The CuriousPages Sketchbook

Welcome to Manila

It started snowing in Amsterdam and by the time we reached Beijing it was minus three Celsius with a biting wind blowing.

We boarded the plane in Amsterdam and then sat at the terminal for over an hour, burdened with some technical problem. By the time we were ready to leave, a layer of ice and snow had built up on the wings. We taxied to another area to allow the wings to be hosed down with steaming water. We set off one-and-a-half hours late and arrived in Beijing and, late for our connecting flight, a panicky official rushed us through the airport bureaucracy (of which there was plenty, tended by an army of officials, each with their set of rules which must be strictly adhered to, with forms filled out in triplicate; this was China, where everyone did as they were told, unquestioningly, and the officials all wore immaculate, soldierly uniforms, the defenders of the bureaucratic life-force of the nation), she rushed us from station to station, a group of about eight of us, “Walk quickly,” dashing head, almost at a run, “Move more quickly,” and it was here that, I believe, the problem began, for in their urgency to usher us onto the waiting connecting flight, they had decided that our bums on the seats was more important than our baggage in the hold.

 

There was then another stop for this flight in China to pick up more passengers, before we set off for Manila. We arrived in Ximen airport and were made to act out a bizarre ritual. Rather than staying in our seats on the plane, we were told to disembark, and were then ushered through immigration, and several other bureaucratic stations (all manned by those soldiers in their immaculate uniforms whose purpose in life was to ensure that every full stop was placed in the correct place on every form that had to be repeatedly filled in—one official seemed to take great pleasure in correcting my faulty handwriting), and my passport was finally stamped with a visa which permitted me to enter the Republic of China, so that I could then immediately leave it again and get right back onto the same plane, sit in the same seat and await takeoff. And all the time, that biting wind chilled us with its touch.

We arrived at the baggage carousel in Manila to find, unsurprisingly, that our baggage was not there. We queued for over an hour in front of the customer service manager of China Southern Airlines, while she made repeated phone calls in an attempt to locate the correct form for us to make a lost luggage claim. Apparently, it had not occurred to them to keep these forms at that station. Once the forms arrived, it seemed to take around twenty minutes for them to complete one of these forms for each of the eight passengers, and a part of the process was for her to take several of our documents to a remote part of the airport to photocopy them in order to complete the claim.

I exited the terminal only to find that the driver from my hotel was not there to greet me, as we’d arranged. It was now about one a.m. and it was twenty six Celsius and the chaos of that terminal was like something biblical. There was a constant chorus of car horns, about five layers of cars and taxis, some moving, some not, and masses of bustling Filipinos.

And here was where my problems began to multiply, as if that sweaty, noisy chaos were the perfect environment for problems—like bugs—to multiply. Before leaving the UK, I had been told that my travel money had been lost in the post. Also, the Philippine SIM card that a friend had sent me, did not work, and I had given that number to the hotel as my contact number. So, amid all that chaos, heat and noise, I had no pesos, no phone, my driver was nowhere to be seen, no-one could contact me, and I could not make a call—and it was about to get worse. I left the terminal entrance and crossed a long pedestrian crossing to the area where people waited to greet relatives. Surely, I thought, the driver will be waiting there. Of course, he was not. It then occurred to me that I had about eighteen GB Pounds on me, and I had seen a kiosk in front of the terminal where foreign currency was exchanged. If I could only get some pesos, I thought, I would at least be able to make a phone call. But the police would not permit me to go back across the pedestrian crossing to the terminal; it was a restricted area. I walked the bustling, chaotic galleries of waiting relatives, vainly hoping that my driver would be there, holding up a card with name on it, as we had arranged. Of course, he was not. Outside again, all the while, every other Filipino was watching me curiously and I started to feel somewhat desperate. It momentarily crossed my mind to give up and go back home, though I don’t know how I would have done that. I needed to make a phone call, somehow, but how could I; I had no local money. And then I noticed an American guy standing amid this chaos, phoning someone from his mobile phone. I somehow knew that he was my saviour (I could not approach Filipinos, in that environment, and ask for help; it would have been asking for trouble; this was manila, not the tranquil Tagaytay where I was headed). I told him what had happened—that my baggage was lost, I had no pesos, my Filipino SIM did not work in my phone, and the hotel driver was nowhere to be seen—and he had no hesitation in lending me his phone to make repeated calls. I tried calling the hotel and got bogged down in communication problems—it seemed that the owner could not understand the simplest of statements, which I repeated many times; “I am standing across the road from the duty free,” and she would repeat, “You are at the duty free?” and so it went on. I was getting more and more frustrated, “How difficult can this be?” I told the American. He seemed to be intimate with this type of frustration. Then I managed to get the hotel to text me the number of the driver, which they had seen fit to keep secret from me (I later learned that the owner charges a 500 peso commission, on top of the driver’s fee, and she likes to keep any contact information from her guests, lest, presumably, they contact the driver directly to get a better rate, and she lose her commission). But the driver could speak hardly a work of English. And then the American’s driver turned up and spoke to my driver on the phone, and moments later there was a tap on my back and I was greeted by Rhyan’s smiling face, a sight that I will never forget; it was like the sun suddenly appearing to banish those dark, dark clouds that had come near to swamping me.

 

The driver had previously picked up Rhyan from a different terminal; he had flown over from Cebu and had landed about three hours previously.

 

19 December 2009

 

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