In the early months of 2015, I’d wake up in the morning, leave my air-conditioned bedroom and swear at the heat. It was too hot, too crowded and polluted to walk my usual route from the gated subdivision in Quezon City to the University of the Philippines campus. So I’d have breakfast in front of the computer while listening to National Public Radio, and somehow I’d end up being there most of the day. I’d convinced myself that this was no way to live even before I got a message from a friend in California saying, “Carol, what are you still doing in Manila? Go to a beach.”
I didn’t want to live on a beach, getting sand into everything and being bashed around by salt waves when I wanted a leisurely swim. About this time Bob arrived for surgery at Medical City. (link) Afterwards he wanted to be driven around the area by someone who wouldn’t jostle him too much. He hired a taxi, and we went to Tagaytay.
The town sits on a volcanic mountain a few hours from Manila. It’s rapidly growing popular with tourists and weekenders, so hardly a provincial backwater, but still requiring an adjustment for a city girl like myself who used taxis as her major means of transportation and still waxed nostalgic over the subway system in Seoul—which reminded me of arriving in Hamburg, Germany at the age of thirteen and discovering the great, unexpected freedom of subways, streetcars, buses, trains and ferries. It was empowerment.
I’d been to Tagaytay several times on outings with friends. (link). But this time as Bob and I were riding along the highway, admiring the view of the Taal Lake in the distance, I suddenly saw myself walking along that road. Okay, Tagaytay it would be.
Immediately I discovered that the real estate agents who advertise on the internet were looking for the rich tourist/vacationer tenants willing to pay three times as much as I was, or more. It happened that I had a few friends—Uay, Maggie and Patrick—who had connections inside gated subdivisions, which is crucial because otherwise the guards at the subdivision gates aren’t going to let you in to inspect houses with for sale or for rent signs. Uay found a house I inspected and negotiated for. Maggie and Patrick found others in another subdivision. Two were very peculiar, one with a garish mixture of paint colors and an owner who wasn’t sure she wanted to part with the house, and another with a precarious-looking, jerry-rigged circular staircase which seemed to warn of strange doings upstairs. The last one was almost perfect.
When I met with the owner, we discussed terms. It’s somewhat common in the Philippines to have a provision in the lease that the rent can be increased 10% a year. I don’t know whether this is a condition given only to foreigners and other suckers. I’ve never paid it. The new landlord agreed that the rent would not be increased for three years—I’d asked for five—but I wasn’t sure he understood that this didn’t mean we had a three-year contract. The agent, the caretaker’s wife, sent a lease which she’d copied from somewhere. All the terms of who would pay for what were the opposite of what the landlord and I had agreed. I rewrote it, emailed it to a lawyer friend in Japan for comment, and sent it on to the landlord. One afternoon we signed it together.
The house needed work. A roof over the narrow laundry area behind the house would stop the rain from coming in. I wanted a grill covering the ironwork on the balcony so the cats wouldn’t accidentally chase each other over the side. The paint was peeling, uneven or obnoxious inside and outside the house. The door to the balcony was badly broken. The tiled floor downstairs had holes which would be dangerous to a woman wearing high heels. (Maggie pointed that out to me. I wouldn’t have thought of it.) The staircase railing wasn’t properly attached to the wall. The plumbing in the kitchen sink was loose and leaking. There was a huge bald spot in the front yard where the previous tenant’s satellite dish had been and nothing but dirt on the ground under the balcony. Later we discovered termites.
The caretaker volunteered to fix some of these things for an insane amount of money—after, I discovered, having overcharged the landlord for work he hadn’t done. I didn’t want that man or his wife in my house.
Fortunately, the very organized, talented, patient, forgiving woman who’d been my housekeeper and personal assistant for eight years agreed to continue on after the big move. Like all other residences I’ve seen, the house had a maid’s room, and this one was habitable. As it turned out, the new arrangement would require flexibility on the part of both of us, since Fe and her husband, Jessie, still maintained their place in Bulacan, a six-hour bus ride away. Jessie moved into the house for two weeks and did all the tasks on our list. Fe found some movers who would take all my stuff—furniture, appliances, mounds of boxes—for a modest fee. The only holdup was that one of the trucks broke down on Saturday and the homeowner’s association in Quezon City wouldn’t allow moving on Sunday, probably because the staff always had to inspect vehicles going out the gates to be sure nothing was being stolen.
I’d been very fond of the old townhouse even though it had flooded twice—once with rain coming through a joint in the kitchen ceiling and once with a broken pipe in the upstairs bathroom. But the landlord was very good about fixing things. I’d made some good friends, and we’d had good times. There were interesting people I’d just met. I’d become a regular at a jazz café only twenty minutes away. Parting would not be easy.
Jessie finished his work on the house, the paint smell dissipated, the first of the trucks made its way to Tagaytay and my bed was set up. Aida and I had our last coffee together and late at night my friend Benjie drove me, Fe, and three caged, whining and howling cats to the new house. After midnight a trip which takes three hours or more by day can be cut down to a little over an hour.
The last of the trucks was allowed into the Quezon City subdivision, loaded and driven to Tagaytay. The moving guys brought stuff inside, up the stairs, wherever we wanted it. Everything fit in the new space except the plastic storage boxes of clothes. There was next to no storage space. Later we used drapes to partition off part of my L-shaped bedroom and create a walk-in closet. In very little time we had new curtains for the windows, which I cut to the appropriate lengths and hemmed. We started tending the grass. We brought in rounded, decorative stone for the ground under the balcony. I brought an assortment of plants from an organic farm where Maggie, Patrick and I met for coffee.
When Jessie discovered termites, we contacted a company recommended by one of the subdivision staff, they came out, explained that our variety of termite was less destructive than some others and the infestation was not so bad. They estimated the house was eighty square meters. They produced an extermination contract with a guarantee of inspections for three years. I immediately called the landlord, who dashed over to look at the termites. He agreed to pay the bill.
“The house is beautiful,” he exclaimed. I hoped it was not so very beautiful that his sister would want it back in three years.
In her typical fashion, Fe arranged for the extermination to take place while I was on one of my monthly or bi-monthly trips to Manila. It was handled quickly and efficiently. To keep the cats out of danger the subdivision staffer who’d recommended the company moved them to another house while mine was being sprayed and Jessie was cleaning up.
Later, through the housekeeper-to-housekeeper gossip, I discovered that the previous tenant knew about the termites but did nothing because it wasn’t his house. I don’t believe the caretaker was ignorant either.
As I mentioned, Tagaytay is “sa probinsa,” in the province, meaning not in Manila, but it’s not in a distant backwater either. Before I decided to move here, I found a website with a variety of options for internet service. It proved to be totally misleading. While it’s true that parts of town have good internet, there are also dead spots, and my subdivision had been in one since a group of high-rises were built near the ridge road, cutting off wi-fi access.
Now, back in Quezon City I’d had disputes with Sky Cable, too. At one point I’d recorded the speed every day for a couple of weeks and brought the record into the company office. They gave me a refund, I ordered a cheaper service, and the internet speed doubled. Go figure. In Tagaytay I regretted the not-very-nice things I’d said about Sky Cable. At least when I moved to Tagaytay I’d brought with me six or seven months’ worth of posts for the website.
Fe and I went to Dasmariñas, the closest offices for Globe and Smart. In both places the representatives looked at the maps in their computers and shook their heads. But the Sun-Cellular office at Robinson’s in Tagaytay, after looking at their map, was happy to give me a little plug-in wi-fi device. I bought it and handed over an additional 1,000 peso ($25) deposit so I didn’t have to worry about running out of credit. The thing did not work. We went to the office to complain. A sweet girl came to my house and tried to force it to work for two hours, a good hour after I’d told her to stop. She said the problem was my computer. If I had a smaller device, it might work. It worked on the laptop for a few minutes. Fe and I went to the office again and filled out forms for a refund. We were told the paperwork was making its way upstairs. We were told to bring in the laptop, which I did. Nothing. After three months and seven trips to the office, word came that there would be no refund, not even of my additional deposit, because monthly fees had been deducted even after I’d handed in all the refund paperwork.
In the meantime, I went across the highway to the coffee shop in the Kimberly Hotel. Buildings directly on the highway had access to PLDT, which is wired. The coffee shop had wireless which sometimes worked and more often didn’t. I’d order, consume my ice cream or whatever, and after a long struggle with the signal would sometimes be invited to use the internet in the office. But during the APEC conference, when everyone left Manila for the provinces and Tagaytay was mobbed with vacationers, that invitation was revoked. So I went off in search of something else.
Near Robinson’s shopping center, about three kilometers from my house, was an internet café which was almost always open, but noisy. There were gamers who were old enough to have jobs but who seemed to spend all day playing, making bets and yelling. Downstairs was a karaoke place with singers belting out their songs off-key. Such was my sense of isolation without the internet—remember, I had no job in the Philippines—that I went there for a couple of hours three times a week. I listened to the news and checked facts for whatever I was writing. Finally, during an on-line conversation with friends from various parts of the world, someone yelled, “Carol, we can’t hear you!” In addition to the usual noise there was a television going directly behind me. I gave up.
The next morning, a truck arrived from Globe Tattoo, not the regular Globe service, but a sub-service provider of questionable legality. They set up an antenna on the roof with a rickety pole and wired it to the outside of the house. I looked around and saw new antennas on a few neighbors’ houses. A neighbor said that when the wind blew their antenna in the wrong direction, they sent the houseboy up on the roof to fix it—a very Filipino way of handling the situation. I mentioned this to Patrick, and he came over to help Jessie install a bigger, galvanized pole, attach it securely to the house, and drill a hole in the pole so I could crank the antenna back on track if the wind blew it off. It never did.
That service was better. I’d get up in the morning, get NPR on the laptop, which got the signal better than the desktop, and download the news stories one at a time with a lot of poking and clicking and swearing. I could talk to people and do interviews. Service was on and off. When Tagaytay Cable came into the subdivision—as I said, the place is growing—I had that installed immediately. The cable office was on my usual walking route, so I could stop in and pay my bill. The technicians were friendly and capable.
For several months, we were good. Then service was interrupted. I complained, and the cable guys came. They got the signal once for a few minutes on the laptop. On the third trip, the main guy blamed my computers and said he would not come out again until I consulted a computer repair guy. I took the laptop to a repair shop—to a guy who has since become part of my support network—who immediately said blaming the computer was bullshit. I said something about “the Asian blame game” which I had to retract immediately because it hurt his feelings. He tested the laptop on his signals, one Globe and one PLDT, and it worked with both. After that the cable computer engineer came over, fiddled with the desktop for some time and eventually got the signal working.
We were doing great for a while, only now there’s often a problem in the evenings, when Skype becomes unintelligible and meetings, conversations, interviews have to be rescheduled. To put this in perspective, management at the internet café was proud when they got 2 Mbps. Tagaytay Cable was at best 3 Mbps. My friend Greg in California says the standard is 50 Mbps, and he’s trying to get his rates down by signing up for 20.
So much for my internet problems, which friends in Manila say they have been following on Facebook with some amusement. The cable guys were just here. We’re almost on a first-name basis.At least I know they’re trying to help.
Next post the Tagaytay saga continues.
Postscript: So PLDT. one of the major internet providers, finally came into Greenville. I now have fiber-optic cable, 20 Mbps, for the same price as I got zero to 3.3 Mbps from Tagaytay Cable. When I changed the service to television only, I got a blank expression from the woman at the desk as if she was wondering what took me so long.