Do It Yourself or Ask For Help in the Philippines

Do It Yourself or Ask For Help in the Philippines.

(Updated 22 Sep 2019)

I had fun writing about my waiting for the chicken article centered around getting my car fixed.  I’m glad some other folks enjoyed it also.



Just Fall In Line Behind The Chicken

I actually had fun that day living out the experience too … why?  I feel, mainly (except for the un-invited summoning of Philip), I was on my own.

Not knowing the language “to speak of” and often being a bit ignorant of local customs, it can sometimes seem a bit daunting to go off on your own to get things done.  But always having to have an interpreter/helper/shepherd guiding you can be very wearing at times as well.

Many Foreigners Refuse To Have Fun in the Philippines

Everything doesn’t have to be the same as it is “back home” to be fun.

It’s a pretty commonly held belief, held by a lot of Filipinos you meet that things are so different and strange in the Philippines that foreigners are totally incapable of coping.

Many expats find this feeling very strong in their own families.

Even after more than 14 years here I still sometimes feel a bit self-conscious or even a tad bit “smothered” by the “babying” I get exposed to so often.

Now don’t take that statement the wrong way.  I’m often very grateful for the help, and Lord knows there are times I need it badly.

But I don’t need it all the time, for everything in life … and I find that personally, I am very guilty of being lazy and not learning and experiencing as much as I should be about living here.

There’s no adventure and often no fun at all if someone is going to jump in every minute and take charge of things.

I Am Not Ungrateful

My dear wife reads these articles and I hope she understands how grateful I am for her help and her family’s help on many things.

But the really fortunate part of living here for me is that she is wiser than many a spouse and she also has traveled widely, including 6 years or so in the US.

So she understands a bit better than everything in the Philippines is not really so different from similar things in the rest of the world.

I treasure her, not the least for the fact that she understands that she has to give me breathing room from time to time and that, even when left to my own devices, I am likely to make mistakes, but they are seldom of a fatal nature.

It’s very hard to learn if you don’t “do”.  That’s a point I should emphasize.

It’s very hard to learn if you don’t “do”

There are a number of wise sayings around like “you can’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book”.

Well, the purpose of this little opinion piece is to tell you, based on my experience at least, “you can’t learn how to live in the Philippines by reading a blog” either.

You need to learn by doing.

I’m often surprised to interact with folks who have been reading about the Philippines, learning about living in the Philippines and planning their move to the Philippines or their retirement to the Philippines for literally years and yet have never made even the first step to execute their plan.

Folks, it is not rocket science.

The more you do, the less you will be fearful and confused by the thousands and thousands of web pages, books and opinions (expert and otherwise) that you have been confusing yourselves with.

When all is said and done, a lot more seems to get said than done.

As I said in the title, when there are things to be done, you often have to decide if you should just do them yourself, or ask for help.

Not always an easy decision.

But here’s a thought or two I have had, coupled with experience.

Renewing Your Driver’s License

Let’s take something the vast majority of Americans are familiar with.  Renewing your driver’s license.

It’s different in the Philippines.

But then again, it’s not really that different from going to a driver’s license, motor vehicle office anywhere.

You know you are going to have to fill up (fill out) or at least sign a form or two, maybe get your picture taken, perhaps an eye test, you are for sure going to have to pay some money, and that’s pretty much “it”.

Well at least it is in various states in the US where I have renewed my license, also in Germany and also in Japan where I have also renewed my license … and guess what … unlike Germany or Japan, the signs hare are usually in English.

Recently my license needed to be renewed, so about 9 am I drove to our local LTO (Land Transportation Office).  The Philippines doesn’t have “states” like the US.  We do have provinces here which have some functions that resemble state governments, but common items like license plates, driver’s license and such are handled at the national level by the LTO.

So what do you see when you go to your local motor vehicle office/agency where you live?

I’ll wager you see a line of windows, probably with numbers, and people standing in line in front of those windows, right?

Well, guess what, that’s exactly what you find here in the Philippines.

If you are a complete stranger, and you see no other directive signs, where would you go first?

Yep, Window One.

So I went to Window One.  I waited for a couple people in front of me, and when I was ‘next”, I shoved my license through the sot under the glass and said, “Good morning, po(sir), renewal please.”

The clerk looked at my license, looked at me and then banged on the window and “barked” something … not at me, though, at a lady who had been standing next to the line of windows.  She walked up, grabbed a renewal application form, my old license and took me next door to her place of business, “Mahogany Drug Testing Service”.

In order to get your initial Philippine license, or to renew your license, you have to take a simple urinalysis-based test for illegal drug use.  Just pee in a bottle, hand it to the drug testing technician and you’re done.  These tests are always done by private enterprise companies which normally co-locate mini-offices next door to LTO sites.

(Update.  You no longer need a drug test for driver’s license renewals)

You also need a simple physical.  Blood pressure, eye test and more or less, breathe on a mirror and make sure the glass clouds ;-).

My Mahogany lady took care of all this in less than five minutes, billed me P400 (about $9 USD at today’s rate) for Mahogany’s services, filled up the renewal form for me, and then walked me back to Window One, where she turned in the renewal form and the drug testing/physical report).

Instructions?  “Wait for your name to be called at Window Three, sir.”

(What about window 2?  I have no idea who waits there, I jst followed the simple instructions and waited)

OK, fine.  I waited.  Waiting at the LTO is often much more interesting than ‘waiting” generally sounds like.

There are always a ton of people there, and because everyone is there for a driver’s license, license plates, or some other driving related activity, everyone, foreigner and Filipino alike have something in common.

I also find something that your wives and Filipino friends will never tell you because they aren’t with you to observe it.

Many Filipinos are shy about talking to strangers.  That’s pretty understandable, language difficulties and all.

But they are much more shy of you if you are with another Filipino, especially if it is someone who’s obviously your spouse or otherwise clearly in authority.

Makes sense, really.  because if they do something “un-mannerly” or make some word usage or pronunciation mistake in front of you, the foreigner, so what?

But if they make it in front of another Filipino, especially one who appears educated and “in control”, it perhaps feels much more embarrassing to them, so they don’t take the chance.  Anyway, that’s my theory.

I find many more Filipinos will chat, even initiating a conversation, when I am by myself and we are all on “common ground” like this.

And chat I did, with guys who wanted to know if I knew their brother in California, guys who wanted to tell me how Manila’s traffic is the worst in the world (it isn’t, by the way, compared with Tokyo, Manila traffic is almost like an open road), guys who wanted to tell me how unfair the traffic police were, etc. We all had fun.

Came The Call

In what seemed like no time at all, the speaker over Window Three called out “David Starr, David Starr to Window Three”.  Off to window three, I went.

There the nice window lady pointed to a little digital cam mounted on the window frame.

I looked at it, smiled until the little light flicked on and off, then took a fat, funny-looking pen with a cable attached to the end and signed my name on a funky-looking little tablet attached to the other end of the cable.

Driver’s licenses here are all digital now.

The lady pointed to her computer screen where I could see my mug shot and my hen-scratch signature and asked, OK?  “Yes ma’am”, I replied, “OK with me”.

The lady then said something I couldn’t quite hear, so I leaned closer to the hole in the glass and asked if she could repeat what she just said.  Obviously, she has dealt with half-deaf old men and ‘slow-hearing” foreigners many times before.

Without skipping a beat she lifted a full-size piece of computer paper lying next to her keyboard, which had been computer-printed in block letters an inch or taller, “Please wait to be called to Window Six“.

Smart idea, by the way, because not only does the average foreigner not speak Filipino, but Americans tend to lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of foreigners here who don’t speak English, either.

The center of the earth’s rotation no longer passes through the USA, as some of us Yanks still like to believe.

So I smiled, said “salamat (thank you)”, and went back to perch on a bench in the shade.

(Again, what about windows 4 and 5?  I have no idea and I don’t care.  I just go to the windows they send me to.)

Came The Call

In about 20 minutes, the somewhat mechanical drone coming out of the speaker over Window Six sang out, “David Starr, Mr. David Starr, Window Six, 330 pesos”.

Off I went to Window Six, which is also clearly marked “Cashier”.

I pushed a “Ninoy” (slang for a P500 note) across the counter, and instead of making a face, rummaging around for change, berating me for not having change or many of the other more normal Philippine store clerk reactions, the gentleman was already pushing my change across the counter to me.

“ Wait, I’ll call you again” he said.

Back to the bench, and then in just a few minutes the cashier clerk called for me again.

Standing there at the counter was a uniformed security guard with a clipboard, a pen, my new license and the OR (Official receipt) that showed I paid for the license.

He pointed at my name already written on the form on the clipboard.

I signed my scribble next to my printed name and he handed over the goods with a smile.  Done.

Smiles all around. One hour, thirty-five minutes start to finish.  Three hundred and thirty Pesos total (about $6.00 USD) and not a single annoying “fixer” in sight.

The LTO, in particular, has gone along, long way in just the twelve years I’ve lived here to get rid of the common disorder and corruption.  My hat is off to them.

Those who think that things are not changing for the better in the Philippines are mostly those who don’t live here any more, or are not observing their surroundings, IMO.

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

Do It Yourself or Ask For Help in the Philippines

In case You Think You Are Not Blessed

Walked the few meters to my car and there was a beautiful, tiny little girl … she was probably all of six years old, but looked so tiny and skinny she could have passed for three, waiting, with her hand out.

Even though my heart went out to her, I make it a pretty firm practice never to just hand over money, I always give kids the opportunity to do some small service, so we can both kid ourselves that it is money rendered for service.  I believe it makes us both feel better.

I waved her toward the back corner of my car, got in, cranked up and started backing out of the parking space, the little one, hardly as tall as my tire in my rear view mirror, walking alongside, dutifully tap, tap, tapping out the “keep backing up” code that parking lot attendants use, and holding up her other hand to warn away any other traffic.  All the while ever so vigilantly sweeping her head from side to side watching out that I didn’t “make bunga” with anything.

Broke my heart, really.

There is no question at all in my mind that the hardest thing of all about living here as a foreigner are the children.

There are so many and they need so much.

All I could do was hand her 20 pesos (about 4 times what I would have given a grown man who had performed the same service), and drove off.

I can still see her smile and hear her tiny “salamat” as she realized she now had enough money in her tiny hand for at least one bowl of rice that day.

(Hint to all the folks who will now feel obligated to write and tell me about the problems of organizing begging cartels and how that little girl was probably working for one of them, etc., etc. 

Thanks, but please save your keystrokes. 

I know what’s going on here in many cases, and in some cases, I also don’t really care … just consider that you have already warned me and already vented about the fact that the mystical they should really do something about the beggars rant. 

You didn’t see her face … i did … so you spend your 20 Pesos the way you want to, and I’ll spend mine my way, fair enough?)

OK, The Depressing Part Is Over Now

Out of the parking lot I went, round the corner onto what street?… can you say “MacArthur Highway” boys and girls?  Yeah, thought you could.

Homeward bound with a smile on my face and a new license in my pocket … good for three more years, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

There are times you will need help, as I said at the start of this article.

But for those of you who are homebodies and never go out and get anything done for yourself, by yourself … you’re missing out on a huge part of the experience of living here.

Next time your license needs renewal, just go to Window One and start living your life for real … I think you’ll be glad you did.



Do It Yourself or Ask For Help in the Philippines.