Life is too short to spend it complaining about airlines and airports. Instead I will observe that the flight from Seoul to Manila on Philippines Airlines is best suited for short-legged business people struggling to survive in highly competitive markets, not tourists.
When planning the trip, many friends and colleagues expressed concern over our decision to include the Philippines. Comments included:
• “It’s a bit off the beaten tourist track, isn’t it?”
• “There’s a certain element of lawlessness there, you know.”
• Most succinctly, “Manila’s a pit.”
None of those comments came from people who had actually been there, though. Those who had merely sang in unison regarding unscrupulous taxi drivers. I figured if that was our biggest worry, we’d be fine, although I must admit I find few things more distressing than watching a taxi meter tick when I have no idea where I’m going.
We were scheduled to meet up with a friend from Vancouver who, by mind-boggling coincidence, happened to be visiting Manila that same day. At customs we received his text advising that he was outside waiting, so there was no need to engage a taxi, scrupulous or otherwise.
That Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International had been named by CNN as the seventh worst airport in the world seemed a tad harsh to me, especially given its adorably sing-song name. We got through customs in a flash, the whole process quaintly reminiscent of the airport scenes from Casablanca, save the shooting. Sure enough, Ian was there, and he escorted us to his van.
Ian, Filipino by birth, had recently retired. Now he spends half his time in a cramped one bedroom apartment in Vancouver living like Mahatma Ghandi, and the other half in a four bedroom beachfront house with driver, housekeeper, cook and gardener, about a six hour drive north of Manila — the latter being the less expensive option.
Once in the van, Ian introduced us to his driver, who had a name, and Jean, who was slumbering on the rearmost bench. Jean awoke, apologising for being exhausted, having had performed until 4am that morning. Ian explained that Jean was a headliner at The Library, Manila’s foremost drag show venue (http://www.thelibrary.com.ph/drag-ons.php). A celebrity in our midst!
Ian was in town to meet another friend scheduled to arrive late that evening at the New World Hotel in Manila’s Makati district, where all were to stay that night. The driver pointed our vehicle in that general direction, introducing us to the 24/7 gridlock bumper-to-bumper stasis that is Manila traffic. Happily we had plenty to talk about, so I can’t even say how long the short trip took, but it exposed an impressive vacuum of urban planning and execution.
Security at the hotel was thoroughly intimidating. Before we could enter the driveway security staff demanded we open the boot so they could rifle through our bags, and then went so far as to explore the underside of the van using mirrors mounted on poles. Entering the building required running a gauntlet of sniffer dogs, x-ray machines and metal detectors, the staff reviewing passports and questioning details with uncharacteristic attention. What the hell, I thought, is Manila THAT dangerous?
The answer turned out to be “Only if you are the President of the Philippines”, who was scheduled to hand out some tourism awards that afternoon at the convention underway. Unfortunately, we did not get to lay eyes on Noynoy Aquino III (not to be confused with his Dad and the airport’s namesake, Ninoy Aquino).
As you might expect from a hotel where the President hangs out, the New World was a very nice establishment. Checking in, the hotel staff was remarkably attentive, polite, and helpful. Our bags had disappeared, but we were assured by the bellman ushering us that they would materialise in our room. It occurred to me that this level of service was familiar, quite American – perhaps one of the lasting effects of the period during which the Philippines was an American colony. It occurred to me that unlike our previous destinations, this guy would, reasonably enough, be expecting a tip. It occurred to me that since we hadn’t had to take a taxi from the airport, we hadn’t bothered to get any pesos.
The bellman, Emman by name (short for Emmanuel), led us to our room, positioned our luggage, drew open the drapes, pointed out the landmarks in view, explained every light switch in the room, demonstrated the toilet, and checked the minibar. I grew more and more uncomfortable. He wasn’t about to put his hand out, but then, he wasn’t about to leave either. He reviewed the breakfast schedule and room service availability, went over the WiFi technicalities, clarified all matters telephonic, reminded us of the checkout time, and enlightened us as to the fitness and pool facilities. I considered handing him a Korean 10,000 Wan note – all we had. Rejecting that idea, I blurted “I’m sorry we don’t have any cash right now, we’re going to have to take care of you later.”
“Of course” came Emman ’s crestfallen, sceptical reply. He’d heard THAT before. He left. We felt awful. As Americans, we had no excuse.
Once settled, we made a beeline for an ATM, then finding Emman at the bell desk. I’m not sure whether it was out of guilt or failure to calculate, but we handed him a bill that turned out to be a small fortune, at least in tip terms. Needless to say, Emman was quite pleased and more than a little surprised. It proved to be money well spent, as he was most helpful for the balance of our short stay.
We met Ian and Jean for lunch, enjoying the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, Adobo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adobo). There were a surprising number of corned beef dishes on the menu, as we would find in restaurants across Manila. Nothing wrong with that!
As we finished lunch the skies opened up, not unusual at the height of the wet season. We had dodged the typhoon that had passed two days earlier, but there was no avoiding the afternoon downpours. Ian suggested we roust his driver for a tour of the city.
Not to belabour the point, it bears repeating that Manila’s traffic is horrendous, indeed the worst of any city I’ve ever visited – by far. Today the economy is in good shape, but over years of slump the city hadn’t kept up its infrastructure. Now they are hard at work building “Skyways” over key bottleneck stretches, but the congestion resultant from construction combined with the increased activity of a rejuvenated economy is a nightmare. As for our tour, it was helpful in gaining an understanding of the lay of the land, and certainly the traffic provided an elongated opportunity to review neighbourhoods that would otherwise be overlooked by tourists.
Eventually, we reached the Intramuros, the walled city built during the Spanish colonial period. There, we toured two of the most significant churches of this uber-Catholic nation, the Manila Cathedral, and the San Agustin Church, both of which date back to the 1500’s. Very impressive, although I found the expressions on the statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus HimSelf to be rather peculiar.
I bought a neat hat from a young lady outside the cathedral. “Washable, made of bananas!” she claimed excitedly, mashing it up to show how well it retained its shape. That was very impressive, too, without qualification.
Several hours later, or so it seemed, we emerged from the traffic back at the hotel, where we crashed for the night. Tomorrow, we’d be heading to the Philippines premiere resort for decadent relaxation.
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