When you’re eating something for the first time, and told: “First, suck out the embryonic fluid”, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. I’m eating balut, a popular snack food here in the Philippines, a place that’s full of surprises. I used to think that houseboys were for (a) retired British colonels in 19th century India, who’d go about their work in splendid white cotton robes and a turban; or (b) rich gay couples in 21st century Miami, who’d go about their work in a red satin thong. It seems there is at least one more place where the humble houseboy thriving: the Philippines.
Here, almost anyone who can afford their own house can afford their own houseboy. Though not quite “ten a penny”, they won’t break the bank. For about £120 a month you’ll have someone on hand to clean the yard, walk the dog and fix the roof.
In the Philippines almost everything seems cheap by Western standards, and there is a lot of Western money about to take advantage of it.
Downtown Manila is as modern as any metropolis. Crammed with high-rise office blocks nail bars and Starbucks – all servicing 1000s of ex-pats doing everything from banking to the booming industry of Business Process Outsourcing: BPO. This means the next time you call your electricity company you’ll probably be talking to someone in Manila, not Minehead.
Filipinos are known the world over for their helpful personalities and warm smiles, so it’s not surprising they have found a niche in customer services. This is good for us, since our idea of customer service is: “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line and one of our operators will be with you shortly”.
Labour costs here are low, so as well as houseboys, anyone with a professional position can also enjoy the benefits of a live-in maid, and full time chauffeur. You’ll live like a Rockefeller for less than £600 per month, plus one large bag of rice. Normally, even live-ins are expected to buy their own food. The rice is optional.
All this, you understand less than what many here consider a minimum. Family homes will also have a full-time cook, at least one nanny (a “yaya”) and a laundry woman. These are considered “the basics”.
Of course, anyone who does have staff spends most of their spare time complaining about their staff, usually over late morning cocktails: “Darling (sip), it’s just so hard (sip) to find good help these days”.
With such great prices, wonderful sunshine and great customer service, you’d think the Philippines would be crawling with tourists. Though 1000s come from Korea, China and Japan, few make it here from the UK or United States. They are missing out.
I’ve only been here twice and both times I stayed pretty close to Manila. Still, I’ve visited fabulous churches in Ilo Ilo, climbed a volcano in Taal and enjoyed world-class diving in Anilao. Most tourists head for Boracay or the “Chocolate Hills” of Bohol, both spectacular beauty spots with everything a tourist could want. Manila itself has the old Spanish influenced district of Intramouros, the American cemetery and lots of shopping. There are malls everywhere to suit every taste and budget. The “Mall of Asia”, the fourth largest in the world, has over 4 million square feet and around 200,000 shoppers every day.
No time to vacation here? Why not consider retiring here? Thousands do – attracted by the climate, cheap property and excellent healthcare. You can buy a fabulous beachside home for around £40,000 and employ a full-time private nurse, driver and maid to take care of you. Surely that’s better than ending your days abandoned in some dreary English seaside “home” waiting two hours for a stranger to take you to the toilet.
With so much Western influence here you’ll have no trouble finding familiar food. Steak houses, burger joints and pizza parlours are all over, and of course there are lots of Japanese and Chinese restaurants.
Popular Filipino dishes include adobo (pork or chicken stew), lechon (roasted barbeque pig), sisig (the face of a pig, chopped and fried), sinigang (soup) and lots of fish. And of course, everything comes with rice.
And so we come to that fabled Filipino snack: balut. If there was ever a food to scare young children and bring grown men to tears, this is it. Balut makes semolina look appetising.
Take one duck egg (make sure it’s fertilised), wait three to four weeks so the duckling just begins to develop its little beak and feathers, then boil it and enjoy!
First, make a hole in the top of the shell and drink down the embryonic fluid. It’s known as “the soup” and considered the best part. After you remove the shell, you have a choice: eat the partly formed duckling first, then the egg, or just down it all together in a couple of eggy, feathery, beaky bites. It goes great with beer. Ideally fifteen pints, so by morning you forget you ever did it.
If you can eat balut and you’re lucky enough to find good help, maybe the Philippines is for you. If not, fry and egg and enjoy Blackpool.