Cebu City: First Impressions

I’ve recently arrived in Cebu City, Philippines. My impressions of the city are colored, of course, by living in the US, but also by spending the previous 2 months in Bangkok. Here’s what struck me.

Arrival

Touch down in Manila (MNL), but almost didn’t make it as Kuwait Airlines in Bangkok (BKK) wouldn’t let me leave without printing out my ticket OUT of the Philippines. I thought this was a bit much considering I already showed all that to the Philippines consulate when I had the visa stamped in my passport. Combined with the 45 minute wait to check in (computer problems?), I was definitely glad I got there early. I’ll admit when I got to Philippine immigration there was a sign listing what you needed, and it did include your flight out. However, they did not ask for it; I’m pretty sure that’s only for people flying in without a visa, in order to get the 21 day temporary visa.

To be honest, I realize I was making a lot of assumptions based on years of flying in the US. For instance, that I would have internet at the airport to grab my plane ticket emails, or that all I needed to check in was my passport and flight number. Those things turned out to be true, but better safe than sorry. Another discovery was that US airports seem to have a common navigation cues and signage, if not layout. I never worry that I’m headed in the wrong direction at a US airport. I’m confident there will be at least a couple small food/drink vendors in the gate area. I don’t even realize I’m making these assumptions, but going through BKK and MNL, those assumptions turned out to be false. There, I was always surprised I actually made it to my intended destination.

After getting through immigration, it was a shuffle to make my connecting flight to Cebu (Mactan). On a whim, I decided to change my Thai baht for Philippine pesos near the MNL baggage claim. I say on a whim because I figured I’d do this, and hit the ATM, at CEB, my final destination. That would have been a mistake, as I had to take the airport shuttle to the domestic flight terminal, and that shuttle isn’t free! It’s dirt cheap at 20P ($.50), but they collect it right before leaving so would have had to jump out and hit an ATM if I had no money, holding up the bus. It occurred to me that I should have changed my money in Bangkok. Lesson learned.

More assumptions dashed upon getting to my serviced apartment. Based on my last 2 places, I expected it would have some of the basics, like towels, soap and shampoo, hangers. And oh, I don’t know, maybe toilet paper? No on all accounts. Everything else about it is quite nice and new, but I was not expecting to have to walk around an unfamiliar neighborhood at midnight looking for TP.

The City

As I walk the streets, I’m brought back to my childhood. See, when I was a little boy, my parents would take me to the Point Pleasant boardwalk, where my favorite ride were these little vehicles (cars, motorcycles, etc.) that would go around in a circle, like a futuristic merry-go-round. It was my favorite because there was a button you could press that would light up the car and emit beeping/buzzing sounds. I pressed this button a lot. Not continually, but almost, stopping just long enough to verify that it wasn’t stuck, and still under my control. The drivers here apparently never outgrew that, because they are constantly beeping. “Can I get over?” “Sorry, I’m getting over.” “Coming round a corner” “Hey, it’s another car!” I am partly to blame, because a lot of the beeping is from cab drivers, who alert every single pedestrian they pass that they are available for hire. On the plus side, no matter the time of day or night, I don’t have a problem getting a taxi, and on average it’s $2 each way with tip. Like in Bangkok, the rip out the seatbelts,1 but unlike Bangkok, they don’t try to rip me off. No argument about how traffic sucks so bad that it will take 30 minutes (in truth, 10), so if they turned on the meter, their children would starve that very night. Meter goes on every time – callooh calay!

Walking, by the way, is a contact sport in Cebu. To say the pavement and sidewalks are uneven would be doing them a kindness. You have to look down where you’re about to walk, that’s for sure. But you also have to look up! Otherwise, you’ll walk into a sign, telephone pole, fence post, or tree, which are all planted randomly in the sidewalk. If you want to cross the street, you’ll want to do it at a lighted intersection, but good luck being near one of those. You’re going to have to jay walk, because it can be a couple miles between lights. Also, I was told the street I live off of, while a 4-lane “national road,” is not considered a main street. This means there’s no traffic enforcement. Sometimes I feel it’s easier to hail a taxi and pay him a dollar to take me across the street.

The other thing I notice walking around is that there are a lot of roosters here. The roosters are quite intent on making this known to everyone within cock-a-doodle distance. I passed 2 roosters on my 1 mile walk to the mall. Sadly, I hear this is due to a major national interest in cockfighting, and if I was on a short leash or stuck under a cage, I’d be upset, too.

Malls

Yes, shopping malls get their own section, especially when a NJ mallrat does the reporting. Not to mention that Cebu *City* is rather suburban and this is a big deal here (I’m there almost daily).

When I get to the nearest mall (Ayala Center), the first thing I notice is a security guard. No, not the one manning the metal detector. Not the one with the wand, nor the one doing the pat-downs.2 The one I noticed was the one carrying a machine pistol. Inside, I notice a guard in an electronics store is armed with a revolver. OK, expensive merchandise. But then I see another at a book store. Then I notice that almost all the guards are armed with pistols.3 I say almost because I recently noticed guards without them, but they still have holsters. The holsters have washcloths in them, presumably for emergency, tactical brow wiping.4 I figure the guns are there to stop (or more likely, deter in advance) any Mumbai-style terrorist act at the mall. But upon continued observation, I see that all the guards in Cebu City are similarly armed, and they are everywhere. Walking around neighborhoods, your in front of your local bakery, etc. I’m not terribly bothered by this until I ask one a question and they don’t really understand me. Most people here have an excellent command of English, but I really want the people with the guns to have a crystal clear understanding of everything.

By the way, at the Marriott (considered a 5 star hotel here), I saw an SUV’s undercarriage carefully checked with a large mirror for bombs, while a K-9 unit hung out on standby. And you thought the mall was secure.

The mall itself is huge and sprawling. A couple city blocks and 4 floors. The other local mall is the same way. At each entrance they have a high-tech touch screen directory. Sometimes it displays the map, sometimes the Windows logo.5 After you’ve wandered past the entrance, good luck finding what your’e looking for, because the budget for directories was spent. There’s also a concierge desk if the directory is broken, but I wish they spent the money on an Android app, or just let me buy a paper map.

Like in Thailand, employment here is high. By “here” I mean the mall, not the country.6 Individual establishments hire way more employees per square foot than American ones do. At a department store, practically every display or shelving unit has its own attendant. Even small food stands and kiosks have three employees, all diligently engaged with their phones, tablets, or netbooks, and none too happy to serve you. My hunch is that if you had fewer employees, you could pay them more and give them more work to keep them engaged, but it’s a cultural thing to maximize employment, like France’s 35 hour (or less) work week.

Food

Once again, I saw many western/American chains. Starbucks, SBC, CBTL (can you tell I’m a big coffee drinker?), DD, McD, KFC, Pizza Hut, Cinnabon – the list goes on. But in addition to that are a number of much smaller brands, like Sbarro and Shakeys. Yes, Shakeys. If you’re here, hit  Bo’s Coffee, known for its freshly roasted beans. I don’t know why, but CBTL is pretty inferior here by both American and Thai standards.

Not surprising given its history, I see more American expats here, whereas in Thailand the Brits and Aussies took the lead. I even found a restaurant called Army Navy that sells Freedom Fries to accompany their burgers and burritos.7

The supermarket has a few interesting quirks. First, they play dance music. And I don’t mean “upbeat” or “dance-y.” I mean music you’d hear at a rave or a club in LA. It felt like a movie soundtrack, and as I wandered the aisles I pretended I was looking for Sudafed to pass off as drugs like to ignorant high school kids. What I was actually looking for was vitamins, which they don’t sell, which is surprising since the food here doesn’t seem terribly nutritious. A lot of it is just meat and white rice.

So on the way home I hit the pharmacy/convenience store on the corner and asked for Centrum. They replied, “How many?” Um, a bottle? “No.” OK, back to the mall! Stop in GNC, they want an exorbitant price for vitamins. Well, when in Rome. I went to the pharmacy and they filled my order for 30 Centrum multivitamins. Also absent, much to the lament of this lazy single guy, are frozen or prepared meals. OK, one high end supermarket at the mall had Marie Calendars Salisbury steak dinner for $10, Hot Pockets for $7. To put that in perspective, I went to a nice steakhouse and got braised oxtails, garlic rice, vegetables, and bread and paid $10 with tip. Average restaurant meal is $5 with tip. So who the heck is buying Marie Calendars for that kind of money? I’m guessing rich Americans with little time on their hand. Luckily, my apartment manager explained that most just order delivery, since many restaurants are open 24 hours, and motorbike delivery is fast and cheap. BTW, I thought I might just get some eggs for breakfast, but also like Thailand, they don’t believe eggs are something you keep refrigerated. Maybe that’s why the yolks here are kind of red-orange? Could also be the breed of hen, but I can’t bring myself to buy them.

Anyway, as I was about to tell the cashier that the in-store DJ deserves a raise and promotion, she suddenly stopped working and looked down. Then I noticed everyone stopped, including the music, in order to broadcast a Catholic prayer. I noted the time was 3PM, and presume this was like Thailand where everyone stands at attention when the King’s anthem is played in public places in the morning and the evening.

Other Observations

Like Bangkok, gyms are expensive. I went to the nice gym at the mall, which was similar to a 24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness, etc. They want $90/month. Luckily, I was able to get a membership at the Marriott fitness center for “only” $60. At least I know I’ll be safe from car bombing while I’m pumping iron.

Internet in PH is not great. I’m normally fine with throwing money at the problem, but you need to throw a LOT of money when DSL and cable modems require a 12 month contract, but you’re only staying a month.8 I’m sure there’s an early termination fee, but based on the cost of bandwidth it’s got to be big. Instead, I got a Globe unlimited internet account for my phone, and wifi in my apartment, and speeds for both are around 3Mb/s DL. However, upload is crazy slow and both drop frequently. It could be this city, as I’ve heard people in Manila with LTE are getting 30Mb connections on their phone. Of course, you still need good reception.

The medical industry is huge here. Lots of people walking around in candy striper uniforms or scrubs. It seems like most of the girls I meet have a nursing degree because it travels so well. I’m sure most Americans reading this have met a Filipino health practitioner.9 To be safe, I decide to find out what the best hospital is, because often times there are huge differences.10 Seems the one here is Chong Hua, which is also known as the expensive hospital. To put that in perspective, I’ll relay a story from an expat forum. Guy needs a doctor, so he sees one during clinic hours, requesting the department head with 30 years of experience. Because he’s a new patient, they charge him 400P. Needs some lab work, another 150P. Turns out he needs antibiotics, which is yet another 600P. Wow, almost 1200P, this is getting expensive, right?! It’s less than $30. Some of you have co-pays bigger than that. You can see why it might look tempting to retire here. They also have an “executive checkup,” an exhaustive physical comprising stress tests and lab work and a number of scans, all for about $100. I bet the cost of that back in the US is roughly the price of the plane ticket here. Can you say medical tourism?

The other big industry here is BPO, or business process outsourcing. It’s mostly call centers, and there are lots of signs advertising everything from jobs to office space for it. I knew that PH was a bigger spot for outsourcing than Thailand, and I assumed it was all due to the excellent English spoken here. The people begin learning in elementary school, it’s American English (vs. the Queen’s), if I had to put a pin on the Filipino accent, it’s that they tend to enunciate much better than Americans do. I figure that outweighed the fact that Thai cities seem to have better infrastructure, including internet. However, before I left Thailand I went to a talk on the ASEAN initiative for 2015. I learned it won’t happen by then, but the most fascinating slide showed average yearly salary (in USD) by country. At the top were Singapore and Brunei with $52K. Thailand was $12K. Philippines was $4k. That made it click. In addition to the English, they just cost less. It also explains why so many Filipinos travel internationally for work – it’s easier to find a better salary elsewhere.

Finally, everything you hear about the friendly people is spot on. As it’s a smaller city than Manila or Bangkok, I occasionally feel like I’m a spectacle, especially when walking around my neighborhood. But I never feel unwelcome, which is nice.

  1. Pro tip: the front passenger always has them, so get in there []
  2. Interesting note: women will do pat-downs on men, although they are not at  TSA’s level of thoroughness. Some malls do have a men’s and women’s entrance, though. []
  3. To my untrained eyes, mostly .38 and .357 revolvers, with the occasional 9mm. []
  4. Faster than you! (NSFW) []
  5. And sometimes the directory is being used to watch trailers for every movie at the cinema. Sigh. []
  6. It might also be high nationally, I’m too lazy to check. []
  7. Let’s face it, Mexican food is now American food. []
  8. And I was warned that DSL installation takes between 2 weeks and 2 months. Well, I’ve heard similar stories in the states… []
  9. My pediatrician was Filipino and he was awesome. []
  10. Pro tip: sometimes the good hospital is referred to as the “international” hospital because it attracts so many foreigners, like Bumrungrad in Bangkok. []

2 thoughts on “Cebu City: First Impressions”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>