That grey area between legal, illegal, and nevermind

This peaceful road should be turned into a 15 meters wide, multiple-lanes street next year. Seriously.

I talked with as many expats as I could since I arrived here, people who have opened their boat tour agency, dive center, beach bar, vegan pizza place, bbq restaurant, ice-cream cafe. Their experiences seem to prove that it is totally doable – they did it, in a relatively short period of time.  My idea of a brew bar is always greeted with much enthusiasm, everyone likes it, and thinks it will do great. So on the one hand I’m reasonably optimistic.

But on the other hand… I have a feeling we are all treading on very thin water, legally, and taking huge risks with zero safety net. Because we are foreigners. And the rules of the game are definitely NOT in our favor.

Legally, a foreigner cannot own a business here.  You need either a Filipino partner, who will legally own your business, even though you might do everything and bring all the funding (that is typically the case of the White man married to a Filipino wife). Or you need to create a registered corporation, with a minimum of five shareholders, three of them being Filipinos, who won’t necessarily do anything nor bring any money, but own 60% of the company nevertheless. The multiples ways you can get massively fucked over seem quite obvious.

You cannot buy land, either. You can rent it for a limited amount of time, after which whatever you built on it goes back to the owner of the land, without compensations. But also the whole legal processes documenting who actually own or can claim what part of land seems to be quiet muddy. So your landlord might actually not really own some part of the land you just built your bar on, or anything like that, apparently. And don’t count on legal procedures to solve the dispute, it would take years if it ever achieves anything.

Then there is the visa problem. Obviously you are not supposed to work in the Philippines on a tourist visa. Yet it seems that almost everybody is still on a tourist visa, and/or waiting for some decision from the Baranguay (the smallest administrative unit, like a commune or a quartier), or from the Mayor (the next level). So almost every expat business owner could potentially be deported and blacklisted tomorrow, it seems. Just like that. And that would make a few envious locals very happy, apparently.

I could also mention that most relatively recent businesses don’t seem to be officially registered yet with the tax administration, not because they don’t want it, but once again for administrative reasons, the process being currently blocked because of some insane urban planning that would require ALL roads to be widened to 15 meters and therefore pretty much all houses and businesses along thoes roads to be torn down (don’t ask me)… so no-one is paying taxes… yet. What could happen when/if they finally get their situation straightened? X years of taxes payable within one month plus a huge fine? Deportation? Drive-by suicide? None of the above? No-one seem to know. Or worry too much about it.

 So here I am, oscillating between optimism (I can do it!) and pessimism (Eventually I’m going to get screwed and lose my last peso). Or is it just realism?…

Port Barton is the new El Nido (and the old one too)

El Nido, being obviously hell on Earth.

I absolutely wanted to go back to Palawan and El Nido for New Years Eve. It was mostly a bad idea (though we had some fun there), but in a very educational way. Who knew how much a place could change within 5 years only. With the opening of the airport nearby, the “best kept secret of South-East Asia” as Lonely Planet (I think) once described it, the charming fishermen town that I had known, with only a handful of bungalows and backpackers bars by the beach, had turned into a congested, deafening nightmare, submerged by hordes of package tourists, narrow streets blocked day and night by hundreds of noisy tuk-tuk expelling black fumes over bars and restaurants selling overpriced, tasteless fares – if you were lucky enough to actually find one that wasn’t already full, with 20 Australian teen waiting to get seated, that is… and the tap water was so toxic it was dangerous to even brush your teeth with. It’s not always that bad, though, just don’t go around NYE.

But on the way to El Nido, I had discovered Port Barton. Just like El Nido once was, Port Barton is a beautfiful, well-hidden, peaceful, long forgotten fishermen village turned backpackers heaven. No electricity during day time or after 1am. No franchise shops (well no proper shops as we know them), no mall, no 4-star resorts, no paved roads, virtually no cars, no tuk-tuks. It seems there is nothing to do but chill. The most relaxed and relaxing place on Earth. That place… was exactly what I was looking for. A paradise. Probably on the verge of explosion. El Nido was nearly the same five years ago, and the chances are Port Barton will eventually be (to some extent) wasted by mass tourism within five years seem pretty high. Sad, but probably unavoidable – and of course I am myself, my presence here, a symptom and an actor of this transformation that has already begun – the development plans have been drawn, the access roads are being built, the airports are getting upgraded, so it seems to be just a matter of time. But only time will tell for sure – and maybe now is precisely the right time to do something there, just before the big players come in and change the game? Or is it already too late?

Thailand or Philippines?

Thai people are universally know for their gentle and peaceful ways.

It’s nothing wildly original, but I always LOVED South-East Asia, ever since I first visited Vietnam in 1994. It was my first holidays beyond Europe or the Mediterranean sea. Vietnam had just opened to the world, but it was still a land out of time, that hadn’t changed much since 1975, with a lot going further back to French Indochine or to times immemorial. That trip was an initiation, almost a mystical experience, something I will never forget. From then on I was hooked. Just after I got my first real job, my first holidays were to Phuket, Thailand. I thought I had discovered paradise. Phuket was very different at the time, pre-tsunami, and it had EVERYTHING. Green jungle, white beaches, turquoise sea, still pristine coral reefs and colourful fishes under the water, glorious sun and occasional warm showers of rain above. The people were beautiful and incredibly nice. Their religion, though everywhere, was peaceful and tolerant. Everything was both more densely vibrant with life and more relaxed. And everything seemed so cheap and easy. I tried other places, like the Red Sea, Egypt – it wasn’t the same. No other place on Earth can compare. South-East Asia as a whole is the best part of the world, period. One day I would find a way to stay there for good, I thought every time I had to go back to grey and cold Europe.

When I quit my job for my one-year-round-the-world trip ten years ago, I knew most of my time would be spent in South-East Asia. I loved South America, though – but I preferred Bali, or Bangkok. So when I decided I was going to reclaim my life and get the hell out of Switzerland there was no question where I was planning to go.

At first I had thought of Phuket, Thailand, because that was the place I knew best, so I first settled here for a few months, to go through the whole administrative process before I could get my money. Thailand is probably the most economically developed country of the area (with the exception of Singapore), and the offer in terms of touristic infrastructures is already above and beyond the demand. So what could I be doing there? Opening a bar or a guesthouse was not an option – they have already way too many, everywhere, and building thousands more. So I had that idea of a craft brewery – everybody loves beer, tourists drink LOADS of beer, and a few of them would probably enjoy having some choices and diversity outside of industrial lager, I figured, and I thought that was something I could see myself doing – though I had actually never done it. It was a last minute idea, too late to actually learn the trade. Which would have been a major obstacle if… but more about this another day.

After three months in Phuket, one EXTREMELY unpleasant experience with the police (I will come back to this too), a few eye-opening discussions with Westerners who had settled here… I knew it was not going to be Thailand, a country that is definitely not what it pretends to be. Behind the amazing holidays postcard, the golden luxury of the temples, that all-pervasive elaborate glittery Thai aesthetics, there is a very dark and disturbing reality of general corruption, brutality, totalitarian propaganda (that insane cult of the King!), extreme conformism and deep dislike of “aliens”, who are only supposed to spend as much as possible then get out. You certainly can find some of this in all other South-East Asian countries, but I think Thailand is the most extreme case. They make it extremely clear that foreigners are NOT welcome anymore, unless they are 1. short-term tourists, 2. wealthy pensioners.

I knew the Philippines since I had once travelled to El Nido, Palawan for some unforgettably perfect holidays six years ago. It was like rediscovering Phuket the first time around – but better. The Bacuit Bay has to be one of the most amazing site on Earth, on par with Halong Bay in Vietnam. Philippines has so many islands, so many pristine beaches that it’s impossible to deface all of them with huge resorts, jetskis and mass tourism.  So it seemed like a logical choice. I embarked on a recon tour around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Diary of a Swiss guy in Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines

“Why would you want to stay in Palawan?!” said no-one ever.

Ok, so from now on this blog will be the chronicle of my attempt at settling in, and somehow find a way to survive, here in Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines. I have decided to write it in English, even though it’s not even my second language – it’s the language I will be speaking here and the lingua franca of the internet, wether we like it or not, so to hell with French.

A few preliminary words about me – I’m 47 (sigh), born and raised in Switzerland, where I’ve worked as a journalist for most of my life. By 2007, I had lost all my illusions about the realities of the job, particularly in the post 9/11 world where “journalist” has become a very dirty word indeed. Following a merger between the newspaper that employed me in Lausanne and its counterpart in Geneva, I got offered some incentive money if I agreed to quit so they wouldn’t have to fire me. Having no family, mortgage, obligations or any sense of responsibilities, I jumped on that opportunity, took the money and run, basically turning my old dream of travelling round the world into reality. I did just that for about a year, the best of my life up to that point, came back with a million memories, hepatitis (I’m fine now, thanks) and the realization that I would never again find work in my old field (who buys newspapers nowadays), and that traveling was everything.

After doing one Summer as a lifeguard at my local public swimming pool, I found an office job in a legal insurance company in Geneva. Though my colleagues were some of the best people I ever met, the job itself was nothing short of horrible – at times stressful, at times boring, always disheartening and repetitive, badly paid, with no possibilities of evolution of any kind. The ultimate dead end. I held on there for seven years, then decided this was not the life I wanted. I had to leave, or midlife crisis and depression would get me for real.

Switzerland sucks, mostly. Everything is insanely expensive. Rents (if you manage to find a flat, that is), mandatory insurances, taxes, transportations, even the most basic necessities like food and clothes are prohibitively priced  and getting higher every year, while the salaries are not. The Swiss – now a minority in their own country – have to compete (and the majority voted for it) with people in from all over the crumbling EU, for whom Swiss wages still seem attractive, comparatively – and it can be if you manage to actually live in one of the neighbour country and work in Switzerland, which is what hundreds of thousands are doing, pulling the salaries further down. The Swiss middle class is dying. For me and my colleagues, once we had paid the bills and filled the fridge, there was nothing left and only 25 more days till next check. But the Swiss shut up and consider themselves lucky because it’s actually worse everywhere else, or so we are told. But is it really?

It’s not all bad, though. Switzerland has a few comparative advantages. One is that, even if you’re dirt poor, you’re probably not going to end up dying of hunger and untreated diseases in the street. Admittedly it might even be better to be unemployed than to be working for minimum wage. The other one being that even if you’re a working poor within Switzerland, you’re quite well off with the same amount just about anywhere else in the world. Basically, being Swiss is great – as soon as you get get the hell out of Switzerland.

By Swiss law, if you are employed, a percentage of your salary goes to your retirement savings, called AVS. This is far from enough to live half decently once you retire nowadays though, so they doubled the amount taken off your payroll, calling it the 2e Pilier – but it’s still impossible to keep even your modest standards of living once retired if you had an average salary. So as an employee, basically the only options you have is 1° make enough to be able to save voluntarily a lot more and invest your capital wisely (basically: be among the top 20% earners); 2° Get out of the country as soon as you are too old to slave away and go die on some distant, cheap shores, we don’t need you anymore, thank you very much.

The sweet thing is – if you decide to call it a day and leave Switzerland for good today, the money saved under the 2e Pilier column can be yours, now. Not for long, they are planning to legally block that option, but it’s still possible. At the beginning of 2016, I decided I was going to do just that. What did I have to lose?

So here I am, one year later, in Port-Barton, Palawan, Philippines, with all my savings on a Thai bank account, looking for something, some place to rent, or even buy maybe someday somehow (though as a foreigner you can’t own a land or any kind of business on your own), some way to make enough so that I won’t ever have to go back (though as a foreigner you can’t work on a tourist visa). The idea is to open a beer microbrewery that would double as a bar, here in Port-Barton. But honestly, apart from a general picture of what my dream place would be, I feel a bit lost sometimes. What am I doing here? Do I have any clues? Answers in the next instalment of this blog (or not).