A Quest for Equilibrium

A few notes before I begin. I'm working on a longer note detailing my time in Boracay. I hope to have that out in the next few days, but I'm still going to be spending most of my time with my wife - so expect a blackout for a few more days.

Secondly, a clarification on my last note: I am still very conscious that this came off as a plea for help, or a whining session. Rather, I was hoping it would act as somewhat of a catharsis, be a good documentation of my travels out here, and ultimately show another side of me that people don't often see. Nonetheless, I did receive several nice notes from people on this topic - your support is greatly appreciated (more than you know).

Finally, I won't be writing any more notes on my iPad (a la: my last note). Reviewing after the fact, I found it riddled with spelling and grammar errors from the autocorrect. Apologies to all of those who enjoy playing the role of Grammar Nazi - the last post was a prime candidate for an onslaught.

Now, the quest...

My wife and I woke up early this morning after falling asleep relatively early the night before.... well, after I fell asleep relatively early the night before. I barely made it to 9PM last night before I fell asleep. Regardless, we woke up and my wife requested some coffee. Thankfully, there is a coffee shop at the base of the building I am staying at, so a quick hop down the elevator and we're there. Small pitstop at the mailbox, a ritual that I have made a habit to ensure that I don't get any crazy power disconnection notices. Sure enough, a small envelope was sitting there waiting for me from.... the power company! My first Philippine Bill! Not sure why I was excited about this, but I was.

Inside I found a single sheet of paper containing my bill, and a breakout of every single detail of the bill - including the generation charges, distribution charges, power loss, donations to missionaries, etc. Lots of detail. At first glance, I was actually upset at this - trying to understand why each line item had so much attached to it. It was very much similar to my reaction to my first paycheck... trying to understand why FICA got so much of my money. Then, after about 100ms of thinking, I actually thought hard about this. I was rather pleased to understand why all of the costs came from, and how it all broke out. It's somewhat easier to digest than to see a flat line item like the bills I get in the US.

After the initial shock and whatnot, the second thing was to try and determine when I had to pay this bill. Due date: 12/31/2010. Crap. That's today. Okay, so my wife and I looked at each other and decided to take on the quest to Pay The Electric Bill.

First, we must deconstruct the problem. What would I do if I were in the US? Well, I would pay the bill online! Check the bill for a web address. Check! Head upstairs, log onto the website, establish an account. Check. Cooking with gas here! Log in, wait... and then I get a digital copy of the same bill. Look around for a place to pay... and... nothing. The only option available to me is to have the bill displayed. Now, I'm trying to understand the value here in getting my bill in this fashion. The bill is the same bill that was mailed to me, and there is no option to disable a paper bill in this case. Bottom line - pointless.

Okay, step two. Look on the bill and see how we can pay. Options on the bill - I can head to any bank, any BancNet enabled ATM, or any number of approved payment centers. Okay, cool. There is a bank right downstairs (next to the coffee shop). Went downstairs, and time listed 9AM as an open time. The time now - 9:30. Cool. Maybe we're on Filipino time here, and the banks open when they open. How about an ATM? There is a bank of ATMs from a plethora from vendors, and that's the next stop.

We head over to this area that has ATM machines from BDO, BPI, and MetroBank. First ATM - BDO. No option to pay bills. Second ATM - MetroBank. I can pay bills! Find the option to pay my Power Bill. Now, I'm prompted to enter my reference code. At this point, my wife and I are scanning the bill, looking for said reference number. I started typing in numbers that on my bill looked like reference numbers. There was even a box that said "Phone/ATM Reference Number". Typed in this number, and was presented with an angry error message. Bleg. Tried several other numbers, all of which ended up with the same exact error message. Logged out of that ATM, tried the BPI ATM - no ability to pay bills. Logged out, and headed back toward the bank.

While doing that, we walked past a shop that was a local Western Union (LPI). Lots of cool signs indicating that I can pay bills here. Sweet! Head in, ask if I can pay my power bill - answer: yes. Pulled out my Meralco Power Bill, and was promptly told "we don't take meralco. sorry." This transaction really confused me, as Meralco is the only company in the Philippines that distributes power. The only one. Now, there is power generated at a number of places, but Meralco has a veritable monopoly on the distribution game, so how there could be another power utility bill that could be paid here confused me beyond all belief. We walked out, befuddled.

Back to the Bank, and it was still closed. It's about 10AM at this point. Tried to go to a few other banks, and the same story. Why?! Well, as we were wandering about, we found signs indicating that today (12/31/2010) is a Federal Holiday. Makes sense - which makes today a non-banking day. Ugh. Can't pay my bill at the bank.

Now, we're trying to find a branch office for Meralco that we can pay. We have an address, and while looking up directions on the internet, I stumble upon a new option. GCASH.

Okay, quick background here. In the US, people pay bills online. In the Philippines, not everyone has a computer and/or Internet. But, they do have Cell Phones. To provide availability, the phone companies have established a mechanism to handle money, and interface with companies and each other. Each company has a slightly different system (Globe Telecom has GCASH, PLDT Smart has Smart Money). The cell phone companies act as a micro-payment system (think PayPal). They accept physical cash, turn it into GCASH, and then I can send GCASH to any number of individuals and/or institutions to pay bills. Globe has an option to pay my power bill.

Head to the Globe store, and hand them the amount of money required to pay my bill. Take a number, wait about 10 minutes, and then fill out a form. They happily transfer my money into my GCASH account. During the entire transaction, I'm getting text messages confirming deposits, asking me to confirm, etc. It was all actually quite neat. At the end of this transaction, I type out the required text message to pay my power bill. Invalid account. What?! After all of that? Maybe I misspelt it. Try again, same message. This time, I received a message indicating that I should call a support number for assistance with GCASH. Okay, give them a call.

Ring, operator - wait for someone, disconnect. Same thing happens twice more. Ugh. Third time, I am connected with someone who tells me that I need to sign up for GCASH, and I need to ensure that I have enough money in my GCASH wallet before I can pay a bill. Check, check. I explain the problem, and she indicates to me that I should pay my bill today because it's due. Thanks for the tip, I'm working on it.

Okay, back to the Meralco option. Give the local branch a phone call - invalid phone number. Now, I give each number in the series a phone call. Same. But there is a physical address. Reluctantly, we get into a cab, and head down to the office. Once we get there, the office is closed. Well, stupid me. It's a federal holiday. Who on earth would be working today?! It's a flippin' holiday in the Philippines. Never mind that there is a holiday every 12.5 days, today is one, and nobody is going to be working.

At this point, we've spent 2.5 hours on this quest, and have failed. Fail all over. I can't pay via ATM - I can't pay via Bank - I can't pay via GCASH - I can't give my money directly to Meralco. I guess my bill is going to be late. My only other option is to pay sometime on Monday, and pay a late fee... but I don't really have a choice. While I'm only just now getting irritated at this quest, my wife is now very irritated. Given that she will be leaving in only three more days, I made a tactical decision to "screw it", and deal with it on Monday.