Nov 242012

The Exchange rate right now in the Philippines is 41 Pesos to the Dollar. That’s less than 2 ½ cents to the Peso.  While the economy is booming over here with 7% growth, and the malls are packed full of thousands of emerging middle class shoppers for the Christmas season, these people have not forgotten the more difficult times which are being left behind.  Every Peso counts to the average person here.

Just to give you an idea, you don’t just put a check in the mail here to pay your bills like we do in the west.  You go and make the payment directly.  The malls have places where you can go in and pay your utility bills.   This means standing in line.  Sometimes the lines are quite long.  Filipinos are used to that; long lines don’t seem to bother them a bit.

I visit one particular mall close to where I live, mainly because there is a Starbucks there.  There are two places in that mall where utility bills can be paid.  One is a free service.  The other costs 5 Pesos.  The free service always has this very long line; maybe an hour and a half wait.  There is never anyone in front of the 5 Peso service.  That’s about 12 cents.  I’ll bet you can guess where I pay my utility bills!

I have a little office set up in my apartment over here.  Other than a daily visit to the gym or pool for exercise, and an occasional visit to the mall for supplies, I spend long days in my little office working on my normal business responsibilities.  I usually wrap that up at around 7:30 PM and then catch a trike over to the entertainment district to have dinner in an expat restaurant where a bunch of mostly American and Australian guys hang out.  This is a normal restaurant serving mostly American and some Thai food.  About 5 dollars buys a good meal and two glasses of wine.  This is my personal reward for putting in a productive day.  I am usually content to sit back, sip my wine and watch the world go by.  Since the restaurant is on the edge of the entertainment district, there is always a circus going on just outside.  That’s an understatement.

Mostly, it is pretty safe on the main drag, Fields Avenue.  But a foreigner, or perhaps even most Filipinos, would not want to be roaming around on the side streets away from the main road after dark where dangerous predators wait.

The reason I take a trike to dinner is that the entertainment district is way too chaotic to drive a car through – at least for me.  Parking is not easy to find.  Accidents are a regular event.  I am going there to relax.  A trike ride to Fields Avenue costs me 70 Pesos ($1.70).  The normal price would be 50 Pesos.  But I volunteer a little more to make myself into a “preferred customer” with a select few trike drivers.

A trike, by the way, is a side cart motorcycle.  You sit in the side cart.  It has roll bars that create a protected enclosure to keep you from getting munched up too badly in an accident.  There are millions of trikes here.  The licensing system requires individual trikes to base from a specific location.  In other words, they don’t just roam around looking for a customer.  They only take customers who originate from their licensed area.

This all works well for me; because I know all of the trike drivers who base near my apartment.  I also know all of the trike drivers who base at the restaurant where I eat dinner.  Except for a very rare occasion, I never take a trike from anywhere else.  The reason is primarily for safety.  Foreigners occasionally do get murdered here when a trike driver takes them down a “short cut” in the dark where the trike driver’s friends are waiting.  They normally don’t mug you in the dark.  They kill you with one shot to the head and then take the money and other valuables off your dead body.  It happens often enough to take notice if you are smart.

I can tell you stories about how violently I have reacted when trikes have veered off in the wrong direction.  I’m not nice about it.  But we will save those stories for another time.  This story is about the value of a Peso.

One night a few weeks ago, I got into a trike at the restaurant, and off we went towards my apartment.  I have known these particular trike guys so long, I never have to tell them where I am going or how much I am going to pay.  It’s about a 15 minute ride to my place, depending on traffic.  This driver is a guy I have known for a long time; he is a nice guy.

The first thing I noticed as we started rolling was that the motorcycle chain was worn out or in terrible need of lubrication.  The wap, wap, wap of his chain turned into a loud wine as we went faster down the road.  Each time we made stops for traffic, the wapping got louder and louder; and frankly, I was not sure we were going to make it all the way!  The chain was trashed!  I was really relieved when we rolled up in front of my apartment.  Like I said, it’s better to not be walking around out in the darkness here, even if it is because the trike broke down!

Since I knew the guy, and figured he didn’t have enough money to buy a new chain, and know that his livelihood depends on keeping his trike running, after paying his 70 Pesos for the ride, I handed him 200 Pesos (less than 5 dollars), and told him to go buy himself a brand new chain. Things don’t cost much here.  He lit up like a light bulb; Merry Christmas!

A few nights later, coming out of the restaurant, I heard the familiar wap, wap, wap as the same trike driver went by me with a customer.  He gave me a nice big smile and waved.  The chuckling I heard was coming from across the street from all the other trike drivers who base from that location.  One of them yelled out, “Where’s my new chain, daddy?” and we all got a good laugh, especially them.

I’m satisfied that my heart was in the right place.  But there was no way that guy was going to waste money on a new chain when he had a perfectly good one on his bike already!  I’m sure there was something else in his world where that money was more important. Like I said, every Peso counts!

On that very same night, I picked up another trike home, and this one was stuck in 3rd gear.  Ruur-ruuur-ruuuur was the noise of his bike as he had to ride the clutch for the longest time to get us going and up to speed.  We had to stop and go that way 5 or 6 times on the way to my place.  I was really feeling sorry for the bike!

When we finally arrived, after paying him 70 Pesos, I asked what was wrong with his motorcycle.  He almost broke into tears explaining that his second gear was broken inside the motor.  It was going to cost him 1,000 Pesos ($24.50) to get the Honda fixed.  He explained that the parts were very expensive.  Imagine the labor involved with splitting the case open on a Honda motor to replace second gear!  Like I said, things don’t cost very much over here.

When I asked this trike driver how much money he had, he said only the 70 Pesos I just gave him.  This guy is one of my biggest and friendliest supports on the street out there in the dark, and I wanted to help him.  But remembering the wap, wap, wap of the other guy’s chain just 20 minutes earlier, I decided to just wish this guy a good night.  Off he went with a ruur-ruuur-ruuuur, happy to have 70 Pesos in his pocket.

Well, I have not seen that particular trike driver in front of the restaurant now for several weeks.  I’m guessing his bike finally gave out and he had no money to fix it.  Now I’m wishing that I helped him.  I’m sure he will eventually show back up.  They are very resilient here.  Beg, borrow or steal, they are good at making every Peso count!

Nov 082012

One of the reasons I prefer to base myself in the Philippines during the winter months, rather than in the other countries of Southeast Asia, is because Americans and Filipinos share such a meaningful history together.  While our own schools may not teach this anymore, the Philippines has not forgotten how we battled side-by-side, with thousands dying together, while fighting off the Japanese invasion of the Philippines during World War 2.  The Philippines is rich with American history.  There are monuments all around the country.  I have had scores of conversations with Filipinos who know the history much better than I do.  General Douglas MacArthur remains as one of the greatest heroes in this country.

An American friend of mine, Alfred, and I took a drive down to Bataan a few days ago.  That is Bataan, as in the “Bataan Death March,” which began on 12 April, 1942. My understanding of the history is that we were not able to hold off the Japanese invasion because there was no replenishment of supplies and reinforcements. This was because the Japanese took out our Pacific fleet in Hawaii.  After months of fighting against overwhelming odds, we finally surrendered to the Japanese army on the 9th of April, 1942.  I borrowed this image and the following bit of history From here: The Bataan Death March, 1942  It is not a pretty story.  But it is a lesson about how bad things can get, with America still winning the day in the end:

“The war came to the Philippines the same day it came to Hawaii and in the same manner – a surprise air attack. In the case of the Philippines, however, this initial strike was followed by a full-scale invasion of the main island of Luzon three days later. By early January, the American and Filipino defenders were forced to retreat to a slim defensive position on the island’s western Bataan Peninsula. The American and Filipino forces fought from an untenable position until formally surrendering to the Japanese on April 9. The Japanese immediately began to march some 76,000 prisoners (12,000 Americans, the remainder Filipinos) northward into captivity along a route of death. When three American officers escaped a year later, the world learned of the unspeakable atrocities suffered along the 60-mile journey that became known as the Bataan Death March.

Japanese butchery, disease, exposure to the blazing sun, lack of food, and lack of water took the lives of approximately 5,200 Americans along the way. Many prisoners were bayoneted, shot, beheaded or just left to die on the side of the road. “A Japanese soldier took my canteen, gave the water to a horse, and threw the canteen away,” reported one escapee. “The stronger were not permitted to help the weaker. We then would hear shots behind us.

There is plenty about this part of American history on the Internet. It must have been pure hell for the American and Filipinos that gave their lives for freedom in Bataan. Here is a survivor’s personal account of the ordeal:  A Survivor’s Story  I warn you in advance that it is not for the lighthearted!

Albert and I drove right down to the western Bataan Peninsula where months of brutal fighting and the final surrender took place.  It is all overgrown with jungle now, but there are heightened overviews that show the whole area. You would never even know that such a major battle took place there with so many Americans and Filipinos losing their lives.  Albert has spent a lot of time on his own searching the area and says the ground is rich with artifacts.  He says it is a treasure hunter’s dream. For me, I only needed to re-tune my frequency a little bit to feel the impact from the months of bombing and shelling, to hear the screams of the wounded and dying, to feel the helplessness and ultimate surrender.  Albert says the 300 officers who negotiated the surrender were machine gunned down by their captors. It must have been an overwhelming heartbreak. That’s an understatement!

While reading about our losses in Bataan, we should all be inspired and  reminded that no matter how bad things can get, there always remains hope that we can come back and win the day.  It’s not over until it is over!  While we are going through difficult times in America, we have come back from much worse situations.  Maybe we just need to give it some more time.

As Albert and I drove around the area, I was feeling awestruck that we fought and lost such a heated battle there; in a place that now is such a place of beauty.  I captured this photo over a nice community down on the water.  It’s a tranquil fishing village, probably not much different than it was before 1942.  Though they now have modern comforts, things don’t change much in this country.  Albert has spent time down there, says he is still disappointed that he didn’t buy a lot that was available right on the water just a few years ago.  He says everyone in that village is appreciative of America.  I have found that to be true everywhere in this country.  But Alfred says it is more so in this hallowed place.  Filipinos have not forgotten how great Americans can be when we raise ourselves to it!  Just wait; our time will come again!

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Oct 162012

BeachI base myself  in the Philippines during the winter months for several reasons.  The culture here is very friendly towards Americans, and nearly everyone is speaking some English.  The cost of living is quite low, despite the dollar’s drop from an exchange rate of 55 Pesos to 41 over the past five years.  For example, I live in a very comfortable 2-bedroom apartment in a quiet, gated, comfortable setting for about $150 per month.  Not bad!  The beaches here are fantastic!

It’s only around $100 from here to any of the other locations in Southeast Asia where I do a lot of my mining-related projects during the winter months.  Manilla is a main hub that will get me to anywhere else I need to go.

There is incredible gold down on the southern island of Mindanao; but that is just another one of those places where you can easily “lose your head” over gold.  Though that could all change in time, since one of the two significant Muslim separatist groups signed a peace treaty with the government here yesterday.  Meanwhile, I mainly use this as a comfortable place to live and manage my other responsibilities over the Internet between mining projects.

Another reason I like to live here is that every day is an adventure.  Just driving my car to the mall across town can be an extreme or terribly frustrating ordeal.  The rules of the road here are not the same as in America.  It took me a while to adjust. The answer is to never make any fast moves and always have lots of patience. After all, this is not my country. So now I just turn the music up loud and treat my drive across town like an action adventure, never in a hurry, always amazed at what can happen on the road.  I laugh a lot.  Sometimes I even get jolted into the realization that I am happy to be alive!

There are a lot of retired Americans and Australians over here, so there is a nice social scene, and also a comfortable night life for a single guy such as myself.  It’s a lot better than television!  I also have some Extreme Prospector buddies who have settled over here.

While there are plenty of benefits to living here, there is also the continuous struggle of coping with a different culture.  I have learned to balance things, mainly because I don’t attempt to do any serious business in the Philippines.   To give you an idea how things can go, here is an email I just received from one of my prospecting buddies who lives down south of me:

    “Dave; I am making plans to return to the US in 2014 to prospect for gold and a rich woman who will volunteer to support me.

Why am I returning?  Because my questionable better half, Rose, went to see a healer a few days ago.  This healer is a person who does not have a medical degree, but heals people and dispenses medicine, this time in a bottle with a Gin label.  I believe Rose might have had a mild stroke and needed to go to the hospital.  But she insisted on going to the healer.

She returned home later with 3 Gin bottles stuffed with plant stems and leaves floating in a clear liquid.  The bottles are 120 Pesos each ($3).  Once she finishes these bottles, she has to go back over to this Muslim area and refill the order 3 more times.

I have to respect their customs but I am reaching my limit since I am an evolution-type thinker.  The person that went with her believes that Rose has rabies because of her bad headaches.  I asked Rose if she was bitten by a rabid dog.  Rose said she didn’t get bitten, but she did eat a dog that didn’t taste too good.  So she thinks she caught rabies.  I do not know what the healer gave Rose to cure her rabies.  But I sure hope it works!”