FINALLY I am able to leave the nightmare that Kapares had become behind me. It was a good lesson, though a pretty expensive one, and I learned a lot. First of all, I learned that you really, REALLY should be careful who you associate yourself with. My former associate’s real passions (and I’m sure he will keep pursuing them for the rest of his life them now that he is finally free from that evil foreigner who tried to make him actually DO stuff) are sleeping (mostly), drinking, hanging out with his broadened family, and bossing around these poor boys he gives shelter to. Out of all these activities, only the last one was of any use to Kapares, though I was never comfortable with it. He is easily the laziest person I ever met (and I’m far from being a stakhanovist) – I once saw him literally stomp and cry because he had to do some work (he was drunk of course). He hates Puerto, never went to El Nido, never left Palawan; he will never try anything new, or different, or change anything. His only loyalty is to his family.I wonder if Fililpinos like him, with this attitude, aren’t at least a part of why the Philippines have been left behind economically these last decades. Luckily, I also think this “small town, small mind” mentality will soon be a thing of the past here.
That guy was an extremely unlucky choice of a partner for sure, but I am guilty too, of course. Of taking what seemed the easier and cheaper (ha, big mistake) way at the time. Of deciding at first to trust and not get too involved in the daily operations (biggest mistake ever). Of wanting to believe that a proper partnership involved mutual respect and honesty. All this naive, egalitarian bullshit.
I learned that if you pay, you call the shot. Keep an eye on everything. Have everything properly documented (having all receipts to my name and religiously keeping them was probably my only smart move). Don’t be too nice. Don’t trust anyone without knowing them well – and even then.
That means also, do not buy anything yourself, you will pay twice as much as a Filipino. When dealing with contractors, remember that a set date, an appointment, a deadline don’t mean anything. “Yes, tomorrow morning” can mean “maybe one of those days”, or “no, never”. On the administrative front, having all clearances, permits and registrations doesn’t mean that your business won’t be declared illegal at some point. Conversely, not having any of these doesn’t mean that your business will be closed either… It’s might still be about who you know, and possibly what you pay, though this seems to be changing/ The days of “build / open first, ask permits after” seem well and truly over with the closing of Boracay and partial destruction of El Nido beachfront. I don’t know anymore, actually. Maybe it’s just that everything is always in a transitory state here.
The more you stay here, the less much of what is happening makes sense, the more troubled times seem to be. Trying to set up a business is not easy, particularly when you have zero experience, in a totally foreign and different country, with laws to prevent foreigner to set up businesses on their own. But I console myself remembering that setting up a business in Switzerland would have been forever out of my reach. And that I’ll be much smarter (though poorer) next time. Onward!
It could have worked out though…
THE + (in no particular order)
- The cost of living
This is obviously an essential plus for the Philippines. A beer costs 1 CHF/EUR, a meal between 3 and 7 max (for a big fish fresh out of the sea, for instance). You can eat out twice a day for 300 CHF/EUR per month. Rent can vary hugely, but if you want some comfort like kitchen, private bathroom, terrace and concrete walls (bamboo walls look super good but not if you have direct neighbours), count 200 to 300 a month. You can rent a 125cc motorbike but the best deal is to buy one for 900 CHF/EUR or less, depending of the mileage. So basically you can live comfortably with 500 CHF/EUR per month, and definitely much less.
- The people
I know I wrote about it before, and I know some day something will happen that will make me come to my senses, and that this can be a violent and corrupt place, and that as a foreigner I will always be a second-class citizen, but, so far, even if I sound like a naive hippy, I just have to mention the Palawenos and Palawenas as one huge plus. The waving children who scream hello when you pass on motorbike, the little honk and smile of the other drivers, the extreme politeness, the helpfulness, the curiosity and genuine care… most people just seem to be super nice here. It’s weird. They must be up to something.
- The nature
Palawan is simply the most beautiful place I have ever seen, it is officially listed as THE number 1 tropical paradise island in the world by Conde Nast, Travel+Leisure and other travelers bibles. It has everything you can dream of – lush green jungles with amazing fauna, huge, empty white beaches under coconut trees, turquoise, transparent water, reefs, fishes, turtles, secret coves and hidden waterfalls, lost tribes and more. It is sparsely populated, just starting to develop, and hopefully they won’t fuck it up by building huge resorts everywhere – at least not in the very near future.
- The extremely wet wet season
During the wet season in Port Barton, anything in leather will get covered in (potentially toxic) grey-green mold, which will then spread to all clothes. Nothing ever dries unless you put them in direct sunlight, and quickly take them in before rain comes, which is every day. You will find your folded clothes covered with white mold spots when you unfold them, and they will stink of gorgonzola cheese, like your bed sheets and everything else. Every small metallic piece will rust. Untreated wood will be turned to moss and crumble within a year. The smallest wound will take weeks to heal, but can get infected in no time.
- The shitty internet
In the main cities and towns, internet connections, while being neither super fast nor super reliable, are pretty ok. But in a relatively remote places like Port Barton, even though “Free Wi-fi” is advertised everywhere, it is mostly nowhere – the modem may be Chinese (not functioning), or out of battery (there is no electricity during day time) or the daily prepaid allowance was already used (800mb max, which isn’t much), or it’s heavily raining (rain seems to interrupt most internet coverage). You can buy your own router but it will not be any better, and I can’t decide if that prepaiment system is super clever or totally retarded.
- The insects
Whatever you do, ants of all sizes will be everywhere and on everything (including you) all the time, not to mention the winged variety that comes at dawn, or those swarm of flying black beetles that sometimes appear like a black cloud of hell turning into a moving carpet of pure horror. You also have huge clumsy capricorn beetles, super annoying flies, potentially dangerous mosquitoes (they can carry malaria and dengue fever), big black spiders, but beautiful endemic black and blue butterflies as big as a bird, too. The worst though has to be the sandflies, or nik-nik. These tiny fuckers are almost invisible, but will sting you everywhere. Their bites will first itch like hell for days, then get infected, and finally leave a little round white scar. It can also get so bad that you need antibiotics.
If you have any question about life in the Philippines, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments or write me at lars.kophal (a) gmail.com. I’ll do my best to answer them.
I haven’t made much progress on the brewery front, so I figured this post would be about the weird case of the Philippines and the Filipinos.
One of the peculiarities of the Philippines is how comparatively familiar much of it first appears. Of course this is South-East Asia and everything is extremely different from Europe – but compared with, say, Myanmar, Bali or Thailand, the Philippines feel way less profoundly alien, strange, fascinating-yet-unfathomable. This has to do of course with the fact that the country was colonized for almost four centuries by Spain, only to be replaced by the US until the end of World War II. The result is a weird mix of colonial Spanish and American cultures coexisting with traditional island traditions and Asian ethnicity. Like two consecutive layers of paint applied on the surface of a tropical, tribal identity. I don’t know much about Central or South America, but I’m pretty sure there are places it must feel just the same. Actually sometimes I feel like I’m closer to South America than to Vietnam here.
First there is the language of course. Latin alphabet is the only one in use nowadays. Most Filipinos speak good to perfect (American) English as a second or third language. It’s amazing how this makes everything so much easier… Filipino or Tagalog (the common national lingo, originally the Manila dialect) integrates a lot of Spanish words or expressions, only with a different spelling (kamusta for como esta). Actually 1/3 of Filipino vocabulary is of Spanish origin, and as result it does sound vaguely familiar. For some reasons, the time of the day is always in Spanish (“las dos y media”), and the bigger number (“ten thousand peso”) in English. And then there is this strange habit of switching to English for a few words and back to Filipino then back to English – though I heard this mostly on television. Being totally fluent in English is the sign of superior education, therefore is a class act.
Then there are the guns. It’s a well-known fact there are a lot of weapons around in the Philippines. Every security guard (and there are lots of them, everywhere, in front of every bank, parking, malls, you name it) carries a the very least a handgun, often a shotgun too. I suppose it is for a reason.
I have heard a few horror stories – how a girl who was staying in the same cottage I usually go in Puerto Princesa, and who apparently was an out-of-control drug addict, got murdered by a hitman for 10’000 peso (200 francs/euros). That is the price of a life here. The cottage owner, who told me the story, was appalled by the fact that the hitman stabbed her 21 times in full daylight, in front of multiple witnesses. Had he been a bit more professional, it would have been totally fine, as far as he was concerned. Also I have heard stories of foreigners who liked local girls a bit too much, got local boys jealous, and ended with a bullet through the back of their head.
It has to be said, though, that he girls can be pretty flirty, in a more relaxed manner than in other Asian cultures perhaps. Not in a bad way at all – just an easy smile followed by a quick little joke, an impression of easy-going openness, quite charming actually. But everyone is smiling and cracking jokes and being nice all the time here anyway. Because even though I’m well aware that the percentage of assholes, bullies and downright criminals is the same here than anwhere else – even though I know there are many aspects of the culture that I just don’t see yet, some probably very unpleasant – for now, all I can say is that the Filipinos are the nicest, easiest, kindest, most polite people I’ve ever had the pleasure to live along. So salamat po, guys.
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?…
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?
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).