One of the followers of my political blog, Government and Taxes, Micky Fernandez, made a comment to my posting today on Expats View 3: Positive Views of the Philippines. Micky is an American businessman currently based in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. I like his blog post about his observations in Cebu where he stayed for a few months late last year.
I am posting it below. I removed his political commentaries here, will post those in my political blog.
Observations & Experiences of the Ease of Cebu
by Micky Fernandez
October 07, 2011
For awhile, I have known that I do not need a visa to enter the Philippines. For awhile, I have never stayed in the Philippines for more than 14 days. This time, as I mentioned in my previous blog, I needed to stay here for almost two months. For that, I do need a visa (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_999.html#entry_requirements). Getting my current visa to India was very easy because I knew the employees and diplomats at the Consulate General of India, San Francisco from having worked across the street from them for 13 years. (Visa processing is now done at Travisa Outsourcing, http://india.travisa.com/%20VisaInstructions.aspx?CountryID=IN&.) I did not know what to expect in trying to get a Visa to the Philippines.
Shortly after I purchased the airline tickets, I sent an email to the nearby Philippines Consulate in Kolkata (http://www.newdelhipe.com/contact.html) asking them whether it would be simpler, quicker and more convenient for me to apply for the visa there, or in the Philippines. They wrote back saying that I should get it in the Philippines. After finding the location in the nearby city of Mandaue in Central Visayas (at http://immigration.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=128&Itemid=72 and google maps), and after downloading the application (http://immigration.gov.ph/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=17&Itemid=117), I went to the Bureau of Immigation. I did not complete the application (which was remarkably simple and straightforward) because I was not certain that it was the correct form.
At the BoI, the lady at the front desk told me that it was indeed the correct form. I completed this amazingly simple and short application, and handed it back to her. She stamped and signed it, and told me to go to a certain window. I went there, and after about two minutes, was handed back the documents, along with a cover letter, and was told to go to the cashier. The cashier told me to pay 2,020 pesos which, from the little that I knew about the visa process, was for a one month extension. I told him that I wanted to stay until 4 November (actually November 4, as the Philippines is one of the few--if not the only--country that uses the same calendar as does the U.S.). He then told me that it would then be 3,030 pesos, which is about what I expected. I had hoped that the BoI would accept credit/debit cards, but they did not. Fortunately, I had enough cash (about $70 worth of Philippine Pesos) on me.
Asia has a reputation for doing everything in cash. This reputation is true. In India, it is only the larger hotels, fancier hotels, and a few other large stores that take credit/debit cards. I believe that at least some, if not most, of them pass on the bank charges. In Cebu, I stayed at Cebu Guest House, which does take credit/debit cards, which I use most of the time to pay for my stay. However, the machine does not work much of the time, and the Guest House charges 4% more for those paying by credit card. In the U.S., working at Wells Fargo, I was told of numerous studies that showed that people spend more when they pay by credit/debit card. Thus, U.S. businesses rarely, if ever, pass along their bank charges to the customer. They want to encourage people to use cards. Even if there actually were no studies done, it does make sense. A day or two before I left for the Philippines, Caroline and I went to a nice restaurant that we have gone to before. In the past, they accepted credit/debit cards. This time, either the machine was not working or their policy had changed. In either case, I gave them a very small tip, certainly smaller than I would have given if I had paid by credit card.
Back at the BoI, after paying the fees and after only twenty minutes I was given back my passport with my Philippines visa (good until November 11). I was in and out of there within 30 minutes (although it seemed a little bit longer because of the taxi ride to and from there). The hardest part of the entire process was in not really knowing what to do next, and in not knowing how long I would have to wait. The next time will be far, far easier.
In the U.S., and especially in the Bay Area, it has always been extremely difficult and extremely expensive to rent an apartment or buy a home. Because of The Great Depression II (What is the difference between a recession and a depression? A recession is when your neighbour is out of work; a depression is when you are out of work) it may be more affordable now (for those who still have jobs), but it probably is still very difficult and competitive.
In Kolkata, it is difficult (for us) to rent an apartment. Kolkata is populated primarilly, and logically enough, by Bengalis. Bengalis are a peculiar people. They have genetically poor eyesight; seem to be addicted to eating fish; are incapable of not talking (this non-productive behaviour is why I think West Bengal was ruled by Communists for 34 years); and show great animosity toward non-Bengalis (Caroline has always encountered horrific experiences in banks and government offices--even more so than other people). Bengali flat-owners have asked us for our (now 14yo) marriage certificate, and asked other peculiar questions. I can appreciate a homeowner having certain requirements for letting people onto, and renting their property, but it seems to me that the correct policy is: whether or not a person can pay the rent as agreed, and maintain the property as agreed. Moreover, we have always had somewhat pleasant experiences with non-Bengalis.
In India, it can be difficult to to do something that should be automatic: stay in a hotel. In both Kolkata and Mumbai, I have been told a few times by hotel employees/owners that they would not let me stay as I am a foreigner (although they would allow Caroline). What??????????????? Where are foreigners supposed to stay if not in hotels? I suppose a flat would be desirable, but these can be more difficult to find and obtain, especially if you have just arrived by plane. Moreover, if a person is staying for just a few days or a couple of weeks, then a hotel may be more affordable and convenient. Granted, these hotels were somewhat out-of-the-way and very cheap, which may have been a factor in their decision. And again, I can appreciate a property owner having certain rules, but it seems to be counter-productive. Unlike an apartment complex (which usually does have 100% occupancy), hotels rarely have more than 80% occupancy (http://www.economist.com/node/14365851). Thus, any empty room represents a loss of income.
In Cebu, I stayed at the Cebu Guest House. I became aware of this place during my first stay in Cebu. Before I arrived the second time, I did some research which indicated that this was the least expensive place to stay in Cebu. Moreover, it was in the central part of Cebu, with access to the things I required. More recently, I did save up enough money to stay here for several weeks, but still would have preferred a cheaper place, provided that it also had good access. I again did a google search and, again, could not find anything cheaper.
However, in walking around, I saw a few signs for apartments for rent, and which provided phone numbers to call. Although I often prefer contacting people by phone or email rather than in person, in this regard I thought that it was best to visit the place. However, because these signs did not provide a location, I could not do that in those cases. One day, however, I became aware of the New Cebu Uptown Apartelle, which was about 50 meters away from the Cebu Guest House. (I was not aware of it before because it was on a side-road.) The next day, I decided to go there to make inquiries.
I thought that I would be told that a room was not available, not furnished (in which case I would have had to sleep on the floor), not affordable, or--and I thought most likely--not available to foreigners. Fortunately, it was none of those. When I went to the office, the nice lady eagerly and quickly showed me a room. It had not only a bed, but also an attached bathroom and TV. My room at CGH did not have either of the latter two. It had common bathrooms, and the TV set in the lobby did not have as much TV channels as did the one in NCUA. (I believe that some rooms at CGH did have TV sets and private bathrooms, but those rooms would have been even more expensive.) She told me that the room was 11,000 pesos (about INR12,393 or USD252.64) for the month. I had hoped it would have been 10,000, but I estimated that the rent would still save me 6,500 for the month (a large amount in both the Philippines and India). I may have misunderstood, misinterpreted or been confused at this amount. She told me that the small refrigerator, which was in the room, was 1,500. At the time, I thought that this meant that it would have been 12,500 with the refrigerator, but later I thought that she was saying that the room was 11,000 with the refrigerator and, therefore, 9,500 without the refrigerator. However, I have not made an issue of this, and shall not until I am there again at which time I shall ask if I can get the room for 9,500 pesos for the month. Most importantly, the room was available to me, and later I learned that several foreigners had stayed at the apartment complex.
Buying and spending
Of course, buying is not a complex activity. In the U.S., with the exceptions of homes and cars, buying is encouraged, even if (or perhaps especially if) you do not have the money for it (i.e., buying it on credit). In India, however, getting a sim card requires completing a complex application and attaching a photo of yourself. I should qualify this by stating that this is the procedure for getting phone and Internet service at Airtel; I am simply assuming that it applies at other phone/Internet service providers, as well.
At Cebu, I needed to get a calling card to call Caroline (who was still in India). While at the store, I asked about phones and sim cards. Apparently I could simply buy a sim card! No applications were needed. Moreover, it was only 40 pesos. It would be a pre-paid sim card, and I did not inquire into exactly how or where I would fill up the card (whether I could do it at a website, or only at a physical location--most likely only in the Philippines), but I plan to prepay it for the amount that I estimate I would use in six months' time. It would mean that when I am in India calling my wife would be an international phone call, but since I rarely need to call her it would not affect me severely. I have not yet bought the sim card, but shall most likely do so the next time that I am in Cebu.
Of course, spending also is not a complex activity. In the U.S., having worked for Wells Fargo Bank for 24 years, I knew that virtually every currency note (with the exception of burnt currency) was acceptable, provided that it is 51% or more of the size. However, in India, torn or ripped currency is not accepted, and very worn currency is frowned upon. Merchants often try to pawn off these notes, especially to foreigners, so you have to be careful about the notes you receive. When I become aware of my possessing such currency, I usually give them to beggars, not because I want to be mean-spirited to them, but because I figure that they will have a better chance of exchanging the currency. Moreover, I believe that some banks do accept torn or worn currency; I think that I saw a sign at the local Citibank to that effect.
In Cebu, I went to the local supermarket to buy cat food for the five demanding individuals staying at NCUA. The cat food was 280 pesos, and I gave the cashier a 1000 peso note. She gave it to the other cashier who took it and went elsewhere. (Why there were two cashiers at the same window, I do not know. Perhaps one was in training or, more likely, did not have anything else to do. I was the only person in line at the express lane, which was almost hidden away from the rest of the check-out stands.) I thought that the note may have had a slight tear to it that I had not noticed. I was about to say that I had received the note from the ATM, so it should have been acceptable everywhere, when the other cashier came back with smaller change. Apparently, the first cashier did not have adequate change for the 1000 peso note, eliminating my fear of having a worthless currency note.
In Cebu (and presumably throughout the Philippines) armed security guards, sometimes with rifles or shotguns, are everywhere. The Ayala Center (shopping mall) has a small army of them. It is this that provides a clue to the remarkable ease of residing the Philippines....