paalam (for now) to Phil pesos, US dollars and the daily use of cash

BLEW BY the money changer today, one of only two kiosks in our small city near Wellington (Mahal works in the other one but she was at home sick today).

Among other things my chores were to pay the internet / phone bill, buy something to complete the immunity smoothie recipe, and exchange the pesos and dollars we held during our three-week vacay back to the currency of the natives.

I was struck by the disparity of the situation: In the Philippines, cash was king, the liquid that coursed through all transactions.  In certain places you could even use local money, US dollars and euros, whatever you had in your pockets.

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In New Zealand, it’s almost like there’s an effort to evolve into a cashless society.  The moment anyone doesn’t use an ATM or debit /credit card you can see the cashier / retail guy roll his eyeballs, thinking oh here’s another oddball with the banknotes and coins.

On public transport, almost everyone uses the Snapper, an electronic data card containing bus or train credits, consumable and to be topped up / reloaded whenever needed.  For this reason, drivers get cranky if you don’t have the exact change because, well drivers don’t expect that many people to carry cash and coins around anymore.

In fact, if you’re ultra-comfortable with using your mobile phone, banks have already gone one step further, partnering with merchants across the industry: combining telephony, electronic point-of-sale technology (EFTPOS) and sensor/scanning innovations, your smartphone now also serves as your wallet.  In a lot of places, including airports, taxis (Uber and Grab, of course), moviehouses, name it,  cash as well as your back pocket has become obsolete.

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Because of big business and the humongous market, the Philippines without a doubt will catch up with New Zealand.  But for now, based on my recent visit last month, cash is still preferred.  People still lug around fat wads of crisp or grimy peso bills for everyday purchases.

Just look around you, as I did while going around shopping centers in Greenhills, Megamall, Robinsons Galleria and Makati.

A good portion of goods and services still need to be purchased with salapi.  Not only because of the delay in upgrades, it’s also due to the fact that Pinoys in urban areas still depend on the informal (some say underground) sector of the economy.

Think about it kabayan.  Yosi (Cigaret) boys, sidewalk vendors, sari-sari stores and ambulant sellers.  Even watch-car boys, taho and balut vendors, bote diaryo buyers (with those kariton or wooden trolleys who buy your junk) or even, don’t forget, jeepney drivers.   Can you imagine them carrying card readers for your ATMs or credit cards to swipe?

Getting one of my credentials from a government agency, I once asked if I could pay with ATM (ATM!) or credit card.  The cashier just looked at me as if I was nuts.

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A short word on US dollars, based on my limited OFW experience.  Like anywhere else in the civilized world, US dollars are acceptable, sometimes even more desirable than local currency.  This is because of the stability and universality contained in those dead presidents.  But there is another reason, as if you didn’t know.  Almost everywhere also, currencies are pegged against the US dollar.  This means the NZ dollars in my figurative pockets were meaningless in terms of Philippine pesos unless they were first (theoretically) expressed in terms of US dollars; then and only then would it make sense to convert them into usable Philippine pesos here (there, nakabalik na pala ako sa New Zealand).

Whatever, be it in US$, NZ$ or PhP, it pays (literally) to keep your funds in the liquidest form, i.e., ube (P100), Ninoys (P500) and that trio of heroes I still can’t identify (P1,000) but come in very handy when I buy my favorite electronics, pasalubong and colorful running shoes.

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Which was why, literally, until wheels up of our departing airplane, we still thought it prudent to carry around a little cash just for emergencies in the motherland.

Compare this to our host nation, where I could go for weeks, months even, without seeing a dollar note or coin crossing my palms.  From the time of wage payment (online) till the last cent is spent (online), I don’t see a physical manifestation of my pay.  Not that there’s much to spend, by the way 🙂

Oh well. na senti lang ako returning all that money back to origin (the Philippines) where the pesos I exchanged will surely go.  After all, that’s where Pinoy pesos should be right?  In Pinoyland.

Where I dream of returning, by the way.  All the time.


Thanks for reading!

pay as you go (please park your conscience at counter)

How much would you be willing to pay to avoid waiting here? thanks and acknowledgment to!

(Note : This is a longish post.  Thanks and mabuhay everyone who made my trip here a genuine pleasure!)

WHAT WE’VE noticed in big, big government agencies that process massive amounts of nameless faces each day is: as you go further up the conveyor belt, the flow gets smaller, the crowds start thinning, but it gets more intense.  You get closer to the document (or service) you need, but the suspense gets thicker.

Will there be a problem? Will the pencil-pusher ask a question you can’t answer, or worse, can’t answer without jeopardizing yourself?  And lastly: if an extra “consideration” is needed to speed up the process, will you afford it, and if so, will you make little compromises with yourself, tainting both the corruptor and corruptee?

But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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In a complete reversal of last year, where I went through the entire process legally and regularly,  I braced myself to do anything and everything to get my government document (I can’t tell you exactly what it is but you probably have a good idea, I need a new one every year) in the quickest possible time and with the least amount of stress.

If you can believe me, Precious Reader, my righteous intolerance  for shortcuts and corruption in bureaucracy gave way to a pressing need to procure my document before I was to return to the salt mines.  One week before the return flight home just wouldn’t cut it, and my long experience with sharing my name (common given name and very common family name) with a gazillion other brown brothers allowed me to discern that the process would take an extra week, just to ascertain that I wasn’t the guy they were hunting in cases captioned Robbery with Homicide, Qualified Theft and Illegal Possession of a Common Name (made that last one up, heh heh).  So for convenience and survival, I temporarily abandoned my scruples, and laid out a few hard-earned but well-spent bills of dinero for “extra service.”

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My brother knew a friend of a friend, who knew a Contact, and our instructions were simple and specific: all we had to do was give our names and IDs and leave it with his guy (as I’ll elaborate on later, the instructions were simple so they could be followed to the letter) .  Two texts and that was it, we would leave our names, show our IDs, and get our documents from Brother’s Friend of a Friend a day later.  But no.  I had to ask around, wait a while, just to be sure it would be ready on the same day.  I’m stupid that way.

So we text and meet the Contact, a burly guy wearing polo barong and maong (ikr?) and a nonchalant but all-too-obvious mother-of-pearl-handgripped 9mm bestfriend.  So despite his admin or desk status, he was authorized to carry a gun.

Oh well.

Ibigay nyo lang sa kin ID nyo at lumang dokumento, ako na’ng bahala. (Just give me your IDs and old documents, I’ll just take care of everything), he said.

No introductions, not even the sycophantic grin.  All business.  And after all, we were the ones who approached/roused him out of his apparatchik stupor.  We duly complied, but because we didn’t have our old documents, he had to make do.

(But weytaminit, kapeng mainit, wasn’t that the reason for our meeting?  If we had the old documents with us, the processing time would’ve been dramatically reduced, and we probably wouldn’t even be meeting that day. But that was that.)

Almost as an afterthought, but calculated to be asked just before he left us, he asked for the legal processing fee, which was of course a perfectly reasonable expectation, but at this point the stage where I made my FIRST mistake.

The unwritten rule in situations like this, where a lot of things are spontaneous and dependent on the moment is: for application and processing fees, HAVE THE EXACT CHANGE READY.

I gave him a one-thousand peso bill, which Contact put in his pocket, for a P220.00 payment and change for which I would never see again.

Mahal my gorgeous wife, who was with me and who also needed the same document, glared at me, and whispered, bakit di mo hiningi sa akin? May barya ako rito! (Why didn’t you ask me for the money? I had effing change here!)  Ahead of me, she instinctively knew we would not get change for that.


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He then led us through a labyrinth of people and pencil-pushers much like any government office where documents and services are needed 8 hours a day,  5 days a week, and 52 weeks a year.  The only difference?  We were breaking lines and disrespecting queues left and right, bypassing gatekeepers, breaching lines of disciplined applicants that had been there for hours and hours, and who were all, without exception, giving us the evil eye.  Security guards and queue wardens were all ignoring us or looking the other way at the right time.  All because of Mang Contact our escort, who did it like he was smoking a cigarette or chewing gum.

Another rule I made for myself (and future corruptors like me): when you are breaking lines and jumping queues, keep your head down and don’t engage.  Don’t look at anybody, much less look at anybody in the eye.  They quickly make the assumption you’re either a VIP or bribing somebody, which we verily were.

After a very summary data-processing interview where the guy in front of the screen took our details (already in the system) and updated our statuses (unneeded) we were scooted away to fingerprinting and photo-taking, which took less than a minute for both of us.  Again, we broke a few lines and earned a few more unpleasant stares, from people who had booked appointments days before and were returning just for that particular process.

After our much-reduced waiting and processing time, we were handed appointment slips of paper which were dated two weeks in the future, long past the day we would leave the homeland and back to New Zealand.  After a moment’s distress, I had an “aha” moment where I reminded myself : this is what Mang Contact is for, polo-barong and maong, ivory handgun, giant government ID and everything else.

Of course we gave our slips of paper (receipts, actually) to the Contact, who after returning our IDs, whispered (why was he whispering? no one was paying attention, and what he had to say, everyone knew about, maybe even pretending not to be in on it) , magJollibee muna kayo, balik kayo apter lanch, pumunta kayo sa (name of office that double-checked our common names).”

Which was hunky-dory with me, because, per Brother’s simple and specific instructions, we were to respond, ibigay nyo na lang mga dokumento kay (Friend of a Friend of Bro), OK na.  We were gonna get the documents from Bro’s Friend of a Friend in 24 hours, anubanamanyon?

My stupid self sez to me : why don’t you just make sure the documents are in your hands ASAP?  After all it’s just a coupla hours, Noel.

So I sez to Contact, with another P1000 bill under the receipts marked two weeks from now: OK babalik kami, maraming salamat po.

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That was my SECOND mistake.  I gave him money that wasn’t for me to give; deviated from the script which was to never see him again, and just wait for the documents to be sent, ultimately, to my brother.

I knew this instantly because, witnessing his double-take, Contact wasn’t expecting the blue bill under the slips.  He said, um, o sige wag ka na bumalik dun sa (office), ako na’ng bahala, and for the first time flashed his toothless smile.

To which I was taken aback and realized my mistake.  He wasn’t expecting the money, because I belatedly remembered Brother saying the Friend of a Friend would take care of him for routine nobodys like me.  The generous change from the unexpected P1,000 earlier (11 paragraphs ago) was more than enough for him. Unwittingly (and without wanting such status), I had become a VIP in his corruptible eyes.

Double sigh.

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After ChickenJoy and Burger Steak Meal, two hours later, I received a text advising me to plant my middle-aged a*s at the Public Assistance Center lobby conveniently located near the sea of humanity being processed and holding their payments on the first, second and third floors of the Main Office issuing documents all Filipinos needed to work.  They were like well-behaved mindless zombies just waiting for their official documents without which they could not start working towards the Filipino Dream.

At the meeting area, I was met by Contact, who said something like this:  May konting problema.  May kapangalan ka sa Mindanao na may kaso, pero aayusin ko.  Steady ka lang dyan, ibibigay ko rin ngayon ang papel mo.  (There’s a slight problem.  Someone with your name has a pending case in Mindanao [the Philippines’s deep south, not the best place to be when you’re going back overseas soon]  but I’ll fix it.  Just stay here.)

He added that to get a certification that this person isn’t me would take another few days from the branch office in Mindanao, blah blah blah but in so many words the message was clear:  Another small payment was needed.

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For (1) finishing the entire process in one day, (2) bypassing the process/es where I had to be checked against other guys sharing my first and last names, and (3) enduring the last of this guy’s bullsh*t, I was prepared to give him what remained in my dog-eared wallet, which was, at the end of the day, all of five hundred pesos.

Without thinking, I fished out the Ninoy, and handed it to him surreptitiously.  Kuya ito na lang pera  ko, pwede na ba yan?  (Elder brother, this is all I’ve got left, will it be enough?)

Without hesitating he took it like it was tissue paper for a runny nose, tossed it into his bulky pocket (which btw didn’t even half-hide the menacing nine-round Argument-Ender tucked in his belt) and asked me to wait some more.

As if I could do anything else.

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Thirty minutes later, give or take an evil stare or two from fellow OFWs,  I was resbak-ing out of there with my newly-minted documents, with an aloha (and toothless grin) from my new Best Friend, Manong Contact.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of it.  I duly reported the day’s activities to Brother, truthfully of course and without varnishing or editing.

He sarcastically intoned, “I gave you simple and specific instructions for a reason.  You were to leave your names and fees with the guy, give AT MOST a little pangmeryenda (a little money for a snack) if he insisted, and leave.  The documents were to be given to me, at the latest, tomorrow.  Which part did you not understand???”

(I fully deserved that, and hung my head.)

Instead, I hung around, and in the process provided meryenda and baon to Mang Contact’s family for two days, gave him the impression I had money to burn, and proved to Brother (and Mahal) that I couldn’t follow simple instructions.

On the other hand, I earned a new Best Friend, who probably doesn’t even remember me by now.

And (duh) we got our documents!

Thanks for reading!