By Daniel Leemon
The Philippines holds both the promise of an idyllic tropical island existence and the allure of bright city lights. So, which is better?
I have lived in the Philippines for over 10 years and have tasted both the relaxed freedom of island life on Boracay and in Puerto Galera, and the manic pace of city life in the big smoke of Manila.
Manila, despite its many drawbacks, is a fantastic place to live if you know where to go and what to do. Like any city, it can seem overwhelming at first but, once you know where to go, you’ll find that it’s truly cosmopolitan and offers a plethora of choices in every facet of life.
You can spend the day shopping in huge and often dizzying malls, or choose from the high-end boutiques in places like SM Aura in BGC or Greenbelt, or opt for cheaper places like those in Market Market or Greenhills. You can buy dirt-cheap inferior gear from the street, or treat yourself and overspend in air-conditioned opulence. There are so many shops catering to all tastes that it's impossible not to find what you are looking for and in your price range.
If you want to eat out, again, the choice can rival any big city in the world. Makati and BGC, the two places that I am qualified to speak about, are brimming with fine-dining restaurants, chain food outlets, pop up resto bars-cum-restaurants, and food carts, with cuisine from every country you can think of, as well as a whole bunch of cafes, coffee shops, bakeries, wine shops and everything else in between. It’s a Mecca of different foods, and you have the choice of different flavors every night, and in varied settings.
The nightlife is the same. Masses of bars, nightclubs, and gig venues, from lively sports bars, cool hidden speakeasies and sophisticated cocktail bars, to breezy roof gardens, humble pool-halls-cum-bars, glitzy discotheques, private members bars, casinos - the list goes on and on. There is no type of nightlife establishment that you cannot find in Manila.
On most islands in the Philippines, you don't have this. Some, notably Boracay, do have a fair amount of choice when it comes to bars and restaurants, but nowhere near the same as in Manila. And if you actually live there for a while, as I did, the chances are that you’ll only like a few of them, and going to the same places over and over again can be boring.
Shopping on an island is even more barren. Quality shops are non-existent and shopping malls are like Mini-Me’s of their city cousins that have shrunk in the wash. There are plenty of tourist stalls selling souvenir trinkets and T-shirts, but perusing beachfront stores is not really what I call shopping.
You'll find the odd deli on most islands, almost always owned by foreigners, but the choices they offer are minimal. It is the same with coffee shops; in most places other than Boracay, very few combine good coffee with a nice setting and yummy edibles.
City life is also far more convenient and 24-hour than any island in the Philippines. Many places are open almost around the clock, and getting to where you need to go is far easier. Taxis, jeepneys, trikes, they’re all on your doorstep, whereas on an island you may find that, if it’s late at night, you’re walking round and round trying to find transport or a shop which is still open.
Amenities are also incomparable. In the city, brownouts and water shortages are rare. But I have experienced a few times without electricity on an island, which means no air-con or lights, and no water, which means no showers or flushing toilets. It’s not so bad if you’re on holiday and don't have a schedule to keep, but when you live there and you have things to do, it can be infuriating.
And how about the Internet? Cities have very few Wi-Fi blind spots, and Internet speeds are generally pretty quick. This is important if you need to run a business or do any work which involves going online (which nowadays means any type of work). But if you are on an island, working can be problematic if the connectivity is poor. In fact, I left Puerto Galera simply because the Internet kept dropping and I was unable to work.
This also goes for emergency services, especially hospitals. In Manila, there are some world-class hospitals, like St. Luke's, Makati Med and Asian Hospital, and lots of smaller private hospitals and well-equipped clinics. On an island you usually get one clinic-cum-hospital with limited facilities, and if it’s anything serious, you get sent to Kalibo, Cebu or Manila to see a specialist.
So, there are plenty of advantages to living in the city. But as we all know, there are plenty of drawbacks too.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the bane of everybody’s life, the reason why so many people avoid Manila like the plague: traffic. Yes, officially Manila is now the worst place in the world for traffic. And there is no getting away from it. It is crippling, it can ruin your day, it can throw all your plans into disarray.
An island on the other hand has no issues with traffic. You’ll see a few motorbikes (and the helmet laws are lax to say the least), some tricycles and clear side streets so you can cruise with the wind in your hair, nice and easy. There is the minor problem of potholes (and well, the ongoing roadwork), but to be fair, you also get those in Manila.
In Manila, all those cars, in addition to the factories and chimneys and sewage running into the rivers, create pollution and a stink which is both unhealthy and unpleasant. Many people wear face masks so as not to breathe in too much of the nastiness. Islands have no need for face masks - you can taste the purity of the air (except on Boracay’s roads that are under construction, that is). Waking up in the morning and opening your door to let in that goodness is better than any cup of coffee.
Manila can be stressful and make you feel hemmed in and suffocated. There is a distinct lack of space and greenery. On an island, however, there is nothing but space and lots of nature to make you feel relaxed. The alluring blue of the sea, the inviting golden sands, and the beautiful panoramic views lull you into a tranquil state. There is no comparison: city living is busy, manic, hectic and stressful, island living is a breezy laid-back dream. For the most part anyway.
An island is also usually quiet, without the incessant noise of traffic and the hubbub of people. It is easy to relax and unwind and let all that stress just gently ooze out of you. You get to remember what it is like to just live, exist and be happy, without driving forward all the time or looking for something to do.
And this is at the core of it. In the city, you have all that choice of things to do, but you need to have that choice because you need to keep active. On an island, you don’t have as much choice, but there is no real need for it, because spending time doing nothing is actually quite nice. Basically, the quality of life is much higher on an island, and it's also less expensive.
The last real difference, which some people may not notice, is that the disparity between rich and poor is much greater in the city. On an island, everybody seems happy enough and even poor people still live by the sea, and the kids get to play on the beach all day. In the city, you see people living in rundown shacks in dirty side streets right next to gleaming skyscrapers and opulent bars. The disparity in wealth stands out.
So, what is the conclusion? Is it better on an island or in the city? The answer is not simple and it is not the same for everyone. It depends on what you want out of life. If you are smart and can manage it financially, you do both.