Living in a foreign land can be a wondrous and liberating experience. Traveling thousands of miles across the globe and tasting what life has to offer with all the five senses is truly one of the greatest natural highs there is. Even so, in being so far from the conventions of our home nation and thoroughly immersed in the “newness” of our destination, one sometimes forgets that danger still exists. That danger – in some cases – can be magnified by a number of factors relative to the unique aspects of your particular destination.
When it comes to the Philippines, the three biggest dangers that a visiting foreigner is going to face here are all exacerbated by some rather unique factors. Let’s take a look at what – in our humble opinion – are the Big Three.
#1 Danger: Motorcycles and Scooters
This is the number one danger to any foreigner in the Philippines. Regardless of whether you are just “passing through” on vacation or living here full time, the likelihood of getting into a “motor” accident in the Philippines is rather high. Experienced motorcyclists know this as a given, going on to note that “it’s not a question of if as more of a question of when.”
There are a number of reasons why riding in the Philippines is more dangerous here than it is in a foreigner’s home country.
Creative Driving: Driving in the Philippines is different than what most foreigners are used to. Many smaller cities (outside of Manila or Cebu) do not have traffic lights or stop signs so getting used to the “flow” of intersection traffic can take some time. Right of way is also different here, with many people understanding that “Might makes Right”: The bigger the vehicle is the more right of way it has. Passing on the inside, turning left from the right side of a traffic lane and a variety of other dangerous riding practices are all part of riding here, contributing to increased risks for foreigners on Philippine roads.
More Skilled. Less Safe: First off, although there are driver’s education and licensing tests in the Philippines, given the “unique structure” of the Land Transportation Office (that is, corruption) a good number of folks simply use a “fixer” to get their credentials. As a result, Filipinos riders – while generally more skilled than foreigners when it comes to ability – are generally less safe when riding, changing lanes without signals, riding on the wrong side of the road, not looking when merging into traffic and driving at high speeds on rough and dangerous roads.
Drinking and Driving: In our opinion, you are more likely to encounter intoxicated drivers in the Philippines than you are in the West. Outside of major metropolitan areas, you will rarely – if ever – see sobriety checkpoints. Knowing this, both Filipinos and foreigners alike are more likely to be on the road after imbibing alcohol. Drinking and driving is probably the number one cause of foreigner injuries and deaths (non-natural causes) in the Philippines.
Road Hazards: Compounding the danger of all the other things we just mentioned are the prevalence of things you will find running out into Philippine roads. Askals (semi-feral dogs) are probably the number one thing that riders will crash into (especially when chasing a bitch in heat), but chickens, carabao, monitor lizards, street vendors, merging pedicabs and kids playing in the street are also dangers that once always has to be mindful of.
Finally, keep in mind that a variety of other factors contribute to the dangers of riding in the Philippines. Many foreigners in the Philippines are “older” riders, and with advancing age comes compromised in braking emergency reaction times. New arrivals are also unfamiliar with street layouts or where they are and a good amount of our attention is subsequently fixed on looking about trying not to get lost. And as we noted, Filipinos tend to be more skilled scooter riders, having been on them since they were toddlers and taking their first ride as soon as their feet could reach the pedals (usually at 12 or 13 years of age). This extensive amount of local experience accounts for Filipinos holding the edge over their foreigner counterparts when it comes to riding, especially when it comes to understanding the unwritten rules of Filipino roads, “flowing” through intersections and knowing how to ride a scooter at high speed down a goat path while texting with one hand and holding a rooster with the other.
Yeah, they can do that.
#2 Danger: Food and Water
Someone had mentioned mosquitoes as being the second biggest danger to foreigners in the Philippines (malaria and dengue) but after some back and forth, we decided on food and water being the greater immediate danger. The Philippines is a tropical nation, and as such is rife with all kinds of water and food-born pathogens just waiting to strike down a hapless foreigner. Whether they be protozoan, bacterial, viral, parasitic or algal infections, the end result is moderate to severe debilitation or even – in some cases – death.
On that happy note, let’s take a look at some of the more common food and water-born maladies in the Philippines.
Traveler’s Diarrhea – Thankfully, the most common manifestation of contaminated food and water is Traveler’s Diarrhea, or, as we at My Philippine Dreams like to call it: Lapu-Lapu’s revenge. TD is usually a result of bacterial or viral infection (rarely protozoa) and the diarrhea symptoms and weakness usually taper off after 3-5 days leaving its victim feeling rather drained and listless. (On the flip side, it’s also a pretty good weight loss program.) Note that TD can sometimes be a result of Giardia or Cryptosporidium protozoa –a more serious infection that requires medical attention.
Amoebic Dysentery: This fun little malady is brought to you by Entamoeba histolytica and while prevalent in tropical developing nations, it was actually first diagnosed in St. Petersburg, Russia. Rancid flatulence, chills and severe diarrhea (sometimes bloody) can result. This is one of the infections that you need to seek medical attention for as the resulting dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can be deadly.
Hepatitis A and E – A viral infection that is passed through food or water contaminated by the fecal matter of someone infected with hepatitis. Attacks (inflames) the liver and manifests with a yellowing of the skin, eyes and urine (jaundice). Poor personal hygiene and sanitation measures increase the risk. Note that there is a vaccine for hepatitis A but not a vaccine for hepatitis E.
Leptospirosis – This fun-sounding malady is a bacterial infestation that is vectored through food or water contaminated by mammal urine – rats being a major culprit. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, headaches, vomiting and jaundice. Like hepatitis, it attacks the liver, and if untreated can result in liver and kidney damage or meningitis. Note that although leptospirosis usually won’t kill you, it will take you months to recover.
Schistosomiasis – This parasitic infection is caused by the flatworm Schistosoma, a plucky little fellow that is carried by the big fresh water snails that you see all over the Philippines. Once the larva enter the human host, they mature and breed, releasing eggs that hatch throughout the body (liver, intestines, kidneys and blood vessels). A myriad of intestinal and urinary diseases can result, and some untreated cases can later manifest as bladder cancer.
Cholera – Cholera is a stone-cold killer that is most commonly found in Africa and Southeast Asia. A bacterial infection that is (once again) vectored by water or food contaminated by fecal matter, cholera commonly manifests with very loose diarrhea, vomiting and muscle cramping. The diarrhea can be so severe that it can result in life-threatening dehydration. Seafood that is not adequately cooked is a common source. If treated, your chances of dying hover somewhere around 5 percent. Untreated, the death rate of cholera can surpass 50%.
Typhoid Fever – The final contestant in nasty-diseases-passed-though-fecal-matter is typhoid. A bacterial infection, typhoid symptoms arise 1 to 3 weeks after exposure with a high fever, general weakness, constipation and headaches. In some cases, light-red spots will appear on the skin. The death rate if treated is 1-4% – untreated the rate of death is approximately 20%. The only way to actually test for typhoid is through a bone marrow test which only goes to add another level of fun to this bacterial infection.
All of the writing staff have either personally experienced or know folks who have experienced the joys of food and water-borne sicknesses in the Philippines. To keep yourself as safe as possible, there are a number of self-protective stratagems you can employ:
- Make sure ALL of your inoculations and vaccines are up to date, especially those for hepatitis and typhoid
- Drink only filtered water and avoid ice in questionable eateries
- Make sure all seafood is well cooked
- Wash fruits and vegetables well before consuming them
- Make is a habit to regularly wash your hands
- If eating at a “street food” barbeque place, make sure that the meats are well done – charred, preferably
#3 Danger: Ourselves
“We have met the enemy, and they are us.”
– Walt Kelly, Pogo 1971
NOTE: We were actually going to make “Ourselves” the number one danger to foreigners in the Philippines, but after some discussion, it was decided to keep motorcycles and scooters in the top spot.
Visiting or living in another country doesn’t require any type of expertise. As long as you have a passport, a pulse and XX number of dollars, you can basically go or live anywhere you want. Having not traveled a great deal before coming to the Philippines, I can now understand why people love it so much: Taking oneself out of the same old, same old and relocating to a foreign locale is incredibly stimulating – a virtual smorgasbord of previously unsensed sights, sounds and smells. Immersed in this newness, it’s sometimes easy to forget that foreign travel brings along with it its own particular risks – especially as one gets further and further off the beaten track.
We as foreign travelers are our own worst enemy when it comes to doing (or not doing) things that can make us more vulnerable and less safe. Whether it is drinking too much, getting into fights, feeling isolated and lonely, losing our minds by falling in love, venturing into unsafe locations, losing our emotional support system, wallowing in self-pity or (even worse) constantly whining about the deficiencies one perceives around them, tripping ourselves up as foreigners is actually quite easy.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why we can sometimes be the greatest dangers to ourselves, oftentimes without even realizing it. (Note that some of these are also brought up in the “Drugs and Alcohol” section of “Dangers in the Philippines.”)
Lack of External Controls: When you are 10,000 miles from home, your friends and family are a long way away. You know – the people that actually care about you. As we will see a bit later in the Alcohol and Drugs section, not having caring people around to call us out on our behaviors can be a very bad thing. If we are drinking too much, hanging out with questionable folks or putting ourselves in bad situations, friends and family usually won’t hesitate to try to put us back on the straight and narrow. And if we find ourselves in more dire circumstances, they are the ones who will usually be the ones to drop everything in order to help us out. When you are far from home, however, they can’t do much of either. Being left to our own devices – for some of us – is not healthy.
Freedom: Many countries outside of the West are rather lax when it comes to A) either having public safety laws and/or B) actually enforcing them. The Philippines falls squarely in the latter – it has a great number of laws on the books but they are either not enforced or – even worse – selectively enforced, usually to the detriment of whomever has the target reticle on him. Drunk driving, helmet laws, open fires, public drinking/intoxication, emissions controls exist, but depending on where you are, they are rarely enforced.
“But what about freedom from the nanny state?” Many folks coming to the Philippines find the lack of enforced laws to be a welcome breath of fresh air. Keep in mind, however, that there is always a price to be paid for freedom: Pollution, hospital admissions for traumatic head injuries, trash, noise and all the rest of the things most people don’t like about the Philippines is actually a result of enforced rules and regulations. In the case of the newly arrived expat, it soon becomes a case of “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it……”
Cultural Ignorance: The local traditions and cultural mores in the Philippines are often either not known, misunderstood or simply ignored by some foreigners. Although stereotyped as friendly by visiting foreigners and those living here, Filipinos are still human beings and subject to the same emotions as those visiting its sandy shores. Faced with physically larger Westerners, don’t be surprised if that one-on-one fight you thought you were getting into turns into your opponent inviting in four of five of his buddies to assist in beating you into a fine pulp. Sarcasm is also not widely utilized – it’s not only a question of being lost in translation, its more of a case of it simply not being seen as amusing by Filipinos. If employed, expect to either be taken literally or for the person to become offended. In some cases, those emotions can be even greater, occasionally magnified by
“Western Superiority”: Some foreigners that come to the Philippines have the unfortunate habit of comparing things here to their home countries. Finding constant comparative faults in Filipino customer service, internet speeds, store inventories, building construction, civil or business laws and bureaucratic deficiencies, they have a tendency to only focus on the negative. Embracing this level of incessant cynism isn’t exactly healthy – it sickens the spirit, increases stress levels and – when voiced – starts to really irritate not only other expats but other Filipinos who happen to be in earshot. Furthermore, focusing on the negative and only goes to increase the chasm between the involved expat and the culture in which he is supposed to be residing.
The Love Bug: Another way in which foreigners trip themselves up in the Philippines is when they fall in love and lose all objectivity. Getting bitten by the ‘love bug’ happens quite a bit here (understatement, that), and although it is a great and wondrous thing, it can also have its downsides. As we note in the Relationships section, love can do some strange things to people, turning folks who are normally well grounded into impulsive, self-deluded shadows of themselves. Combine that with the distance from friends and family noted previously, and some guys can get themselves into quite the pickle.
Isolation/Depression: It can be lonely in the Philippines. Even when surrounded and pressed in on all sides by friendly meandering Filipinos, one can’t help get the feeling from time to time that you are still basically a stranger in a strange land. Yes, you’re here physically, but without knowing the local lingo and becoming an actual part of the community, you’re still going to feel like an outsider. Even in areas that have large foreigner populations, you can still feel lonely. This is most pronounced when foreigners first arrive as they will generally not really know anyone at all. It’s not something that most people think about when putting together a potential plan to live in the Philippines, but it’s something that really needs to be acknowledged.
So, those are the three biggest dangers that foreigners are likely to encounter in the Philippines. Most of the time, the damage can be mitigated by employing self-protective behaviors: Focusing on being safe, being mindful, employing everyday common sense and taking things slow are all good counters to some of the unique hazards one might face in the Philippines.