- 01. Giving It Away
- 02. Mind Games
- 03. Customer Service
- 04. Getting Down to Business
- 05. …And Not a Drop to Drink
- 06. The Commission
- 07. Service!
- 08. Instant Celebrity
- 09. The Pinoy Diet
- 10. Life As We Know It
- 11. Doctors’ Borders
- 12. Poor, Poorer, Poorest
- 13. Half Empty
- 14. Me and My Leg
- 15. Always Be With You
- 16. Going Underground
- 17. Decisions, Decisions
- 18. I Shall Depart
- 19. A Volcano within a Volcano
- 20. A Nod and a Smile
- 21. Not Fighting City Hall
- 22. Stasis in Places
- 23. Fond Farewells
- 24. Parting Shots
“Are you sure you don’t want to take a water bottle?” Frank pressed.
“It is six o’clock in the morning; we’re going for a 30 minute jog. How thirsty could I possibly get?”
My answer should have been “Of course. How silly of me” It wasn’t. Our first morning in Quezon City we headed out at sunrise into oppressive heat and humidity without water. Ten minutes I was on the verge of fainting.
We had found our way into the central park of Quezon Circle, the only green coloured map splotch within miles. Quezon Circle revealed itself to be an ellipse, a half-mile at its longest, surrounded by ten lanes of gasoline-powered traffic swirling counter-clockwise. If you were not in possession of a motor vehicle — a helicopter would do nicely — human access was possible only through the lone pedestrian tunnel from Quezon City Hall to the south.
Let’s see: I just said “center” (not centre), “miles” (not kilometres), “gasoline” (not petrol), “counter-clockwise” (not anti-clockwise), and referred to a park that requires automobile to access. The American influences are obvious here.
My initial impression was of a grand public space that got more use than upkeep. The park is highly developed, with a complex of restaurants, an amusement park, an art museum, several performances stages with covered seating, and promenade of commercial garden shops that maintain most of the park’s remaining remnants of greenery. It was busy this Saturday morning. Families jousted to re-establish their pecking orders in the carpark near the restaurants. An army of boxers sparred in pairs on the entry promenade. We joined a river of joggers on a half-melted asphalt track that streamed around the park’s iconic landmark, the Peace Tower. Nearby we found dozens of vendors opening their stalls for the weekend market, including (thankfully) some selling water. Lesson learnt: always take water when jogging in Quezon City.
Rather than risk heat prostration or cardiac arrest, we walked back to the hotel through the city hall complex, which is at once glorious and drab. Quezon City was named the capital of the Philippines for about twenty minutes in the 1970’s. I imagine the circle and the city hall complex were conceived to be a centerpiece for a proud republic. In fact the circle was intended to be home to grandiose buildings for the Senate and the House of Representatives. But President Ferdinand Marcos wanted the presidential residence to remain at Malacanang Palace in nearby Manila, so the Quezon-City-as-Capital idea kind of fizzled out. Manila it is, once again.
Over breakfast, with some trepidation, I decided to try to fix a host of lingering issues related to my numerous Australian Telstra accounts (landline, two mobile phones, cable, internet). Telstra is, by far, Australia’s largest telecommunications provider.
From all appearances, Telstra is on the brink of a complete technological meltdown. Some decades ago the telecom monopoly was hived off from the post office, and soon it became a world leader in the delivery of highest quality mobile phone coverage. Over the ensuing decades Telstra was privatised, bit by bit, to the point that this critical infrastructure running Australia now is fully in private hands.
You wouldn’t know it by chatting with Telstra’s staff, who maintain the culture, sensitivity and responsiveness of postal employees. They chortle about the rubber bands and chewing gum holding together the technology essential to the Australian economy, not to mention all the ships at sea, to operate. They understand the girth of their bureaucratic juggernaut eventually will cause its demise, like an obese person smothering in their own blubber. It’s like they’re generally in favour of it, the sooner the better. Just not today.
I was earlier instructed by these philatelistic wonders that all my accounts could be suspended the moment I gave the go-ahead, I tried to accomplish this the day before we left Australia, but Telstra’s systems were down. Such events do not engender confidence. It might be a good time to leave Australia for a while.
This morning, after getting on the spotty but functional hotel WiFi, I visited Telstra’s customer service online chat page. Here’s part of the transcript:
You’re connected with Julius Cesar
Hi Smiling Kodiak! My name is Julius, How are you today?
l have moved overseas (Philippines) so need to suspend some accounts.
You got the right person to resolve your enquiry today. By the way, where are you in the Philippines? Are you for vacation?
Wow. That’s really good 🙂 So on what city your currently located?
I am in Quezon City (Metro Manila) Philippines right now.
Oh, really. Just to let you know, I’m also in Quezon City Philippines.
It should not have surprised me that Telstra had outsourced customer service to the Philippines. Certainly, customer service is not Telstra’s core capability. Such services are a huge business here, with American English widely and well spoken in a service-with-a-smile culture. Business Processing Organizations — “BPO’s” in the lingo, now contribute more to the economy than overseas Filipino’s sending home money, and that is quite an accomplishment.
Even the dogged determination and indominatable spirit of Julius Cesar could not resolve Telstra’s issues. Three hours later — three hours! — we had resolved nothing other than cancelling my lunch meeting, and I was still chatting online.
Appreciate your patience on this. Let me look for other option. By the way, I’m already talking to our unlocking team and they informed me that there is a $25 unlocking fee.
I never asked for this phone to be locked. You guys did it without authorisation or request. I am supposed to pay you to eliminate it? My phone was NEVER on a plan. I paid cash for it.
This is highway robbery.
I’m clarifying it right now to them. I’m talking to them as well over the phone.
For your phone there is $25 unlocking fee.
You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
Anyway, let’s get the &$*%!!%$ phone unlocked, please.
I gotta go. Julius your service has been wonderful. It has been utterly miserable spending three hours not ﬁxing simple issues. I appreciate your diligence, patience and hard work. Having said that, I am selling my Telstra shares and will never again use Telstra.
At noon, Fay (our orientation leader) re-appeared with the van at the hotel. I dreaded getting back in the thing after four hours in traffic last night, particularly after three hours in Telstra-hell this morning. I reconsidered in new context the kind of patience this assignment might require. I should not have worried, as moments later we arrived at the offices where we would spend the next week in orientation.
Day One was a relaxed getting-to-know-you session. Lunch was served. We met Joshua, the orientation manager, who would conduct much of the training. Josh was a softly-spoken, well-educated, pleasant man, a passionate socialist at heart. I soon noticed that on command Josh could switch on the persona of seasoned-bureaucrat, a necessity to run a business largely dependent on the follies, foibles and winds effecting the generosity of governments the world over.
We introduced ourselves again, this time by pre-determined formula, yakking about family, hobbies, qualifications, habits, sexual preferences, and mobile phone addictions. After Frank and I spoke, Josh worriedly commented ”I just realised I have two Americans here.” Talking about it, all agreed the online volunteer application form hadn’t given us any opportunity to say we were born and raised in the USA, American citizens as well as Australian. We certainly weren’t trying to hide it. The website only allowed us to submit what they asked for — what they thought they needed to know. Josh unconvincingly assured us this would not cause any difficulties.
Merienda (snacks) were served, as they would be twice daily, mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Food accompanies most everything in the Philippines. In a land where there is more rice than sugar and more sugar than air, the food tends to be sweet and rice-based. And frequent. Diabetes, not surprisingly, is increasingly a problem.
We got our first dose of Tagalog “survival language training”. Later, I quizzed Josh about the jazz scene in Manila, and whether there were any jazz clubs nearby. He said the nearby 70’s Bistro often had jazz, and good food.
At the end of the day Fay told us four volunteers “You all can take a jeepney or tricycle back to the hotel.” We were a bit puzzled, as it was only a kilometre straight up the street.
“No, we’ll just walk…” one of us said, the others nodding in agreement.
“Really?” Fay said, obviously concerned. “But it is so far and it is so hot.”
We Australians assured her we’d be fine, and set off. It wasn’t far, but is was HOT. The real issue, though, is that walking in Quezon City is something of a chore — certainly nothing one could call a stroll. Where there are sidewalks, generally they are blocked by cars or trucks or tricycles or street vendors or gaping sewer holes or puddles or rubbish or feces. One has little choice but to walk in traffic, which may seem inherently dangerous but the traffic moves at a slow pace. Moreover, the drivers are careful to avoid humans lest they be further delayed to wipe blood off their bumpers.
Of all the footpath obstacles I found the puddles most concerning. Pooled water attracts mosquitos, and mosquitos just LOVE me. That is problem enough anywhere, but here in Manila I had been warned of an increasing incidence of Denghi fever. I stopped at Mercury Drug to stock up on DEET repellent.
Before returning to the hotel the four of us stopped next door at a rooftop bar for a bucket of six beers. Comparing notes on the day, we all had favourable opinions; a good start. At five-thirty on a Saturday afternoon, the bar was empty save a lone man at a table covered with empty beer bottles. We considered getting a second bucket, but Giselle begged off. “That guy is staring at me like he’s never seen a blond before. He’s giving me the creeps.” I hadn’t noticed his staring, but neither did I doubt it. It was quite likely that he didn’t see blonds very often. I hadn’t seen one since we left the airport, aside from the attractive Giselle.
We decided to gather again at seven o’clock to try the 70’s Bistro for dinner, a twenty minute walk. To get there we took the back streets, escaping the traffic and smog of the main drags. Halfway there we were stunned to bump into Fay. Was she following us? She was in a car driven by her husband, Edward, whom she introduced.
“Where are you headed?” she asked.
“The 70’s Bistro, for dinner.” Gordo answered.
“Oh, no. That’s too far to walk. Just go down this street,” she pointed, “there are good restaurants right here.”
“But we were looking forward to the 70’s, it sounded retro”. Frank protested.
“It is too far, we will drive you.” Fay pleaded.
On my phone I showed her a map indicating its distance and location. “But we’re almost there already! No need, really. Should we not go there?”
Fay was uncomfortable, fidgety. “It’s okay — if that is what you want.” she answered cryptically.
We parted ways. The walk took us into new neighbourhoods, nothing particularly scary. In fact we found the barangay hall (center of the local community government) which we were told is usually a very safe place. We past a police station not much further along.
Finally, there was the 70’s Bistro. Five rock bands were performing this evening, for entry the door requiring each of us to purchase an eight dollar CD. We regrouped to discuss our options. Unenthusiastic about trying to have a dinner conversation under the thunder of a rock band, we were even less interested in buying the CD. We turned to leave, finding the smiling face of Edward before us. “Would you like a ride?”
Was he following us?
The others were reticent to accept Edward’s generosity. It dawned on me that I had misread Fay’s earlier message. Apparently “It’s okay if that is what you want” is as close to “No, I am telling you do not go there, you idiot” as Filipino’s are allowed to get.
“I’ll take you to a good restaurant, over in Timog Avenue.” Edward suggested.
“C’mon people, what are we waiting for?” I pushed. Reluctantly they piled in Edward’s car, a plush air conditioned piece of heaven. Edward, it turned out, worked for a BPO servicing American companies. Earlier this day, as he did most days, he had commuted two hours each way, not unusual around Manila. Imagine my surprise when, rather take us directly to the restaurant, he proceeded on a driving tour of the Timog neighbourhood, an area known for nightclubs, bars and restaurants. Immediately we came to a dead stop in traffic. I lost it.
“Please, Edward, I am starving!” I lied. I wasn’t that hungry, but I was not about to spend another minute stuck in traffic. “Can we please go to the restaurant?” Edward obliged, deftly executing a slow-motion U-turn in heavy traffic, taking us to a place named Historia. Edward joined us for a fine dinner — even though he had already eaten — and afterwards drove us back to the hotel. I was just beginning to appreciate the level of service and eagerness to please inherent in Filipinos.