Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?
This FR is based on a late-night excursion in January, 2006.
Four months late, I finally decided that I should submit this on my latest trip to Asia. After my Thai, Cambodian, Lao trip last October resulted in a bit of souring on the whole moving to Thailand idea, I decided to put living abroad on the back burner and dig in for the long haul here in the USA. Well, the best laid plans rarely remain intact for long. Sure enough, a call out of the blue from a former colleague throwing salary numbers at me that couldn’t be ignored results in an on-site job interview to be scheduled in Shenzhen, China. I really had not totally abandoned the idea of an international move. I merely decided that in order to do it, it had to be a proper, productive scenario and not just to “escape to a low cost paradise” (low cost? yeah right!) and chase Asian “darlings”. But it just so happened that I was already booked for a vacation / family reunion with the girlfriend to the Philippines. How convenient. A short 2 hour flight from Manila to HK and all expenses paid by the company of interest. This report will chronicle the expat & tourism scene in both countries as I experienced it. I didn’t add photos last time, but I will subject readers to my lame photography skills on this one.
Manila / Makati
What can I say? I have one word. HOT!! Much, much hotter than I ever recall it being in Bangkok. But, my GF has an Aunt that works at the Manila airport and met us at immigration and somehow whisked us through in 5 minutes instead of the infernal 1 hour+ line. Thank the maker, because we needed the extra time to collect the 4 huge Balikbayan boxes she forced me to haul halfway across the world for the relatives. I booked us at the City Garden Makati right by Burgos St. bar central so I could scope out the scene.
It's a nice hotel in a good locale for whatever you might have in mind. Clean 25th floor pool to see Makati from the heights and a good massage / spa / gym right in the floor below.
So we spent the first evening getting booze at the liquor store and drinking San Miguel while people watching. I bought a .75 liter bottle of Stoli and was doing shots with “Tony” the store owner right at his cash register at 3AM. The GF
was not pleased, but I decided to break her in right. After 25 years away from your homeland, best to get it right in the face me thinks. So, we chat all night and she has a great time reminiscing in Ilicano with her long lost relations while
I get shittier and shittier watching the parade of lovelies taking the elevator up with their new found ATMs.
So, next day we go to Greenbelt 3 to do some shopping and take the skytrain to Rizal park. Their mass transit is amazingly similar to the BTS, albeit older, but they do have separate cars for the ladies if they want to use them due to the potential for assault / theft. I had a backpack on with some camera gear and I didn’t feel anything at the time, but noticed that the zipper had been fiddled with and partially opened after looking at it 5 minutes later. Nothing was missing, but I was lucky. Even with 8-10 local relatives with you. Metro Manila / Makati is NOT safe to be walking around with any perceived valuables, even if it is a simple backpack.
We got to the park, and not much to see, but some psycho dressed in a black judge outfit approached me and told me that he had been framed by the city officials and fired. I later read after returning home that some former PI judge had been dismissed for consulting with psychic, mystic dwarves on cases. I think I met this screwball, but I didn’t see any dwarves. I did see some striking poverty and pathetic homeless kids with infected abscesses on their bodies. I bought them some food and drinks and tried to make their lives a little less hellish, but its just all too much. There’s only so much one man can do. So, we then go to get cleaned up and go to the Fort Bonifacio area to the clubs there.
I have sampled Novotel's CM2, Spasso’s, and the like so I know what lurks there. But I was pretty impressed with the specimens on display at the “Embassy” and "Jaipur" at Fort Bonifacio. Very nice clubs with hot Asian nookie everywhere. My GF had fun, but fell victim to a bit of envy after a while. We had to leave because the girls were “too high on meth and there could be trouble”. Ok, love, you win. But I had to agree that there were some wild eyed gangsta chicks there. No big deal, but the thing that bugged the shit out of me were the drunk guys that decided it was cool to hold a cigarette and try to be in the midst of a jam packed dance floor. Oh, I was just waiting for a reason to lay one of those idiots out cold. What's wrong with smoking at the bar? So, we have a late night dinner at the ship / restaurant there overlooking that district of Makati. There are some nice condo projects underway there and we are considering a look at one. But with free family property available in the province, she is torn on what to do. So, the next day, I have to switch to career mode and get to the airport for the China trip while she heads on up to the province with the relatives.
The Cathay Pacific flight is quick, nice, and very scenic with some beautiful atolls down below. The diving there has to be fantastic, but quite a boat ride out there. Some day I will be there, just a few more years of the grind. So, HK airport, to the tram, to the ferry, to Shekou. The immediate impression is the foul breath. My God, do the Chinese have any oral hygiene?! I was on the verge of regurgitation on the tram. Can you say “Shit sandwich for lunch?”. Anyway, got to the port of Shekou and was picked up by my potential employer and taken to the Holiday Inn DongHua. Very professional staff and nice suite. Walked around the hotel area and immediately noticed very little English ability. Some was spoken, but of the same level as you would find in very rural Isaan. Lots of hand gestures and maps. Maps in Mandarin are absolutely crucial to get where you need to go. Forget talking, forget the hand signals. Just put a map in the taxi driver's face pointing where you want to go and you will get there. My experience is there will be no talking at all as I don’t know the first Mandarin word and they don’t know more than 2 words in English. So just look at the meter, give them a 6-8 Yuan tip, smile, and go on about your business. The social scene in Shekou is very expat friendly with several bars / pubs / restaurants in an area called “SeaWorld”.
There is a big Chinese ship there with various restaurants / clubs in the area. I made it into the Terrace and McCauley's pub on several occasions. McCauleys is a very nice Irish pub although it is reportedly owned by an Aussie that imported the interior décor from his native land. Very well done and nice Chinese barmaids too.
Had some good chats with some UK guys doing contract work in the oil refining biz there. To a man, they were itching to return home to “proper” English girls. WTF?! Not a good preview of the Chinese quim is it? Oh well, who am I to argue without a firsthand sampling? So, I wake to the job interview and on the way see 3 accidents in a 30 minute ride to the interview. Drivers in Shenzhen are insane. There is no concept of courtesy or collision avoidance. If they want in a lane, they just go. If someone doesn’t feel like letting them in, they just hit them. I have driven without issue in Thailand (outside of BKK), PI, UK etc., but there is no way I would own or operate any motorized transport in China.
Also, no company offered benefits or medical cover. Has to be purchased out of Hong Kong at considerable expense. So I finally get to tour the facility I may be working in. I find it to be very modern with world class equipment. They just don’t know how to use it to its potential and understand how to interpret and utilize the data it is providing them. OK. That’s why they want me there. But do I really want to defect and give them additional advantage beyond the labor / environmental costs? Hmmm. So later in the evening I am with the potential management group rolling down the street sippin’ on gin and juice with my mind on my money and my money on my mind. They took me to a fantastic Teppanyaki dinner and then got to mingle with some karaoke girls on the next floor up as an appetizer which was very nice.
Then the next day, my interview obligations finished, I decided to see the Chinese cultural village and Window of the World tourist attractions. Quite a sight to see. They did an admirable job of reproducing miniatures of the wonders of the world and the main tourist areas of China. It was on Easter Sunday, so there were a lot of families with children about. Plenty of Easter décor around for the kids. Who said the Chinese were cold, godless communists? As long as there is money to be made, they will be or pretend to be, whatever you want.
Definitely worth a day of your time if you ever go there. So, my last night, I decide to see check out the Soho club and the surrounding red light area. Lots, and I mean lots of freelancers walking up to me asking if I want “massa-gee”.
Several good time girls by Soho and beer bar alley hanging on me, smelling me, kissing me, asking me to go into the bars and meet the ladies they have there. I declined because I just had a gut feel that something was just not right with these
girls / bars. They were not as openly aggressive with the yanking and pulling on you as in Soi Eric / Bangla, but there was just something sinister in the air. I couldn’t quite figure it out so I decided to just steer clear of the whole
Shenzhen is a place to work hard and play hard, but the naughty nightlife scene is quite small and unsophisticated. Plenty of legitimate discos and clubs to meet ladies though, and then of course there's HK which has no need for comment by me.
The GF's Province
So I get back to the PI and my GF’s cousin is there at the airport to escort me to the bus and on up to the GF and the resort they were all staying at. He is a cool guy and a male nurse at a hospital in Manila. It was a tough 6 hour ride up to the resort through the Manila traffic, but we make it. The next day was fun relaxing by the pool and beach. It was interesting to watch the organized “sex tour” operators bring their groups of guys and their “dates” into the resort and play liars dice and drinking games at the pool bar. You could see the mamasan trying to co-ordinate the activities and most of the poor girls wishing they were somewhere else. I ended up talking with one of them late at night at the bar since her guy had passed out in the room, and she said she gets paid 2,000 pesos for a 5 day excursion with the group and is assigned a guy for the duration of the trip. Whatever he tips her at the end is hers to keep. So, they could make some decent money if they keep the guy happy and can stand it. I personally could not imagine spending my days and nights with a middle age or worse, cottage cheese ass woman with a big fishy sea cave. Evolutionary fail safes would kick in, the turtle neck would retract, and my genes would be safe. These girls really do earn their money. My God, the horror!
So, we go further North into the home province and meet the relatives. The culture shock was not too bad, as I have had extensive exposure to Filipino ways and the conditions just equate to long-term camping in my mind. Cooking over fire, using animals as they were meant to be used, and just living off whatever the land is prepared to provide.
So a big fiesta was planned and I purchased a pig or “lechon” and it was let loose to mingle about with the crowd. The unfortunate creature not knowing that 4 hours later, it would be on a fire as the main course. Anybody with a weak stomach or a sensitive nature couldn’t really deal with the methods used to prepare meals in the Philippine provinces.
They asked if I would slaughter the lechon since I had bought it. Not wanting to risk being rude or seen as weak willed, I agreed.
So, here is this pig that I had purchased and mingled with for several hours and now I am expected to deal it the final blow. It was going to happen whether I did it or not, so better me than somebody else that may not do it quickly and humanely. I have slaughtered chickens, game foul, and dressed deer after a hunt, but never had done a hog. I would have preferred to have just shot it, but no weapon was available, or so I was told. The barangay captain handed me the knife and I straddled the pig while they held it, lifted its head, and cut as deeply as I could. It was a tough thing to do because the pig did let out a squeal and was gurgling and kicking for about 30 seconds. But it was about as quick as I could make it and the meal was delicious even though the preparation could be seen as somewhat unsanitary with the foul walking around (my relatives kept emailing me about ‘bird flu”). I didn't lose any sleep over it, too wiped out from sun and San Miguel.
So, we ate, drank, and sang Karaoke until the wee hours for several nights. We slept in the bahay kubo on the beach, on the GF’s property where she was born. It was easy to get caught up in the simplicity and peace of this lifestyle. But the western comforts are definitely missed before long. If permanent camping is you thing, then the rural PI is your gig.
Sure, I could put a little money into the area and live like a king for a while but I couldn’t be there for more than a few months at a time.
Also, it's just not proper to have any luxury in the midst of conditions like that. Somebody will shake you down before long no matter who you know, or what the family contacts are. But the people really were great while we were there, especially the kids who have no monetary agenda yet. The author had some fantastic times playing on the beach and playing basketball in the village square. It tears my heart out to think that these precious little kids may one day be treated badly by some asshole in a bar somewhere. In this case, it is unlikely because it is a tight-knit barangay where several families are being supported by formally educated children with proper employment in Manila and abroad. So the value of education is recognized and supported since the results of it have been made evident by the availability of food, clothing, and shelter.
Below, my front porch and yard for a week. Nice place, just steps from the beach. May be the site of an improved, longer term residence if I decide to give up the regular paycheck in a few years. Tough call to do in my early 40’s, but its getting easier. I think many readers may relate. One thing's for sure, I'll be building it on 4 meter concrete supports in case of Tsunami along the western coast of Luzon. No alarms up there at this time.
We also went to a cockfight about 30 minutes away from the family property. Some of the cousins have been raising roosters for the last few years and 2 of them were chosen to fight. The betting is pretty confusing to the uninitiated as it seems like just
a bunch of yelling back and forth. But prior to that, all the contestants gather outside the ring to match up and assess the strength of the birds. If a pair agree to fight their birds, then bets are made accordingly with the odds being formed
just minutes before the match is to start. The matches themselves are amazingly quick, usually only 10-30 seconds. I can see why as I watched them affix the blades to the legs. These are razor sharp and about 2-3" long. One good swipe and
the bird on the receiving end will get slashed through several vital arteries and will bleed out very quickly. I made a few bets and came out losing the first match, but winning the second one. One of the cousins did quite well and won about 3,000
pesos with a 50kg sack of rice as well. The losing birds served as dinner that night. Very tasty organic, free range Adobo.
We also went to Baguio City up in the mountains. Much cooler up there, but was very crowded with too much traffic and diesel smoke to be enjoyable. Excessively over-touristed and not really recommended during the high season. Lots of stuff to buy for sure with the whole place really just a bunch of vendor stalls along the central "lake" which is a dirty mess. We did go up to Mine's view which does give a decent view of the surrounding mountainside once you get up there. We saw the traditional dress of the Igorot tribes and took some pix with them for a small donation.
The last night we were treated as honored guests during "balikbayan night". In the town square, they had a live band, singing / dancing girls and we stayed up dancing and drinking almost until daybreak. It seems the whole province comes out for the fun late at night when its cool. It happens at least every week. The whole scene is very social and is such a contrast to the West where you rarely even get a chance to say 2 words to your neighbors because you and they are so busy working to get "stuff". These people bond and help each other because they want and need to as life is hard here. It truly is refreshing to see an entire community get together almost every week and have good times.
So, after a few more days, we go down to Puerto Galera without any lodging reservations. Quite a traffic ordeal getting down from La Union to Batangas, but we make the ferry ride to Mindoro barely in time. Based on my minimal internet research, I decide that the easiest option is Sabang beach. Luckily, the Tropicana had available rooms and we got the penthouse. Good size room with views of the pool / bar and beach with a hammock right outside the suite to be lazy.
We hired a boat to take us out to snorkel for a day, and even though I was tanned from 2 weeks there, I still got torched. The sun down there is insane. Not as many fish as I would have hoped, but we were not out far enough or deep enough to see much. But the water was clear and it was a nice day to be out.
I didn’t go into any of the pool bars or discos there as I was with the GF, but there are plenty of opportunities around. Some very cute girls, but you can tell they are hard as nails already. The unwary will be skinned alive, maybe literally. I didn’t need to make any "transactions" so see it is plainly evident that the PI is a very different scene from what I have experienced in Thailand. Watch these Filipinas like a hawk and buyer beware. She may decide to let a few guys into the room while you snore and drool. Whether you wake up is up to them.
Rented a scooter to see some more of the Northern Mindoro area and we rode over to White beach and then up to the Tamaraw falls area. Really a scenic ride up there, but frustrating being 2-up on a little gutless bike.
A V-Strom would be perfect on those roads and that terrain. I wish I had more time to explore the rest of the island by motorbike, but I think I am going to get my fix sometime next year. I am planning to do the Northwest Thai loops around Chiang Rai, Nan (Rt. 1148 / 1256 etc) and then into Laos up the Mekong. The last time I took Hwy. 13 from Luang Prabang to Vientiane by bus it was terrible not to be on 2 wheels for that fantastic road and scenery. Now, just trying to pry a few buddies away from work / family to go with is the real challenge. I have no problem traveling alone if hiking and bicycling as I did last time, but I will not ride a motorbike abroad without another bike or two. There are far too many potential problems to be half a world away from anyone reliable who gives a damn about you.
The contrasts between the 2 countries as I experienced them couldn't be more different. Only 2 hours apart by air, but might as well have been on different planets. Shekou / Guandong, and China in general is definitely on a path to great things whereas the PI just can't get out of its own way politically and socially. So, did I take the China job? No. It was a good opportunity and the area is totally expat compatible as far as Shekou is concerned, but it's still China. Since you can't (in your right mind) drive there, it would be a fishbowl existence being driven to work and back to your little expat enclave. Being able to get in my car and haul ass when I want can't happen there without giant risk to finance and freedom. There is HK as an escape, but it seems a big pain to get over there and it is as expensive as hell to do anything of value. Also, there is an ever present haze and fog in the air. After a few days in the gritty gloom, I was getting depressed. And even though it is opening up politically / socially, the presence of the police state was very evident. Lots of checkpoints and soldiers staring at me. The regular people were friendly and curious, but the police / military were not and it was discomforting having my every move watched. However, I found the Chinese trend of opening up to be ironic at the same time the West believes it is being forced to clamp down in the name of security due to this insane "war on terror". Some will think I'm crazy for passing up the job, but I have a pretty comfortable life and at some point soon, the option to stay or go will not be dependent on career or finances. That's where things need to be for me.
And the PI? It was fantastic to be immersed headlong into the rural life and see how they all pull together and help each other with daily survival. Also, very nice to gain insight of where my GF comes from and the conditions during her formative years. It explains a lot to me now and I have even more respect and admiration for what she has been able to achieve given such humble beginnings. We still have intentions of building a vacation / semi-retirement home there, but no way are we permanently pulling up roots in the USA. Even though it pains me deeply to see my country led by the most delusional sociopaths in recent times, it is still home and I'm proud to call it such. So the more of the world I see, the more I appreciate what I have here even though it's at risk from incredible mismanagement. To me, that is the greatest benefit of travel, to gain a fresh perspective of your life and to plan to make things better for those most important to you.
I have to confess a certain fascination with China, although the idea of spending much time there doesn't grab me.