Quite unfortunately, I arrived in Cebu City, Philippines. I’d flown in from Malaysia for my first visit to the country, in search of scuba diving work. Taking a cab from the airport through the city and then walking around during my first evening left me thinking, “Uh, oh. Am I going to like the Philippines?” The entire city seemed like one big dirty, faded, messy, broken-down ghetto. There was no architectural interest whatsoever. No parks, greenery or other scenic sights. Nothing beautiful that caught my eye. I’d thought Thailand and Malaysia had become pretty bad on icky nondescript towns, but they’re nothing on Cebu City!
Everywhere, I walked past broken-up roads and sidewalks, rubble, vacant lots, boarded-up buildings, construction sites, barbed-wire on walls and buildings and other hideous eye-sores. Many roads didn’t have sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk directly on the streets with roaring traffic whizzing by.
Traffic was horrendous. Exhaust fumes spewed out, creating a thick toxic cloud throughout the entire city. A huuuugge number of taxis crowded the roads- probably about 40% of the vehicles. In contrast, there were very few motorcycles, especially compared to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. I discovered that instead of driving motorbikes, many Philippinos actually walk. That amazed me after spending so much time in other S.E.Asian countries.
As for the Cebu people, store clerks were formal and polite, always addressing customers as ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’, and trying to help out. They carried people’s bags, opened doors, and so on. Overall, locals were stiffly polite but not overly friendly. Nobody smiled easily, nor did they seem interested or impressed by anything around them. They didn’t respond much to anything. It was like they were sleep-walking. No facial expressions, no excitement or surprise or interest. It was very odd to me, especially after interacting with the very expressive Indonesians, Thais and Malays.
Another oddity was the absence of young people wearing hip fashions, hairstyles and make-up. In contrast, all over Thailand, Malaysia, Singpaore, and Indonesia, teens and young college-age youth are sporting all kinds of super-cool hairstyles and fashions. In Cebu City, everyone was wearing really boring clothes and hairstyles: simple t-shirts or polo shirts with jeans, shorts or skirts, all in plain colors and designs. Hairstyles were equally plain and very conventional. Cebu City seemed to have no fashion whatsoever. Dullsville.
What was really very odd was that people had no reaction to me- at all. They’d look at me, briefly, then look away with no expression, just as if they’d simply seen another Philippino. No curiousity, no surprise, no worry or fear, no hostility, nothing. Considering how commonly and similarly they were all dressed, I found it very very peculiar that they had no reaction to a solo western woman with short platinum blonde hair, facial piercings, bright pink sunglasses, and a silk halter-style dress!
I was so accustomed to S.E.Asians responding to me somehow- usually with smiles and ‘hello’s, certainly with curiousity, sometimes with surprise, but always something. My experience in Cebu was so odd that it left me wondering: Do they dislike foreigners? Are they afraid? Shy? Just sleep-walking? Fortunately, I did’t feel any hostility, so I couldn’t believe they disliked me or were afraid. I just didn’t get it.
Meanwhile, security guards carrying automatic rifles and pistols, with extra ammunition strapped around their belts, were everywhere. They were posted outside almost every store, hotel, bank, and shopping mall. In just one block there were easily 10 well-armed security guards. To enter any mall, hotel, major store, or bank, customers have to undergo a bag inspection and sometimes a full body rub-down. Shopping becomes quite tedious as you must repeatedly take off your bag, open it, re-close it, and put it back on, over and over and over again, all day long. Apparently, theft and robberies are serious issues in Cebu?
On the positive side, Cebu City has loads and loads of bakeries- at least 1 or 2 in every block. They sell great little rolls, danishes, and other breads. One curiousity (for us Americans) is purple gobs. For non-Americans, gobs are a type of midwest USA cake snack, a cake version of oreos. I’d never even seen gobs outside the US until then. But there they were in Cebu City,Philippines, in purple.
One really funny thing, especially considering it was October, was the presence of Christmas. Stores were selling Christmas decorations. Malls and grocery stores were playing xmas songs. I realized that the Philippines was the first Christian country I’ve ever visited in Asia. Coming upon Christmas displays and music was so exceedingly strange. Making it even stranger, lots of Halloween stuff was also on sale. How BIZARRE IS THAT IN S.E.ASIA?
As for costs, I was lucky to get a room for 400P (45P = $1). That was nearly double what I was used to paying everywhere else in Asia. I hoped costs would be lower outside the city. Although my room was expensive, I liked Cebu’s little ‘pensions’ ( guest houses) and the room itself. My first room was cute: a long narrow room with 3 single beds lined in a row against one wall, an extensive shelving unit on the other wall, and quiet enough to sleep. Very unfortunately, I could only stay one night, since it was already booked the following night. I had to move out! They didn’t have any more rooms. Nor did any other pensions in the area. I found myself roomless. Finally, one pension located a room for me in their sister pension in a quiet old house off the busy roads. That room was a bit more upscale, with a/c, which I didn’t need, and a tv, which I didn’t need, a bathroom, and a spacious bedroom. It was the cheapest room I could find- 500p (which was usually my entire day’s budget).
Luckily, I was able to find some cheap local food markets and restaurants, so food prices were about what I was used to paying.
Just before I’d left KL, I’d met a Philippina girl. She’d told me everything was cheaper in the Philippines, especially with the current $US exchange rate. Once I reached Cebu, I didn’t find that to be true. For example, I’d been planning to buy some BodyShop facial cleanser in KL, but thought I’d wait and see the price in Cebu. Guess what? It cost more! Ahh well, you win some, you lose some.
Still, there were some good points about Cebu:
*Despite the huge number of security guards, Cebu seemed quite safe, as far as I could tell. (Or maybe because of the security guards?) Nobody tried to pick-pocket me on the streets or on the jeepneys. Walking at night was fine.
* great bakeries
* lots of cheap eating places
* internet was fast and cheap
* no touts hassling pedstrians to buy stuff. (That was quite a relief after Bali.)
* a few decent attractions: old Spanish churches, a fort, monuments, and a huge produce/ handicrafts’ market
* bright and highly decorated ‘jeepneys’- trucks that serve as public buses. They add some color to the otherwise dull city.
Despite it’s good points, though, Cebu City was really quite dull. Dull architecture. Dull people. Dull fashions. Dull street life. In fact, the best thing about being in Cebu was looking forward to leaving! Therefore, I decided to get out of that city as quickly as possible. I was headed to the Philippines’ fabled islands. From what I’d read and heard, they are beautiful, and scuba diving is great.
Perhaps it was just Phiippino city life that was so dull? I’d soon find out.
Catch me on my next Philippino adventure: Ferry to Boracay. coming soon…
Have you been to Cebu City? If so, what were your impressions?
If you’ve been to the Philippines, which places did you like best?
(* photo credits from Flckr Creative Commons: