Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moving forward by inches

Transportation woes are nothing new here. Late boats, questionable trikes and jeepney total existence failure are very normal, and it’s impossible not to eventually face these issues with typical Filipino fatalism. I’m not sure how good I’ve gotten at the whole “social work” thing, but I’ve definitely learned some important skills in the past year, foremost among them the ability to deal with long stretches of time in which absolutely nothing, especially the appearance of an honest taxi driver, happens.

Sometimes, though, failures line up so impeccably that you can’t help but wonder at the fantastic order of the universe. Why, you wonder, does the world not want me to get to my destination? And Why can’t just one part of this trip go smoothly? And I’m not getting my change, am I.

Such was my trip to and from Hawai’i. My actual time there was wonderful, and I’ll post lots of photos soon, but the process for getting there and coming back was complicated and fraught with pitfalls, frustrations and P750 leaving-the-country fees.

Let me tell you about my boat

The economy deck

Because I sometimes have pressure problems on airplanes – if I’m congested on a flight, my ears might not unblock for days and I get horrible piercing headaches during ascent and descent – I decided to take a boat from Iloilo to Manila. Obviously I’d still have to take a plane from there to Hawai’i, but no sense in risking more flights than necessary. The boats are usually a good value – a 23-hour trip to Manila from Iloilo cost me about $10.

So I was all packed up on Saturday morning. My boat was scheduled to leave at 11pm, so my plan was to head to the city, drop my bags off in a friend’s pension room, and enjoy the rest of the day before I have to head to the port.

In the process of leaving, I got a text from the shipping line telling me my ferry has been delayed - it won’t be getting into port until around noon Sunday. No big deal, I’d planned all along to get to Manila early, told my center as much, and the delay wouldn’t affect my flight to Honolulu.

I wanted to make sure I got everything straight, though, especially since the message I got uses somewhat cryptic textspeak. So I went to town anyway and headed to the booking office where I bought my ticket. The subsequent exchange with the clerk consisted of her repeating the same thing over and over and me saying “Yes, but…” The issue was that the text told me when the ferry would get to port, but it didn’t say when it would leave. For all I knew it had cargo and passengers to drop off and maintenance to be done before it took off again for Manila. It was definitely a language problem, and my Ilonggo should really be good enough that I could explain clearly in the native language, but it wasn’t.

So we went on like that for awhile, all the other clerks laughing at the comedy unfolding, until finally she got it and called the shipping line for me to confirm that I should be at the port by 11am Sunday for check-in.

The next day I was at the port a little after eleven. The terminal was hot and still. I sat directly in front of a huge industrial fan and still dreamed of plunging into the cool, brown, debris-strewn sea.

The ferry left port at 5.30pm, after a delay of more than three-quarters of a day. Eighteen hours, I thought. Not too bad.

Luckily the ferry ride itself went smoothly. I read, ate junk, talked to some of my neighbors on the open 400-bunk deck, and watched the water turn astonishing shades of blue. And late afternoon the next day, we were plying the trash-coated waters of Manila Bay.

Approach to Manila

Port pandemonium

This picture explains the country rather succinctly

Philippine ports are always a bustling scene, but our entry into Manila was downright surreal. As we made our approach, the port workers for our shipping line lined up on the dock and performed synchronized dance routines for our pleasure. Afterwards I wondered why, considering the country I lived in, I was surprised by this.

Filipinos in general think white people are always rich, and taxi drivers try to take blatant advantage of this. The drivers at the port all flatly refused to use their meters, and the first driver quoted me a price of P500 to get to my pension. This may have been the first time I laughed outright in a Filipino’s face – that was more than what I paid for my ferry. I got another driver down to P150, but I knew that was still exorbitant for the distance I had to go, so I chose a flat-rate jeepney instead. I didn’t know exactly where the jeep would travel, but I knew it would pass close enough to my pension that I could get there with a little walking.

I waited a long, long time for my jeep to fill up. It was evening by this point, but evening here doesn’t make the air cooler, only more oppressive.

We finally drove out of the port and were immediately pulled over by a policeman. This is a very rare occurrence in the Philippines. The driver and policeman disappeared for a few minutes to discuss the bribe amount while we the passengers sat and sweated on each other.

Several seconds after we took off again, our jeep died in the middle of a busy roundabout. The two female conductors jumped off and pushed the jeep through the traffic to the side of the road, nobody else helping them (I was stuck up front on the jeep, so I had an excuse). The driver popped the hood and rummaged around for a while, then I suppose found the magic switch that makes engines work (I don’t know much about cars) and we were again on my way.

We hit Roxas Boulevard, the bayfront highway, and I watched as the place where I should have disembarked approached and then receded into the night air. The driver refused to stop along this road. When he finally did stop, we were too far away for me to walk. I took a meter taxi. In the end, I think I saved P30 by not taking a taxi directly from the port.

In the aeroplane over the sea

My flight to Hawai’i was blessedly unblemished by pressure problems, but that was the main point in its favor.

I’m not a huge fan of air travel. The novelty wore off for me in college, making those flights from Mississippi to California and back several times a year. Seeing the world from on high is lovely, I will admit, and the convenience of moving very quickly cannot be denied, but there are plenty of strikes against planes even aside from the fact that they sometimes make my head feel like it’s exploding.

Airports are obnoxious, with their seventeen security checks and the weird system of checking tickets, boarding passes and identification that ensures that you never know what you need to hand over at any particular point. Sometimes they just want your boarding pass, sometimes your passport and ticket, and sometimes a combination that defies all logic and good faith, like five hundred pesos and your house keys. The air conditioning is always set as if everyone is traveling to Siberia and the airport is starting the acclimation early. Everything is expensive once they’ve got you trapped in the terminal, and everyone is sullen because, well, they’re in an airport.

I once slept a night at the airport in Manila rather than spend money on a pension room. I slept outside on a bench because the air inside was frigid. Once I woke up and a security guard came over to me. I thought he was going to kick me out, since I was unwashed, stubbly and, well, sleeping on a bench. But it turns out he was just worried about me. “Are you all right?” he asked concernedly. I told him I was fine and offered him some cashews.

On to planes. I will say that, after a year of packed jeepneys and trikes which are intended for people half my size, airplanes seem positively spacious, but that can’t rectify the fact that you’re stuck in a pressurized, humidityless tube with your only provided option for distraction being bad movies like Eddie Murphy Wants a Blanket (I’m not sure of the actual title), which they played three times en route to Hawai’i. There’s always some jerk, usually me, who insists on keeping his light on to read when everyone else is trying to sleep. And you never, ever get seated next to a cute girl.

My own neighbor on this particular ten-hours-plus flight was an older Filipino. I will call him Domingo because that’s a name I saw on his passport, though I’m not sure if it’s his first or last.

Domingo was, to put it mildly, bugging out for the duration of the flight. I’ve never seen anyone so agitated on a plane: his knees bounced up and down nervously for hours on end, his elbows flew wildly through my own airspace, and the smell of generously-applied balm wafted up from his swollen ankles. Every time we hit a little turbulence, or when we took off or landed, he would turn to me miserably, begging me silently to make it stop. I thought for the first time in my life I would see an air-sickness bag used to its full potential, though it didn’t come to that.

Stewardesses constantly came by to check on Domingo. They and I did our best to reassure him, though my own efforts were a bit of a stretch - “Only four more hours!” doesn’t do much for the fevered mind, I found, even if accompanied by a friendly smile. The stewardesses also tried to give me an out, letting me know that there were empty seats in the middle aisle if I wanted to stretch out, but I thought it was a pretty thinly veiled excuse to change seats. I didn’t want Domingo, in addition to sincerely believing that he was going to die in the middle of the ocean, to feel guilty about making me uncomfortable. I really felt sorry for the guy.

The extraordinary thing is that this was not his first flight, as I’d assumed at first, or even his first time abroad. He had flown to the States twice before to visit relatives. Considering how close to total breakdown he came on his third go, I can’t imagine how nightmarish the first trip was.

Transportation issues in Hawai’i

Hanauma Bay

One of the rental cars made a beeping sound we couldn’t figure out.

In the aeroplane over the sea, pt. 2

My flight back was unplagued by difficult aislemates. Actually, I had a free seat next to me, though I couldn’t figure out a use for it aside from storing my earphones when I wasn’t using them.

Unfortunately, the pressure bogey hit me this time. I was fine on takeoff but over our ten hours in the air, my head got steadily more congested - I suspect because of the air conditioning – and I got that lovely needle-through-the-head sensation on descent. I watched the altitude readout on the screen constantly, willing it to go quicker. The darkest hour isn’t just before the dawn, it’s between 40,000 feet and the ground.

At the airport I caught a taxi. I demanded that the driver use his meter. He refused. I said Okay, I’ll take another taxi. He let me off in the middle of the road, the airport departure ramp, and I hailed another cab. As we drove through the slums, a cockroach crawled over my feet, and I thought, Yep, back in Manila.

Water and no boat

I planned to stay in Manila a day or two and then catch a boat back to Iloilo. Unfortunately a typhoon had been scheduled for that weekend. This was a bad storm: the rainfall approached record levels and last I heard well over a hundred people had been killed by the flooding. Flights were canceled and, of course, no boats were running. So I stayed in Manila and roamed the disgusting floodwaters. They should bottle this liquid, brand it Manila Water, and send it to governments around the world as a warning about what happens when you totally ignore your environment. I didn’t take any photos of the flooding, but the following is a picture of Manila Bay under normal conditions.
Manila Bay... BEFORE the flooding

This weekend brings up the Law of Peace Corps Experiences, which is: no matter what difficult, uncomfortable or unusual experience you may have had, there will always be another Peace Corps volunteer who has had a similar but more hardcore situation. If you’ve taken the daylong boat, economy class, someone else has endured the thirty-hour bus crammed with vomiting babies and live chickens packed under the seat. If you’ve had someone attempt to steal your wallet at a jeep stop, someone else has been held up at gunpoint. And if you’ve gotten soaking wet in Manila Water, trudging through knee-high sludge just to find food, another volunteer has a fantastic, hilarious and grotesque story about walking the waters, chest-high, for hours to escape from looters.

The weather cleared up somewhat on Sunday, and I bought a boat ticket for the next day. Subsequently, Peace Corps decided they didn’t want me on a boat since now the weather in Iloilo was a bit inclement, and they scheduled me a flight instead. My boat ticket was nonrefundable. Which, given my moderate financial strains at the moment – thanks to unexpected extended stays in Manila and a trip to Palawan that should never have happened – was a bit aggravating. But at least I was finally getting back.

In the aeroplane over the sea, pt. 3

About fifteen minutes before my plane was scheduled to board, the power in the airport went out. At this point, after the preceding two weeks, I was serene. I just kept reading my book. I didn’t bother checking the time. Sometime later – I still refused to see how late I’d be getting back – we boarded and headed home. I didn’t get seated next to a cute girl.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Playing house

I’m not a very scrupulous housekeeper. If, at the end of twenty-one months in my little Philippine abode, nothing important has burned down due to my carelessness, I will consider it a victory.

Actually, though, there is very little to burn. I have two pieces of furniture. One is the bed charitably left behind by my landlord. The other is a dirty, thrown-together table that used to sit outside and hold junk. I washed it off (“rinsed” might be a better word) and took it inside to hold my books, stacks of which were beginning to rise in unsteady piles towards the ceiling. The table, I suspect, has termites.

Due to this lack of almost anything inside the house, it’s not too difficult to keep clean: sweep up once in a while, wash dishes promptly, clean the counters. In actuality, I give my house a thorough sweeping once a month, timed to coincide with the visit of my landlord’s mother to collect my rent. This is the one time I put forth a sincere effort to make my house presentable, which mostly consists of cleaning the stuff that’s easy to clean and hiding the stuff that’s not. I know that my landlord’s mother will spread the news about the inept American playing at independent living, and it’s the fear of that which really makes me care at all.

Of course, my sincere effort isn’t really enough. Without fail, as soon as she has collected my rent and walked out the door, I notice the massive spiderwebs in every corner and the vines creeping through the window slats. She’s kind enough to not say too much about the state of things, although once she did make a comment in Ilonggo – a rare instance of sarcasm? – about the “beautiful grass.” I’ve cut said grass once in seven months. And even that one time, which began early in the morning before the earth had time to get too hot, I gave up partway when the tropical sun poked its head over my neighbor’s house and, delighted to see me, gave bountifully of its murdering rays.

I’ve met my landlord exactly once, so it’s hard to form an opinion about her, but I like my landlord’s mother. She’s kind enough to turn down the offer of coffee which I extend every month, perhaps knowing that accepting it would mean staying too long in a house that doesn’t really seem fit for staying in. What if she did accept – what would I tell her? To go sit on my bed while the water boils? Then I’d have to warn her about the bedbugs I believe I have living there. Besides, the quicker she’s out, the less time she has to examine the place. I keep the CR door tightly shut during her visits.

My place does have some charm, but it’s all concentrated in the banana trees in the tiny backyard. Aside from being the coolest kind of tree in existence (some trees here grow leaves at least ten feet long and three wide), they actually do grow bananas: I have a bunch maturing right now. I hate bananas, so I’ll just give them away – assuming I get to them first. They’re kind of hanging over the back fence, so I take it for granted that somebody will come by and pluck them before I can, since I don’t really know when I’m supposed to pick them in the first place. (I asked a coworker about this, prefacing it with my standard “So I have a stupid American question…”, but I still didn’t quite understand the answer.)

There’s also a well with a pump, which sounds picturesque. I bent the metal pump handle the first time I used it, but it doesn’t matter since the only water it brings up is actually mud. I’m hoping it’s just dry, because otherwise that means I’m operating a well incorrectly, and I’d like to hang on to at least a little self-respect.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Lies I have told my kids

  • Eddie Murphy is my brother.
  • Americans pour soft drinks over their rice. (A few kids tried this and pronounced it tasty.)
  • My laptop / bike / umbrella / pen cost P1 million (about $20,000). My kids are always curious to know how much I paid for things and I’m usually reluctant to tell them, so P1 million is the standard response.
  • In America we eat spaghetti uncooked. We also like our pork raw.
  • My best friend is street magician David Blaine.
  • Along with a coworker of mine, I toured Hollywood as part of a rock band. (Although they’re well aware I can’t sing, play guitar or perform any other musical act.)
  • There’s a special kind of lice that infests eyelashes.
  • My hair is a wig.
  • My hair is real and I spend hours every day curling it.
  • There is only one dance in America. It’s difficult to describe textually, but it vaguely resembles trying to milk two cows really quickly.
  • Americans don’t use soap or toothpaste.