The traffic was so thick and choking that even when I headed in a taxi to a local mall, the driver suffering a nervous breakdown after three hours of inching and pushing through only five kilometers of local streets, declaring that he was giving up in favor of a new profession after turning around to deposit me at my hotel.
Back then, I would have put the odds at one-in-hell-no that I’d end up actually living in Manila, and even a few years ago, the capital city of the Philippines was a place to be suffered as I passed through, but no place to call home.
And yet, in an ironic twist of fate, it’s Manila that I now call home.
So, why the hell did I choose to move here?
The traffic is even worse, if you can believe it, and has come to define the Manila experience for so many. That’s the first thing people will respond if you mention Manila anywhere in the country (followed by the pollution and then the crime), and it’s so bad that people refer to it as if it’s a catastrophic act of nature like a typhoon or an earthquake, as in “we have a Traffic” today.
Rush Hour is its own fang-bearing hungry animal and dictates most life choices in Manila. For instance, the drive from my neighborhood to central Makati, which is only 5 km as the crow flies and walkable if you didn't mind breaking a serious sweat, may take two hours at 5 pm but then only 20 minutes at 9 pm.
For instance, Manhattan has a population density of 26,403 people per square mile (10,194/km²), but Manila dwarfs that with 38,000 people per square mile (14,500/ km²).
They’ve actually long-ago broken Manila into sixteen sub-cities, like Makati (the international business and Red Light district), Quezon (where the Thrilla in Manila fight was held), Pasay (where the airport is located), and Taguig, where I live.
So, my best bet is to have a cool and comfortable home base where I can work my ass off, get shit done, and enjoy the modern conveniences, but then bounce out to the airport every time the mood strikes to go find that white-sand beach or the next natural adventure.
I would characterize food in the Philippines as…how can I put this delicately?...a mix between prison gruel and refried dog chow – only far less healthy. It really is that bad in most places, where everything is pork or meat-based, deep-fried, doused in sugar or MSG powder called “’Sarap, or soaked in oil.
It’s SO hard to eat healthy here, and a travesty that you can find a good variety of fresh fruit but almost no vegetables. The food can even be downright unhygienic in many places and make you sick. But Manila has countless restaurants with better quality grub and more options.
It’s still not easy to eat healthy in Manila, and definitely not cheap, but at least it’s possible not to blow up to 400 lbs. or contract Scurvy while living here.
To me, a fulfilled life means plenty of art, culture, music, and the dynamism of ideas around me, and Manila offers that in spades. From vibrant street art to gallery showings, funk and fun cultural experiences, museums, and music all around you in all its forms, Manila allows my best creative self to feel inspired.
While you're always aware that you live in an overcrowded, poor Developing Country, Manila is also home to the majority of international businesses in the nation, as well as the country's middle class or elite, a higher education level for the average person, plus plenty of movers and shakers. So, you get a fantastic mix of different cultures, languages, and modern attitudes, a far cry from the traditional and conservative societal norms that can be confusing and constricting.
I did love a lot of aspects of Dumaguete, but the social scene was not one of them. Manila, on the other hand, is the big city, and there is never a lack of cool things to do or interesting people to meet. Of course, the bar and nightlife scene is insane and borders on Bacchanalian at certain places, but I’m way too old, hardworking, and tired for all of that craziness.
Instead, I enjoy the array of more chill lounges, cocktail bars with old school hip hop, and beer joints with live bands.
Here's a video I shot entering a seemingly-normal 7-11 store that turns into an upscale nightclub called Bank Bar once you walk through the Employees Only door.
I lived in the Philippines' seconds largest city, Cebu, before, but was shocked and disappointed to find a total lack of any parks. Manila, however, despite being much larger and crazier, has some nice public parks and outdoor plazas that are actually clean, safe, etc. I'm a huge fan of public parks to chill, read, workout, or enjoy nature, so that was a must-have before I decided to move to Manila.
Health and fitness
Speaking of recreation areas, I also love the active workout scene in the city, as there are some nice, modern gyms and such. I found a modern, clean and convenient Golds Gym only two blocks from my house and got a killer deal by prepaying for a year.
There are also a few boxing and martial arts studios in the area, but the one in my neighborhood, Fight Factory, is super expensive. Luckily, I live right near the Philippines Army base and they have a recreation center, so I can walk 15 minutes over there and get in a boxing or Muay Thai workout for only 70 Pesos - $1.50 or so.
There are plenty of cities or island throughout the Philippines with their own airports, but outside of Cebu, Clark (about 120km north of Manila) or Manila. Itself, there are very few direct flights. When I lived in Dumaguete here in the Philippines over the last year and a half, I loved their little local airport but had to fly to Cebu first before grabbing a connection, which usually meant getting a hotel and staying overnight, etc.
But from Manila’s NAIA airport, which is only about 5km from my apartment (a 20 minute to two-hour drive!), I can hit every single airport in the Philippines. In fact, I travel as often as possible since airfares are also ludicrously underpriced, running $30 to $80 one-way or so to fly anywhere in the country. From Manila, I can also jump all over Asia on cheap direct flights, and there are non-stop flights to San Francisco or even New York City.
Comfort and convenience
I'm not talking about luxuries, but just being able to buy things, get better healthcare, and basic amenities. In Manila, it’s not hard to find air conditioning and bathrooms [they call them Comfort Rooms] with toilet paper and soap. And while it’s still alarming how few establishments have serviceable Wi-Fi, it’s always possible to connect somewhere.
It’s not just about convenience, but safety. You’ll also find a startling discrepancy between wealth and abject urban poverty, with tens of millions of people living in slums and shanties among unimaginable squalor, while the robust upper class of Philippines’ society does business in glass skyscrapers, eats at fancy restaurants, and shops at luxury U.S. and European stores.
I was introduced to the McKinley Hill enclave by my good local friend, Laarni, who used to in the same apartment building where I now reside. It's a small community consisting of call centers, high-rise condo towers, a few international schools, and a mall.
But it’s also one of the safest and cleanest areas in Manila because it sits next to the whole national military complex, conjoined with the massive Philippines army base, and then Airforce, Navy, etc. in a row.
My studio apartment is simple but functional, as has a rare view. It encompasses 34 square meters, which is roomy by Manila standards but only as big as three prison cells stacked together.
But it does offer a view of the pristine jungle and a big pond that serve as training areas for the Army base next door, and that full natural panorama from my window is invaluable in this concrete jungle.
My building also has a lobby that looks pretty luxurious, air-tight security, a gym that’s good enough to throw a few dumbbells around or take a treadmill jog when you don’t feel like venturing out, and not one but two small swimming pools on the rooftop.
But a nice apartment building and a mall does not an existence make, and the main benefit of McKinley Hill its proximity to Bonifacio Global City and then, Makati a few kilometers further, two of the most desirable areas in Manila.
Cheesy? Yes. But it actually looks pretty damn cool, attracting horses of selfie snappers from all over Manila.
It’s at the Venice Grand Canal Mall, not even two blocks from my apartment, that I’ve found my gym, supermarket, barber shop, and a lineup of five or more coffee shops that I frequent.
(The only reason I considered a move to a place that looks like a 2050 post-apocalyptic Big Apple on steroids is because I don’t have to commute to every day since I can work from home, a coffee shop, waiting at the airport, or anyplace that I can open my laptop and may have Wi-Fi.)
In BGC, that same studio starts at 35,000 Pesos ($750) per month and one-bedrooms probably average 50,000 or so ($1,000). Most people who live there are either making huge salaries from their foreign national companies or even have their housing allowance paid for by the company, but that number is far out of reach for even most professional Filipinos (call centers and Business Outsource Processing – BPOs- are the major employers here).
I’m a notorious cheap-ass, so I refuse to pay that much for rent abroad, even though I could make it work. Instead, I was happy to find a studio for 20,000 per month – or $400, which is still a steal for my area. I was able to negotiate an even better price of $340 monthly by prepaying for the whole year!
Anyways, you don’t want to listen to me bitch and whine about the prices here (and I could go on all day if I get started), but I just barely sneak into Manila’s elite neighborhoods based on my budget.
If I just dropped you there, you seriously would think you're in the business district of Miami or San Diego or something. It's a well-planned community in an otherwise urban snake pit, and home to a whole lot of high-dollar international business people, corporate expats, and well-to-do Filipinos.
BGC is defined by High Street, a stunningly-nice outdoor plaza that extends about six city blocks, lined with two stories of upscale cafes, restaurants, shops, and boutiques and filled in with green areas, sculptures, fountains, pop-up food kiosks, and even concert and event stages, decked out to the nines for every holiday.
Needless to say, I've slightly upgraded my regular attire of flip flops, board shorts, and a basketball jersey, and I actually find myself putting on jeans or a shirt with buttons now and then (gasp!).
I can seriously just go hang out at High Street all day, getting a coffee or meal at the Canadian-owned St. Louis coffee shop and restaurant as I people watch. One evening every week, I'll go drink Dark & Stormies and listen to old school hip hop at the secret bar located in the back of the California-inspired Pinks Hot Dogs (no, it's not a gay bar – I swear!).
I ‘ve connected with some really cool folks here, like a California-born hip hop DJ named Mark Afrika, a professional basketball player in the Philippines league, an old friend who retired from his orthopedic surgery practice in San Francisco to open up a microbrewery in Manila (Bruddah Brewing), and Dead Aim Amy, a Canadian gal who's a professional boxer who also teaches little girls from the slums how to box as a way to boost their self-esteem.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a crazy place that can chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful and thick-skinned, but there’s no shortage of people, places, and things to sate my intellectual curiosity here in Manila, helping me feel connected to a greater community and passionate about my small, inconsequential time on this planet.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but Manila is now home.