatoes. The tomatoes elsewhere tend to be small and not that sweet. Here they have beautiful red ripe sweet tomatoes in all sizes, including very large. I also found eggplants that come closer to those I bought in the US than ever before. Most eggplants here are the long thin Chinese variety. Lately I’ve found small round dull green eggplants in the supermarkets. At this market on Monday I finally found large round shiny purple eggplants. The one item I still cannot find anywhere except the large supermarkets is berries, and the only kind of berries available even there are strawberries.

Anyway, I had managed to get everything on my list at the market on Monday, including specific fruits, vegetables, plants, a whole chicken, hot dogs, tomato paste, and take-out bulalo from one of the restaurants. Bulalo is my favorite Filipino dish, one of the few that I can usually eat without modification as it fits in my very strict diet. Bulalo is a beef soup, made from the knee joints of the cow, including the bone, the marrow, very tender meat, a few vegetables, and a beefy broth.
Well, I was walking back to my car, which I parked behind the wet market. I had made several trips to the car already to place bags of groceries in it. At this point I was carrying 2 newspapers and a bag with my bucket of bulalo and 5 small packets of tomato paste. In the middle of the wet market is a small concrete ramp, about 4 feet long.

As I walked down the ramp, my feet slid out from under me and I fell back at an angle, on my left arm and left side. I fell pretty hard. I was in pain, and made some noise. A man who worked in the market was next to me, standing there as I got up, asking if I was alright. I asked for a chair, and he pointed to the other side of the wet market. I gathered my things and walked there. By the time I got there about 10 men had gathered, trying to be helpful. They suggested I go to the toilet to clean up, as I had dirt all over me. I sat down in the chair. The man who had sold me the chicken and hot dogs earlier brought me a cup of hot water, which I drank. The toilet did not look appealing. I took my shirt off and used it to clean my arm and my side. The men put my bags together, rebagged the bulalo, which had lost all its liquid but was otherwise intact.

I called Dindin, got in the car, shirtless, and drove home. We unpacked the car, and I ate the bulalo meat and vegetables.
Then Dindin drove me to the hospital, about 2 km away.

It turns out I broke a rib.

Tagaytay Hospital has been deemed a Center of Excellence, the highest rating for a hospital of its type. We went to the emergency room there. The whole experience that first day took about an hour. They took 4 x-rays, a doctor did a physcal exam, and explained things to me. I was not surprised to hear that there is not much to do for a broken rib, it heals on its own in 6-8 weeks. I was told to make an appointment with one of the hospital’s orthopedic surgeons the next day.
That first day at the hospital cost 1266 pesos, about $30, plus about $9 for 8 pain pills.

The next day I saw the orthopedic surgeon. That visit cost about $11, plus $17 for 7 pills of a different variety, they help with pain and also with inflammation.

I do have pain whenever I take a deep breath, cough, laugh, or move. Movement while lying down, or lying down or getting up from lying down, entails the worst pain. Despite that I slept a good 9 hours the first night, and have been able to sleep since. The pain is slowly reducing.

Of course, Dindin has been wonderful at taking care of me.

People sometimes want to know, What can I do to help you?
It is often difficult to do much from far away. But there is something you can do.

You can join me on my journey. I have embarked on a journey to write, publish, market, and sell my own books.
The first book is entitled, “Moving to the Philippines: The Complete Guide.”
This is a somewhat risky venture, as I am now living on my savings, and my plan is to make a living as an author and publisher. The next 4 books I am planning are:

Poems to End Hunger (book of poetry, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to The Hunger Project)
How I Beat Diabetes (nutrition/exercise/health)
A Stand For the Earth (expansion of a poem I wrote, The Earthist Creed, into a program of thought/action)
The Last Body (sci-fi/fantasy novel with time travel and genetic engineering themes)

I’m very excited about Moving to the Philippines, as I think there is a large market for this book, and I hope to enlist a variety of government agencies, organizations, and companies whose interests are aligned with the success of the book to help market it. But ultimately it will be up to me to promote, market, and sell the book. I’m working with some very experienced partners in the publishing industry to make this venture a success. So what can you do?

Right now, you can participate in this blog. Read the blog. Post a comment. Share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. The wider the readership I can generate for this blog, the larger the platform I will have to market the book.

Later, there will be other exciting adventures in this journey. For example, you’ll have the opportunity to pre-order copies of the book, to purchase the book after publication, to read the book, to make suggestions for the book of for future editions, to review the book on Amazon.com or other sites you use, to give away your copy to someone else who will review it, etc. If you do read the book and find it worthwhile, perhaps you’ll have some ideas of your own about groups that might be interested in this book and how to approach them.

I realize that not everyone wants to move to the Philippines. But this is the first part of the journey, to make this first book a success, and after that, the sky’s the limit.

Thanks for reading.

Newspapers in the Phillipines

One thing I have done every day for many years is to read the newspaper. When I lived in San Francisco I got the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle delivered, and also read the Bay Guardian and the Bay Area Reporter (an LGBT newspaper) weekly.

Here in the Philippines, there are many newspapers published. Most are in Tagalog, about 2-3 dozen different dailies, mostly in tabloid form. The Tagolog papers are usually 10 pesos each (about 25 cents).

In English, there are 3 daily newspapers that are available in Manila as well as in many provinces:
The Philippine Star
The Philippine Inquirer
The Manila Bulletin

It’s often a bit difficult to find newspapers. Most 7-11 stores sell them, and perhaps 1 in 20 of the small “sari-sari” stores that line most roads sell newspapers. Some major hotels will sell newspapers. Mini-Marts and other convenience stores may sell newspapers. Most shopping malls do not sell newspapers, and most bookstores do not. You can buy newspapers at the Mall of Asia, one of the largest malls, in Manila.

You can find the International Herald Tribune, published by the New York Times, at some of the best hotels in Manila. If you are living in Manila you can get daily delivery of the IHT. In the provinces, even in Tagaytay, the only delivery available is several days later, for about 3 times the cost.

There are several other English dailies that you can get in Manila, and sometimes elsewhere. Most of these have a business focus.

The best day for newspapers here is not Sunday, but Saturday. The Saturday Manila Bulletin has a 16-page insert from the New York Times. The Manila Bulletin will often print the full transcript of speeches by US presidents. All 3 of these dailies often carry editorials from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or other major US newspapers.

On Sunday the newspapers are larger, but the ad content seems higher and the news percentage lower.
The prices are the same every day – 18 to 20 pesos for the 3 dailies. The other English-language dailies tend to be around 30 pesos, for a larger-format but much thinner paper.

Much of the content of the newspaper here is promotional. There is often not that clear a boundary between advertising and news. Many of the articles are basically press releases from a corporation, promoting their latest offering.

But there is also real news. Lots of news about the Philippines, both national politics and issues and local or regional news. Also many “lifestyle” stories. You can learn a great deal about life here by reading the newspaper.

In the Philippine Inquirer, always check the second or later pages of the Metro section for world news. The Philippine Star has a World section.

The Star and the Inquirer have the best editorial and opinion pages. My favorite columnists are William Esposo (“As I Wreck This Chair”) in the Star, and Conrad de Quiros (“There’s the Rub”) in the Inquirer. Both bring a sense of Philippine history to their treatment of national politics, and often cover international topics as well.

A note about William Esposo. I first read his column because I
loved the title – As I Wreck This Chair. I continued reading because of his intelligence, writing skill, command of history, and because I usually agreed with his opinions. Then I had the experience myself of destroying a chair. There are a lot of flimsy plastic chairs here, made of resin. We had a few in our kitchen in our old apartment in Batangas. One day I was sitting on one and all of a sudden I was on the floor. Since then I avoid sitting on those chairs. I’ve lost some weight but I think I’m still a bit too heavy for them. So I can identify with William Esposo.

Of course, all these papers have Internet sites where you can read the news from anywhere in the world.
Here is a list:

http://www.philstar.com/
http://www.inquirer.com.ph/
http://www.mb.com.ph/

http://www.chairwrecker.com/
http://dequiros.blogspot.com/

Comparing cost of living: San Francisco vs. Tagaytay

I’ve been saying for a long time that the cost of living in the Philippines is about 1/10 of San Francisco. This is my personal estimate, based on my 9 trips here over the last 4 years, and on living here the last 3.5 months. In total I’ve spent about 7 months here over 4 years.

Of course, this is an average. Not everything costs 1/10 of what it costs in San Francisco. Some things cost 1/20, some things cost more. But this average is based just on my impressions, and is therefore biased and based on small sample sizes.

In this post I will attempt to give a wide range of examples.

Because exchange rates vary, I will give both dollars and Philippine pesos for each amount, using the recent rate of 43.5 pesos to the dollar.

Of course, cost is not the only relevant issue. There are also issues of availability, convenience, and quality. For some things, equivalent quality here is very hard to find and more expensive when you do find it, but adequate alternatives are much cheaper.

Haircuts and highlights

For example, let’s look at men’s haircuts. For my first 8 trips here, I thought they cost about 50-100% of the cost in San Francisco. This was because I only had my hair cut at David’s Salon, a chain of salons here that you can find in most malls and cities. For example, at David’s Salon in Tagaytay a haircut and highlights cost me $37 (1600).

But last Fall, my boyfriend Dindin suggested I have my hair cut by his hairdresser, in his town of San Pascual, Batangas, as it would be much cheaper, and I always like Dindin’s haircuts.

When I was done, I asked Dindin what it cost, he said 50 ($1.15). I was in shock. I didn’t believe him at first. The haircut was every bit as good as the one I got at David’s. A month ago I had my haircut at a salon here in Tagaytay. It looked a bit more sophisticated than the place in San Pascual, and Tagaytay is a mountain resort where lots of expats live, comparable in costs to Manila. I got a haircut and highlights for $6.44 (280). Had I gotten the haircut only it would have cost me only $0.87 (38).

So, instead of haircuts being 1/2 to the same cost as San Francisco, I would now say they are about 1/20 the cost.

Rent

Let’s take a look at another essential of life, housing. Rents vary widely, as does the availability of places to rent that are comparable to what you may be used to in the USA. For example, in San Pascual I rented a two-bedroom apartment for about a year. Rent was $103 (4500) per month. However, the apartment had no air conditioning, no hot water, no tub, and no shower. There was a bathroom with a modern flush toilet, and a faucet and drain in a washing area. The “kitchen” consisted of a sink, some counters, and some cabinets under the counters and sink. We bought a small refrigerator and a portable 2-burner electric stove for the kitchen, and used a fan. The apartment was fairly large. It was on the second floor of a small building that had a vehicle repair shop on the first floor, set back only a few feet from the National Road, a  major 2-lane road that serves as both a highway and a local road. The road noise and road dirt were both extreme. The road dirt made it impossible to get the place clean. Although I learned to sleep there, it was kind of like sleeping directly underneath a freeway. It felt like I was only 1 foot underneath in fact. Still, in San Francisco you can get a storage cube that is about 4 feet by 5 feet for $103 a month.

In January, 2011, Dindin and I moved to a 4-bedroom house with a large outdoor pool in Tagaytay. (See my last post for a detailed description of the house.)

When we moved to the house in Tagaytay, we vacated the apartment in San Pascual and took a different apartment, on Dindin’s family’s land. This is much smaller than the old apartment, but below the level of the road, so it is cooler, quieter, and gets very little road dirt. For that we pay Dindin’s mother $69 (3000) per month.

The house is located in a mountain resort/tourist area, similar to Lake Tahoe. Rent is $805 (35,000) per month. For the first two months we had no hot water and very poor water pressure, however these problems have been fixed, we can now take hot showers and hot baths. There is still no hot water on the first floor, including the kitchen. I’ve learned that you don’t really need hot water to wash dishes. The washing machine is probably beyond repair, and the jets on the whirlpool tub will likely never work, but the 3-burner stove and the microwave work. And, miraculously, one item I thought would never work now works fine – the oven. We roasted a 2.8k (6 lb) chicken the other night, it was delicious. The house sits on a 600 square meter lot, on a quiet, lushly wooded street only 5-10 minutes by car (30 minutes walking) from the center of town.

A similar house in Lake Tahoe I’m guessing would cost several thousand dollars per month at least to rent year-round, which put rents here at about 1/5. In other areas outside of Manila, such as San Pascual, it is probably closer to 1/10. Manila is probably closer to 1/5 than 1/10. So I would say, in general, rents are about 1/6 of San Francisco.

Property

What about purchasing property? According to the constitution of the Philippines, foreigners cannot own land, however you can own a condo. I’ve been looking at condos in Manila for several years now. The cost ranges from $46,000 (about 2 million) for a very well-constructed small studio apartment in a good area of Manila to $180,000 (about 7.8 million) for a very large 3- bedroom apartment. Both are in the newest modern hi-rises, built to withstand a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, with significant building amenities (gym, pools, gardens, etc.), but not parking, included.

In San Francisco, a small studio in a good neighborhood will cost you $375,000 or more, and a large 3-bedroom condo will cost you around $1.5 million.

Massage

Two days ago I had a pain in my shoulder blade, I wanted a Thai massage. The Thai massage place nearby didn’t open until noon, so I went to another spa. A full body massage cost $10.35(450). It was a good massage but I still had about the same pain, so I went for a Thai massage that afternoon. The Thai massage cost $5.75(250), and it reduced my pain by about 90%. I went back for another Thai massage the next day.

Groceries

A trip to the supermarket to buy a week’s worth of groceries for 2 people costs me about $110 (4785) here, versus about $150 for one person in San Francisco. However, that may not be a very useful comparison, as I’m not buying the same things (mostly because they are not as readily available here). (And yes, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I spent that much on groceries in San Francisco. I have a very restricted diet and try to eat very healthy. But I digress.)

In working on the examples below, I realized there is a very simple way to do these conversions.

If something costs 100 pesos per kilo, at a conversion rate of 43.5, that means the price per pound is about $1.04.
((100/43.5)/2.2)

Some specific examples:

– Chicken legs, raw, cost about $3.22 (140) per kilogram. A kilo is 2.2 pounds, so that’s about $1.46 per pound, about half the cost in San Francisco.

– Salmon, the most expensive fish here, when you can find it, costs about $13 (588) per kilo, or $5.90 per pound. That’s between 1/5 and 1/2 the cost in San Francisco.

– Cabbage costs 55 pesos per kilo, about 57 cents per pound.

– Cantaloupe costs 50 pesos per kilo, about 52 cents per pound.

Vehicles and Transportation

I did a lot of research before buying a car here. In general, it seems that most new cars cost about 150% of the cost in the USA. I think the main reason for this is the import tax. Also, buying a new car here is a bit different. This is one area where the haggling over price takes place in the USA, but not in the Philippines. The price is the price. They have different incentives each month or season, which are available to everyone. You can’t negotiate the price. My theory about this is that the car dealerships, like most companies here, seem obsessed with youth in their hiring. There are no laws against age discrimination in employment. I went to 5 dealerships and found only 2 salespeople I would describe as competent. Companies want to hire young, good-looking people, especially for jobs involving contact with the public. While age and experience are valued on a personal level much more so than in the US, in the work world they are often not valued at all. It’s interesting that in the spheres of family and intimacy Filipinos are less youth-obsessed or ageist than people in the USA, but in the sphere of work they are much more ageist.

I found a way around this problem. I ended up purchasing a Toyota Innova, an “Asian Utility Vehicle” (minivan) that is made in the Philippines. I suspect that is why you get more value for your money with the Innova, the lack of import tax. In any case, 3 months later I am still thrilled with my purchase. I paid about $25,000, which I think would be a good deal in the USA as well.

In Manila, a taxi cab across the city will cost you about $3.00-$6.90 (130-300), depending on whether the cabbie uses the meter or demands a flat rate. A jeepney ride in a province (small bus with no air-conditioning, often very crowded – everyone sits but maybe not comfortably, travels distinct routes but stops at any point for passengers to board or leave) costs between 16 and 23 cents (7 to 10 pesos).

Computers and electronics

This is an area where I would say costs range from 75% to 110% of San Francisco. I recently bought a new laptop here, a Samsung, it uses an Intel Core i5 processor, has 4 GB RAM, DVD R/W, webcam, etc. I paid about $1,011 (44,000). Again, I think the reason is the import taxes on electronics. I also bought a new cell phone recently. I got a MyPhone, which is made by a Filipino company. I paid $87.36 (3800). A comparable Nokia phone would have cost me 2-3 times as much here.

This page puts the cost of living in the Philippines at between 1/5 and 1/4 of the USA. That might not be at all inconsistent with saying the cost of living in the Philippines is 1/10 of San Francisco, as San Francisco is one of the costliest cities in the USA.

http://www.worldsalaries.org/cost-of-living.shtml

Another way to express the cost difference is to compare my total budget for living expenses in San Francisco vs. in Tagaytay. I am spending much more than 1/10 of what I spent in San Francisco, for two reasons: 1) I am supporting two people instead of one, and 2) I have significantly increased my standard of living.
I estimate that I’m spending about 1/3 of what I spent in San Francisco, however, I’ve increased my standard of living in a couple significant ways:

– Instead of living in a 2 bedroom/2 bath condo in downtown San Francisco, I’m living in a 4 bedroom house with a pool in the mountain resort of Tagaytay. I’m renting out the San Francisco condo for about $3000 a month, about 3.75 times the rent I pay for this house.

– Instead of driving a 16-year old BMW 325i convertible, I’m driving a brand-new Toyota Innova (minivan).

So I think I will stick by my estimate of 1/10, but with an important caveat for anyone considering a move: You will likely take advantage of the cost differential to increase your standard of living. So, even if you move from a high cost area such as San Francisco, your costs here will be higher than 1/10.

A new home in paradise

I was reflecting today on how wonderful our house here in Tagaytay is, even though today we have no running water in the house. More on that later. I was sitting outside, on a beautiful cool, breezy day, in one of the three swinging benches in our backyard, next to our pool, smoking a cigar, as the sun shone through the clouds. After the cigar I took a swim in the pool.

Yes, today we have no running water. Most days we have running water, but less than ideal water flow, and very limited hot water. The plumber is already scheduled to come tomorrow to install the water pump sitting in the driveway, which hopefully will improve our water flow, but not so much that it draws water pressure from the neighbors and causes ill will on our block.

Aside from the problems, which are slowly being fixed, the house is truly wonderful. The front and back is beautifully landscaped. From the balcony off the master bedroom I look out, across the street, to a beautiful expanse of trees and plants, almost jungle-like. To the left of our property a very large house stands almost completed; soon another expat from the USA will move in there. To the right, facing the front of our house, is a one-story house where a German expat and his Filipina wife live, and next to them is a 3-story orange house, where I think another German expat lives.

The balcony in the back of our second floor is much larger, and looks out over the pool. The lot is 600 square meters, and includes a gazebo encircled by a small moat where a koi fish swims.

The inside of the house is truly beautiful, a mix of stone and old wood, with beautiful mostly wood furnishings, including a bar, a piano, and the desk where I am writing this, which sits at the top of a beautiful staircase. The upper floor has 3 bedrooms, including the master bedroom and bathroom, another bathroom, an open office area above the stairs, a very large wrap-around balcony, and another balcony off the master bedroom. The first floor has a good-sized living room, small bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and dining area, which has a large table with 8 chairs. Also on the first floor, connected to the house but with separate entrances, is the caretaker’s quarters and bath. The dining area opens out to the covered picnic table and swinging bench, beyond which is the pool.

In the front of the house there is a steep one-car driveway, with a gate in front, a smaller gate to the side for people, and on the side another gate that leads to a drive where 2-3 more vehicles could be parked. Behind the drive is an outdoor grill and sink, and beyond that is the gazebo, next to the pool. On the other side of the pool is a bathroom, and toward the back of the pool is an outdoor shower and a small structure that encloses the pool equipment and some storage. There is more storage space on the upper balcony. Storage space within the house is very limited.

Tagaytay really is a paradise, to me. Unlike most of the Philippines, it is rarely unbearably hot here. It is perhaps rainy and windy a bit too much for my taste, but I’ll take that any day over unbearable heat. When it’s too cold or rainy you can be comfortable inside. When it’s too hot you really can’t be comfortable, unless you have excellent air conditioning wherever you go, which gets very expensive.

Most days the weather is very pleasant here, near-perfect.

My new life here is just getting started, and so far it’s been full of activity, mostly moving, adjusting to the various moves and changes, and dealing with day-to-day issues like eating, transportation, computers, Internet and phone service, plumbing, the dog, the family, the car, etc.

But I’ve had some time to relax as well. I love the new pace of my life. It seems like the last 50 years have been way too hectic, with way too many demands upon me, too much pressure and stress. Yes, I made good money, and I loved my work, but I am so very, very glad to be done with it.

I have now something I’ve wanted for a long time – the chance to make a truly fresh new start, to explore and discover what I want to do with my life.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and for almost my entire working life so far I was paid to write. However, I’d like to write with a bit more choice of my subject matter, and I suspect that software documentation may not be my top choice.

Although I may end up doing more software documentation to help fund my new life on an interim basis.

I’m still very excited about starting a technical writing outsourcing company, and working with a university to help them develop a technical writing curriculum. But I’m becoming intrigued with the possibility of writing books, books that I choose to write, and putting my time and energy into self-publishing and marketing those books. I don’t expect they will sell themselves, but I may be able to make a modest living by writing 1-2 books a year and marketing and selling them.

The wonderful thing is I need so much less income now.

Perhaps my next blog post will focus on the differences in cost of living between here and the USA, and other kinds of differences.

 

P.S.¬† A couple hours later, we had running water again. As I suspected it was one of the levers outside. I don’t yet understand all the valves and levers. It was also related to preparations for the plumber’s visit tomorrow.

Explosive Culture Shock: New Year’s Eve in the Philippines

Last night was my first New Year’s Eve here in my new country. Compared to the last 49 in the USA, it was a bit more, well, explosive.
In the USA, fireworks are often a key highlight of the New Year’s Eve experience. Although some years I did not see fireworks. Frankly alcohol, especially champagne, seems more essential in the USA than fireworks for New Year’s. And the fireworks, those years I saw them, were massive displays that reached very high into the sky, viewed by thousands or millions, staged and executed by professionals, paid for usually by the city or perhaps some corporate sponsors.
Here in the Philippines, alcohol is optional. Fireworks are not. And the fireworks are much more democratic or participatory. Yes, there are some laws regarding fireworks here. But, like alcohol on New Year’s, complying with law is generally optional in the Philippines. Everyone sets off fireworks on New Year’s Eve, even children as young as 7.
The result is that you don’t have to be on top of a tall building or on the shore of a body of water to see fireworks. Just go outside. And to hear them, well you don’t really have a choice about that part. The fireworks here are much more about sound than light.
Last year I was here for Christmas but not New Year’s. I had an injured hand at the time and I was afraid of it being hit by stray fireworks. Although I was not injured this year, in hindsight I think that was a good decision.
The booms and cracks started the morning of New Year’s Eve day. The noise gradually accelerated throughout the day. Not only booms and cracks, but very loud music, car horns, and handheld paper horns that produced an amazing level of sound.
At 1 pm we moved my new car underneath the neighbor’s carport, to protect it from falling fireworks.
Between 11 pm and 1 am the noise was intermittently almost deafening.
We all went out to the road in front of the house. Luckily I was with my family, who were familiar with the various types of explosives. Whenever the neighbors set one of the short fiery things in the middle of the road that produce a sonic boom, I would be warned to cover my ears. I think if I had not I might now be deaf. Each time I did, after a wait I experienced what I call the sonic boom. I felt the wind from the explosion on my legs, worried if I had lost something down there, that’s how loud it was.
By about 11:30 pm there was not only lots of sound but lots of light. Beautiful displays similar to what I’ve seen in the USA, but not just from one direction. All over the area various neighbors who had sprung for some of the more expensive fireworks saved their best for last. Of course, it was all a bit less innocent than in the USA. In addition to trying to see the best displays, you had to be concerned with protecting yourself from the fallout, the smoke, the noise. and any misdirected firings. It was kind of like being in a war zone, except with less casualties.
While I’m not aware of any casualties in our immediate vicinity, by the morning of New Year’s Eve the newspapers were reporting about 100 injuries already.
There were people in the street, groups setting off fireworks, others walking, and also vehicles. The vehicles, whether cars, jeepneys (small buses), motorized tricycles, motorcycles, ambulances, or trucks, all went very fast, flashing lights and blaring horns. At first I thought this was to warn pedestrians not to set off fireworks as they went past, or to stay out of the road. Fear probably explained their speed. But the noise and lights may have just been part of the celebration.
And of course, my family participated too. At first I was not very participatory. The Philippines is in general too noisy a country for me, and I was trying to reduce the noise, not add to it. I was handed a bag of a dozen little boxes of explosive caps. You throw one on the ground and it cracks. I thought initially I was given them to prevent their use. But eventually I gave in and handed them out to the kids, even using some myself. When they started burning little sticks I yelled, “Don’t do that near me! Go away!” Little roman candles soon followed. I was given a hat to protect my head from fallout.
It was a strange mixture of excitement, celebration, fear, shock, and love. The best part, of course, was being with my family here and experiencing it together.
A few minutes after midnight we all went inside for the traditional midnight buffet.
The noise of course continued for a few more hours.

A new beginning

After 50 years living in the USA, tomorrow I move to the Philippines. I’ve never lived in another country before, so this is a new adventure.

In the midst of the worst economy in 70 years, I quit a very good job and changed my life completely to move to another country. Why?

There are two kinds of reasons.

1) Love. I finally found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. He is a Filipino citizen. Legally, the only ways for us to live together are a) both move to a third country, or b) I move to the Philippines.

a) is not a good option – why should we both live far away from our families?

Many US citizens do not understand this reality. Because my lover is male (as I am), I cannot sponsor him to live in the USA. Even if we had same-sex marriage in California (as we did for 5 months in 2008), that would not help. Like most of the 1100+ rights and responsibilities that come with marriage, immigration is a federal right. Under the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the US federal government is actually required to discriminate against same-sex couples.

The other part that many US citizens find hard to believe is that it is extremely difficult, often impossible, to get a tourist visa to visit the US. Since 2001 this has been, for most people from most other countries, a very high hurdle, and often insurmountable. I hope that one day soon my boyfriend can visit here. For now it’s just not in the cards.

2) Opportunity. I’ve been wanting to make a change for a long time. After 26 years writing software documentation, hiring and managing technical writers, working in corporate America, I want to do something else. I’m very excited about starting a technical writing outsourcing company in the Philippines.

A few words about technical writing. What is it? It is not programming. It is not software design. We technical writers write the online help, user guides, installation guides, online information databases and other information sets that explain to users how to use software and hardware.

I have observed that technical writers differ in how they emphasize three key aspects of the job:

People

Words

Technology

Many technical writers are most interested in the technology they write about. They may choose a job based primarily on the basis of the technology that they will be able to write about in that job.

However, that’s not me. I’m a PWT technical writer, meaning that I’m most interested in people, I’m also interested in words (in writing, in the English language), and I’m least interested in the technology.

But the opportunity to start a new business is only one of the opportunities available to me in the Philippines. For example, I have a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs. In the Philippines that degree may qualify me to teach in a college or university. In the US, probably not. There is a great need for management skill in the Philippines. The economy there is growing much faster than the US economy. The banking system is much stronger.

The Philippines is the first or second (after Singapore) most English-language friendly country in Asia. The US occupied the country for 50 years, basically the first half of the twentieth century. Although the Spanish were there much longer (400 years), our occupation is more recent. All the road signs are in English. Almost all Filipinos speak at least a little bit of English. Most learn English in grade school.

The first 4 times I visited the Philippines, I thought English is all you need there. This is true for tourists, but as I realized on my 5th trip, the place runs on Tagalog (also called Filipino). After I move there Iwill learn Tagalog. (And perhaps I’ll become a bilingual, bicontinental, bisexual blogger. But I longer wear bifocals, so I won’t be a bilingual, bicontintental, bisexual, bifocular blogger.)

Yes, I am bisexual. Not a big deal, unless you are one of those people who happens to think bisexuals don’t exist. We do. More on that in future posts. I do have some observations about cultural differences between the USA and the Philippines, and in particular about how sexual minorities are treated in each culture. But I’ll wait to go into that in future blog posts.

One more opportunity for me in this move has to do with my passion in life – The Hunger Project.

http://www.thp.org

The Hunger Project is a global movement to sustainably end hunger for all humanity. I started volunteering with The Hunger Project in 1981. We are now reaching 35 million people in over 22,000 villages in 13 countries, on 3 continents. We empower the poorest of the poor to be the authors of their own development, and achieve for themselves and their families and communities lives of dignity, self-reliance, and sufficiency. We do all this on an annual global budget of about $12 million a year. The Hunger  Project is one of the most cost-effective development organizations on the planet. One of the reasons we are so effective and cost-effective is that we directly confront the most important root cause of extreme poverty Рgender inequality. When you effectively empower the leadership of poor rural women, they transform their communities.

About 90% of the funding of The Hunger Project comes from individuals. In recent years only a tiny fraction of those funds have come from East Asia. I plan to start Hunger Project fundraising in the Philippines, and to catalyze fundraising throughout East Asia.