Philippines, Part 2: Do You Know How to Xoom?

During this Friday series we’re going back in time to our 2005 trip to the Philippines. Last Friday, Tony and I were smug and happy in the Manila airport, having just survived a 14-hour plane flight with a two-month-old baby. Now it was time to find lodgings. I had considered various guidebooks for our trip, and finally settled on The Rough Guide to the Philippines, since I was still envisioning us as the savvy backpacker type. An illusion soon to be mud-drenched and ripped to shreds.

Philippines, Part 1: Have Baby, Will Travel
Philippines, Part 2: Do You Know How to XOOM?
Philippines, Part 3: Confessions of a Carseatless Baby (Vigan)

Philippines, Part 4: Strawberries and Cotton Candy (Baguio)

Philippines, Part 5: Hanging Coffins! (Sagada)

Philippines, Part 6: Voyage of the Icebox (Banauae & Batad)

Philippines, Part 7: Revenge of the Cockroaches (Manila)
Philippines, Part 8: Please Don’t Feed the Sharks (Anilao)
Philippines, Part 9: “Sexy Chic” at the Playboy Fashion Show (Field Study Research)
Philippines, Part 10: Luxury Travel, Filipino Style (Cebu)
Philippines, Part 11: Nuts to the Huts (Bohol)
Philippines, Part 12: If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island . . . (Panglao)
Philippines, Part 13: The Chocolate Hills (Bohol Again)
Philippines, Part 14: Trouble in Paradise (Malapascua)

We got out our new tri-band cell phones (at least we had researched enough to know we needed a different frequency cell phone in the Philippines. They were snazzy little phones for their day. Although they didn’t have internet, they did have a little scrolling news service. Guess what was the first piece of news to come through when we got them activated in the U.S. — “TRAVEL ADVISORY, PHILIPPINES.” We tried to explain that it was just the same Muslim separatists in Mindanao who are always making trouble. But our family and friends, who already had serious doubts about us traveling to a developing country with our newborn baby, were not convinced) and began calling budget hotels. Why did we not make a reservation in advance, at least for the first night? I don’t know. We didn’t do a lot of things. Another of those things was activating our debit card for international usage. Another was packing enough cash to at least get us through a few days.
Yes, that’s right. We had no money. And most of the phone numbers in our guidebook were wrong. The prices were certainly wrong. It already looked like our trip was going to be a lot more expensive than we had thought. And worse (for the moment), we didn’t have any money at all, at least none in a usable form for the country in which we had just landed. Finally, Tony did get ahold of a hotel. Actually, it was more like a hostel. But they did have some private rooms, since we didn’t fancy sleeping in bunks with our baby.
After weaving expertly through the insane Manila traffic and experiencing what looked to me like several very close calls, our taxi driver finally pulled up to Pension Natividad. Gavi, the proprietor, was very nice, and we eventually got to know him quite well. Our debit card didn’t work on his machine either, but our credit card did. After the first night, our expenses were just noted down in Gavi’s book as a running bill, so our hotel was the only place where we could spend any money. Luckily, Pension Natividad served breakfast (cornflakes, oatmeal, or fairly decent omelets), lunch (sandwiches), and dinner (a communal pot of whatever they had made that day, or more sandwiches). So that was what we ate for the next several days as we figured out how to get ourselves some money.
Our first idea was to open a bank account and just transfer money from our U.S. account. We walked into the bank, pulled out our American passports, and said we wanted to open an account. The kindly bank teller explained that we had to be residents in the Philippines to open a bank account, and what kind of visa did we have? We looked at each other sheepishly. It was a sort of generic tourist/study visa, definitely not kosher for a bank account.
We walked out of the bank deflated, and a little scared. After unsuccessfully trying our debit card in several other ATM’s, we had found out from our tiny Utah bank that our card could not be used internationally, and that they would have to mail us a new one. But we weren’t about to wait around for weeks and weeks at Gavi’s while a debit card did or did not make it through the famously corrupt Filipino mail system.
We did have a working credit card, but the Philippines is definitely a cash economy, so most of the places where we would be likely to buy anything only accepted cash. Tony tried to convince Gabi to take some money (like, thousands of dollars) off our credit card and just give us cash, but he (rightly) refused, saying he could get in a lot of trouble. He did direct us to a vague sort of business he said operated near Rizal Park and might be able to help us, but we couldn’t find it. There were some chess players in the park, betting on timed games, and Tony suggested that he could shark us some cash. No dice. He was beaten in two minutes, and we were back to square one. (I can’t believe we did/tried to do all these things. What can I say? We were desperate. And jet-lagged. Looking back, though, I can see that from the start, this trip paved the way for many of the other slightly unconventional things we’ve done, such as buying one-way plane tickets to go convince a foreign government to make Tony a citizen.)
Yes, we could have used Western Union, but we were really cheap, remember? We were newlywed college students on a tight budget that got even tighter after I saw the kind of food Tony remembered eating off the street during his mission, and refused to eat it (hey, I was a nursing mother). And we could hardly continue to send ourselves money by Western Union for the next four months.
We hadn’t brought a check book, so we couldn’t even try to find some shady money changer who was willing to take a risk for American dollars (a strategy that had worked well for me in Syria a few years before). So we spent a lot of time in smoky internet cafes listening to Asian pop and random webcam conversations, and trying to solve our financial problem.
Finally, we actually hit on a solution. And that solution was called Xoom. Xoom.com, to be precise. All you do is put in your credit card (or use a bank account), specify a recipient (in this case, ourselves), and choose a delivery method (either direct deposit in a bank account, pickup at a bank, or delivery by overnight mail). The best thing is, it was only $8, no matter how much money you sent. So we sent ourselves $2999, the maximum allowed amount, and we could finally breathe a sigh of relief and get on to the real business we had in the Philippines–vacationing! Oh, did I say vacationing? I meant serious scholarly research.
Just so you know, I am not affiliated with or paid by XOOM. But I think they’re a great service, and I do have a special fondness for the fact that they got us out of a very tight spot. in fact, after we got home from the Philippines and started a business selling Filipino-made basketball jerseys, we always used XOOM to pay our suppliers. So next time you’re stuck in a foreign country with no money, you know what to do!
Stay tuned next Friday for Philippines, Part 3: Confessions of a Carseatless Baby

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