“Why the Philippines?”, I get asked a lot…

Maggie studies Global Health at Queen Mary and is currently studying abroad, with the support of a Turing Scheme grant, at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Learn more about Maggie’s adventures so far!

When I tell people I’m studying abroad in the Philippines, living in Manila for almost a year, people are surprised and a bit confused – “Why the Philippines?”, I get asked a lot. Truthfully, it was quite a spontaneous decision influenced by a few different factors; I study Global Health, which has a strong focus on low and middle income countries. Rather than learn about these places as theoretical groups of people with health issues, I was eager to learn about their health care systems, their social contexts and political situations whilst in the country, surrounded by people who are the best narrators of their experience. I also wanted a completely different cultural experience! The Philippines was one of the few universities available in Asia and seemed to match what I was hoping for. The financial side of a year abroad was always a bit of a concern for me, so the low cost of living was an added reason for my choice. I also quietly hoped I’d be able to travel a little bit outside of the country whilst I was there…

I touched down in Manila at about 11pm, met with torrential rain and a massive culture shock! I didn’t do much mental preparation before I arrived, and was hit pretty hard with how totally different life is outside of Europe. Here is a quick rundown of things I struggled with, and some brief advice on how to manage this if you choose to study in a similar location:

  1. The heat! Oh my goodness, the humidity. Bring lots of sleeveless tops and vests – you only need one jumper for when you’re in air-conditioned transport or malls, so don’t waste packing space on warm clothes. You just will never use them. On the other hand, bring an umbrella and take it everywhere you go!
  2. The infrastructure. Coming from London, I am used to either walking, biking or taking the tube anywhere. Turns out, this isn’t the case for other places in the world! Manila is notoriously famous for its traffic which stems from its poor public transport system. There often aren’t pavements and the roads are big and busy, so walking is very difficult – I had to make peace with getting taxis most places, which aren’t expensive, but I missed the freedom to explore on foot and get around independently.
  3. Things just….take time. Manila often feels full of processes which don’t make much sense or have an unnecessary number of steps! It took me almost a week of frustrated and sweaty wandering around to sort out my SIM card and the online money transfer system GCash. There are lots of security guards everywhere who check your bags every time you enter a store or prevent you from sitting down on the metro station platform. It took a while not to feel frustrated by all of this and realize that I just had to accept a different way of doing things.
  4. The locals are a bit baffled as to why you are there! I chose to study in a student house rented out by a lovely Filipino couple. It was in quite a local, genuine area rather than the high-rise condos that many students choose to live in, but I’m so glad I made this choice. Think cats bathing in the sunshine, street sellers BBQ-ing when the sun starts to set, lots of children in the streets and old men sitting outside their houses enjoying the world go by. But I was not prepared for how surprised they would be to see white people! 99% of the time everyone is just excited that you’re in the country and wants to know your story, but it can sometimes be a bit draining to constantly be looked up and down everywhere you walk.

Despite these initial teething problems, there are so many wonderful things that I have experienced so far whilst studying in Manila. The Filipino people are the best: they have endless enthusiasm, are incredibly welcoming and also love to party! I live with European exchange students who have become wonderful friends and I will 100% stay in touch with – we’re already planning visits this summer to each other’s countries. It’s so lovely how friendships can form fast when you’re all sharing a unique experience together: we managed to do lots of exploring of the Philippines together, which I could not have done without the Turing fund. As Manila is quite urban and doesn’t have much nature or green space, it has been great to contrast the city life with beaches, mountains, hikes, snorkeling, swimming, boats and more!

Over the Christmas break I’ve also been lucky enough to visit Indonesia and Vietnam; both countries I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was really young. It’s been super easy to travel there from the Philippines as the flights are short and cheap. I’ve gone to both places by myself and backpacked, soaking up local culture, local food, getting to know the history and trying to understand the country better. I spent Christmas with friends who are living in Bali and it was so nice to see some familiar faces after 5 months away from home! Again, although I had managed to save some money for travelling before I left the UK, life in Manila is a little more expensive than I anticipated, so these experiences would not have been possible without additional funding.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’m living this incredible life. It has been so interesting being taught in a different country and I’ve learnt so much about Asia: geography, history, culture, religion, language. This semester I’m taking some really exciting courses and am hopefully going to be volunteering on a Global Health project ran by one of my teachers. If anyone is in doubt about doing a semester or year abroad, don’t hesitate for a second more – go!


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