Published: April 27th 2008April 27th 2008
So Philippines is really history now, but I vowed to put in some closing thoughts on it before it sinks too deep into my noggin. For the record, I'm currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia, exploring the ruins of Angkor. If you don't know what that is, look it up. It's truly something to behold. Getting here was an adventure in itself, but I'll write about that later. Also for later is our two nights spent in Bangkok since our flight out was delayed. But without further ado, some closing thoughts on the Philippines and the long-awaited Cebu Pacific Debacle.
1. Good Food - My diet consisted mostly of cheap San Miguel and spicy seafood, and I couldn't be happier for it. Grilled marlin? Spicy squid? Bangus (a type of salted fish) for breakfast? I loved them all. I can also get behind the laid-back pacific island atmosphere.
2. Insane Taxi Drivers - I already wrote about this so I'll keep it brief: they make kamikaze pilots look like elderly crossing guards. That said, if I ever need a getaway driver for a bank heist, I'm recruiting a Filipiino cabbie.
3. Security Guards - Police are almost non-existent in Manila or Philippines at large. Fortunately, every single business has a hired security guard in neat white uniforms that always say hello and always offer help without demanding anything in return. This can be refreshing in a developing country where everybody wants something. The creme-de-la-creme are the fancy guards at the comparitively ritzly Mall of Asia. They're probably better paid and better trained than the local police, and it shows. If I ever need to build the world's friendliest army, I'm recruiting guards from the Philippines.
4. "Helpfullness" - There's a bizarre cultural quirk here where nobody will ever admit they don't know the answer to a question. Rather than risk embarassment they will flat out lie to you, smiling all the way. This has led me down several wrong roads, literally and figuratively. But there was one time that misinformation went beyond an inconvenience and got out of hand. That's right, it's time for the Cebu Pacific Air story.
THE CEBU PACIFIC DEBACLE
The story starts in HK where Adrienne and I had showed up 2 hours early for our flight but were told upon check-in that we needed proof of a return flight out of the Philippines. This was news to us as it wasn't in my guidebook and I hadn't come across it in any of our research. We argued this point, but it was no use. The check-in guy directed us to the ticketing desk of Cebu Pacific where we met the meanest woman lurking on Earth.
She greeted us with a smirk that screamed, "I'm about to ruin your day." We knew we wanted to get to Bangkok after Philippines so we asked for that. The cheshire cat grinned at us, "I''m sorry sir, you can only book flights to and from Hong Kong at Hong Kong airport." We explained that we had no desire to return to HK but she said there was no other way. Anticipating our next question she added on that all other airlines with ticketing offices here are the same way. I think she was lying. Either way, we believed her. We asked if we could book a ticket back to HK but then cancel it for a refund. This seemed to disappoint her, as we had found a loophole. Äs soon as Adri reached for her credit card, the sinister grin returned. "Oh, I'm sorry madam, no credit card, processing time is too long, it won't show up on the system." We asked if we could book online, but alas, the processing time. Our only option was cash, only in Hong Kong dollars which we had cleverly all used up. So Adrienne volunteered to front the money and withdrew an amout for what would be our most expensive flight so far. We forked it over. Before leaving, I looked her in the eye and said slowly, "So you're sure we can get a refund upon arrival at Manila airport?" "Sure," she smirked, "no problem."
We landed a couple hours later, but alas, the Cebu Pacific desk was totally empty. We asked a guard who told us to try up on the 4th floor, we were on the 1st. We lugged our bags up three flights of stairs (no escalators or elevators, naturally) only to be greeted by another security desk. The guard informed us we weren't allowed in without an itinerary, and that it was administrative offices only. We needed the office in the DOMESTIC terminal. We were in INTERNATIONAL. We could have just left for the hostel, but we decided to get it over with (har har). We waited half an hour for a shuttle to the other terminal, but once we got there, you guessed it, no admission without an itinerary. We went to the information desk, slightly annoyed. The lady smiled and told us refunds were done at INTERNATIONAL. I perhaps too smartly informed her that we had just been there and were sent here. She just smiled, "I'm sorry sir, International terminal." We settled for a phone number. I realized I would be able to call them since I was picking up a phone card to call the folks on their approaching birthdays. We left the airport, argued with a taxi driver to turn on his meter, and arrived at the hostel two hours later.
The next day I was on the phone trying to sort it all out. Fortunately our hostel was like the Garden of Eden and I was peacefully sitting on the terrace. I was on hold for a while, just chewing through the minutes when I finally got through to a breathing human being who told me to wait longer. A while later I got through again and was underway. She asked basic questions, but it quickly turned bad. My only card to play was that the person at HK airport had promised us a refund.
"So why do you want a refund, sir?"
"Because your airline made us buy a ticket to Hong Kong and we don't want to go to Hong Kong."
"Ah, the ticket was purchased in Hong Kong? You can't get a refund the. Tickets bought at an airport can only be refunded at the issuing airport."
"Pardon me, madam, but if I fly all the way back to Hong Kong to get my refund, doesn't that make the refund pointless?"
"Hold please, sir"
She came back a while later.
"Ok sir, we will give you your refund. We just need to get some more informat...."
At this point the line died and I got dial tone. Had the connection been dropped? Had I run out of credit? Adrienne interrupted my cursing at the phone and offered to try again. She did, and it worked. So we weren't out of credit. She waited 20 minutes then got through and went through the whole song and dance again.
".why would I buy a ticket to Hong Kong just so I can cancel a ticket to Hong Kong..."
Again the person had to put her on hold to ask a supervisor. Again she returned saying it was acceptable. She got some more info and asked for Adriene's credit card number. She gave it to her. And the phone died again. This time when we tried re-dialing and just got a busy signal, no call-centre.
We were very puzzled but fortunately the saintly staff at the Green Mango saw we were upset and offered us their phone free of charge. We tried calling from their landline but heard only a busy signal. We decided to go settle it in person. We asked the staff where we should go and they gave us the address for the Cebu Pacific ticketing office on DOMESTIC TERMINAL ROAD. On the same road, but in neither terminal. Both people at the airport were lying to us when they were bouncing us back and forth between terminals like a ping pong ball.
That night we were having drinks on the terrace with some others from the hostel. A dutch couple said they had tried to use the call centre a few weeks ago and the line dropped. It's not uncommon for them. An Aussie guy told us that it was new policy to force a return ticket in case you get deported or something, I guess the carrier that brings you in is responsible to fly you out, so while a return ticket isn't a national policy, some carriers choose to enforce it. While we were getting answers, we were increasingly puzzled as to why this hadn't been as easy as was promised.
The next day we headed out there, and descended into the second ring of hell. It was scorchingly hot outside, the cab ride consisted of the usual two hours of traffic and an argument with the driver to turn on his meter. The line out the door of their office was massive. It was actually chaotic. It's a true story that I worked for one day in a poultry processing plant but quit because I couldn't take the stench and the guts. Given the choice, I would gladly return to rivers of chicken ooze over this place. It was a refugee camp. People were camped out. Some told us they had been there five hours. Such is the problem with a discount carrier in a developing country. The people don't have the money, so they'll suffer through incompetence and misery for the cheapest deal. Apparently so would we. We took a number, one-thousand-and-something. I glanced up at the number they were serving: seven-hundred-and-something. This would take a while. Luckily the aforementioned Aussie guy had come with because he wanted to buy himself a ticket. After seeing the line he suggested we take a long lunch. When we got back somebody said they were in the 900s. We were getting close. Two hours later and they were somehow calling numbers in the 800s. Later still we were FINALLY allowed into the cramped office to wait our turn with the others. The staff seemed not bothered by the masses who had been sweating outside all day. They called yet another 800 number. We were still 200 off. Enough was enough. The Aussie had already bailed and we finally decided to throw in the white towel. On the way out Adrienne grabbed a passing attendant and asked if we could get a refund for a ticket paid for in cash. She assured us it was ok. At least we had a chance.
But it was time to go North. The next day we were bound for Baguio, Banaue, Batad and other places that don't start with a 'B'. We resolved to resolve it later.
A week later our good fortune came in the form of a poorly timed overnight bus to Manila. It got us in at an ordinarily inconvenient 5am. But we knew the office was 24 hours and the queue would be managable in the early hours. So we skipped sleep and went back to the dreaded office. Even with a full staff and minimal line (we were only 20 off the front) it took an hour and a half. The scene was worse than before. Most of the desks were empty as the staff lurked around the back texting on their mobile phones. One customer was so irate he took a picture of all the empty kiosks. It was 6am and we were all wiped and crabby and they couldn't be bothered to help. It was finally our turn, and would have been discouraged by what the attendant told us, but we knew better.
"I'm sorry, you can only get a refund at the issuing airport."
"That's not true, ask your supervisor."
She frowned and went to ask the guy who looked like he was in charge, I'll call him the Kommandant.
She returned and told us it was ok. She asked how we paid. Cash.
"I'm sorry, refunds on credit only."
"We would have but they made us withdraw and pay cash!" I was digging in for a brawl. Fortunately Adrienne stepped in and played "slightly better cop"
She went back to the Kommandant, they talked about that issue, basketball, gardening and the Presidential Primaries. Well that's how long it took, anyway.
She came back and grimly told us we could have our refund...in 40-60 days. Care to guess why?
We emerged at 7:30 bloodied and bruised, but victorious and refunded. As we headed off to find breakfast, we vowed never to fly with Cebu Pacific again.
The next day we decided to fly with Cebu Pacific again. What can I say, they had the best prices going to Bangkok. Poke an electrode into a block of cheese and eventually the rat will learn not to eat the shock-inducing cheese. Doesn't matter how many times we get shocked, we keep going back for more. This, I believe, is proof that a rodent has more brains than a thrift-driven traveller.
Ok, that was cathartic. Glad to have it out. Off to dinner and more ruins and temples tomorrow. In three days we leave Siem Reap and Angkor for the colonial town of Battambang.