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.