J’ai tout plaqué pour les Philippines

Article paru dans le n°33 du magazine Le Chou Brave, aout 2020.

En 2016, j’ai choisi de quitter définitivement la Suisse pour refaire ma vie sous les cocotiers. Mais rien ne s’est passe comme prévu…

Il est 9h30. L’heure d’un jus de calamansi (petits citrons verts locaux) sur le patio de la pension ou je loue un bungalow au mois pour le prix d’un jeu vidéo. Une pluie chaude tombe sur les palmiers, bananiers et palétuviers. Les oiseaux chantent quand même. Au loin, des coqs. Mon chien s’étire et vient me lécher la main. Plus tard, le soleil déchirera les nuages et la température dépassera les 30°C, comme tous les jours. Je suis à Puerto Princesa, capitale de Palawan, l’ile la plus à l’Ouest des Philippines. J’ai choisi de vivre ici, depuis trois ans. Je possède un food truck, stationné en bord de mer, à Port Barton, 150 km d’ici. Et je ne sais pas ce que je vais bien pouvoir en faire.

Dès le début de la pandémie, il y a cinq mois déjà, Palawan s’est coupée du monde. Tous les vols ont été supprimés, les lieux publics fermés, les routes barrées par des checkpoints tenus par l’armée. Tout s’est arrêté d’un coup, au début de la saison touristique, qui s’étend normalement de décembre à mai. Du jour au lendemain, à contrecœur, j’ai dû plier les parasols et boucler mon food truck, renvoyer mon équipe, me cloitrer à domicile avec un stock de nourriture et attendre un long mois avant d’être autorisé à ressortir, une heure par jour au début, masque sur le museau et autorisation officielle bien en vue, sous l’œil sourcilleux des volontaires locaux dont certains appréciaient un peu trop cette soudaine position d’autorité.

Port Barton, village de pêcheurs entre jungle et Mer de Chine, devenu depuis quelques années la seconde destination touristique de l’ile de Palawan, particulièrement prisée des backpackers pour son atmosphère détendue et conviviale, était devenue un village fantôme et poussiéreux. Même les chiens errants avaient presque tous disparus, morts de faim probablement. Çà et là, on croisait quelques touristes perdus, ayant choisi de s’échouer ici plutôt que de retourner dans leurs pays, ou la situation sanitaire était bien plus grave.

Car Palawan a jusqu’ici échappé presque entièrement au coronavirus qui continue de ravager les Philippines. Mais à quel prix… Pour une économie dont le développement dépendait en grande partie du tourisme, les conséquences sont déjà catastrophiques et l’avenir plus qu’incertain. Parmi la petite communauté expatriée qui faisait vivre et croitre Port Barton, certains espèrent encore pouvoir tenir d’une manière ou d’une autre, survivre – six mois, un an, deux peut-etre, jusqu’à un retour hypothétique et progressif, au mieux, de la manne touristique. D’autres, moins fortunés, cherchent à vendre. C’est mon cas. Comment en suis-je arrivé là ?

Rien à perdre

Je me souviens très bien de cet autre matin, en Suisse, ou j’ai finalement décidé de tout plaquer et de tenter le tout pour le tout. Il faisait beaucoup plus frais. Je m’étais mis moi-même dans une situation financièrement inextricable. Plusieurs changements professionnels successifs et un passage en indépendant m’avaient laissé avec une dette d’impôts impossible à éponger. Mon job à ce stade n’était plus qu’alimentaire, au sens propre : mon salaire suffisait à peine à couvrir les arriérés fiscaux (mais pas les impôts courants…) et après avoir payé les diverses charges, notoirement élevées en Suisse, il me restait juste assez pour remplir le frigo. Aucune amélioration à espérer, au contraire, un trou qui se creusait d’année en année. Heureusement, célibataire sans enfant, je n’étais, par choix, responsable depuis toujours que de moi-même. Mais était-ce vraiment comme cela que je voulais vivre ? Combien de temps encore allais-je pouvoir tenir ? Et qu’est-ce que j’avais à perdre ?

Ce matin-là, j’ai finalement décidé de donner ma démission et de quitter définitivement la Suisse et l’Europe en perdition. Je savais évidemment que je venais de prendre une des plus importantes décisions de ma vie – pour le meilleur ou pour le pire ? L’avenir le dirait.

Trois ans plus tard, la question reste ouverte. J’ai vécu bien plus intensément que si j’étais reste piégé dans la grisaille helvétique, connu des sommets de bonheur et des abimes d’angoisses, vu des merveilles et quelques horreurs, perdu autant d’argent que d’illusions, gagne des amis et beaucoup d’expérience. Conjuguer une expatriation et une reconversion n’est évidemment pas une sinécure. Sans aucune expérience de la restauration, des métiers de l’hospitalité ou du tourisme, et pas davantage des Philippines, des lois et règlements de ce pays, de ses habitants et de leurs mentalités… il était à peu près certain et inévitable que j’allais me planter. Et ça n’a pas manqué – mon premier essai, un restaurant en association avec un Philippin, fut un échec cuisant et couteux, mais instructif. Mes derniers sous ont servi à acheter un vieux jeepney, une sorte de minibus typique (les premiers furent fabriqués dans les années 50 à partir de jeeps militaires américaines recyclées, dont ils ont conservé le nom et la silhouette) et à le transformer en food truck. J’allais vendre des crêpes, des sandwiches grilles, des fruitshakes et des smoothies. Ça pouvait marcher.

Un rêve réalisé

Et ça a marché. La première saison fut un succès. Un emplacement idéal sur la plage de Port Barton. Des moments inoubliables. Le sentiment d’y être enfin arrivé, d’avoir concrétisé ce rêve, d’avoir fait réalité cette image de bar sous les cocotiers, jus de fruits et vahinés, que je fantasmais depuis si longtemps. J’étais heureux.

Et puis est arrivé la fin de la saison. Une tentative de transfert en ville, a Puerto Princesa, avec l’idée d’y séduire pendant six mois la clientèle locale, pas franchement couronnée de succès. Forte concurrence, nécessité de maintenir des prix aussi bas que possible, et surtout désintérêt des Philippins provinciaux pour tout ce qui n’est pas nourriture locale (riz) ou américaine (burgers)… Et toujours ces administrations kafkaïennes (mais version tropicale : avec le sourire en plus), ces règlements absurdes appliqués, ou pas, de manière aléatoire, ce flou incompréhensible et ces complications infinies. Un mois de démarches pour obtenir une prestation aussi basique en apparence qu’un raccordement électrique en plein centre-ville (j’ai fini par abandonner celui au réseau d’eau, de guerre lasse)… Et puis le Covid-19 qui a tout balayé.

Je ne suis pas venu ici par hasard. Les Philippines en général, et Palawan en particulier, sont d’une beauté à couper le souffle. Le potentiel touristique est immense. Avec près de 7000 iles et ilots, aucun pays au monde ne peut rivaliser en kilomètres de plages immaculées avec l’archipel philippin. Mais (surprise, surprise) derrière la carte postale ensoleillée, la réalité est plus complexe. Ce pays, profondément dysfonctionnel, est vraiment une étrange affaire.

Le paradoxe philippin

A l’origine, il n’y avait qu’un patchwork de tribus insulaires de pêcheurs-cueilleurs, dispersées et isolées les unes des autres (les Philippines comptent encore à ce jour 150 langues et dialectes), qui passeront progressivement à partir de l’an 1000 sous influence malaisienne et musulmane. Les Espagnols débarquent vers 1500, annexent l’archipel à leur empire colonial et imposent un catholicisme pur et dur mais n’arriveront jamais à soumettre l’extrême Sud, qui reste à ce jour musulman, séparatiste et pose une menace terroriste latente (voir le siege de Marawi, en 2017). L’Eglise et les ordres religieux tiendront le pays d’une main de fer pendant plus de trois siècles, et les Philippines représentent aujourd’hui la troisième plus importante population catholique au monde, derrière le Brésil et le Mexique. Toute idée de contrôle des naissances y reste sacrilège, la natalité est galopante, les écolières de province tombent souvent enceintes avant d’atteindre le collège. Les quelques familles ayant racheté les immenses biens fonciers et immobiliers de l’Eglise il y a 200 ans tiennent toujours le pays.

A la fin du XIXe, les Philippins se soulèvent et réclament leur indépendance, avec le soutien des Etats-Unis…  qui rachètent a l’issue de la guerre l’archipel a l’Espagne et s’imposent en tant que nouveaux maitres, matent les indépendantistes dans le sang, massacrent 15% de la population dont toute l’élite hispanophone, et imposent l’anglais et la culture US, fast food, basketball et concours de beauté. A la fin de la Seconde guerre mondiale, la Manille espagnole a disparu sous les bombes américaines mais les Philippines obtiennent enfin leur indépendance. Rien ne change en réalité – 80% des membres du Congrès philippin sont issus de dynasties ou l’on est politicien de père en fils (ou en fille) depuis un siècle. A tous les échelons, de la présidence au gouvernement de province jusqu’ au plus petit barangay (village ou quartier), le pouvoir est une affaire héréditaire et la corruption, un système.

Le résultat de tout cela, c’est ce pays hybride où l’on a parfois l’impression d’être plus proche de Cuba que de la Chine. Un implant latino-américain au cœur du Sud-Est asiatique. Un pays où tout le monde parle anglais, ce qui facilite les choses en théorie, mais où rien ne fonctionne en pratique, peu importe le langage. Une culture anéantie puis reconstruite de bric et de broc par la colonisation, et pour cette raison probablement la plus ouverte d’Asie envers les occidentaux. Un pays qui m’a permis de réaliser mes rêves et ou j’ai tout perdu, un pays magnifique, chaleureux et hospitalier que je déteste parfois mais que j’aime aussi, et que je ne quitterai pas, malgré tout.

Il est 20h, l’heure du couvre-feu depuis le debut de cette interminable quarantaine. Les sirènes mugissent brièvement. Demain est un autre jour. Il fera beau et chaud, comme tous les jours, et les Philippins garderont le sourire.

The Ati-atihan Festival in Port Barton

 
The Ati-Atihan Festival, held annually in January in honor of the Santo Niño (Infant Jesus), originated in the island of Panay, Philippines. The name Ati-Atihan means “to be like Atis” or “to make believe Atis”, the local name for the Aeta aborigines who first settled in several parts of the archipelago. It was originally an animist festival, but Spanish missionaries gradually added a Christian meaning. Today, the Ati-Atihan celebrates the religious conversion of the Atis to catholicism.
 
Kapares Restaurant sponsored the “tribu” that won the dancing competition of the last edition.

Knocked down, but getting up again

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 long and widening road

Kapares Bar & Restaurant, since 2017 (until 2018?)

One week ago, Kapares Bar & Restaurant was blessed by Port Barton’s priest, then officially open with a big party. There was lechon (full roasted piglet), lots of rum-coke, live music, fire dancer, the whole package. It was a great opening party. The barangay officials were all invited… and yet we have no business license, no mayor permit, none of the authorizations that a respectable business is supposed to have.

Indeed, the normal procedure in the Philippines seems to be: open first (provided you have the barangay clearance, which is the one you can’t do without), then register with the different administrations. There is nothing exceptional in our situation. The problem is, as it is now, we know we will never get these authorizations. Unless we tear the whole café down. Only once all of it is leveled will we be within the law.

This absurd situation is due to an even more absurd law, stating that ALL roads should be 15 meters wide, with 5 more inconstructible meters on each side. This is a response to the situation in El Nido, the booming tourist destination of the island, where narrow streets are chronically blocked by a continuous flood of tricycles, vans, SUV, jeepneys and trucks. Therefore the municipality of San Vicente (of which Port Barton is a barangay) decided to plan ahead, in order to avoid that situation in the future. Which is probably a very good idea if applied to the truly colossal development plans for nearby Long Beach (basically turn 17km of untouched beach and coconut trees into Little Florida). But no one would imagine such a legal disposition applied retroactively to ALL roads, including the inner streets of a small fishermen village like Port Barton, of course… right? Right??

As unbelievable as it seems, the same municipality that is unable to provide electricity for more than 6 hours a day, unable even to cover the muddy dirtroads we call streets, is totally decided and has the means to implement an absurd widening of those same mudroads. Even if that implies that ALL shops, restaurants, and many habitations have to be (at least partially) leveled. Even though there is only a few motorbikes and schoolkids on these roads at any given time. It’s so absurd still can’t believe it.

And indeed that situation is so surrealist, that even though it was in the air for a long time, nobody could really take the threat seriously. Myself I decided it would never be implemented and went on. Surely they would come to their senses. They could not basically want to close down all Port Barton, turn it into one big construction site for at least one whole touristic season, only to have a beautiful, leafy, picturesque village turned in a kind of mini Los Angeles with 25 meters-wide highways?

Actually, yes, that is exactly what they are planning to do. They have started to hand cease-and-desist orders, and a few restaurants are condemned and will not open this coming season. Most owners will not invest into moving back their whole place 5 meters either, so who knows if or when they will ever reopen.

Kapares is of course within the 5 meters where nothing can be built, so we know that at some point – in a few weeks, months, hopefully next season, who the fuck knows – we will have to tear down our brand new roof and turn our nice, cosy restaurant into a flat, basic, empty outdoor terrasse. Because everything has to be removable, we would only be allowed beach umbrellas, which do not provide shelter here, neither against the burning tropical sun nor against tropical rain showers.

Funnily enough, another similar, new law stipulates that nothing can be built on the beach within at least 35 meters from the high tide level (San Vicente wanted 50 meters, but that disposition is still disputed). Which in Port Barton means that ALL beach front resort should be dynamited. And in some areas, between the 25m-wide road and the 35m-wide beach there would probably remain just enough width to put a small (removable) beach hut.

I have to say, even now, I am still skeptical – it is not only a few foregners-owned businesses that are concerned, but ALL Filipinos-owned shops, restaurants, acomodations, and actual family houses, too. I can’t believe that the locals will just accept to lose their source of income, and in most cases all they own. I am still waiting to see what will happen.

Living in Palawan – the + and – (part 1/10)

THE + (in no particular order)

Oh noes, another beautiful hot sunny day in Port Barton. Bummer.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 –

Plastic is not so bad after all.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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?