Travel requires us to surrender and be open to all possibilities. It offers the opportunity to be spontaneous, which is what I love the most about traveling. It gives me the freedom to be totally myself and interact with the world around me in an intimate way. Several events during my last trip to the Philippines (November 2015,) were quite unexpected. First, there was…
THE FLIGHT TO MANILA
Our journey began with a short flight to Seattle, but the plane that was supposed to take us to Tokyo needed repairs. After five hours at the Seattle airport, we were put on another plane. We arrived late in Tokyo and missed our connection to Manila, so Delta Airlines bused everyone to a hotel and the next morning we were taken back to the airport. Soon we were on our way, rested and having been fed well, and ready for the chaos of Manila.
We arrived in Manila, and after some difficulty we found a reasonably priced taxi to take us to the bus station. We were planning to take a bus directly north without stopping overnight in Manila. But the driver took off in the opposite direction, telling us that much of the traffic could be avoided for an extra fee of 20 pesos (about $.50). HA! HA! What a joke. Manila is a madhouse and the traffic is jammed all over town 24 hours a day. You wouldn’t believe it!
On the entrance ramp to the express road, the car conked out. I mean completely busted. First the radiator blew up and then the car started shaking. When the driver realized he had also lost his transmission, he grabbed the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, crossed himself, and began praying fervently in Tagalog.
We were stuck on a two-lane elevated road and the cars around us were creeping bumper to bumper. Every time our driver tried to get the car into gear, it slid backwards. All the other cars were honking their horns and trying to get around us. Looking out the window, I could see there was no sidewalk, only a foot and a half wide cement edge, and we were about 25 feet above the ground. To make matters worse, the car began to get hotter and hotter and hotter!
Our driver was frantic, and I realized he probably had no money to pay for major car repairs. Also, there were likely five or more people at home depending on him for dinner, so I said, “We will pay you the full fare (500 pesos, $11). Just get us into another taxi.”
Almost immediately, another taxi pulled in front of us. Balancing carefully on the narrow cement ledge with our suitcases, we changed taxis. As we pulled away, I looked out of the back window and saw the first driver pretty much weeping over his engine.
Six hours later, we arrived in Urdaneta, where there were only the usual difficulties. By this I mean dealing with jet lag, the heat, the noise, the food, and the general need to make sure we stayed on schedule and visited the healers on our itinerary.
I first read about the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference in the newspaper while we were at Lisland Rain Forest Resort in Urdaneta. Evidentially, the heads of state from countries all over the world were headed to Manila for a big “pow-wow” about how to make more money. The list grew daily: Obama, Putin, Trudeau, and many more. What was really worrisome was that most of them were arriving the same day we were scheduled to fly out of Manila. Then I read that many flights were being cancelled and existing flight times were being changed. At one point, there were e-mail updates daily from Delta with time changes. Unfortunately, it was beginning to look like we might get stuck in Manila for the duration of the conference.
Then the bombs went off in Paris – which is horrible enough – but what if bombs also went off in Manila while we were there? I’ve never been afraid of traveling in the Philippines, but I’d never encountered anything like this. So I prayed for the people of Paris – and I prayed that we would get into and out of Manila safely.
THE TRIP BACK TO MANILA
After ten days with the healers, we stayed for two days at the beach in Bauang, La Union to relax before going home. I enjoyed this part of the trip most of all – the great food, the warm water of the China Sea, and the beautiful sunrises. Now that I’m home in Oregon and it’s below freezing and everything is covered with snow, I’m feeling particularly nostalgic for the beach!
We decided to leave for Manila one day early in case of unforeseen trouble getting to the airport. There were rumors of road closures and more cancelled flights.
The extensive security in place for the conference began even before we arrived in Manila. Every time the bus stopped for food and “comfort room” (bathroom) breaks, a serious looking man with a clipboard got on the bus and walked slowly down the aisle. He stared hard at each passenger, including me, a white-haired tourist, and I was certain he was a government official checking for potential terrorists.
AT THE HOTEL IN MANILA
When we checked into Pension Natividad, I was given a key to Room 206, but when I got there it looked as though it had not been properly cleaned. The bed was made, but wet bathroom towels were strewn around and there was a large bar of damp soap in the shower. I was tired and made the assumption that somehow the maid had forgotten to finish the job. After eight hours on the bus, I felt like getting cleaned up, so I took a shower and used the fancy soap. I also used the previous occupant’s towels to mop the floor.
When I went down to the front desk and handed my key to the clerk, she said, “Oh no, you’re supposed to be in Room 205.” She took me back upstairs and opened the door to Room 206. Then she opened the closet door. Much to my surprise, someone else’s suitcases were in the closet! Needless to say, I was quickly moved next door. So…I wonder what the rightful inhabitants of Room 206 thought when they came back and realized that someone had been in their shower and used their towels?
CLEANING THE STREETS OF THE POOR
We read in the papers that the government was removing the poor and homeless (of which there are many) from the streets of Manila. They also declared a holiday for all government workers, without pay, which was the subject of multiple newspaper editorials. There was even strong encouragement for everyone living in central Manila to leave town and go to the provinces for a week in order to ease traffic congestion. Basically, it seemed the government wanted to “sanitize” the city so the world would think the country is up and coming – and on par with the wealthier nations, whose leaders were coming to town. To their credit, I also read that they were paying for hotel rooms for the homeless during the conference. Hopefully they fed them, too.
Pension Natividad is located in the Ermita District, an area that seems to always be changing. When I first visited in the early 1990s, the city was in the process of eliminating prostitution in Ermita, although there were still women soliciting sailors in Rosie’s, as I have written about elsewhere.
More recently, however, the area has been undergoing what we would call in the U.S. “gentrification.” Thus, you can see boarded-up buildings that are falling apart a very short distance from massive high-rise condos, hotels, and casinos – the people who live on the street are usually closer to the boarded-up buildings or in small parks. Entire families sleep on pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk; they cook on small wood fires in metal hibachis; and the children beg for money.
The next morning, we left Pension Natividad and headed in the direction of Robinson’s Mall. Yes, they have malls in the Philippines, and you can buy almost anything you need, except extra-large clothing. Starbuck’s and Haagen-Dazs can even be found at the mall.
Walking towards the corner from Pension Natividad, we observed security guards swarming around the entrance to the parking garage of a massive hotel. They had mirrors on poles, and they were using these mirrors to check underneath the cars for potential bombs.
At the corner, there were about forty police officers in full combat gear lining the street across from the hotel. Black vans with darkened windows, and white government cars with license plates that read “APEC 2015,” were parked all around the hotel. There was also a swat team holding shields and batons.
Basically, the police were everywhere, and they all had guns and rifles. As an American living in a relatively rural area, I had never seen anything like it before, except in the movies. At first, I was frightened, especially when my companion pulled out her camera and wanted to take photos of the line of cops. They wouldn’t give us a hard time. Would they?
The scene started to seem surreal, almost like it was a movie and we were playing our assigned roles. We turned the corner and proceeded down the sidewalk in front of the hotel, stopping to joke with some of the security guards, who seemed friendly enough.
We were walking behind a man and a woman wearing red uniforms. They were holding the arms of a very old and very thin man as they led him away. The man was wearing tattered clothes and he was barefoot, so it appeared he was part of the “street cleaning” program.
As we passed the man and his two “caretakers,” I turned and smiled at him. When he smiled back, the look on his face told me he was senile, and also deliriously happy because someone was showing him kindness, perhaps for the first time in a long time. He seemed proud, somehow, as if he felt “special” because of the attention.
Sadness came over me as I watched the man being escorted away, because I knew his relief would be short-lived. The helping hands of his new “friends” would be gone when the conference was over. Hopefully, the Philippines will soon advance to the point where they can do something meaningful and lasting with regard to poverty. Actually, I hold this same wish for every country around the world.
On our way back from the mall, we once again walked past the same hotel where we had seen the old man, only this time there were barricades enclosing the sidewalk in front of the building. We stopped at the first barricade and stood next to several security guards, who were looking down the sidewalk towards the center of the barricaded area. They had somewhat confused and embarrassed looks on their faces.
In the center of the sidewalk, directly in front of the upscale hotel, there was a single figure – a small figure of a man sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. His stillness made him seem almost like a statute. Curiosity overcame my apprehension and I walked around the barricade towards the man.
He had long greasy-looking hair and wore only a dirty teeshirt and shorts. His hand was stretched out in the pleading manner of beggars everywhere. But his legs – he didn’t really have any legs, just twisted, pink stumps that appeared to have been burned off by napalm or perhaps blown up in a landmine.
Directly across from the man, there was one of those black government vans. This one had a large sign in the window that said “VIETNAM.” Apparently the APEC dignitary from Vietnam was staying at this particular hotel. So the questions were obvious:
Was the disabled man intentionally placed on this particular piece of sidewalk in protest of the Vietnamese government? Was he aware of what was going on around him? Was he merely a beggar who had been missed in the earlier clean-up? The guards at the barricades continued to look on as if they were wondering what to do about him.
The man looked directly at me, and when I put money in his outstretched hand his large brown eyes broke my heart.
When we got back to Pension Natividad, they were preparing to hold Catholic Mass in the café with the intention of praying for world peace.
THE HOTEL AT THE AIRPORT
My travel companion had the good sense to book us a room at one of the airport hotels for our last night. It was expensive, but the convenience would be worth it. However, getting to the new hotel proved to be somewhat difficult because most of the roads to the airport were already closed because the “big shots” were on their way in. The first taxi driver we flagged down refused to take us, but we offered the second driver double and he agreed.
After checking in, we went in search of a restaurant. This proved difficult because there were security guards everywhere preventing us from walking down the main street to the airport mall. We were told to walk the long way around – past the parking garage, piles of garbage and empty fast-food containers, buses spewing diesel exhaust, curious onlookers, and police on break eating pancit noodles in the back alley.
The first thing we saw upon entering the mall were Rolex and Gucci stores, and many other shops filled with items few people can afford. We also observed one of the APEC dignitaries walking from shop to shop with his bodyguards, the media trailing behind him. He was pointing at the shop windows as if to admire the goods displayed, but actually he looked stiff and bored. He and his entourage seemed like actors playing their parts in a formal Shakespearean drama.
We flew home on separate flights, intending to meet up in Los Angeles. My departure meant I had to get up at two in the morning and take a shuttle to the airport. I’m not complaining about this, though, because another person we met in Baguio ended up walking several miles with her suitcase to get there. For us, it was an easy five-minute bus ride.
As expected, surveillance at the airport was intense, and when I went through the security checkpoint I was pulled aside by a guard who put on blue plastic gloves and asked me to hold out my hands. Taking two small pieces of white paper, he ran them over my hands and my entire body. It seems they are now checking for explosive residue on passengers.
The flight home was excessively long, because of a discount ticket involving multiple airlines and long layovers. While enduring the misery of waiting ten hours in L.A. for a connecting flight, I met a woman named “Kathryn,” who told me, “I hope I get home in time to feed the ducks.”
This might just be the most important thing I learned on this trip: remember to love and care for the people, animals, and plants around you. If everyone in the world followed this “Golden Rule,” we would have no more need to remove the homeless from the street; there would be less environmental destruction; and there would be no more fighting.
To use an overused but still true wish for humankind:
“Make Love Not War.”