Seven Ways to be a Temporary Local in Manila

Beginning filming on TPD season 2 in the Philippines, it's not enough for me to tell you to be prepared to sweat when you come to Manila as a way feel like a local. That's a given in an island nation this close to the equator and you'll be dripping with the populace in the enormous city no matter what. Here, then, are seven ways to really fit in.

1. Use the jeepneys

Yes, the first time you try to catch one of these open-air jeep-cum-shuttle-vans can be intimidating. But, they are the locals' choice for reliable, inexpensive commuting and you get to rub elbows -- literally -- with scores of work-a-day Manilans, usually for around 10 cents U.S. a ride. As a novice, climb aboard one at its origin point where it idles as the driver waits for it to fill. As you move along in skill, simply hail one on the street in the direction you want to go. Be prepared for it and the others on the road to belch gasoline fumes and smoke, but be proud that you'll most likely be the only foreign traveler using it.

The rear view of a nearly full jeepney at the Pasay Rotunda transport hub. 

2. Eat the street food

Contrary to popular non-Filippino opinion, it won't kill you. My first day in Manila I took it easy and tried a deep-fried hard-boiled egg. It was sarap, as they say in Tagolog -- delicious. When I did not wake up next morning with dysentery or even a mild urge to vomit, I moved on to the advanced course: things on sticks off a tiny grill on a curb in the Makati neighborhood. First, a "control" specimen of plain old barbecued pork that was excellent. Then pigs' ears, fatty and succulent; next, chicken intestines. Yes, teensy little cleaned poultry intestines looped up like ribbon candy and skewered. They have a doughy consistency and a mild chicken favor. Finally, coagulated chicken blood shaped into inch-square flat slabs colloquially known as betamax. Filipinos often name their street nibbles after everyday items the food might resemble. Think of the texture of a hearty mushroom or extra-firm tofu and no real flavor other than the smoke of the grill. This country is not for vegetarians, much less vegans. 

3. Don't stay in the old Spanish quarter

The historic Spanish core of the City of Manila, Intramuros, and its neighboring 'hood to the south, Ermita, are where most travelers stay when they visit the metropolis. Intramuros has gorgeous colonial architecture, history, the whole nine. It's also got crowds of white tourists tromping around messing up the local vibe. Metro Manila comprises 16 cities. Do yourself a favor, stay in Pasay City or Makati where Manilans truly live and you're still within easy reach of the historic sites. To see the way the other half (more like one-tenth) live, head for Bonifacio. 

4. Use the tricycles, just don't get taken for a ride

If jeepneys are the inter-neighborhood transport of choice, covered tricycles, both motorized and pedal powered are the way to cruise short distances inside a neighborhood. Just make sure you agree on the price before you get in, and if the driver changes it when you get out, walk away. I used a trike for an agreed 50 pesos, slightly more than $1, which was a little high, I knew. But, when the driver demanded 300 pesos more before coming to a complete stop at the end of the trip, I hopped out anyway. We had a short shouting match on the sidewalk, whereon, I walked away and he left. Most will not try to swindle you, but don't give in if it happens. 

5. Always carry small peso bills

At the airport, money exchangers will dole out pesos in large bills. Anything larger than 500 pesos will be nearly useless right out of the gate, as even taxi drivers rarely have, or admit to having, change for the standard 1,000 peso bill (about $25) the changers give. A taxi ride from the airport to Pasay City will be less than 300p. Jeepneys and tricycles certainly won't have change for 1,000p, and many bars and lower-priced restaurants won't either. Ask for small denominations. 

6. Join a religious procession if you find one

Religious or not, falling in line with thousands of Manilans as they push, pull, or drive dozens of sanctified floats and beat dozens more drums during a Catholic saint's feast day festival is a quintessential Filipino rite. Don't stand on the curb. Jump in and you'll be embraced as a local. 

A bedecked float in the procession of the feast of Santo Nino, or Child Jesus.

Every January, the procession of the festival
of Santo Nino closes Roxas Boulevard, a main artery in the city.

7. Approach the airport like a pro

Early. Ninoy Aquino International airport is notorious for its lag, and not the jet kind. Before I arrived in the Philippines, a friend warned me that he once waited an hour-and-a-half for a line of five people to get processed at check-in at NAI. His experience was validated by two independent Filipino sources who told me for even a domestic flight it's wise to be three hours early to check in. Take a snack. I recommend the intestines. 


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