First Week in Manila

Posted: August 3, 2010 in Life in the Philippines
Tags: , ,

We’ve only been in Manila 9 days, but it feels like much longer since we’re taking in so many new impressions and experiences every day—many of which will merit future posts.  In the meantime, we’ve made a list of five things that have struck us as new, interesting, or just plain hilarious:

1. That’s ok; we weren’t planning on breathing: after Shanghai, Mexico City, and New Delhi, what city has the fourth-dirtiest air in the world? You guessed it! The exhaust is as visible as San Francisco fog . . . except for that it’s right in your face, and it smells.  The “Manila smell” is a mix of exhaust, grease (as in deep fried food grease), and rotting vegetation.  The Manila smell hits you the minute you leave any air-conditioned building, and has penetrated our dirty laundry.  There is a general impression of everything being covered in a soot-like grime—including us.

One of many ads encouraging brown people to be white

2. Brown people want to be white: every day we see about a dozen ads for cosmetic products that promise to make your skin paler/fairer/whiter, featuring either white models, or Filipinas who have fair skin and Western features (our Filipino hosts informed us that some women here even get plastic surgery to look more Western).  I’d swap my easily-sunburned northern-European skin in a heartbeat, but I suppose we all want what we don’t have, no matter what culture we claim.

Siblings, right?

3. All white people look the same if you’re brown. During our first day here, we were told on three different occasions that we looked like brother and sister.  No matter that Nate’s eyes are blue, mine are brown; Nate has the flattened quarter-Chinese nose while mine is decidedly pointy and Roman; I have freckles and fair skin, while Nate tans easily, and so on—we look the same to them!  Much-needed chuckles all around for that one.


An amusing vehicular rhetorical question

4. . . . but all Filipinos really do drive the same: crazy.

It only took about 10 minutes in our first cab ride to find the humor in the “How’s my driving?” painted on almost every bus, jeepney, or trike. Unlike in the US, for example, lanes are open to interpretation, public transport vehicles of all sizes and speeds will cut across any amount of road to stop and pick up a new passenger, and most busy intersections between multi-lane roads have no stop signs, let alone traffic lights. As one Filipino explained to us, instead of following traffic laws, Filipinos’ driving is directed by feeling or instinct–so what this leads to is a level of organic, exuberant chaos that is hard for the Western-trained driver’s mind to even comprehend. (However, we should note that this astoundingly intricate dance of hurtling humans means that Filipino drivers are amazingly alert, a lesson that we iPod-tuning, text-messaging, spacing-out American drivers could learn from.)


For some good laughs, check out the "Next Time I Fall" video on YouTube with Amy Grant.


5. The 80’s never died in Manila. (Jen Sheedy & Jennifer Burden, are you listening?) We’d heard before we came here that Filipinos love their karaoke, but as it turns out, they love 80’s music as well.  We’ve heard Journey, REO Speedwagon, Peter Cetera, and other cheezball classics pumped through the speakers of taxis (often accompanied by a singing driver), the hallways of the many malls here, and over the yards and shanties in our new neighborhood.  And really, why not?  In the Philippines, it’s always a good time to be livin’ on a prayer or to bust a move!


  1. Jennifer Rolander says:

    80’s music all the time…I would be in HEAVEN!! It might even make up for the bad air. Enjoy it for me and you know I will be listening back here in the states too :).

    Thanks for the update-looking forward to more. Miss you both!

    XOXO, Jennifer & Raymond

  2. David says:

    Great to hear from you guys! I heard that REO Speedwagon is coming to the Mountain Winery. I may have to take Joyce. At the very least I’ll pump up the iTunes in our apartment and start singing at the top of my lungs…”and I’m gonna keep on loving you. cause it’s the only thing I wanna do. I don’t wanna sleep. I just wanna keep on loving you…”

  3. shana stoll says:

    hey guys,

    i just found your blog — and more about what you’re doing in the philippines — via laura’s facebook. for all it’s quirky-ness and craziness, reading your post makes me want to be back in the philippines again. {although today, minnesota felt much like the philippines with the crazy humidity that this pregnant lady appreciates even LESS than usual these days!} the crazy driving especially brought back some memories. we were in the philippines for a few weeks about 6 years ago. we have a love for those people and that country, mainly through our affiliation with the children’s shelter of cebu. {if you get a chance, this year, to visit cebu and CSC, you really, really should! it’s an amazing place, doing fabulous work}.

    God bless you guys as you serve Him in the philippines this year.

    with love,
    shana (carlson) stoll
    kirby, jacob, rebekah, lydia, joe, anna and baby #6 too!

    • freeisaverb says:

      Hey Shana, just realized we never responded to your sweet comment. We’d love to visit the children’s shelter in Cebu. Can you put us in touch with the right people? You are so right about Filipinos being amazing people. Everyone told us that before we came here, and on a daily basis I can still say that it’s true.

  4. bustopher says:

    Nothing wrong with Journey and REO Speedwagon! Looking forward to reading more about your adventures. We miss you!

    • freeisaverb says:

      Miss you too! There are things we love about life here (fresh mangoes, OMG! We eat something mango-flavored almost every day), but the occasional Bay Area dinner with you, Martin & the kids would sure hit the spot.

  5. Jayne George says:

    Loved your comments. I’ve been to Manila – the jeepney’s are brutal. I seriously thought I would not survive each time I was in one. Enjoy the wonderful people and the culture –

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