Advice for Americans Visiting the Philippines

Advice for Americans Visiting the Philippines

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  1. Having recently visited the Philippines for the first time—and being a white American with no experience flying overseas—I think I have some perspective on what to do and not to do for fellow white-bread Caucasians flying to the Tropics. This information is equally useful for Filipinos taking white American friends or family to the Philippines.


     First, do not fly Philippine Air Lines. The service is reminiscent of a Nazi death camp (I had to beg for water throughout the 13-hour flight, and they only gave me a few warm ounces at a time), mainly because the flight attendants hide from coach passengers; some flights lack individual monitors for passengers and force everyone to watch bad movies on a tiny screen at the head of the aisle—and sometimes that monitor doesn’t work; the food is terrible and they turn off the cabin lights, force you to close your window and encourage everyone to sleep during the flight even though their own pre-flight video advises people to stay awake on the flight to avoid jet lag. KAL, Asiana and Eva Air offer cheaper flights because they have layovers, but put up with the longer flight because all of these are far superior to PAL.


     Second, expect to sweat if you are an “open pore” type, or even if you aren’t. The hottest, most humid months are those preceding the rainy season (March through June), so bring plenty of shorts and light cotton shirts. Avoid synthetic fabrics: they make you sweat even more. And even though it rains like crazy in the Philippines—even during the so-called “dry season”—do not bring rain coats because they’ll make you feel like you’re wearing a wetsuit in a sweat lodge. Bring an umbrella, or buy one when you arrive. One benefit to sweating so much, particularly if you’re overweight, is that you will lose pounds without trying, which is handy because you will eat a lot of fattening food. A drawback to sweating so much is heat rash, or “prickly heat.” This is easily treated with Calamine lotion, which is hard to find in Manila outside of the Shoe Mart stores. If you have good sandals, bring them; if not, bring comfortable walking shoes and short socks; then buy some sandals while in Manila. You can find excellent footwear for a third of what it costs in America.


     Third point: expect to eat a lot. Filipino food is delicious and if you visit friends, relatives or in-laws they will feed you, repeatedly, and will be insulted if you refuse. And because the food is so good you’ll want to eat plenty of it. When it comes to Filipino food, don’t worry about what you eat as long as you don’t buy it off the street. Street vendors are common and their wares often give visiting white folk the squats, which no one needs while vacationing. Also, ask specifically for no ice in beverages unless you’re sure the establishment uses filtered or bottled water for ice. Personally, I had no problems with iced beverages (but then again I am a huge fan of LA street food, so maybe I was preconditioned as most white folk are not), but others in our group did. To be on the safe side, never travel abroad without plenty of Imodium on hand.


     Another bit of advice for the culinary unadventurous: if someone asks if you’d like to try balut, politely turn it down. These fertilized duck eggs often contain an unpleasant surprise featuring a bill and sometimes even feathers. And if you try to eat balut and fail, you’ll be a laughing stock, so just avoid it altogether. One last point on food: if you are a vegetarian, you may go insane in the Philippines. There may be vegetarian restaurants in Manila and elsewhere, but I never saw them.


     Fourthly, when you arrive in Manila, buy yourself a portable table fan. They are cheap, well-made, and already adapted to 220 volts, the voltage found all over the Philippines; also, you may not sleep well without one. Even if you’re staying in a hotel, some rooms are so quiet that you’ll want a little white noise which the fan can provide; some hotels have inadequate air conditioning, in which case you’ll need a fan. And if your hotel has a balcony, a fan can keep you comfortable while outside as the breezes are unreliable.

    An important cultural thing to know is that in most Oriental countries the custom is to remove your shoes before entering a residence. At most houses and apartments, you’ll see shoes stacked up on the front porch. While few Filipinos will make an issue out of this custom and will tell you you can ignore it, it’s still polite to do as the locals. Besides, you’ll want to take your shoes off, if only to cool down a little. This custom does not apply to businesses, including hotels and most restaurants, though you may encounter some eateries that demand you adhere to the practice.


     Lastly, if you have a minor medical procedure that you’ve been putting off for a lack of medical insurance, have the procedure done in Manila. I had a colonoscopy while there and received the best treatment I have experienced in a hospital (and this is from someone who has worked in dozens of American hospitals). The 6:30 AM procedure cost a third what it would in America, the doctor was superb—every bit as good as any American doctor—and I was out of the hospital by 8 AM and ready to start my day, thanks to excellent work by the anesthesiologist. It was actually a highlight of my trip. Now I know why medical tourism is so popular in the Philippines.


     Whether you follow this advice or not, expect to have the time of your life. Filipinos are, in my opinion, the friendliest people on Earth and they all seem to know how to have a good time. Oh, and one more bit of advice: you will encounter many adorable children begging for money. Do not give it to them! If you do, the kids will first fight over the money, then they will follow you to the ends of the earth badgering you for more money—and if you give them more, they will become even more aggressive. I know it seems coldhearted, but if this bothers your sensibilities find an outlet for charitable donations to the poor and give there: the money will do far more good.

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