Some months ago I participated in an online survey, sponsored by a headhunter of questionable repute (which really doesn’t limit the list in any meaningful way). The survey claimed to be attempting to correlate attitudes regarding the health and safety of workers with certain distinguishing characteristics, one of which, I imagine, would be the propensity to participate in online surveys. I was quite forthright with my answers, hoping to skew the results towards reality with unspoken truths, insofar as such things can be expressed by adding the word “strongly” to “agree” or “disagree”. I even admitted to my employment with government. Surprisingly, that did not jeopardise my eligibility on account of the “worker” requirement.
Imagine my surprise when advised I had won a $500 gift certificate from a leading travel agent of questionable repute (which really doesn’t limit the list in any meaningful way). No problem using that! Or so I thought.
These days it is easier, faster and cheaper to buy travel products online than through an agent. In theory, an agent still comes in handy with bookings requiring specific local knowledge. Or so I thought.
Without mentioning the gift certificate, my first request of, um, let’s call them the Fly-By-Night Centre, was to book the ferry from Qingdao to Seoul. After ignoring me for days, I followed up with repeated phone calls, finally getting an agent who claimed to have tried, telling me “It’s impossible.” Okay, could be — I certainly couldn’t figure out how to do it. (We ended up booking a flight ourselves, online.)
So I tried again, a different Fly-By-Night Centre location and different agent. Could they book the bullet train from Beijing to Qingdao? Again ignored, again I chased them, again, days later, “It’s impossible.” (Eventually, we bought the tickets ourselves over-the-counter at the South Beijing train station, see post entitled Great Men and Spoilt Brats).
So I tried again, yet another Fly-By-Night Centre location, yet another agent. Could they book us into the Pangulasian Island resort? Again ignored, again I chased them, again, days later, “It’s impossible.” They did offer to book us into one of the lesser El Nido resorts – at a greater price. I declined. We booked the resort ourselves, online.
How hard can it be to spend $500 with a travel agent? We needed a hotel for our last night in Manila, and found the Manila Hotel with mediocre ratings on TripAdvisor. It was not cheap, but clearly was the Grande Dame of Manila, historically significant and centrally located. Even if she sucked, she would be interesting. Sure enough, our local Fly-By-Night Centre could book it, at a rate only $20 a night more than we could have booked on the internet. I jumped at the opportunity to spend some of the gift certificate.
Believe it or not, our agent, Britney (yes, she spelt it that way) handed us a voucher – yes, several printed pieces of paper, nicely packaged in a Fly-By-Night Centre folder. “Be sure to give this to them at check-in, and don’t lose it.” she instructed.
I was dumbfounded. “Can’t I just show them a pdf on my iPhone? Are you telling me that if I lose this, they’ll give our prepaid room to somebody else? Really?”
“Really.” she assured me with a smile. “The good thing” she continued “is that with us you have someone to call when things go wrong.” She pointed out a phone number labelled “Problems?” on page three – which started with “+44”, the country code for the United Kingdom.
“When things go wrong?” I asked, with unknowing prescience. “Don’t you mean ‘if’?”
“Huh?” she giggled.
Apparently, today one books things through a travel agent because, for only twenty dollars a night, you can leave a message with a slumbering Brit “when things go wrong”.
Thus we arrived back in Manila headed for the Manila Hotel. As requested, the resort had arranged the transfer. This turned out to be the back seat of the four-door pick-up truck used by the charter airline to deliver luggage, employees, maintenance equipment, small parts, bodily remains, and other such things as a charter airline has reason to deliver. It was actually quite comfortable. With no meter to watch and a driver as eager to get rid of us as we were to get to our destination, I relaxed. The three of us happily crawled along through traffic, another piece of Manila’s arterial cholesterol, sometimes chatting away, sometimes fondling our devices.
The driver was a hardworking gent in his thirties, the chief breadwinner supporting a three-generation house of twelve by working fourteen hour days, most of which spent staring at the bumper in front of him. I think if I lived in a three-generation house of twelve, I’d probably look forward to getting stuck in traffic. Come to think of it, just working for the government makes me look forward to thirteen hour flights in economy class. To our driver’s credit, he admitted to being on overtime rates, so was in no particular hurry, not that it mattered. Neither were we.
On arrival we were greeted under the Manila Hotel’s grand portico by bell staff dressed something like sea captains, a doorman in a splendid if stupefyingly green waistcoat and top hat, and enchanting women in traditional high dress of uncertain utility. The uniforms of the security guards running the metal detectors were something of a disappointment.
Announcing ourselves at reception, the front desk clerk welcomed us by pounding with increasing fervency into an apparently unresponsive computer. “Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Yes, yes…” he answered while grabbing the nearest co-worker by the arm and mumbling something in her ear. She took to the next computer, the two of them typing a duet accompanied by vocals in a decidedly minor key.
“I have our voucher!” I offered. This brought them some joy, both giggling, regarding me as if I had just stepped out of a time capsule.
We made our own way, through the chandeliered elegance of the lobby, up the marble grand staircase, onto the brass plated elevator — to our dark, drab, tired room. Pulling back the dusty linoleum curtains, I was pleased to see we had a harbour view, stunning in its rusted, post-apocalyptic squalor, with the Philippines’ Coast Guard cutter numero uno docked within a stone’s throw.
There were very few guests in the old building other than the ghost of Douglas MacArthur. Doogles lived in the hotel’s penthouse for six years prior to his 1941 eviction by the Japanese. I can understand why he was so eager to return, as this mortal realm is a wonderful place from which to manage half a world war. The Filipinos have at their soul a very strong desire to please, a trait I have no doubt the general played to his advantage. Ahem.
There was no time to lose, as earlier in the week I had purchased tickets to the evening’s performance of the Philippines Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO). Their venue, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), is one of many artsy establishments credited to the unfailing patronage of Imelda Marcos, shoe-loving wife of the notoriously corrupt and much-loved former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Imelda and Ferdy are long dead, but their controversies live on, still bearing relevance in current politics.
The CCP was four kilometres down the foreshore. We’d had enough of sitting in traffic-bound taxis, so had determined to walk, yet needed to squeeze in some form of sustenance beforehand. Asked for a restaurant that would provide a good quick dose of authentic cuisines, the bellman recommended The Aristocrat, a chain whose flagship establishment was right on the way. We hurried out at 5:30 pm for the 7:30 pm concert.
The first stretch brought us by the permanent reviewing stands — a stadium, really — built for the singular purpose of watching over-the-top parades go beyond the pale. For the next half-kilomtere, the imposing security surrounding the US Embassy — all concrete balustrades and reinforced iron fences guarded by no-nonsense uniformed marines — interrupted our access to the shore, but provided an illusion of safety as the sun set. Past that, darkness falling, the realities of Manila came to light.
Continuing down Roxas Boulevard, the deteriorating footpaths were dotted by ramshackle streets vendors, more than a few being family operations with children, and even naked toddlers, manning the store, smiling pleasantly at us. In between, there were plenty of indigent street people who posed no threat except to our general sense of well-being and humanity. Eventually the footpath disappeared altogether, so we clambered over mounds of construction debris and across eight lanes of stationary traffic, finding The Aristocrat restaurant not much farther along.
The Aristocrat bore all the markings of a landmark restaurant: good food cheap with excellent if somewhat abrupt service, turning over tables with intimidating efficiency. We would not be allowed to linger, but then, we didn’t have time to linger.
Back across eight lanes of stationary traffic and over the construction debris, we sighted the CCP through a wrought iron spiked fence entwined with bared-wire. The fence separated the Manila Yacht Club from the indigent, who peered through it at multi-million dollar vessels with appreciation, if not aspiration.
Imelda’s Cultural Center of the Philippines was a simple but functionally and acoustically respectable structure. The same could be said for Philippines Philharmonic Orchestra itself. It was opening night for their eight concert season, so there was a bit of an anticipatory buzz about, despite the venue being less than half full. I attributed the lacklustre attendance in part to the CCP’s failure to make available any alcoholic beverages, leaving such an event intolerable to many an otherwise mildly disinterested partner.
The program included Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, not to be confused with The Theme from Shine (his third). Rachmaninov’s piano concertos have become ridiculously popular since that film, which is fine by me. Filipino pianist Albert Tiu was making something of a homecoming, stunning his hometown fans with an adequate performance, an adequate performance of a Rachmaninov piano concerto being a stunning accomplishment. He also stunned the visiting fans, including me, by admitting in the program notes to being a Pittsburgh Penguins (ice hockey) fan, almost certainly a first in the annals of classical music.
After the concert we weighed up our options: walk back to the hotel through the rubble and squalor, or take an air conditioned taxi through traffic on the meter. The AC won, we took the taxi. Back at the hotel, I didn’t even look at the meter, I just handed over 800 pesos. Happily.
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