Visiting Manila and living in Manila are two very different things. To be honest, sometimes I find it slightly depressing as I truly come to better understand the poverty here.

A perfect example of this is our first trip to the grocery store. At first, nothing seemed too extraordinary as we looked for familiar items to get us started in our new home. We found laundry and dish soap and some basic food fairly easily. The store was a good size, had air conditioning, and was clean. Regardless, I hesitated buying meat as the smell of room-temperature meat filled that section of the store and seemed far less sanitary than I was use too. After waiting in a long line at one of the check outs with our three small kids, our modest collection of goods rang up to be around 3,200 PHP or $80. I remember watching the total on the cash register increase into the thousands and thinking to myself most of my staff make only three times more a month than what I had just purchased. I quickly dismissed the thought and assured myself that my bill was high because we were getting all the extra items for a new apartment.

A few days later, we made another trip to another grocery store nearby to stock up on food. This store was much larger and made me feel like I was back in the States. Everything was spotless, they had freezers full of frozen goods, including ice cream, and the meat was all refrigerated. I must admit, it felt good, and I was excited to see some familiar products. We found some cold cereal, milk, oatmeal, ground beef, chicken, vegetables, fruits that I knew and others that were exotic. We found a small toy for the kids. At the end of our tour around this super grocery store, we had a cart topped with all kinds of food to last us for two weeks. I was excited and felt more at home.

We approached the checkout, and a young Filipino woman began ringing up our cart. My almost three-year-old daughter tried to grab some M&M near the checkout counter. We had already grabbed a treat for our girls, so I asked her to put them back and then distracted her so she would not do it again. When I looked back up at the cash register, it was already above 5,000 Pesos (around $125), and our cart was only half empty. I looked back at the young woman who was ringing us up. She was wearing a very professional-looking uniform and make-up. I then felt a little guilty as I realized that these people were certainly making less than 10,000 PHP ($250) a month. Our total bill was well over 9,000 php for items that I had considered basic. I felt dumbfounded and perplexed trying to contemplate how these people could live on so little. The fact that I spent more on two weeks of groceries than these middle-class employees live on in a month hit me hard and still resonates with me.


Written by Nathan McClellan. Nathan McClellan is the Program Manager of Mentors International’s Philippine branch. He and his family moved to Manila in May 2013.

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