In all my travelling, there is one vacation I least look forward to: going to the Philippines. Although I always invariably have a great time, this trip is always met with lukewarm enthusiasm because I was born there. It’s not new, unchartered territory.
Packing for it is a bitch. You’d think it would be easier, as it’s a tropical country and you really need bring only the lightest of clothes and flipflops to match. But there’s the myriad of stuff to take home to relatives (called pasalubong) which often takes up more space than your own stuff. And then, because of photo-op moments with the family and world-class tourist destinations, I have to pack three different cameras: my SLR, my pseudo-SLR point-and-shoot and my waterproof point-and-shoot. And because I’m a geek and a writer: my ipad, laptop and writing journal (I suppose I could get away without bringing the laptop, but my writing software is on it, and damn it, I am going to get writing done as I lounge on white-sand beaches drinking mai tais and coconut water. I refuse to tap away at my manuscripts on a tablet.)
I started to regret packing a few books when the check-in agent notified me that my carryon was at 30 lbs (or 15 kilos) – double the allowed limit – but marked it down to 9 kilos anyway. But I’m way behind on my reading list and if I can’t get caught up during a vacation, when can I do it? And curb your judgment, they weren’t available on Kindle.
Another thing not to look forward to is the physical trip itself: a 17-hour ordeal on the national airline my cousin and I were dreading taking because it’s not exactly up to par with Southwest or KLM. On my last trip to the Philippines, I was spoiled by the gracious and superb Cathay Pacific, which had upgraded me to business class. We were pleasantly surprised that the plane and service were actually quite decent (it was a 747, and it had been a while since I’ve flown on one of these ginormous birds) but coach is not the best place to be when you’re sitting on the aisle seat and the woman in window is an older lady who also happens to be a diabetic. I’d have slept on the actual aisle itself if aviation regulations would have allowed it – there was a time that it was, and I’m pretty sure that was the last time I flew PAL, when getting to the bathroom was like having to do an obstacle course.
Good thing for a decent movie list, finally saw “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (sweet and entertaining) and got a second helping of “Pitch Perfect” (I would’ve moved on to “Lincoln” but I needed something peppy.)
The #1 thing I dread is the weather. Weather.com had informed me that the temperature was in mid- to high-80s (Fahrenheit) with 78% humidity (87% as of this writing.) Disgusting. If I lock myself in an air-conditioned room or car all day, I would be quite content.
And then I think of the creepy crawlies that bugged me as a kid: lizards (you’ll see them scurrying across walls and ceilings), cockroaches (they’re bigger than matchboxes and they fly across the room) and mosquitoes (if the pure annoyance of having them buzz and peck at you like you’re a Vegas buffet doesn’t get you, there’s also the threat of dengue fever.)
Then there’s the smog and traffic and ridiculous air congestion. The air is thick with pollution and if you can’t feel it, you can at least see it. Sure, I remember there being a lot of traffic, but it was sort of orderly and people respected the white lines that served as demarcations between lanes. During my last visit, I was shocked to see the chaos that ground transportation had devolved to: sure, there were still lines divvying up the lanes, but a 6-lane street had turned into 10, with motorcycles weaving in and out (I fully expected them to run over the cars James Bond-style.) Once a bus ran a red light without even slowing down as we approached the intersection.
And I’m from L.A. so this is saying something.
And there are the crowds. Americans take for granted how much space we have and just how many people are in the world. Either that or Asians take for granted how much space there is in America. This is evident as soon as you step into the international terminal at LAX. Asians will crowd around you even if there is 10 feet of space behind them. I used to wonder why this was so, until you land in Asia and realize that space is at a premium there.
The Philippines ranks as the 12th most populous country in the world (says Wikipedia) and boasts a headcount of 92 million concentrated in a country that could fit inside California. The streets, the malls, everywhere: they’re positively overflowing with people and in your unluckiest of moments, you’ll be packed in with them like sardines on a 90-degree day with 90% humidity. Thank goodness for Right Guard.
Then there’s the poverty. FDR wanted to make sure that every American had a chicken in every pot and despite the economic tumbles we’ve seen the past few years, Americans can’t ever know what real poverty is until they visit a third world country.
Sure, there are homeless people littering the sidewalks of any American metropolis but they really don’t have to be. And if you can’t possibly imagine eating on government assistance, imagine that the poor people of my homeland erect homes from sheets of metal that blow off roofs during a typhoon and buy half-eaten leftover scraps in the back alleys of restaurants for food. We’re not just talking about surplus over-prepared food from the kitchen, we are talking about food left on customers’ actual plates and scraped into bins for sale to the starving later.
This isn’t to make anyone’s stomach turn or make you feel bad. It’s just the way of the world, and you really can’t spend too much time worrying about it because there’s really nothing you can do about it. Except maybe give Sally Struthers or Alyssa Milano some money every month, but that will only ease your conscience, not effect any kind of change. Sometimes I think the only thing you can do is be grateful for what you have.
And in the face of such adversity, here we were, Filipino-Americans coming “home,” hosted by family in walled mansions with food prepared by hired help awaiting us every time we walk in the front door.
We arrived shortly after 6 a.m., picked up from the airport in an airconditioned van and chauffeured around in a mini driving tour as we traversed the city to our lodging, an aunt’s house not too far from my childhood home. (It no longer exists, by the way, having been razed and replaced with a commercial building when my parents sold it in the 80s.)
There was breakfast waiting for us, after which we piled into the car for a shopping excursion.
Despite the overwhelming chasm between the rich and poor in this country, economy is alive and kicking. There are 53 mega-malls in the greater Manila area alone. This commerce is fueled, I’m told, mostly by external money, by overseas workers and returning natives called balikbayans who make their fortunes in Europe, America and the Middle East and then go on a spending tear back home. (Shopping, homes, business investments… you name it. Look, the country is #3 in the world for call centers – the folks you are talking to when you report a lost credit card are located here. Trump is building a luxury condo tower here. Medical tourism is on the rise, as is regular tourism, especially now that TripAdvisor named two longtime Philippine favorites as the #1 and #3 beaches in the world and a few more spots identified as up-and-coming hotspots for surfing and diving.)
Doing our part to help the economy along, we made our way to my favorite flea market in Greenhills, which we were saddened to hear would not be fully set up until the next day. This market is good for knockoff Rolexes and Louis Vittons (I needwantmusthave the iPad carrying case), jewelry and crafts, all of which can be haggled on.
The secret to successful flea market shopping is to be able to walk away if you don’t get the price you want. And yes, it does help to be fluent in the local language, but with a couple of cousins who don’t speak a lick – so it is crystal-clear to the hawkers that we’ve got US dollars in our pockets – I will not be getting super great deals. But, there are still deals to be had, and that’s okay with me.
If there’s one thing we’ll do more than shop and eat here, it’s that we’ll eat. If there is anything Filipinos do better than shop, it’s food. For all the poverty, you can eat well here. A little too well.
We had some “snacks” during our shopping run (I had to indulge in some fish balls, crab balls and lobster balls), lunch waiting when we arrived at the manor, dinner a couple hours later, and then a midnight snack of schwarma after some night sightseeing in the old Spanish section of Manila called Intramuros, enchanting, half-a-century-old stone, brick and ironwork, some of my favorite architecture in the world. If I thought it was beautiful at night, you should see it bathed in sunlight.
The city is looking better than my last visit. Looks like measures to curb air pollution (called coding, when cars are only allowed to be used a couple of days during the work week) and seems like a lot of the shanty towns in the city have been evacuated (or moved, I hear.)
I still get nervous driving through the streets as there is no such thing as road rules around here. I try not to look out the windows, but it’s hard, because there are a lot of familiar buildings and places, like my old elementary school, now swallowed up by mega-malls, the light rail, Asian Bank and high-rise condos. Back in my youth, there was nothing but open fields and marshes around the school property, the biggest building around was the utility company, itself now dwarfed by the same developments. We used to be able to walk across the main thoroughfare to the shopping center that now houses my favorite flea market, but wouldn’t even dare do it today for two minutes out in the open streets and one is aching for some black lung disease.
And on a jampacked first day, we managed to fit in a spa visit too. If there is anything I love, it’s $2 pedicures and $10 quality massages. We’d do them every day if we could.
On cue, while I may not have been totally looking forward to this trip, I’m certainly having a grand time now. Not as much as our older relatives, mind you, but we’re still having fun.
(It’s wonderful to see my 82-year-old uncle’s unadulterated joy at being back home after 35 years. He’s as happy as a kid in a candy store, reminds me of my own Dad on his first trip back here after expatriating. Old people are so cute.)
This is it for now. I’d write more, except it’s time to eat breakfast.