You've just been robbed of all your money and credit cards, still six hours’ travel from the city you fly out from in three days, without the means to pay the bus fare, the outstanding hotel bill, or even the airport departure tax. This poses a problem at the best of times. Add to that the fact it just so happens to be freaking Thanksgiving in your bank’s country of residence, 8,000 miles away, and you’re in a spot of bother.
So here's a spoiler: my third trip the Philippines ended almost as badly as it began. The bit in the middle wasn’t short on events either... In the beginning…
Singapore’s urban transport system is clean and efficient, as you would expect, so we sought to exploit this by cutting our arrival at the airport very close indeed. When we got to check in, there were no queues as everyone else had already checked in. This is referred to as perfect timing. Unfortunately there is no such thing as perfect. We handed over our passports and our luggage, which was weighed and tagged, and then the man asked if we had a return ticket back to Singapore. No,
Jennifer's camera was never the same again!
I said, we have no intention of returning to Singapore. So where will you be going after the Philippines he asked. At this moment we were undecided, particularly with regards the date. “Well then I cannot let you board this flight”, he smiled. This rule has been floating around for at least as long as I’ve been traveling, however I have never actually had it enforced upon me. Actually, specific rules for the Philippines state that the onward ticket has to be within 21 days of your arrival, as the visa on arrival is only for 21 days. We may not have known our onward destination, but we were pretty certain that we wanted to stay longer that that!
I if’ed and but’ed, but, “If you don’t show me tickets in 10mins I’m taking you off this flight”, he rebuffed. Okay, perhaps not the right time to argue the toss, I dashed over to the Cebu Pacific ticket counter and asked the lady there to sell me four tickets out of the Philippines, to any destination. However, it took a while to convey this message as the lady had a few personal calls on her mobile phone
to attend to. My anxiety grew. After a look on her computer screen and some tip-tapping on a calculator, she quoted me a fare of S$823. Assuming that I could get most of this back if I subsequently cancelled the ticket - which I planned to do - I agreed and handed her my credit card, "We don't take credit cards" she said, "only cash!" I explained to her that I hadn’t thought to bring 823 Singapore dollars to the airport that morning, since I planned to be departing the country five-minutes ago. She pointed over towards some ATM Machines on the opposite side of the concourse. I made a dash for it. THIS EXCEEDS YOUR DAILY LIMIT! (No S***, Sherlock!)
I went back to the guy at the check-in, hoping he would see from my antics that I was committed to toeing the line, and perhaps he could show a little compassion to our cause by letting us on the flight. “Go to Tiger Airways” he said, “They accept credit cards”. So, off I went. The only ticket they were allowed to sell me was one that returned to Singapore. Ironic since under these rules I couldn't
actually even use it since we had no ticket out from Singapore! Not to worry though as I wouldn’t be using it. I was quoted $700, but, was then told the ticket was non-refundable.
I returned to the check in counter and explained to Ryan I had no intention of returning to Singapore and so I would in effect be throwing away $700. Didn’t he think, under the circumstances, this was a little harsh…and did he really believe my family planned to stow away in the Philippines Illegally? He seemed unperturbed and insisted that I could get a refund if I wrote a letter to Tiger Airways explaining the situation. The irony of him suggesting I could circumvent a regulation that he’d minutes earlier decided to impose on us was sadly lost. However I sensed more than a little dishonesty in what he said. At this I went back over and asked the lady if this were the case. "Who told you that?" she said. “Ryan”, I said, pointing accusatorily over to where he stood. “Ryan doesn't work for Tiger airways; these tickets are non-refundable!” She said, before picking up her mobile and calling Ryan. Now what? Ryan
didn’t come right away, but when he eventually did he didn't speak to the woman at all; he simply said to me, "That's it! I've taken your bags off the flight".
As I walked back to the desk with Ryan, I saw no reason for playing the obedient victim card with Mr. Ryan, anymore, informing him "You better get used to the sight of me Ryan, because I'm gonna be in this airport as long as it takes to put this right…”
When we got to the counter he ceremoniously tore the tags from our luggage and Jennifer’s frustration vented in tears. The kids looked confused. I asked him if he had a superior I could talk to. He said he didn't, saying that he was his “own boss”. I said in that case, could he provide me with his surname. He refused, and left saying, “your problem isn't my problem!”
We had a hotel booked for that night in Manila and an onward domestic flight the next day to the north of Luzon. We could just forget all that and change plans. Head back into Malaysia and up into Thailand overland, perhaps,
or cross over into Sumatra. We had no set plan, so we were flexible and any option was feasible. I am pretty easy going when it comes to changing plans, as a traveler who travels for any extended length of time I believe you have to be.
However: this was a matter of principle. I couldn't walk away from this. If you let these situations defeat you, you’ll inherit this memory of defeat, whether you like it or not, it will affect the way you do things, the way you interact with people in these types of situations. It will become part of who you are. Or perhaps, I’m just not man enough to forget. I hold a grudge ‘til the day I die, so with that in mind I can never allow myself to give up. Either way, during my years of travel I’ve had a potential mugger(s) pull a knife on me on three separate occasions. I don’t recommend you do this at home, but not once did I relent, not once did they take anything from me, not a bean. Because the day that happens I will lose my swagger, my confidence, my mojo; I
will become a victim. And, people like that can spot a victim a mile off.
I ordered myself a tall coffee, Jennifer got the kids installed in the McDonalds play area and I went to work. I talked to as many people as it took to find out who the boss was.
One of Ryan’s colleagues, a fellow Filipino, was particularly disturbed by what he had witnessed. He showed us pictures of his family, his wife and young son; he said he couldn’t imagine being stranded at an airport under such conditions. Ryan was single, he said, what did he understand? Ryan was also his superior. He told us the name of the person he thought could help sort this all out, and wished us luck. He feared being seen taking sides but promised that he would put in a good word for us.
After an hour or so I eventually got to speak to Ryan’s boss. She didn’t work for the airline; none of the check-in staff did, including Ryan. They were employed by the airport authority. Ryan was from the Philippines she said, so that meant that he had a supervisory role over the flights
on Cebu Pacific, because of his language skills.
I spoke to her for about fifteen minutes. Or rather at her, since she never said a single word once I began my pitch. After my explanation she said she would come back in 10mins after talking to some people. Ten minutes passed and she hadn’t returned. I paced about wondering what would be our plan B. After twenty she came and said she’d convinced Cebu Pacific to put us on the next flight, in two hours, and that in the meantime could we go online and book a ticket out of the country to satisfy the policy. Any date would suffice. She didn’t apologize for Ryan’s actions, though insinuated a misjudgment on his part in that usually this issue was at the discretion of the check-in staff (in this case Ryan) who she said, are trained to make an assessment based on risk. Ironic, I thought, since in all my previous travels I’d never been considered a risk before?
With not a whole lot of time until our new flight, we decided on the spot that we would fly to Thailand the following month. Two
very professional and friendly individuals, who also worked for the airport authority in a different guise, offered to assist us with help of the iPads they carried with them. However, this was easier said than done, as after some failed attempts to book with Tiger airways and Air Asia we eventually booked a ticket to Thailand with Cebu Pacific and boarded the plane with only minutes to spare.
Due to our delay in Singapore we arrived quite late (no time was wasted, however, on seeing if we had a return ticket; the Philippine immigration officers apparently thought us much less risky than ole Ryan did).
The omnipresent Manila traffic is thick, noisy and spluttering along amidst its own diesel fumes; the streets dark, dingy and exhibiting signs of the grinding poverty of the subcontinent.The driver advises the doors be locked else four-foot-tall barefooted children dressed in rags, who weave between the cars in the darkness, attempt a snatch and grab. It is always a shock coming to Manila from other capitals in South East Asia, though this juxtaposition
is arguably at its peak when you were in Singapore three hours previously.
Even though we are stuck in traffic the meter hardly moves faster than us. Scant consolation as I ponder whether increasing the taxi fares would solve the problem. It would certainly lead to less people taking taxis, which would take them off the road and ease congestion. But what of those now unemployed taxi drivers and the people who cannot now afford to take taxis? Improvements in public transport system and expansion of Light Rail System would certainly help. Construction would increase GDP in the short run and provide many jobs. But are these lost jobs directly transferable? Can you do a cost/benefit analysis with people’s livelihoods if it means some would be worse off?
It is estimated that the average Manila commuter spends a thousand hours a year in transit. What socio-economic effects would it have if millions of people could shave 30minutes off their commute every day? Those colorfully decorated diesel guzzling trucks aka Jeepneys, which were developed from US army jeeps at the end of World War II, are part of the problem. Perhaps it’s time
they went the way of London’s Routemaster double-decker buses. I understand the Jeepney is a cultural icon that sets it apart from other countries, so keep some for the tourists by all means; replace the rest with larger modern fuel efficient air-conditioned buses (apparently a 16-passenger Jeepney uses fuel equivalent to a 54-passenger air-conditioned bus).Fuel costs are only going to rise, and what price cleaner air?
By way of small talk and officious advice to the pink new arrivals and their little children, the taxi-driver warns us never to leave our hotel at night and that our destination in Chinatown is close enough to the “criminal” Muslim district to be considered a very bad choice on our part. Suitably admonished, I asked what kinds of criminal activities we may encounter if we were unlucky enough to stray into this Muslim district and was told, “Terrorism…drugs… pirated DVDs”...no reply... ...When the driver asked us our plans for the following day I said I’d likely be looking to buy some pirated DVDs and perhaps a little Marijuana...long pause...cue disapproving look from wife and a silent shoulder snigger from me as I recall what former
peace corps friend Jeremy said to me as we walked into a midget bar in Manila, some 6 years ago, “leave your sarcasm at the door!”
As we passed storefronts dangling red lanterns, I inquire whether Chinese street-children should be similarly considered a menace. He scoffed and shook his head, stating that the Chinese had all the money in the Philippines, “because all they eat is congee (a simple rice gruel) – breakfast, lunch, and dinner, only congee!”
He reminds me of a racist Nan; his heart is in the right place. To lighten the mood, I brought up the topic of Pacquiao or “Manny”. A sure fire hit with every Filipino: the very definition of a living legend. By way of comparison, nobody in England commands so much admiration. Usain Bolt comes close, but alas he’s not English.
As we pull up at our hotel I decide to tip our taxi-driver. I’m more compassionate these days I tell myself (Or just old and soft). Most of these guys actually rent these taxis from the company for a twenty-four hour period, and in order to turn a profit
they usually have to work the full 24 hours. It is also a tactic to appease Jennifer; after all I had teased the guy without his realizing it. But mostly it is a means to appease me; you see he’s harmless; I wouldn’t tip him if he were a dangerous bigot. Or perhaps I am myself just guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations.
The very next day we are back at the airport in Manila, where the Cebu Pacific Air check-in lady informs us our luggage is overweight (--three kilos over--). Strange that Ryan didn’t pick up on that, is this a mistake, a joke? No mistake, she said, we would have to pay the peso equivalent of $30. I took out my rain jacket and put it on, Jennifer put on her hiking shoes, and we had another weigh in. We were still a kilo over, so I decided to give the check-in lady our New Zealand Lonely Planet guidebook. She seemed rather happy, and I in turn felt rather charitable having circumvented ‘the rules’ with an act of kindness. However, upon seeing this, perhaps a hangover from the day’s previous phobia-inducing palaver with check-in
staff, my three year old son broke down and started weeping, “I want our book!” he pleads. And so, with eyes of fellow passengers now turned to the check-in lady the book was awkwardly returned directly to my son.
At the departure gate, ten minutes after our flight was due to depart I asked one of the Cebu Pacific staff about the flight. “It’s delayed”, I was told. I asked if they planned to make an announcement to this effect. "We're busy," the guy said as he stood and chatted with four of the check-in girls. All clearly very busy.
Okay, with all that’s gone on over the previous twenty four hours, this delay proves serendipitous to our future plans… as I went off to ask the immigration officials at the airport the best way to extend our visas and how much it would cost since our visa on arrival was only valid for 21 days. 3,000 pesos per person +1000 if we chose to pay this on departure (approx. $100US), I was told.
The cost of 4,000 pesos multiplied by four would amount to some $400. Not a huge amount, but as Jennifer commented, a premium of over $20 per day for our intended stay beyond the 21. At which point I decided to eradicate this little problem from our list of stresses, there and then, and change those flights we had booked on a whim the day earlier (for an administrative cost of $150US) so that we would leave on the very day our 21 day visa was set to expire.
Had I just saved money? Debatable, but this wasn’t the point. I felt better for it. Don't ask me to explain it; it is part of who I am. Whilst I was a student in London I used to opt to drive the longer, lengthier route across town to circumvent rush-hour gridlock, even though I knew full-well the fastest way home was just to sit it out, and wait. I couldn’t allow the traffic to win.
It is important to realize that check-in, or airline staff more generally, are not employed by the country’s tourism office as a welcoming committee…they don’t, and shouldn’t represent the face of a country. Regardless, first impressions do count…Fortunately we’d had different first impressions some years before.
I first visited the Philippines back in 2006, on a boat without a ticket out of the country, as it happens, sailing from Borneo to Mindanao Mindanao; Abu Sayyaf the MILF and a bloke called Joe.
. I fell in love with a place I realized I knew next to nothing about. And in 2008, just after our first child was born, there was serious talk of retiring the backpacks altogether. From our base in South Korea, at the time, a trip to the Philippines was to be the career-defining litmus test. At just five-weeks old our son accompanied us on the road, plane, boat, Jeepney, taxi, motorbike, bus for the very first time and we began to experience travel on a whole new dimension Beach Hopping with Baby
Our flight to Laoag in the north of Luzon was an hour. It was late afternoon when we exited the little airport building and made our way across the rice paddies from the airport in a flamboyantly decorated Jeepney. Riding across a South East Asian postcard image cast in the golden light before the sunset, having just paid $150 dollars to reduce our time in the country to 21 days suddenly seemed like a bitter irony. I commented to Jennifer, “You know… we may have made a big mistake!”
We were dropped off at the destination where our specific onward bus departed from in town. It was only half-way full, so as is customary in cultures not beholden to the timetable, we were to wait until the bus had filled before the bus departed.
Typical of travel in this part of the world the km/hr progress is significantly hampered as the bus stops every time someone on the side of the road throws out an arm, despite the remaining space on the bus, scheduled stop or not -- the onset of evening understandably a popular time for people wanting to get home. The pedestrian pace didn’t concern us, however, as we were finally on our way, The kids had both fallen asleep, meaning that any distance covered, however labored, is a bonus when one is able to be immersed solely in one’s own thoughts, sans the omnipresent parental burden of distraction. The sun was now setting out the window as we wound up the west coast to the northern tip of Luzon. Pagudpud
We arrived in Pagudpud around eight, which in the tropics translates to night. Fortunately the excitement of being able to ride in a side-car tricycle offset our children’s potentially volatile discontent at being shaken from their slumber. We had no idea of where we would stay, or a guidebook to consult, so I employed the trusty (though admittedly sometimes risky) technique of leaving our accommodation selection to the tricycle driver, with the request that it be “Cheap” and “Good”
The tactic didn’t disappoint, as we were able to find a room with a sea view for $20 a night, equipped with two-double beds, en suite bathroom, cable TV, AC and Wi-Fi. In the morning as I stepped onto our balcony and looked out over that that broad sweep of palm-tree lined white sand beach framing an aquamarine sea I wondered whether $200 wouldn’t be too high a price to pay.
Pagudpud is often described as the ‘Boracay of the north’ minus the tourists. If you’ve been to Boracay you’ll appreciate the generic all encompassing word “tourist” doesn’t do the crush justice. Well aware the country possesses an inordinate amount of paradisiacal beach settings, anywhere that receives uniform appreciation could not possibly fail to disappoint. We stayed a week. In hindsight it should have been three.
The previous 24 hours notwithstanding, we were well in need of a rest after leaving Canada five-months before, road-tripping over to Washington State and down the west coast of the USA for near on 10 weeks, followed by a trip to Kauai and Oahu, French Polynesia, three weeks racing around New Zealand and two-weeks in southern Peninsula Malaysia/Singapore. Before reaching this point, we had not spent an entire week in any one place that whole time.
Our time at Pagudpud went by so fast, and recalling it now, I cannot remember a whole lot of anything we actually did there. I suppose I shouldn't be too worried about an ailing memory, as we did nothing more than eat and frolic in the ocean with the addition of a half-day sortie out to Blue Lagoon Beach.
Sometimes we use destinations as a way of recharging, resting, relaxing, to give us the energy to push on with the meatier challenging aspects of the trip. Almost like a pit-stop on the journey. But sometimes the pit-stops, like the journey itself, should be given equal footing in the grander scheme of travel.
There were so few other tourists around (oftentimes none, and never at our hotel) we felt the need to switch beachside restaurants at breakfast, lunch and dinner times, mixing and matching, every day. Although it is customary to jump up and down with delirious excitement when no-other tourists are around, these establishments were clearly suffering due to lack of customers, and although not big on charity myself, when I see businesses making a go of it and suffering due to external factors, it chews me up inside. Add to that the pretty young staff at each locale, and those cutesy little children we drag around with us and it would be criminal not to share the love.
On the morning before our departure I joined a large group of locals with my one-year old daughter, to watch a live broadcast of Pacquiao vs. Marquez III. It wasn’t the most convincing display by Manny, but he won, and that’s what’s important. In the meantime Jennifer and Kiva drifted away to go frolicking in the surf, jumping over incoming waves, one of which caught Kiva unawares from behind. The little guy panicked and in grasping for his mother’s hand pulled off a sentimentally valuable ring given to her by her late father. In the surf it went. As Kiva minded his sister on the shoreline, looking on forlornly, Jennifer and I spent a good hour sifting through the sand in the waist-deep water with our toes, to no avail. To this day, Kiva maintains a phobia about mommy losing her rings every time she goes into the Ocean.
Perhaps our bad luck hadn’t gone away; was this to be the last of it, or was there more to come?
Mark Twain reckons, “When ill luck begins, it does not come in sprinkles, but in showers.”
Yet, when our self-prescribed departure day rolled around we felt rested and ready for the now all-too-short two-weeks we had left to zigzag back down through Luzon to Manila.
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