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!