The Top 10 Philippine Quirks

Overlooking Batad The Philippines

I walk around the Philippines and often think of ways to express my affection for it on this blog. It is hard to accurately synthesize what makes every day here a lesson in hilarity or, as a friend aptly noted a ‘carnival of lunacy’ in so many ways. With the patience of the unemployed, every day in the Philippines brings me something new to savour, and a new oddity to encounter.

The truth is, there are many reasons why I love the Philippines.

From relearning what air sirens mean, to watching a staunchly catholic country celebrate Miss Ladyboy Philippines 2009 to being swept along in the swirling current of daily life in a small town, this enigmatic country is full of contradictions and they are a pleasure to explore. I often think of my temperament when I was working in NY and — less a factor of my job and more the fact that I was living in a big city where time was money — efficiency was the name of the game. In the Philippines, efficiency can occasionally be a very foreign concept. Whether it is the meticulousness of the Yummy Angel Burger lady as she slowly puts my egg & ham sandwich together or the undeniably rocky transportation routes (direct never, ever means direct), time is relative. However, since I have all the time in the world, I take pleasure in these small but significant departures from my normal.

I thought I’d list out some of these small quirks and funny moments that need to be shared, and that also give a tangible example about why I love the Philippines as much as I do.

1. Motorbike disbelief

I have rented a motorbike on every island I have visited (with the exception of Negros Occidental) and every single time the locals are truly flabbergasted that I am a woman riding by myself. Even if we are in a group of other tourists, the fact that I am on my own bike and not on the back of a man’s bike just blows their minds. Extra shock factor: driving the bike with a guy on the back. Unthinkable.

When renting the motorcycle, the following cycle of awesomeness ensues every single time:

Me: Hi, I’d like to rent a moto for the day, please. (Or, because Tagalog doesn’t actually have words like “the” or “a” built into most sentences – “Moto, me. thank you”).

Them: Hi, where are you from?

Me: Canada. I’d like a moto?

Them (slowly): Ma’am? A moto for you and…….? (trails off confusedly)

Me (with emphasis): Just for me, thanks. I am only one.

Them: And you…know how to ride these (gesturing in panic at his motorbikes)?

Me: Yes, I have ridden many times alone. I do not need lessons. I will be careful.

Them: Ok, but then I now show you how to turn on a motorbike, ok? I will teach you.

Me: Thank you, but I already know how. Let me show you.

(I take the keys, drive around the corner and back and flash a smile)

Them: Ma’am? Why are you so brave?

Add to this infinite loop of dialogue the fact that jaws drop repeatedly when I drive by people at the side of the road, or stop in a town to buy supplies.

Why I love the Philippines: motorbike adventures
My steed!

2. Roosters

I know I went into the whole rooster-mania in my Welcome to the Philippines post, but it merits a mention because I still find humour in the roosterism, despite already being here for several months. Buses, cars, vans, planes, restaurants – you name it, and there is a rooster waiting patiently to crow your ear off. People here are astounded when I have a restless night sleep because of the karaoke bar next door or the dogs barking down the street. Why? Because they all sleep like logs since they grew up surrounded by screaming fowl with messed up circadian rhythms. I keep taking pictures of roosters in public places – the locals find this confusing, since roosters are everywhere – and my mirth shows no signs of abating.

On a cargo ferry to Coron from El Nido, I woke up to one of these beauties on my stomach. On a bus in the Visayas I was asked to “hold for a minute” and a rooster was stuffed into my arms while its owner got down a bag from the hold above his seat.

I can’t stand the cockfighting, but the omnipresence of roosters can definitely make me smile.

Roostermania in the Philippines

3. Underhanded plays on words.

Speaking of roosters, the Philippines is brimming with opportunities for sly vulgarity. Receipts for assorted juices read “ass juice”, and people will order just that (“Hi, 12 ass juices, please”).

One of El Nido’s general merchandise stores is called the F. U. Store, which has spawned a ghastly amount of immaturity from yours truly (Me: What store sells wine again? Them: The FU Store. Me: The what? Them: FU! FU! I will show you FU. Rinse. Repeat.) There is the current polemic surrounding the potential Constitutional Assembly amendment to the constitution – abbreviated, of course, as Con-Ass.

And, in a class unto themselves there are the roosters. While they are “manok” in Tagalog, people generally just call them cocks. So you can imagine that, for a dirty-minded group of Western tourists, it is impossible to ignore the magnitude of possibilities that a country full of roosters would manifest. From the seemingly innocuous (“Wow, that’s huge cock you’ve got there”) to the flattery (“You truly have a great looking cock”) this country provides endless options for those with 14-year old sensibilities. Yes, I happen to be one of those people.

Why I love the philippines: puns
No caption needed.

4. Tanduay Rum

I am not a heavy drinker – solo travel as a woman means that I am cautious about how much alcohol I consume, be it in the Philippines or elsewhere.  But Tanduay — a Pinoy rum that originated in the sugar cane fields of Panay in and whose name translates into tandugay, meaning ‘low-lying land’ in old Tagalog — is the perfect ice breaker for any situation. A table of strangers quickly becomes a table of friends over a bottle of Tanduay and what was a quiet evening turns into a karaoke sing-off and an onslaught of eager questions about Canada. Occasionally, there will be a request to sing my national anthem.

A litre of Tanduay has been cheaper than a litre of water, so to say that the Philippines is awash in tawny rum wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

Tanduay Rum
Tanduay Rum

5. Adorable kids

And by that I mean the sheer magnitude of children screaming after at you when you walk/drive/bike by. Not only do they all clamour at the side of the road, screaming hello or “hello friend!”, they won’t stop screaming until you answer them. Responding means the cycle continues, with them chasing your bike/car/you down the street and giggling the whole way. The kids here are both plentiful and painfully cute, so it is impossible not to walk around with a big smile on your face when confronted with such disarming friendliness.

In El Nido, there is no dearth of toddlers about and now that they know me (and my name) I have a pied-piperesque trail of smiles and hellos wherever I go. Of course, the fact that I often buy them cookies at the bakery certainly adds to their desire to shadow my every move about town.


6. Sample sizes of everything

I happen to love the travel size aisle at the pharmacy, and I happen to know I am not alone in my affection for tiny toiletries (I am talking to you, Cheryl). Imagine my joy, then, upon visiting a Pinoy supermarket for the first time: everything is in a small size. Everything. My brother doesn’t need to resort to imagining my happiness, since he was with me in Tagbilaran, calling after me in alarm as I bolted from aisle to aisle exclaiming “ALL small sizes! ALL!” and giggling like an idiot.

From shampoos, to baby powders, to soaps, to cigarettes (sold in twos or fours), this entire country is built to stock up on travel essentials if you are backpacking around. It is important to note that these sample sizes exist due to the unfortunate reality that most Filipinos cannot afford the full container, let alone the jumbo/family sizes you would encounter in North America. In El Nido, sample sizes of everything hang from the rafters in each of the corner stores and supermarkets.

Small sizes of toiletries abound in the Philippines
Small sizes of toiletries abound in the Philippines

7. Power Ballads

This country? Obsessed with 80s power ballads and those particularly slow, terrifyingly sad songs of the 90s. Songs I have heard more times than I can count: Total Eclipse of the Heart, Everything I Do, I Do it for You, Hello, Memories (from Cats), Bed of Roses, Hero and — straddling the 70s and 80s — anything by Air Supply.

These are blasted, at full volume, on jeepneys, public buses, in the tricycles, on the street. While you want to cut your ears off for the first month, eventually the sheer persistence of these ballads works through the hard, stubborn core of your resistance and you find yourself shamefully singing along, every single time.

Family karaoke involves hooking a microphone up to a TV, inputting a disc full of these classics, and singing like your heart is breaking.

8. “It’s ok.”

It’s hard to believe that two simple words can cause such a rash of confusion.

“It’s ok” here means everything from “yes” to “no” to “don’t even think about it” – with absolutely no way of knowing which one is intended in a particular situation. From asking someone if they want something (response:”It’s ok!”) to asking if you can go somewhere (“It’s ok!”) to asking whether anyone was hurt when the tricycle bashed into the pile of mangoes across the way (“It’s ok!”) you would think that you’d be able to discern the appropriate sentiment given the context – but you absolutely cannot.

To make matters more fun, most people don’t just say “It’s ok” once, they repeat it 3 or 4 times (“it’sokit’sokit’sok”), often enough that even the myna birds have learned to mimic the expression perfectly. After almost 4 months in the Philippines, I’ve been saying “it’s ok” myself at least a few times a day.

9. Whispering 

Or, more precisely, the fact that no one here knows how to whisper. At night, on boats or buses, in hotels or restaurants – regardless of where you are or how tired you might be, no one cares. In fact, they will speak at the top of their voices and then remain entirely confused when you stumble out of your room and groggily ask them to keep it down. “Keep it….down?” is the usual answer. Yes, down. Your voice. QUIET. But it’s all to no avail. As I’ve said above, in a culture that grows up with roosters crowing at all hours of the night and dogs fighting outside the window, the concept of peace and quiet is entirely foreign. Everything becomes white noise to the Filipinos, and such a talent for muting out the sharp noises of the night is hard to come by in most tourists. It’s not that I love the loudness, it’s that I am very jealous of the ability to drown out noise and sleep without a thought.

10. Eden Cheese

Sold by Kraft (of course) and wrapped in foil and a bright blue rectangular package that resembles cream cheese bricks back home, Eden Cheese is made of enough synthetics and random preservatives that it is practically indestructible. You can leave it out in the sun for hours, try and melt it for a sandwich, shred it in the hopes that it won’t taste like processed cardboard – but it is totally futile.

Unrefrigerated, infrangible, unbelievable: Eden cheese is like the Rasputin of Pinoy foods, and deserves its own paragraph because in many islands and towns it is the only cheese you can buy. El Nido is one such town, and at 42 pesos (under $1) per block, it’s omnipresent. I’ve learnt to appreciate Eden Cheese’s total and blatant unwillingness to be like other cheeses, but I can’t say I enjoy the taste of soggy, sticky plastic.

Eden cheese: it just won't melt.
Eden cheese: it just won’t melt.

And a bonus: it’s beautiful.

el nido in palawan
El Nido at dusk
Exploring the Bacuit Bay
Exploring the Bacuit Bay
And on a later visit, overlooking the beautiful rice terraces of Batad in Northern Luzon.

My time in the Philippines has been entertaining, raucous, and exactly what I would have wanted.


39 thoughts on “The Top 10 Philippine Quirks”

  1. Amazing post, as always, and I love seeing this country through your eyes. Keep writing!!

  2. Why doesn't Laura-Jane's baby sister have a name? Inquiring minds want to know. And have you tried Lancones yet? You really should try it before you leave the Philippines.

  3. Brilliant post! I really want to see the Philippines now. Beautiful observations of chaos and cultural idiosyncracies. This is why I travel!

  4. What about balut?

    It's gotta be added to the list! Philippines is a great place to travel, reading through your blog is bringing back my fond memories of being there.

  5. Yeah, I agree about the Eden Cheese. It's really unfortunate that we haven't learned the fine art of cheesemaking. And yet, in most rural communities here in my beloved country – goats, cows and carabaos – excellent sources of milk & cheese – are plenty…but not as omnipresent as the rooster or Sarimanok. :D

    You haven't tried Star Margarine with your pandesal yet, have you? It taste even worse (more plastic) than Eden cheese… and flies won't go near it. You have to sprinkle it with sugar to make it more palatable.

    Welcome to the Philippines!

  6. laughing so hard I am alomst crying – this brings back so many memories…the carnival of lunacy captures it precisely. I wish I was able to capture it as hillariously and as eloquently as you!

  7. ROFLMAO! Oh yeah, I can see you have REALLY seen the Philippines all right. You've got most everything covered…but you forgot how staunch Christians Filipinos are. You'd see tiny Santo Nino statues everywhere, rosaries hanging from jeepneys, drivers making the sign of the cross before a journey, etc.

    Re: sample sizes, I was in Cebu just last month and I was STUNNED to see a single-use pack of Rexona deodorant retailing for P5. Imagine that?!

  8. Jodi, I guess it takes somebody like you to unearth our idiosyncracies because we've always lived with them that they're practically second nature. Like the roosters, heck, I live in a condominium somewhere in Makati and yes, I can hear them every morning along with the early impromptu karaoke of one of 'em neighbors hahaha.

    Hmmm, will bookmark your blog. It's fun laughing at our idiosyncracies alright. Hope you go back and discover more. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  9. Thanks for your comments SleeplessinKL and Lagalog! It's nice to hear from those who know best that this list is accurate!

    SleeplessinKL: I was not there for the holidays, but am hoping to head back this Xmas. I'll post a follow up to this post then, for sure.

    Thanks for reading!

  10. @flipnomad: I definitely got used to the Eden Cheese in the end, but having grown up on sharp cheddar from Montreal it was a serious adjustment! Haappy new year.

  11. Thanks, Jodi, for posting this. My fellow Filipinos are a bunch of lunatics (I mean it as a term of endearment and not as a hurtful judgment). With so many impoverished people in the country, what else can you tangibly turn to? Humour. Growing up in the Philippines, I think I may have laughed my way into puberty and beyond. I miss those times. And I miss the beaches, too.

  12. I love the quirkiness of the Philippines. I am glad someone else appreciates it.

    In the land of a thousand smiles you can learn to become one of them.

    I love it when you talk about developing patience. You have to. It’s not an option when you visit the Philippines, but not a totally bad thing eitther. We Americans could take a lesson here.

    The Philippines is the perfect place to chill out! They know how to have a good time.

    I think it is the slow pace of life (and progress) that teaches the Westerner to have some patience and slow your mind down so that you can really learn to enjoy life.

    I will now be a new subscriber. Found you from “In search of Sanuk” Another great Blog!

  13. Jen & Randall, thanks for your comments.

    Randall – I actually think it’s far easier to become integrated into Pinoy society than it is in Thailand, as Thais are wonderfully kind and friendly and fun but there always remains an invisible barrier between you. In the Philippines, however, I always felt entirely accepted and a part of the families I met and lived with. In Search of Sanuk is a great organization and I’ve been really happy to volunteer with them during my time in Bangkok. Welcome and thanks for subscribing!

    – Jodi

  14. Hi Jodi,
    I FINALLY got around to reading this. (And I’ll read your other posts from the Phillippines, too.) Some of the quirks you mention remind me of my time in Thailand six years ago. It’s wonderful lingering in a place and learning about the little things, naturally, as the days pass. As I’d mentioned a while ago, I have yet to visit the country, and I’d like to visit where my mom and dad are from.

    When I was growing up, I was not at all interested in where I was from. And now, 31 years later, my curiosity for the Philippines has grown so much. Nice to read these insights.


  15. Thanks Cheri! Glad you enjoyed. If you make it to the Motherland in 2011, I’d be happy to meet you there. I cannot wait to head back and visit the families I lived with in El Nido.

    Thanks for reading,

  16. Hee hee, this is a fun read especially for a Filipina like me. I don’t really notice some of these things (well I do sometimes when I travel to the province where life’s pace is so much slower and that I learn to relax and take my time), but I share some of your amusement with some of our quirks! and we really love us some wordplay :)) your examples might be funnier from a western point of view because of their unintended meaning, but we also have some other unique store names here like Petal Attraction (a flower shop), Elizabeth Tailoring, Curl Up and Dye (beauty salon). They crack me up too XDDD

    as for cheese.. heh, that Eden Cheese is the bane of my life! But there it is, the lasting impact American occupation left by way of (sometimes canned) processed food. We’re not really a cheese-eating country, hence the poor approximation. BUT contrary to what Isis says, there does exist a cheese-making culture in certain rural parts, especially in Southern Luzon or Bulacan (north of Manila) where the specialty is kesong puti (white cheese) made from carabao’s or goat’s milk. It’s a bit salty, but it’s really good stuff, like feta or mozzarella :-) we also have a lot of yummy sweets and confections that are milk-based. hope you could try it once you come back :-)

  17. Thanks for your comment, Kay! I do plan on getting back to the Philippines – I miss it and the lovely people I met.Loads of baked sweets and pastries, as I recall, but I’m not really a dessert person so I didn’t eat much of them. Where are you from in the Phils?

  18. I have a gaggle of Filipino friends, and the quirk that baffles me is: they consume a nearly 90% pork diet. My vegetarianism has inspired them to eat “some vegetables”. But seriously they were eating bacon for breakfast and pork for lunch and dinner. For years!

  19. Hilarious post, love it :) I love the “It’s ok” part. It suddenly answers the problem I have back home with my best friend that came from Philippines. Very often I can see in his face, he means yes, no, or “don’t even think about it”, but he keep saying it’s okay, it’s fine, repeatedly. So difficult to read!

  20. CanCan – there is a LOT of pork, I agree! But I found an equally large number of chicken places, and in Palawan lots of fish. Definitely lacking in the veggies in the South, but if you head to Northern Luzon there will be plenty of fresh, delicious vegetables to choose from.

    Dina – It’s Ok was a seriously funny problem for the first few weeks. I could not for the life of me understand what people were trying to convey! But after awhile it became a bit of a game to try and elicit an answer in one way or another.

    Thanks for reading!

  21. Hi there! I’m happy about how you talk about the Philippines from its very unique way.I would like to thank you for appreciating it and almost everything you have encountered about it. I’m pretty excited about the post you will add. I have been to Batad, Banaue and Sagada also. I hope you had a great time spent here in our country and I am very pleased to invite you to come and visit again anytime.

  22. Hi Jonalyne – I have a full album of photos from Batad and Sagada and never managed to post them! Some point soon, definitely. I loved the Philippines and do plan returning in 2011. Thanks for reading!

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  24. Jodi, I have to say I am very used to #3 – cocks. I graduated from the University of South Carolina and our mascot is the Gamecock. For years, I grew up yelling “Go Cocks!” at football games and never knew it could mean something vulgar!

  25. Literally stumbled onto your blog a few moments ago, and I am now hooked. I am half-filipina, and I loved reading about El Nido (never heard about it until today). My mom’s family is based out of Calbayog City in Samar, so I’ve been fortunate to visit the province (Brgy. Mag-Ubay) a couple of times. I would love to be your travel companion and experience the Philippines the way YOU do :)ooo I will graduate in May 2011 from Nursing school, and before I start working, I want to go back to the PI for a couple of months to just CHILL. El Nido seems to be such a laid-back, friendly place, where I can just relax, sit, talk, eat and enjoy each lazy day, eating delicious filipino food (they call me a “hard-boiled egg – white outside, but yellow inside since I look so American); I love to cook filipino dishes like Tinola, Adobo, Nilaga, etc. Anyhow, I loved your blob, have bookmarked it, and will continue to read it each day – you have a wonderful and entertaining way of writing that’s quirky, yet respectful, of the places and cultures you visit and experience, so that’s just really cool :)

  26. Hi Mary Grace, thank you for your kind comment. As you can see, I really enjoyed my time in the Philippines and I’m glad that comes through in my writing. I’ve not cooked too many Pinoy dishes (other than langhka gatas or bihon guisado), so kudos to you! Good luck with your studies and safe travels back to the motherland!

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  28. Just found your blog. Glad you enjoyed the quirks of the Philippines. Your observations are really spot on. Can’t help laughing out loud at some of them.

    I’m a Filipino and I’m a bit embarassed to admit that I haven’t travelled that much within my own country. After more than 10 years abroad, I’m planning to move back to the Philippines at the end of the year and explore my own country.

    Followed you on twitter. :)

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