[This is the final entry in the twelve part series Saving Face]
Still half asleep, I was half listening to CNN drone half-truths on the TV at the Manila Hotel.
Russia was not invading Ukraine, the US was not sending ground troops back into Iraq, ISIS was taking over the world, okay since ebola was going to kill us all anyway, and Typhoon Luis was bearing down on the Philippines.
Suddenly I was very much awake. I sat up, groping for my glasses. By the time I could see the TV, Dr. Sanjay Gupta was reporting from Los Angeles that medical uses for MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD were “generating new interest among a growing number of doctors”. I bet.
Fascinating as that good-news human-interest story might have been, it did not satisfy my more immediate need to find out whether Manila was to be obliterated prior to our 8pm departure. Online I verified that there was a typhoon headed our way. Its current course and speed was expected to take it north of Manila several hours after our flight left, but tropical cyclones are notoriously fickle. Today’s forecast was warm and cloudy, with heavy rain and increasing winds in the evening. Fingers crossed.
The Manila Hotel’s breakfast buffet was the largest I had ever seen anywhere, spreading over four or five rooms collectively the size of a football field. You name the ethnicity, nationality, genre, dietary demand, or style of breakfast, it was there, even cold pizza.
I am no fan of buffets, breakfast or otherwise, where food of indeterminate age lingers over low heat festering bacterial blooms planted by the countless drips and sneezes of the preceding patrons. All-you-can-eat buffets are popular in Florida where particularly knowledgeable gluttons advise that one should “dig deep” to where the diseases borne of phlegm and spittle are less likely to have taken hold — and never, ever stir. Indeed I consider it quite possible, if not likely, that a buffet was the source of the ills that plagued us earlier on this trip.
Nevertheless, the spread before me was extraordinary, and what small part of it I sampled was of very good quality.
The Manila Hotel lay outside and across the street from the walls of the Intramuros, the colonial walled city at Manila’s heart. Our mission for the day was to circumnavigate it, doing as much as possible on the wall itself.
Our plan overlooked the obvious fact that fortress walls such as these are quite carefully designed to prevent men on the outside from getting atop them. Making things more difficult, the Club Intramuros Golf Course wraps around the wall’s exterior on the grassy plain situated to facilitate the gunning-down of approaching tourists. Although the gunners are long gone, deadly golfen projectiles continue to pose a threat. We were dissuaded from traversing the killing fairways by another spiked wrought iron fence, not unlike that which separated the indigent from the Manila Yacht Club. Here, the impoverished offered unsolicited instruction to the golfers as they passed.
Searching for a way in, we walked down crumbling footpaths through untended, overgrown nature strips populated by families of destitute squatters. Alongside, hundreds of container trucks billowed diesel exhaust and spewed dust as they left the port to join Manila’s perennial festival of congestion. Eventually, we came to a gate through which we entered the relative peace of the Intramuros.
Fort Santiago beckoned. The fort was the site of first European settlement in the 1500’s. For a long time thereafter the Philippines was a valuable jewel in Spain’s crown of colonies. Gradually, as Spain focused on its extensive holdings in the Americas, this far flung outpost in the middle of the Pacific became something of a nuisance for Madrid, which pretty much left the running of the place to the church. By the late 1800’s the native Filipino’s had had enough of that, and fomented revolution by forming the (first) Republic of the Philippines – which was largely ignored by Spain.
No surprise then, that when the Spanish-America War broke out in 1898, the Spanish handed over Manila and the Philippines to the USA after a token, staged battle. The Filipino’s mistook the Americans as liberators, but after another year it was pretty obvious they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The result was the Philippines-American War with the First Republic. That dragged on for some years, but the US won, and then allowed some level of self-government. A hundred years and a number of invasions and uprisings later, the Philippines is on its Fifth Republic. If at first you don’t succeed…
Fort Santiago had seen all of this go down – revolutions, executions, bombardments, wars, invasions. It stands as an enduring symbol of mankind’s inexplicable reluctance to flee when the fleeing is good. I highly recommend having a squiz if you are in Manila.
From there we managed to find our way up onto the wall, completing our circumnavigation of the Intramuros’ on its backside, pleasantly removed from the chaos of the streets around the university and City Hall. It also provided splendid views of the Pasig River “where 150 tons of domestic waste and 75 tons of industrial waste were dumped daily … now one of the most polluted rivers in the world.”
Showering prior to our flight, we were disappointed to find there was no hot water despite letting it runs for twenty minutes. Luckily, water is not in short supply in Manilla. We grumbled through cold showers, packed our bags, and headed for the airport.
When I complained about the lack of hot water at check-out the front desk clerk acknowledged “Yes, there is no hot water in the old building.” Points for honesty I guess. Across the lobby, at the “Assistant Manager” desk, I noted to the woman who identified herself as the Assistant Manager that it was unacceptable to sell rooms without hot water at a hotel of this calibre. She, too, confirmed “There is no hot water in the old building.” When I repeated that this was unacceptable, she nodded in agreement — in effect dismissing me.
It started to rain on the way to the airport. By the time we boarded the plane, it was rocking in a howling wind. Looking out from my window seat I could see the tarmac was awash with at least an inch, maybe more, of rushing water. We taxied out to the runway’s end, and sat, the plane swaying with the gales, the rain’s roar louder than the engines. And we sat. And sat.
Eventually the captain made an explanatory announcement. “We are third in line for take-off, however, five or six flights have aborted landing and had to around again. As they get priority, it may be a while before we get off the ground.”
Fair enough, I thought. Taking off in a typhoon is one thing – you go up, and generally you don’t miss the sky, even in a typhoon. Landing, on the other hand, is a much more difficult proposition, with the need to place the aeroplane upon a runway. Peering out my window into the darkness, I could barely make out the wake left by our plane’s landing gear, shimmering in the wing lights. No wonder they had to abort the landings, they probably couldn’t see the runway.
Just as this thought crossed my mind, a 747 crossed in front of us, seemingly inches from the nose of our plane. The good news was that we were first in line for take-off. The bad news was that I had a prime seat from which to watch jumbo jets land meters away, somewhat blind, somewhat sideways, and certainly not in complete control of themselves. To say the least, it did not engender as sense of confidence or security. Finally, thankfully, we pulled onto the runway and began to roll.
My eldest sister, a seasoned traveler, claims that a pilot told her that if the landing gear isn’t up within 40 seconds of the plane rolling for take-off, you are doomed. I have no idea whether this is true, or even why it might be true. It reeks of urban legend – “a pilot told me”? C’mon. Nevertheless, hardly a flight goes by since that I am not counting. When I get anywhere near 40, I either slow down, or even back up a bit. Needless to say, I’ve yet to get to 40. The whole thing doesn’t make any sense, yet I persist in doing it. And the only reason I am mentioning here, is that now you will, too. Heh.
Our take-off came off without a hitch. We arrived back in Melbourne on time, despite the delays. A neighbour kindly met us outside of customs, greeting me with a cheery “Welcome home! How was the trip?”
“Awful.” I responded, “I loved it.”
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 Wikipedia (Manila)