Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Jac Liner: Unsafe and Insincere?

I suppose that by now I should be used to the overall substandard quality of customer service that businesses in the Philippines provide. Still  it's really irritating when companies and government offices as well give the impression of concern  for consumer satisfaction by furnishing  a page in their website for receiving complaints but then ignore the comments or correspondence placed therein. Such were two experiences that I had with the bus company Jac Liner Inc.

In order to register one complaint (regarding lack of rest stops on a particular route)  I completed their "Contact Us" page but received no response. So in the matter of my second problem, which involved personal safety, this time I sent a letter via email attachment directly  to the Customer Service Manager. Here's what generated this correspondence: A few weeks ago, when I boarded a Jac Liner bus in Lucena City, Quezon, I arranged with both the driver and the conductor to let me off at the SM Megamall stop in Mandaulyong City, Metro-Mla. Instead  with no warning the driver passed up that location and dropped me further upon Edsa into the middle of the busy intersection with Ortigas that had no access to the curb, and it was only with great difficulty that I extricated myself out of that hazardous situation.

When I didn't get a reply to my letter, I then followed up by contacting a government regulatory agency that oversees the operations of public transportation companies, the LTFRB,  via their website contact page and (not surprisingly)  did not get a response.

In my letter to Jac Liner, I gave notice that if they chose to ignore my concern that I would take the matter public. So if nothing else, I hope that this post will alert those who utilize this transportation company's services or are otherwise  interested about this company's  apparent negligence and indifference to passenger safety.

In short there's no excuse for  such companies to disregard the concerns of the very public who after all keep them in business in the first place.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Milestone

August 27 marked the 10th anniversary of my arrival in the Philippines. Overall despite some bumps in the road, my wife Lydia and I have had a good life here as expatriate retirees.  How this all began was that Lydia had  dreamed of and had actually planned for us to make this move a few years before she  told me about her desire for us to relocate to her native land. Initially I was reluctant to go along with what I considered to be an outlandish idea. But the more I thought about it, the more  I realized how in many ways it made sense. After a while, I was totally on board.

However, we had no guarantee that our plans would succeed. And in order to accomplish our goal, this meant taking risks from which there was no turning back.  Giving up our materially comfortable lives in California and starting over in a foreign environment was not an easy consideration. And dissatisfied as I was with my work, leaving my job with its steady paycheck was a daunting prospect. But once we took these giant leaps and began our lives anew in Metro-Manila, everything more or less fell into place.One thing I will always remember about that time is that  thanks to Lydia, who arrived here nine months earlier in order to pave the way and get us settled in, we were able to establish our lives in this country rather smoothly. And to that end, Lydia's family members were also--and still are very supportive--for which I am most grateful.

Adjusting to retirement itself was no problem at all, even  to the much smaller income that we are now receiving than when we were working. This is because living expenses in the Philippines are for the most part less than that in the U.S. So the  dollar goes a lot further here. And even after all this time, hardly a day goes by that I'm not thankful for the freedom of no longer having to toil for a living.  I've never understood those who dread the prospect of hanging it up because they think they will be condemned to a life of boredom. Personally, during  these last 10 years my life has been much more meaningful  and productive than it was while I was  employed.

And speaking of adjustments, relocating to a different country of course entails challenges such as adapting to cultural differences. One of these in our case was giving up driving and becoming totally dependent on public transpiration to get around. We have not been behind the wheel once in all the time that we've been here.  Motorists in the Philippines, especially  here in Metro-Manila where we reside, are extremely undisciplined. and traffic is chaotic. Lydia and I spent many years driving in California which has more than its share of crazy drivers and traffic problems, but these are not nearly as nightmarish as local conditions.

Another important matter is health care which for seniors like Lydia and me  is an especially important issue. On the whole, we are satisfied with the quality of medical and dental treatment which we've received here . But  a problem  is the attendant expenses which can really mount up. Overall these costs are a lot less than that in the U.S. However, as a percent  to our retirement income, they have had a serious impact. We do carry private health insurance, but its premiums are steep and its benefits inadequate, leaving us to cover a lot of bills out of our pocket. There is a government healthcare program in the Philippines to which we subscribe called Philhealth, but its coverage is also limited. And speaking of government health care, there's talk that that eventually Medicare from the U.S. will become available for American senior citizens living abroad, which of course would be wonderful. However,  I don't see this happening soon.

The biggest and most time consuming issue that we've encountered is an emotionally bruising and ongoing encounter with the  Philippine legal  system which grinds slowly and inefficiently and like other government branches here has a problem with corruption.  Lydia is a plaintiff in three pending civil  cases, involving personal and /or  family land and title matters. The oldest of these has been dragging on since 2009! 

But regardless of the above shortcomings and hassles, my attachment to and Lydia's roots in the Philippines run deep. In fact we  plan to spend the rest of our lives here. And despite our advanced ages, we still  have projects in the works. For example we are currently  in the midst of renovating  a property  that we own in Lydia's hometown for our visits there. Whether eventually this will become more than just an occasional place to crash remains to be seen.

Lydia and I have come a long way since 2005. Through a continuation of the careful planning and good fortune that has brought us this far, we can only hope that we will be able to sustain the same  modest but comfortable lifestyle that we have enjoyed here for the future as well.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shaking Off an Illusion

What would happen if a 7.2 earthquake were to strike Metro-Manila? Recently, the  MMDA (Metro-Manila Development Authority)  held an area-wide drill that included officials and  the public as well in order to address this concern and prepare people here for such an event. But was this goal accomplished?

Well first of all, according to official estimates in the event of such a quake casualties and property damage would be as follows: 38,000 fatalities and 100,000 injured. Out of 170,000 residences, 22,000 will collapse and 1,200, 000 people will be left homeless.

Yet even as an average person with no training in engineering , I can't help but wonder if these figures are a  serious underestimation. Here's why. For one thing, Residences here are overcrowded due to large families and widespread poverty. In turn the structures that they live in are likely to be unsafe  (which also describes many business buildings in Metro-Manila) due to  overworked, underpaid and hence  sometimes corrupt building inspectors--and many of the buildings may have never been inspected in the first place). So for example when a house collapses, it will likely fall on more than just a few occupants. Imagine that scenario involving thousands of such homes and of course businesses such as malls and highrise office buildings and condos.

Then there is the culture issue. Most Filipinos are not safety conscious. Instead the predominant mentality here is one of fatalism and which is expressed in the popular phrase bahala na. Loosely translated, this maeans "leave it to God". And as a country with a very high rate of observant theists, mainly Roman Catholics,  the tendency here is for people to pray for a favorable outcome through divine intervention, rather than take action to achieve it themselves.  For the most part it seems that they would rather pray than plan.

Another issue is the  the possibility of  panic and stampedes  in crowded venues during this strong temblor, and the looting that would likely follow it.The  MMDA Chairman, Francis Tolentino claims  that thanks to instructions and practice given in the earthquake drill, people would now automatically know to drop, cover, and hold. But will most of them really do that when the time comes?  A national trait in the Philippines  is ningas cogon which is a tendency of people here to be stirred up into feeling a strong interest in or enthusiasm for something today (such as earthquake preparedness) only for it to fade away tomorrow. So whatever lessons or advice those who participated in the quake exercise might have so eagerly learned that day may well have been forgotten or disregarded when it's "go" time.

And what is the status of preparedness  by the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to address looting and other forms of lawlessness following a catastrophic quake?  Are they prepared to enforce a possible executive declaration of martial law if necessary? 

The time of day and day of the week make a difference in this kind of disaster. Obviously, it's going to be a lot worse if it happens at high noon on a weekday than on an early Sunday morning. But a night time quake of this magnitude also has its own hazards e.g. when the lights go out from a likely power interruption. Imagine trying to locate casualties in collapsed buildings under these conditions. And digging them out even in daylight will be difficult given the state of the  art of search and rescue equipment in this third world country.  However, to its credit, Pasig City did conduct their drill at night complete with a blackout of street lights and street closures in some areas to simulate difficult conditions.

In the aftermath of intense seismic activity, providing assistance including shelter, food,and water to millions of displaced survivors could be a nightmare, even though post-quake evacuation sites have already been designated.. Look what happened in Typhoon Yolanda. That was over two years ago and some victims still haven't been adequately cared for. And unlike typhoons and other natural disasters, earthquakes give no warning before they occur. There would be no chance for lowering the casualty rate by taking cover,  preemptive evacuation, or running for high ground.

I posit all the above scenarios as one who like millions of others in the world  has experienced numerous earthquakes under varying conditions. Personally, I've never become accustomed to them and likely never will.  But I do want a realistic assessment from government  authorities of what will likely happen  in the event that a strong one should occur. Unfortunately, for those of us here in Metro-Manila, such a convincing scenario has yet to be presented.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

And She's Got To Get Herself Back to the Garden

For over four years I have been unable to accompany my wife Lydia on her monthly visits to her home province of Quezon in Southern Luzon. This week I  finally did so. Our destination was the  town of Gumaca which is about 6 1/2 hours by bus from Metro Manila.  The scenery along the way in the countryside between towns is lush and verdant,.  which combined with the fact that there were no major delays made the ride fairly pleasant.

This was a special trip for me not just due to the length of time since my last visit, but mainly because this is first time that I've seen the work that has been done on a special project that Lydia started several months ago: renovation of our old house that we had built there many years ago, but which had fallen into ruin as it had not been occupied or properly attended to after we returned to the U.S. and subsequent occupants failed to properly maintain the property. Finally, it was abandoned altogether. and thieves stripped away many of the furnishings. 

Initially, when we returned to the Philippines 10 years ago,  we had planned to sell the property. However,  it turns out that all along  Lydia had really wanted us to have a house in the barrio, a place that we could call our own  no matter how modest and to which we could escape every so often from the urban jungle of Metro-Manila. to the very type of green countryside environment that I saw en route to Gumaca. Importantly, she wanted us to have a place to which we could also permanently relocate if for whatever reason life in the city should become unbearable.

Moreover, she wanted to be able  fulfill her passion for gardening  and landscaping as well as for interior design.  Lydia has done a beautiful job with the latter here in our leased condominium in Eastwood City.  Yet in her mind it's just not the same as decorating one's own home. Now she will be able to indulge her passion for both inside and outside artistry  to her heart's content. In fact she is well on her way to realizing her vision via the unique style in which she is having our house rebuilt. The design  that Lydia created is what she calls   "Hobbit House" and as such is rather whimsical. The roof is a burgundy red;  the front door which is oval shaped(!) will be painted blue-gray; the living room window is circular; and the back door has flower carvings. The cottage itself  is surrounded by a garden with flowers in splashing colors, and right behind the house is a mountain which completes the storybook-like setting. 

And now that I've finally seen the results for myself, I'm totally onboard and couldn't be more proud of her dreams and the  steps that she taken to fulfill them.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Globe Telecom's Failure to Connect

Until the late 1990's there was only one telephone company in the Philippines, Philippine Long Distance Teleophone aka PLDT, which controlled all phone services both local and long distance here . As a result of this monopoly, phone communications in the this country were abysmal. Just obtaining a land line usually meant a wait of several months. Phone use itself was beset with problems such as dial tones outages, poor
reception,dropped calls, and obsolete equipment.

When the market for this utility was opened up to other players, telephone availability and service improved  especially with the explosive growth in popularity of cell phones. However  mobile phone service providers themselves can also often be unresponsive to or inept in addressing customer complaints, or they make promotion offers that they don't keep. In both these areas, I've had unresolved issues, specifically with Globe Telecom through whom my wife Lydia and I have prepaid service for our mobile phones.

A few months ago I received a message from Globe requesting my participation in a  customer survey, the reward for which was supposed to be  one day of unlimited free calls. But when I completed the survey questionnaire, Globe failed to live up to its end of the deal. I pursued the issue for some time and out of frustration finally settled for a P25 addition to my prepaid load.

However, the biggest problem with Globe was their inability to fix a loss of the load status retrieval service on Lydia's phone. This function is normally a simple process of creating the message "Bal"and then sending to 222 or alternatively to *143#. But she could no longer get a reply when entering these codes.

So as per Globe's recommendation, through a process of elimination she determined that there was no problem with her SIM card which was originally thought to be the source of the malfunction, and therefore the cause must be either the phone itself or  with the Globe network. As it turned out, it was the latter:  When we placed a SIM card from another service provider, SMART Communications, into her phone and executed the load amount request function from that network, it worked just fine. I apprised Globe of this outcome, and they promised to resolve the matter once and for all within one week but after several weeks and more of their unfulfilled assurances, we gave up. Lydia permanently switched her unit to SMART. However, In doing so, of course this meant a change in phone number and all the inconveniences and hassles which accompany that process. But the alternative of using a prepaid  cellphone without knowing the remaining load balance means the likelihood of an unexpected zero balance service cutoff in the middle of a call or text. And who needs that kind of stress?   

Perhaps Globe was just telling us what we wanted to hear all along , which is a practice in Philippine culture,  and had no intention of taking care of our complaint.  At any rate, their claim of advanced state of the art prowess is meaningless  hype if at the end of the day they cannot deliver reliable customer service to their subscribers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Level of Awareness: Why Expats Need to Keep Up With Local Current Events

As a permanent resident in the Philippines, I try to stay informed about political events in this country, even though I'm a non-citizen and can't vote or otherwise directly participate in civic matters. But politics is a popular topic of discussion in the Philippines; so it's important to be conversant on these matters.  One way to stay on top of things here is via the  local daily newspapers. Personally, my favorite broadsheets  are the "Philippine Daily Inquirer" and "The "Philippine Star". Their coverage of news and of socioeconomic and political analysis is comprehensive, and their columnists in the opinion section offer excellent analyses of these events.

One of the major news stories that I've been following in these journals is the slaughter on Jan. 25 of 44 police commandos who were ambushed by hostile Moro forces while trying to capture two notorious terrorists hiding in the latter's midst.  In the course of the gun battle one of the fugitives was killed and the other escaped.This incident took place in Mamasapanto, Maguindanao, which is in the southern part of the Philippines (Mindanao). This island has been a hotspot of unrest and rebellion for hundreds of years,   carried out by the Muslim majority (Moros) of that region.  As separatists they've never fully integrated into Philippine society. Thus they feel little if any allegiance to the  Philippine  central government and would likely try to secede from the country if given the opportunity. As will be seen below, that scenario may yet come to pass.

Since the 1960's the rebels have stepped up their hostilities   In an effort to pacify them,  the Philippine government has worked out  with the  MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front)  leaders in that region an agreement known as the BBL (Basic Bangsamoro Law) and which is now under deliberation by the Philippine Congress and by their MILF counterparts.  This arrangement would increase the scope of Muslim self rule in that area  presently called the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao), which itself came about as a territorial concession that the government granted in a previous deal years ago. The new treaty would in effect make this area a state within a state. Due to this and other  questionable provisions, the BBL may  violate the Philippine Constitutional. But  rather than change the terms of the BBL to fit that charter, there is a movement to amend the Constitution to fit the BBL. Talk about the tail wagging the dog!

And come to think of it, the BBL is reminiscent of another government plan in  2008 called the Bangsamoro Juridicial Entity which would have also given away the store to the Moros.  But fortunately the BJE was nixed by the Philippine Supreme Court.  So by going down that same road, again the BBL offer demonstrates how intent (some might say desperate) the government is to stabilize that region.

But can the MILF be trusted? Initially, the Philippines signed a peace treaty in the 1996 with a rebel movement known  as the MNLF, (Moro National Liberation Front). In turn the MILF itself is a breakaway faction from the MNLF and has supplanted the latter. And even though the MILF is conducting negotiations with the  government, it readily acknowledges itself as still being a revolutionary movement.

To add to the mix, now there is a breakaway  splinter group from the MILF called the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) which claims responsibility for the attack on the commandos. Yet as the result of family ties, there is an affinity between these two factions.And Maguindanao is not only a volatile locale in terms of its relations with the Philippine central government. There are also continual feuds and outbreaks of violence among the various tribes and powerful families there, one of which in 2009 resulted in another massacre. That one took the lives of 57 civilians.

So if the BBL becomes law, whether it will really improve the relationship between the Moros and the Philippine government is questionable.As noted above, previous such agreements which were hailed as breakthroughs have in the end fallen through instead usually because of bad faith by the Moro rebels. With the additional powers that the BBL would grant them,  the next step in terms of any further demands by the rebels may be the ultimate one: total independence from the Philippines.

So there we have it:  a news event that includes some of the politics, culture, and history of this country. The more that we as expats  know about this and other issues going on around us whether they are at the barangay, municipal, or national government level, not only can we then discuss these issues intelligently with the citizenry, but  importantly, the more we can also understand local culture. In turn this will facilitate our adjusting to life in the Philippines accordingly. .