What would it be like retiring in Cebu? These were my thoughts as plane's wheels shuddered down onto the runway … a better lending than normal on Mactan island.
We lived in Cebu for nearly three and a half years. What was the experience really like?
Initially I came here on a two-year contract which had been extended. The work had been interesting but in three months it would be all over. My working life was centred in a PEZA (Philippines Economic Zone Authority) zone which is not the “normal” Philippines. It is organised, clean and in many ways first world.
Was I glad to be leaving? In some ways no and in other ways yes.
The no’s include the people that I've met and worked with. The pleasure I’ve had being a mentor, guide or colleague at work. The expat friends and locals that we have enjoyed many hours (and glasses of wine) with.
The beauty, tranquillity and accessibility of the many nearby islands. The island hopping bangka trips. The ever-present banka (sometimes banca or pump-boat) is a canoe with outriggers for stability) and used as a ferry, for fishing and leisure. They vary significantly in size and luxury.
The diving and snorkelling and lazing around the well-appointed island resorts.
On the other hand, the number one yes for me is the morning and night, year round hot and humid weather … it’s relentless, oppressing and very enervating. The next yes are the remorseless mosquitoes. Added to those yesses are the log jammed traffic in Cebu city, the corruption, and bureaucracy.
What is Cebu?
This is not always clear as it is seldom clarified.
Cebu island - Cebu is one of the larger of the 2 200 inhabited islands in the Philippines. It’s about 200 kilometers long and at its widest doesn’t exceed 32 kilometers.
Cebu city - on the west side of the island in about the north to south middle is Cebu city.
Cebu metro - surrounding Cebu city are adjacent smaller cities like Mandaue, Consolation and Danao in the north, Talisay, Minglanilla and Carcar in the south and Lapu-Lapu and Cordoba on Mactan island to the west. All these combining to become Metro Cebu. To most people these would all be “Cebu city.”
Cebu province - the final Cebu. This includes Cebu island with its 44 municipalities. Together with 167 other islands including the Camotes to the west and Bantayan to the north east.
The local people are delightful. Very welcoming, willing, friendly and compliant. Always smiling and optimistic.
It’s a country with great unrealised potential. A “servant” nation with many people working as overseas foreign workers (OFW’s). Working all over the world. In the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, on cruise liners, merchant vessels as nurses, as domestic helpers, merchant seamen, beauticians or shop assistants.
I compare this with the Chinese. They are also all over the world but when they arrive in a new country they start a business. A very different mentality and outcome. Many of the richest Filipinos are Chinese Filipinos. Somehow this entrepreneurial spirit has not transferred into the general population.
I wonder whether this is the education system or dogma?
The weather - hot and humid
Going out for a run at 6am in the middle of winter the temperature is often around 27° and the humidity 88%. For most people this would be a very hot midsummer day. While the humidity hovers in the 80 to 90% range the temperature steadily increases through summer.
Resulting in hot, oppressive conditions all year round. Loved by some and tolerated by others with fans and air-conditioning.
The mosquitos are another story. Dengue, chikungunya and Zika fever are spread by an Aedes type mosquito. They are mean little creatures who like to live indoors and bite during day break and early evening … as well as any other time they have an opportunity.
If you’re a “mosquito magnet” you’ll be paranoiac about closing doors and blinds and become immune to the smell of all varieties of Baygon spray. Dengue is endemic and although you may not be bitten very often the dengue may still get you.
Another negative is the dirt and garbage. Metro Cebu is dusty. Add the humidity to the dust. Plus, the diesel exhaust fumes. Mix this with the tyre remnants (ground away by the abrasive concrete roads). The combination is a black grime.
Every morning you will see cleaners brushing away the dirt from the previous day and by the end of the day it’s there again!
Garbage is strewn along sections of the road. Scattered around by the groups of scavenging dogs. Partially collected but never really clean.
Jogging around Mandaue in the early morning one of my hazards was dog poop. Dropped on the road after their early morning ablutions. Identified only as a dark patch on the road they’re difficult to see after it's been raining!
The storm water drains are another disaster as they are totally inadequate. Cebu city has over 120 flood zones so whenever there’s a heavy downpour there is flooding. There have been a number of times when our subdivision has been inaccessible as water flowing over the road was more than a metre deep.
Corruption in the Philippines is endemic. With over 2,000 inhabited islands, various levels of government and bureaucracy, down to 42,000 barangays (sort of tiny to very tiny municipalities) realistically it is impossible to eliminate.
Before going to the Philippines I never realised that roosters crow all day! And that they live everywhere. Next door to our sub division sounded like a rooster farm. After many sleepless hours you’ll recognise that the crowing is varied. Their piercing cockle-doodle-doo’s ranging from a full throated Pavarotti crow to a pathetic warbling gurgle.
I don’t know what the crowing means or whether my observations are correct. As I’ve listened to the crowing through many sleepless hours at night it seems to be done in groups of three. You’ll hear the first one close by, the next further away and the last one a feint sound in the distance and then back to the start. Each session going on for about 10 minutes.
Filipinos are passionate about “cock fighting” and I’ve been told care more about their roosters than they do about their wives!
Life in the city is noisy. From the whir of fans to the hum of air conditioners, the exhaust popping and growling of the tricycles and jeepneys all adding to the never ending cacophony.
In a Waze (popular traffic app) survey Cebu was voted the worst place in the world to drive. For that reason, I drive myself to work at 6am and have our driver collect me from work at 4pm. During the rush hours, the few hours around 8am and 6pm, it is chaotic. Jeepneys, tricycles and cars squash together in an attempt to make progress. Many traffic lights don’t work … on Mactan island none have worked in the 3 years I’ve been here … and some haven’t for 20 years!!
Roadworks are never ending. Characterised by poor planning. Hordes of people doing everything manually. Very poor quality ensures that this will be a endless exercise.
Cost of Living
In many “places to retire” articles you’ll read that Cebu is a cheap place to retire. That depends on your definition of Cebu and your understanding of “cheap.”
If you want a reasonable Western lifestyle the city of Cebu is not that cheap. For example, for my wife and I the following are our estimated expenses:
Rent (including levy)
Food (including a couple of bottles of wine a week)
Helper (twice a week)
Gas (very low mileage)
Sky cable (cheap package)
Internet (4G mobile WIFI)
Electricity (very little use of air conditioning)
So monthly expenses of about $2 500 per month. Living comfortably but not extravagantly.
In addition, there may be extra expenses for any staff. There are inadequate state medical facilities and as most people live from hand to mouth, week to week they have no funds for unforeseen circumstances.
When emergencies occur their only options are loan sharks or a loan from the employer. Loan sharks charge exorbitant rates of interest. Despite the costs a vast number of people are indebted to them.
One often hears that it is dangerous in the Philippines. However, I never experienced any incidents which would make me believe this. Coming from South Africa, where one is constantly vigilant … the areas of the Philippines we visited were safe.
There is no doubt that there is petty crime and there are areas in which one must be careful. My wife had her purse taken out of her bag while on a jeepney journey. After taking the cash the pick pocket left her wallet behind a pillar in a shopping mall. The next day we were contacted by a friend in South Africa letting us know where we could collect the purse. Their email address was on a piece of paper and the mall security had sent them an email.
There are areas in the very south of Mindanao where the Abu Sayaf operate. It is not advisable for foreigners to go to these areas for extended periods as they may become targets for kidnapping.
- We have non-Filipino friends living here who have made Cebu their retirement home. We have others who couldn’t wait to leave.
- So it’s up to you. The idyllic resort you see in advertisement and holiday promotions only make up a miniscule part of Cebu. It can be a relatively low cost option and perfect if you like the all year round tropical weather, the sea and peaceful, kind and considerate people.
- It’s certainly worth a roving visit. To experience the more remote parts of Cebu island and islands like Bohol, Palawan or Sequijor. Here the cost of living is much lower than Cebu city. With the levels of traffic, crime and noise (except the roosters!!) also much lower.