There are roadside stores everywhere in the Philippines. They may be the backbone of Pilipiñas commerce, though no doubt at risk of being displaced by the mega malls and 7Eleven shops popping up everywhere in urban centres, and increasingly even in small towns. The only thing that keeps these little shops going is that their prices are still half that of the mall and department stores. Many of these small retailers sell clothes purchased from larger independent wholesalers, often ukay-ukay goods – recycled clothes coming from other countries, including Canada. (Did you ever wonder what happened to the clothes you put in those Cerebral Palsy recycle bins?) In subdivisions of close-quartered little linked houses, it may also be proximity – every third house is also a store of some kind. Many are merely stocked with everyday goods, packaged foods and sweets; their revenues must be slim and their margins slimmer. You wonder if the operators can make a living income from their tiny enterprises. These little shops are patronized by their neighbours who can’t easily make it to the malls. It’s another little reminder, in obscure ways perhaps, of my own childhood in the 50s and 60s in Canada, the ubiquitous mom and pop corner store fast disappearing in 21st century.
The roadside shops (remember now, these shops are no more than thrown-together sheds from found materials, rusting corrugated steel roofs, often held down with cement blocks) usually run in strings of 6 – 12 stores along the highways and roads, butting right up to the edge of the pavement, then peter out or become a new string.
But apart from the food and snack shacks, there are many specialized goods shops. The curious thing is that often these roadside shops are organized by product – they all sell the same things along the same section of the road. You will see a string of plant nurseries and then it shifts to a set of shops that build furniture (beds, cupboards, doors), and then Bamboo furniture (qubos and chairs), then along another stretch of road a string of bread and baked goods shops.
And communities and barangays are identified with a particular product: Balison (Batangas) for balison (Filipino pocket knife); San Pablo for stainless steel (pots and tools and car wheels).
Many foods are identified with particular locales: Lechon (whole roasted pig) is seen as the national dish of Cebu. Paterros (Luzon) for balut (duck chicks in the shell!). Vigan for kalamy (rice candy); Tagaytay for Buko (coconut) Pie; Baguio – strawberry, peanut brittle, and ube jam; Sukang Ilocos for Vinegar from sugarcane.
Roads are a work in progress in the Philippines. And there is a lot more progress needed to be made. And it’s easy to see why. The Philippines’ population increased by 600% from the end of WWII to now, more than 110,000,000, not including the 12 million Filipinos in the OFW brigades and the Filipino diaspora. And they all have cars, or motorcycles, or aspire to have their own wheels; or at any rate have to travel from A to B using public transit: thousands of buses, jeepneys and tricycles. The roads are clogged.
As a result, The Philippines have been working on road expansion, for decades. Quite apart from the massive multi-lane and elevated expressways of Manila, the infrastructure pride and joy of every new President of the Republic, the roads and highways in the Provinces also are being widened. But this is not as simple as it sounds. Recall that I have said Filipinos have encroached upon every roadway in the country. Tiny makeshift stores and dwellings, and many substantial buildings, have butted themselves right up against the edges of the two lane roadways. There are no shoulders to these roads and it is amazing that there is no carnage of dogs and children as cars race through these continuous communities. So the task of widening a road from two lanes to four (or even four lanes to six), is an exercise in patience. The roadside residents are given plenty of notice and eventually the shacks and cement porches and walled yards are removed or set back a few meters. Then a crew of workers, usually only a half dozen or so, begin the task of digging up, installing water and sewer lines, filling in, pouring concrete curbs and paving the road. All by shovel. It is rare to see a backhoe or grader; even the cement is made the old fashioned way, in batches. Of course this is slow. Hundreds of miles of roads are being widened 50 meters at a time. And these 50 meter projects are happening all over the Philippines.
Even more unusual is that they often leave trees and utility poles in the new lanes. Moving the poles back must be somebody else’s department, and trees are sacrosanct.
I think the largest employer in the Philippines, after the self-employed shop keepers, are the security companies supplying guards by the dozen to every major plaza, store and bank, all dressed in their crisp white uniforms (except for the more militant looking dark suited ones). These bored young men, who look like clones of one another, stand all day long. The more engaging ones actually help customers with directions.
The legions of sales clerks must form the next largest employee group. The department stores and shops and restaurants swarm with sales staff. It’s often thankless work, unnoticed by the customers. Enter any Ace Hardware Store and you’re met by a phalanx of young helpers. They lead you down the aisle to help you find what you’re looking for. If it comes in a box they take it out of the box and test it, then bring it to the cashier to help you check out. Now compare that to Canadian Tire; not a sales clerk anywhere to be found. At least Home Hardware in Canada seems to follow the Philippines service model. But I wonder how the stores make payroll.
There must be armies of office workers and public servants occupying the massive towers in metro Manila but I never saw much of that this trip.
The Seniors Card
An initiative of the Aquino Government, this little piece of Philippines bureaucracy allows Filipinos over 60 (as well as Pregnant Women and Persons With Disabilities) to enjoy certain privileges: discounts up to 20% on movies, restaurants, essential groceries, pharmaceuticals. You present your card, and your record book, and the cashiers or waiters spend the next 9 minutes sorting out all the codes and getting a supervisor’s authorization. I’m not sure the wait is worth it, but the card holders also get their own priority lanes in stores, or are able to jump the queues. Many a Filipino (mostly Filipina) are seen to raise an eyebrow when Carmen, looking 45, steps boldly to the front of the line. Maybe she’s pregnant.
Filipinos and their eyebrows
Filipinos speak a complete separate language with their eyebrows, Filipinas especially. Mostly raised. They can have entire conversations without saying a word. Filipinas love their cell phones (though the cell phone function is largely redundant due to free voip apps such as Messenger, Skype and Whatsap). And they use them in video mode, shouting at the screen. It seems to me a waste of bandwidth and it’s loud and, to my Anglo ear, aggressive, though Filipinos don’t see their intercourse as conflictual, merely expressive. The video is a critical piece, because of the need to see the eyes and eyebrows!
Not ‘smoking’ – I don’t see much smoking in Pilipiñas – they seem to have kept pace with the west in restricting smoking, though there is more prevalence amongst the Chinese Philippinos.
No, I’m talking about fires. Filipinos burn things. Little bonfires seem to happen in every other lot. Reminds me of bygone days in Canada when every yard had a fire pit, often an old oil barrel, and every spring people burned cardboard and papers accumulated over the winter. But that was the 1960s, this is 2020, even if a world away from Canada. A fire outside your hotel balcony is a bit was surprising, even if pleasing because of the memory trigger. On our driving tour of Ilocas Norte we frequently came upon Department of Highways employees clearing tall dead grass along the roadside by ‘controlled fires’; I say that with quotation marks because usually there was not much evidence of anyone supervising these grass fires in the road side ditches. But it did remind me of my long ago youth when everyone in the countryside and even the neighbourhood had ditch fires in the spring. A roadside grass fire is one thing, a cloud of bitter smelling blue smoke rising from the neighbouring yard at 7:00 am, is a bit disturbing. Of course the smoke smell depended entirely on what was being burned, and it could be anything; in the case of the immediate neighbour to Quba Qabana Resort, it could be tires and old lubricants. Burning leaves in Canada usually have a pleasing outdoorsy smell; but who knows what noxious chemicals lurk in the Philippines leaves.
And what do we learn from all this Trivia? That The Philippines is a country of contrasts, a curious combination of west and east, old and modern. Of tradition and of a rapidly changing society. And it gives me pause to consider aspects of my own life in Canada. We will speak more of this in chapters ahead: The Clichés of the Philippines, Pilipiñas Paradoxes, and last, Travels with Myself.