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Smiles, Sari-Sari’s, Freedom & Filipinas

photo collage Philippines

Going on 20 years living in the Philippines, I mine the reasons why this country forms an irresistible magnet that just keeps pulling me back for more.  

It’s been nearly two decades since I decided to make my home in this amazing and often quirky archipelago.  I have a family, a varied and interesting life, a wide range of friends, tried my hand at things I never thought I’d do, traveled to the furthest locales, met MANY interesting people.

Reading that you might assume that I know just about everything there is to know about the Philippines and Filipinos. Actually the opposite is true. My first month here I was sure I knew everything. Now it seems the more I know, the less I know.  Hard to explain but so are a lot things here.

Frankly, though, I kind of like it that way. A plethora of the unexplainable tends to keep day to day life more interesting. Unlike most people who seem to crave order in their lives, I like a bit of uncertainty. Predictability and boredom are not my friends and thus, when I first came to the Philippines I knew I had found my paradise.  No day has been the same since and a happy surprise seems to await around every corner. It is a big reason why I fell in love with the Philippines.  It all snowballed from there.

Interestingly many of the things that I love about the Philippines are the very things that can, at times, cause massive frustration.  And that’s one of the endlessly interesting facets of living here; you can’t have all that’s wonderful in this life without having the other, darker side of the coin make its presence felt.

The key for the foreigner then is understanding yourself and what you like. If above all else you value perfection, stability and predictability, the Philippines is not for you. If you crave a colorful, somewhat unpredictable life with endlessly interesting things to do and see, all accompanied by smiling care free faces ready to welcome you, then welcome home.

I won’t lie to you and say that I love everything about the Philippines. There are, however, so many things that I adore about this country that when added together, they form an irresistible magnet that just keeps pulling me back for more.    What do I love about the Philippines?  After nearly 20 years the highlights that stand out are…..

Simplicity;  No matter how sophisticated the world around us gets, no matter how many gadgets and mega bites of data we store in our pockets and handbags, Filipinos will always be a simple people at heart. Whether rich or poor, it doesn’t matter.  Gather some friends and family, throw out a spread of food, a bottle of booze, some music and the party is on.  (Now if we can only find a way to get rid of public karaoke, life here would be absolutely  perfect.)

Hospitality; the phrase “Filipino Hospitality” may sound like a bit of a cliché, but it’s real and it’s a powerful force that makes the Philippines perhaps the friendliest, most welcoming country in the world. Although Filipinos surely value smart looking, well dressed people, even the fattest, dirtiest, smelliest foreigner is welcome without precondition. Especially if you’re nice.  The easy smiles offered by Filipinos are the key to living here. If you simply smile back, you’re in. How nice and easy is that?

Freedom:  My country, the USA, is supposedly the land of the free. I can, however, say unequivocally that there’s more freedom in the Philippines. Way more.  Too many rules, too many obnoxious police, too many regulations have not only made first world living no fun, but they have created so many pent up feelings and high stress levels among the general populace that people simply have trouble relaxing.(unless you take a pill, which nearly everyone does!). This is one of those concepts that has a darker side of course because the lack of adherence to rules results in, well, plenty of bad habits and distinct lack of standards. But again, you can’t have one without the other. I prefer living by my wits as an adult, than living in a nanny state where I’m being told what to do every five minutes.

My maid: I actually don’t require somebody to do all my household chores. I’ve lived on my own for years and enjoy being self sufficient. I like to cook. If I have to do my own laundry, I’ll do it. But when you find a good, reliable maid, it’s an amazing addition to your life.   It’s that freedom thing again.  Where I come from, having a child means you’re finished. You can’t go out. Or you have to hire an expensive baby sitter.  Having a maid has allowed us to live our lives. Don’t for a minute think that we’ve abandoned our child. It’s just little things, like going out for the night, taking care of business or errands without having to worry about what you’re going to do with the kid.  A good maid adds that extra something special to your life. (Note: since my daughter has gone off to school, we got rid of the maid. I started to think that I was taking care of her, instead of the other way around. I’ve now found myself happier without a maid.)

The Cordillera mountains:  I love tropical paradises as much as anyone. There are so many beach areas of the Philippines—for me especially Palawan– that are simply out-of-this-world spectacular.  My favorite destination in this country, however, has no sand or ocean. It’s the Cordillera mountains.

I’m forever amazed at how so few foreigners know anything about the mountains and the rice terraces.  To me the rice terraces—which, you should know, extend way beyond just the Banaue area—are more impressive than the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India and other great works of mankind. I never fail to marvel at how hardy people centuries ago, with rudimentary tools, were able to carve out those rice terraces out of mammoth mountains, and not in the name of some murderous dictator or unknown god, but for daily sustenance.

To wander through a Philippine rice terrace, or stand on top of one and look down, listening to the life giving sounds of water being channeled down through unseen crevices, brings on feelings of peace and serenity that you simply can’t get on a beach.

Street vendors:  I still enjoy hearing the call of the balut vendor waft over my gate in the evening, the taho vendor in the early morning, the puto and cucinta guy squeezing his rubber horn, the gulay(vegetable) vendor in his Baguio straw hat pushing  his ancient wooden cart, the merienda lady balancing her offerings on her head every afternoon.  There is something heartwarming about people who engage in good old fashioned peddling, who hit the hot and dusty streets with zero guarantees of success for that day. Oh yeah and none of these people had to go get permission from the government to go earn a living.  I always wish them the best.

Sari-sari stores:  An institution in every neighborhood in the Philippines, the very first convenience stores—way before 7-11’s and Mini-Stops—life in this country just wouldn’t be the same without them. From matches, to e-load, to eggs, pancit noodles,  cold beer, a single piece of candy. We couldn’t live without them.

Children:  In the Philippines, kids are still kids, and there is absolutely no rush to “grow up.”  Playing in the streets and making up games is still a part of life. My daughter, now 19, grew up running all around the streets of our neighborhood, playing games, hanging out, learning about life.  I have no doubt she’s a much more grounded person, more open minded because of her experiences as a child in the Philippines. She was free to be a kid. The rest of the world should take notice.

Filipinas: I’ve saved the best for last. No disrespect to the men here, but I’m sure even Filipino guys would agree with the following statement; If you removed all the Filipinas from the Philippines, this country would not be livable. Sure one could say that about any nation…imagine a country filled just with men? Yeah, you get the picture. But a day doesn’t go by where I fail to marvel at Filipinas.  Beside the obvious beauty of so many Filipinas, there are other traits…their resourcefulness, their smiles, their  work ethic, their dedication to family.  The list could go on for a while.

Filipinas are always polite and friendly when approached. This may not sound like a big deal but it is if you’ve lived outside the Philippines and seen how it is in other countries.  It’s almost impossible to make a rude pass at a Filipina. If you say hello to one in a supermarket or on the street, you will almost always get a smile and a reply back. You may think this is no big deal, but trust me, where I come from, if an old guy like myself –I’m 52 and I’m old in the US–says hello to a 25 year old as we wait in line at the store, I could find myself in a spot of trouble. Yes it’s that bad.

I’d personally like to give a big thanks to all Filipinas for being, well, Filipinas, the most unique and friendly women on earth. You are the glue that keeps this society humming along.  Ultimately, above all the many other things that I love about the Philippines, you are the very reason why I am still here after all these years.

Ted Lerner is the author of the timeless classic book, “Hey,Joe—a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” and the book of Asian travel essays, “The Traveler & the Gate Checkers.”  He works  in boxing and billiards circles as a ring announcer and TV commentator. For 15 years he was the Philippines correspondent for the bible of boxing, the Ring Magazine. His articles have also appeared in many publications including the Wall St. Journal.  He lives in Angeles City with his wife and 19 year old daughter.

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