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A Latin America Feel In Southeast Asia

Retire To The City Of Gentle People On US$1,000 Per Month Or Less

We’ve been living in Southeast Asia since 2005. During that time, we’ve gotten to know this part of the world well. Every country in this region is quite different from all the others. However, until recently, we hadn’t encountered any Asian country with cultural similarities to any country in Latin America.

That, though, is the case with the Philippines. This country feels Hispanic. Much of this is due to its colonial history, as the Philippines was ruled by Spain for more than 375 years. The Spanish and the Catholic Church left behind quite a legacy when they eventually turned the country over to the United States.

Located a short distance south and west of the island of Cebu, Dumaguete City (pronounced “du-ma-getty”) is the largest city on the island of Negros. The tiny regional airport that serves as the main transportation hub for this island was barely large enough to accommodate our jet plane. Negros is small and, unlike much of Asia, uncrowded.


At first glance, Dumaguete didn’t impress us. We have encountered poverty in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Mexico, for that matter. But, in Dumaguete, it seemed we’d arrived in a poorer part of the world even than we’d grown accustomed to. Dilapidated grass and tin shacks, litter, and poorly maintained roads…street urchins and beggars who quietly held out their hands when we passed. It wasn’t what either one of us expected.

We could have gotten around the city on a tricycle, a transportation option that we’ve not seen anywhere else in the world. Similar to a motorcycle with a sidecar, the tricycles here are designed to carry the driver, who sits on a motorcycle seat, and a passenger behind him, who must sit sideways, as the “sidecar” is bolted onto the motorcycle frame. The sidecar can seat another two or three people (or even more) facing to the front and back of the direction of travel. There were also Jeepneys, the quintessential Philippine-style public buses, creatively fashioned after old U.S. Army Jeeps that have been modified to allow seating for a dozen or more people.

Instead, we chose to get around in a more familiar way and rented a motorbike. We soon discovered that there wasn’t a single traffic light or stop sign in the city. People would slow down at the intersections, patiently yield to other traffic, and scoot into the first opening available. They were very courteous about it and no one seemed in a hurry. People would hold doors open for me, something that rarely, if ever, happens in other Southeast Asian countries. Perhaps this chivalry was something imported to the Philippines by the Spanish colonialists.

Central Dumaguete had the slow, lazy feel of a Spanish-colonial backwater. With the 19th-century Catholic churches, Spanish-style architecture, and waterfront promenade, it was easy to imagine that we were in a coastal Mexican town, for example. The Philippines is the only country in Asia with a Christian, predominately Catholic, majority.

We noticed further Spanish influence in the language. We passed by a mercado (a market), several more iglesias (churches), and even some abarrotes (grocery stores). We even saw a mariachi street band, and there is a large zocalo (public plaza) in the downtown area beside the huge church and the 19th-century bell tower.

The plaza came alive as the evening began, just as you’d expect in a Mexican or Central American town. Although the local language here is Cebuano, I found that if I spoke Spanish, I could often make myself understood. Fortunately, I discovered this more out of curiosity than necessity, as just about everybody we met in Dumaguete spoke English, which is one of the official languages in this country.

After spending the last few years in countries with very healthy eating habits, we found that we needed to adjust to a diet that felt, again, very Latin American. The local food in Dumaguete is heavy on grilled meat and sugar. Large portions of chicken, beef, and pork are all served with a portion of rice or potatoes and barely a tease of vegetables. Most restaurants serve a teaspoon-sized portion of mixed peas and carrots and no salad at all. Most sauces were heavily sweetened, and there were plenty more sweet things for dessert. We noticed a disproportionate number of overweight Filipinos and quickly we came to understand why.

On the other hand, many restaurants served international fare, too, and we enjoyed the best and most authentic Mexican cuisine that we’ve had in a long time.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Dumaguete is the cost of living, which is super-low. We ate at upscale restaurants where dinner for two including drinks was US$10 or less. Comfortable one- and two-bedroom furnished apartments rent for less than US$300 per month.

Dumaguete is home to a sizeable community of foreign retirees, and, after we’d gotten to know the place a little, we could see why. In fact, the longer we stayed, the easier it became to imagine ourselves living here. Certainly, a couple with a retirement income of less than US$1,000 per month should give this place a look. You could live very comfortably in Dumaguete City on that budget or even less.

After we got over our initial impressions, Dumaguete grew on us. We were struck by the warmth of the people, who seemed genuinely friendly, courteous, and welcoming. And we got the sense that the economy, which is booming in the Philippines, should soon improve the lives of the people living in this town. Though many people here are obviously poor, they are hopeful and optimistic. Day-to-day life is relaxed and easygoing. We came to appreciate why Dumaguete is known as the City of Gentle People.

Wendy Justice

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