Monday, November 17, 2014

The Philippines is poor.  So how poor are Filipinos?  A pack of cigarettes is cheap, perhaps .50 USD per pack yet cigarettes are often sold by the "stick" because some smokers can't afford to pony up for a whole pack.  OTC drugs such as aspirin and paracetamol are sold by the individual pill, just tell the lady behind the drugstore counter how many pills you want (or can afford) and she'll get out her scissors and cut your order from a blister pack.

The Philippines has home grown department store chains like SM and Robinson's but there are also stores that cater to the low income market such as Lopues in Bacolod.  In the US it's often said that Walmart sells nothing but cheap Chinese crap but stores such as Lopues make Walmart look like Nordstrom.  The lighting is bare CFL, clothes are cheap and they look it, they look like they were tailored by a blind man with pinking shears.

Philippine cities have little or no public transportation so people rely on jeepneys, tricycles or pedicabs to get around.  In Manila the Jeepneys look like a cross between a Jeep and an open SUV.  They’re homemade and are usually powered by an Isuzu diesel engine.  People get piled in tightly like cattle, pay 8 pesos (around .20 cents) per trip.  In Manila the tires of Jeepneys are often bald, the lights don’t work,the brakes are questionable and if the drivers have insurance they wouldn't know it because they can’t read or write.  Tar black exhaust pours from the tailpipes.

In Bacolod everyone calls them Jeeps but they don’t even pretend to look like Jeeps.  They’re old Japanese vans that have had their beds partially enclosed to carry people.  

These homemade people carriers belch and bathe passengers and pedestrians in diesel smoke. I could see through rusted or badly welded joints in the floor. They're noisy too. This is what passes for mass transportation in the Philippines augmented by tricycles (a motorcycle lashed to a steel frame sidecar) and pedicabs.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Filipino Middle Class?

While trying to figure out why the middle class in the Philippines was so small I stumbled across this fantastic opinion piece in the Philippine Star newspaper. The author, Nelson Navarro, makes it clear that the Philippines wasn't always the impoverished economic basket case that it is today and that 30 years ago the neighbors of the Philippines used to welcome affluent tourists Filipino with money to spend. Today countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and even China are modernizing and have thriving economies. The Philippines has slums, barefoot feral children, beggars and so many excess people that according to Navarro’s piece 10% of the population of the Philippines lives abroad as OFW’s doing manual labor or are domestic servants. Philippine government officials and their cronies make money off of the export of laborers and maids.

The Philippines attracts call centers because Filipinos speak English and work much cheaper than English speaking Singaporeans or English speaking North Americans but attracting other foreign investment where the Philippines has to compete with their neighbors is hard. Really, why should multinational businesses invest here? Infrastructure has been neglected, there’s almost no public transportation so employees can’t get to work on time, electricity costs more than anywhere else in Asia and is undependable so brownouts and blackouts are a regular occurrence due to inadequate grid, bribes are required at every stage of business, squatters are rife and the underpaid police and low level government officials augment their income with bribes. Why not have your office in places that have a modern infrastructure and that work better such as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or anywhere in China?

According to one of our hosts he fully expects that politicians to take bribes and steal from the public purse. That’s normal behavior in the Philippines and many other places in Asia. “But do they have to take it all?”, he said. Evidently they do and citizens mostly tolerate it. Manila’s public transportation consists of light rail lines (no municipal buses). The speed of the trains is held to around 20 mph due to a problem with the rails and the lack of spare parts due to a lack of money. New rolling stock is needed but a Czech supplier of rail cars was solicited for a 30 million USD bribe to get the business.

So what about the politicians? Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe collecting wife were the very models of kleptocracy but he's dead (but she lives on as a powerful elected senator as does her son Bong Bong). Current President Aquino has an actress sister named Kris who is all over the country on billboards as the official spokesperson for a fast food chain, Chowking. Her and a basketball player have a son named "Bimby". President Aquino also has a sister named, I kid you not, "Ballsy". Shockingly Ballsy was recently accused and cleared in a bribery scandal. It's that kind of country and will probably stay that kind of country.

We Missed the Bus to Cebu

I had wanted to travel from Bacolod to Cebu by bus and ro-ro barge but alas, it is not to be.

I like the intercity bus and have taken it before from KL to Singapore, KL to Penang and back and Manila to Bagiuo and back. All were interesting journeys and different experiences; all good. I was looking forward to taking the ro-ro barge, I last took one across the Suez Canal in the 1980's.

We went to the bus station in Bacolod and it was very 3rd worldy.

Some buses had A/C (everyone here calls it "aircon") and some didn't and nobody could tell us which routes had it and which routes didn't.  No advance ticket sales, first come first served on the day of the trip only. All of the buses queued up in the bus station had small seats and open windows but in fairness to Ceres Liner (most bus companies in the Philippines incorporate the

word "liner" into their name) they have 13,000 buses in their fleet that spans several islands. Some of the barges are out and 2 of the 5 daily Bacolod to Cebu runs have been cancelled until further notice. For us the 7 hour bus trip was regrettably out of the question. So we'll fly to Cebu.

Airline travel in general is sterile and often a pain in the ass. We're going to fly Cebu Pacific airlines to Cebu, they're the Air Asia of the Philippines. They have a dismal and self proclaimed on time rate of 63%. After our experience flying from Manila to Bacolod, a 1 hour flight that took 4 hours, it wouldn't surprise me if the bus beat the plane. The bus would've cost $12.25 each plus food and water. Plane will cost $45 each. There are lots of flights from here to Cebu which is about 100 miles east but most have long layovers 300 miles north in Manila.

I had expected Cebu Pacific to try and charge me for sandwiches, snacks, baggage, fuel, insurance, seats and anything they could blow past me on their web page and they did run me through their gauntlet but they even tried to charge me a currency fee. Seeing that I had a foreign credit card they offered me a price in pesos and a price in dollars but when I ran their dollar price through a currency converter it was higher than the peso price when I converted it myself. My credit card doesn't charge a currency conversion fee so I picked pesos. And besides, if I was using a card that charged a currency conversion fee banks are even worse than airlines and they still charge it on a purchase billed from a foreign country in USD. The airline wants to make money, let them get it somewhere else.

Philippine Airlines or PAL or as they say here, "Plane Always Late". Cebu Pacific is owned by the Gokongwei family, another Chinese family who controls this country. I guess I won't get to find out who controls the ro-ro barges.