Coping with Life in the Philippines: The Road Less Traveled

Dealing with day to day life as a foreigner in the Philippines isn’t always easy.  In fact, at times it can be downright onerous if not infuriating.  Mindless bureaucracy, widespread corruption, lagging infrastructure and chronic inefficiency all combine into a virulent morass that tends to boggle the minds of First World visitors.  Add to that mix some very real cultural differences (amor propio, hiya, utang na loob, balat sibuyas, crab mentality, mañana, bahala na, tampo, and all the rest – foreign terms explained below) and some days I find myself being “done” with the Philippines early in the day and heading home to hide in my dark, air conditioned bedroom curled up and weeping shamelessly into my pillow.

Yeah, even after three years of living in the Philippines, I still have trouble dealing with all of the things that transpire in our tropical little paradise.  I’ve gotten better – but I still ain’t no Wizard of Well Adjustment.

With that and mind, let’s talk about something that happened to me last week while Michell and I were meandering around the island of Siquijor, just off the coast of our home island, Negros Oriental.

First off, let me say once again that we had an absolute blast there.  Everything played out, we didn’t get lost (much), the temperature was very tolerable and nothing untoward jumped out of the jungle to take us out of our happy space.

That said, realize that the interior roads of Siquijor are in pretty bad shape, pitted and pocked with wide and deep potholes.  The coastal road is very nice, but once you head inland, things get fairly bad, fairly quickly.  In order to survive, the driver basically has to look about 15 feet ahead of the bikes front tire while the rear (pillion) rider looks further ahead to warn his or her companion of trucks and cars barreling around blind corners.

Here’s a few photos of the interior roads:

Now, at one point, as we were carefully traversing the islands midsection between the spooky shaman-town of San Antonio and the butterfly garden intersection near Cang-Apa, my slow mind suddenly realized something.  That revelation was:  The pitted interior roads of Siquijor provide a great analogy for a foreigner living in the Philippines.  This came to me after an hour or so (I told ya my mind is slow), and for some reason I thought the analogy was pretty good. So, in our continuing mission to share our life experiences in the Philippines, I feel I gotta share it with our readers.

Put simply, the pitted, pock-marked road is the Philippines.  The scooter is the foreigner.  How the two interact is the sum total of how well one can adjust to long-term life in the Philippines.  The potholes are all of the causes of foreigner woe in the Philippines:  That hole is a burning trash pile.  That one is a driver with no lights on.  The big one after that is a maddening (and unsuccessful) shopping misadventure.  Next to it is a pile of garbage.  That one is karaoke blasting at 3 AM.  And nestled nearby is one filled with yes-meaning-no’s.  If the scooter attempts to speed its way down the rough road, bad things are going to happen. 

These potholes are treacherous.  Hitting one head-on can bend a rim.  Deeper ones can blow out a tire or shock.  Gun the throttle on that pitted road and you just might find the little scooter skipping out from beneath you, the scooter going one way while you take a long, painful slide across the asphalt, leaving bits of skin and flesh behind.

As foreigners, we cannot change the roads.  We can bitch about them and ridicule them, but we can’t smooth them out.  Similarly, we can’t change the Philippines.  The sole power for real change lies in the nation itself – in the Philippine people.  Realizing this and accepting it – I believe – is the key to long-term happiness here.  For if we as foreigners don’t consciously slow ourselves down and surrender to the realities of life outside our home nations, we are only hurting ourselves through increased stress levels.  And don’t forget:  For many “First Worlders,” stress is the number one killer.  Beyond that, being constantly stressed out and frustrated can make for some truly dark days.

So, as we expatriates continue along the road less traveled, make sure to slow down, taking the time to maneuver around various road hazards. Keep yourself safe – keep yourself well.   Take breaks along the way.  Pull over and have yourself a nice cold C2 apple tea at a roadside sari-sari.  Mop the sweat off your brow and talk to people.  Smile and breathe.  Then smile again.  Live life consciously. 

Cuz when all is said and done, it really is more fun in the Philippines.

What have your experiences been like dealing with the day to day in the Philippines?  Have experiences to share?  Leave a comment!!

Amor propio
:  Love of self (Pinoy pride)
Hiya:  Shame.
Utang na loob: Debt of gratitude.
Balat Sibuyas:  Onion skin.  Filipino sensitivity. 
Mañana:  Tomorrow/Later
Bahala na:  Resignation.  It’s in God’s hands.|
Crab Mentality:  Pull other people down.
Tampo:  Pouting/Upset/Silent treatment.


  1. you spot on if you treat the people an their customs with respect .i found the lifestyle a bit hard at first but i think the sooner you adapt the better you are .im now married to a beautiful pinay an very happy hope to move to OSLOB soon have a great day guys

    gary nolan

  2. I came to that conclusion before Christmas but it’s very very hard at times to remember it. The escalators & smell of the meat counter in Robinsons are still pissing me off:)

  3. Great analogy Ned! The uneven, pot-holed roads of Manila combined with the insane traffic are an equivalent metaphor. Even using the Honda XR200 doesn’t guarantee a safe uneventful trip, because the Philippines is expert at throwing the unexpected at you, even when you expect it! But hey, if you live through the day, its a good day in Paradise!

  4. I had a similar tale of woe but in Oz, back in the 80’s I drove from Darwin to Perth a distance of over 5,000kms.
    Because I was young and stupid I did it in 3 1/2 days driving for more than 18hrs a day.
    At the time there was no speed limit in the Northern Territory (NT) on the highways; once you got to the outskirts of any town there was a sign with a black circle with a diagonal line across it, indicating no speed limit.
    The record at the time between Darwin and Alice Springs on the old Stuart Highway, a two lane strip of bitumen and a distance of 1,600kms was just over 6hrs by some maniac on I think it was a Honda CBR 900.
    On my trip when I came to the Western Australian (WA) border there was a similar sign on the out skirts of towns but it was a red circle with a diagonal line across it, but it indicated the WA state limit of 110kms/hr, me being stupid misunderstood it and just kept going flat out. At the time there was still 300kms of corrugated gravel road between Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek and when I came to this I slowed down to about 100kms/hr but after about 100kms I came up behind a car doing 80kms/hr, not wanting to eat his dust for another 200kms I pulled out to overtake him but he didn’t want to eat my dust either and put his foot on the gas and when I finally got past him and looked at the speedo I saw that I was doing 160kms/hr, I slowed down to 130kms/hr for the rest of the gravel, but I was going to pay for my stupidity once I got back on the bitumen.
    I had done about 100kms on the bitumen when I started hearing this flapping noise and before I could stop to investigate the tread peeled off my rear right tyre leaving skid marks up the side of the car and the next day as I was driving further south the same thing happened to my front left tyre and once I got back to Darwin after my holiday I found that both my front tyres had scrubbed out.
    So the trip cost me 4 new tyres and I really did not get to see anything of the Kimberly or the North West of WA except a strip of bitumen and to make matters worse when I got back to Darwin the wheel alignment people told me I needed to get Camber and Castor adjusting bolts fitted to the front end of my car as it only had Toe-In adjustment – A few years later I found out that the wheel alignment people had also bullshitted to me and all they had to do instead of fit the Camber and Castor (expensive) was replace the front springs (less expensive) which had sagged due to the pounding they took on that stretch of gravel.
    The moral of this story for me is to not be in a rush all the time, pace yourself, take your time, smell the flowers and enjoy the view and I suppose this should also be the way I approach living in the Philippines.
    I think it will make my life more enjoyable and less stressful.
    Plus you can also get your own back at some Filipinos who are trying to get your money or rush you into making decisions :–)

  5. James Stewart married to Filipino with large family in the barrio. Life is great here. The only thing I miss are some easy access things like fast food joints and 24 hour groceries and close to home shopping. I live in the country here for over a year now and find it very much like Appalachia was when I was growing up in the states so living here takes me to a past I can live with easily. I am an avid billiard player and find this country is geared for this game which I play here almost everyday. I doubt I will ever drive here very much as the traffic requires nerves of steel and is very stressful and I avoid stress like the plague. Just having summer here year round is the biggest plus for me as I come from Ohio and snow and freezing temperatures are always something to be endured every year.

  6. My problem is go to businesses asking for something you know they should have and they will say mo, not in stock or there distributor can’t get it. That is frustrating.

  7. Ok..,, I’m speaking as an American here,,,I think a lot of ones perception is based on where you might have lived in the US,,a rural area verses suburban for example,,maybe if coming from a faster paced,,,anything I need or want is readily available,,suburban lifestyle just might make it harder to adjust to a life in the Philippines,,as for myself I believe I am somewhere in the middle,,,I’m very sure some things will drive me crazy but hopefully it will be a short learning curve,,,this is their country – we need to learn to live in it.

  8. I like the idea of Bahala Na. I might give it a different twist. I view it as don’t worry about the things that you have no control over. This really helps deal with all sorts of issues. Yes the Philippines is filled with all of the issues you list and if you focus on those the nobody in their right mind would want to live there when there are other options. The truth is that it is also filled with other great things that are just not available in the west. That is the attraction for me. Continue to focus on the positive and try to ignore the obvious negatives.

  9. Being a Filipino and visiting here now ….I found big changes since my vacation 7 months ago……traffic from Manila to Batangas was none,and we are talking 1pm on a Thursday. The health care was great and efficient , hospitalized for 3 days. My hopes are high with the new President and in 5 years he will make a difference. This is our last chance…..corruption will never die but hopefully diminish.Being in US for 37 years it is hard for me to adjust living here I have to admit..but it will always be home.

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