Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dorothy, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, PT II

Off to Manila. My first 747. Somehow, for me, this has always been the holy grail of travel. When you sit out on the DFW tarmac for hours on end in your American Airlines Super 80, you see the “big” planes go by. A 747 meant I was going somewhere cool! By the time I was in a position to do any real travel, the 747 was replaced by the 777. The 777 is a beautiful airplane, wide body, high tech, spacious. But…it’s not the plane from AIRPLANE!! I want to be on the plane with the stairs!
So, it finally happened. As you make your way past the magical staircase, off to the back of the plane, it turns out the JAL 747 is pretty much like any other plane. Another illusion shattered.

We sat down in our middle row seats and breathed a sigh of relief. We managed to get a few hours sleep, get some food and navigate our way through our brief Tokyo experience. We were on the last leg to our destination! From here, we no longer would be on our own. Once we land and get past passport control and customs, we’d be in the nurturing bosom of people who knew what the heck they were doing!

Anyone who knows us, knows we are pretty independent. Our little 3 person family has traveled a bit and we have lived far from immediate family for many, many years. Ok, independent maybe too mild, we are kind of anti-social. For example, we moved to Dallas 12 years ago, and pretty much our best and only friends still live in LA. We like our little family, and honestly, we don’t ever tire of each other’s company. I think that’s good thing.

But, for this adventure, it was so nice to have family around. We were heading into new territory. Ok, at least I was. And Manila seemed like it would be very overwhelming for someone who had never been there and wasn’t raised in the culture.

Every Christmas we alternate between Frederick’s family in the SF Bay Area and my family in Orlando. (Yeah, I know, we hit the jackpot it terms of US locations for family visits, hey, you have to win at something!) This year was the Dorado year. But, the family wasn’t going to be in SF, they were all headed to Manila, Philippines. Frederick’s parents were born there and many of the giant extended family still lives there. Mainly this visit was meant to be a time to see Frederick’s 90+ year old grandmother. Truly one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met, but that is a story for another day. We had quite a brood flying half way around the world. Besides Frederick’s parents, there were his 3 siblings, their spouses, their children and spouses siblings and their children. We were 6 different families, 19 in total, 7 of which were kids who ranged from 14 to 3, who flew from the US to the Philippines for this trip.

Ok, so there is the background.

Five hours later we arrived in Manila. As we stepped off the plane we were hit with the humidity of the tropics. And this was the cool season. And then the chaos began. The luggage arrived with none in limbo, always a good omen. If I have my stuff, I know I’m prepared for just about anything. After quite a long line through passport control and a short panic as Frederick couldn’t connect to any family on his cell phone, we headed off to customs. Now here is where they scored points with me. Yes, we travel with stuff. We had 3 carry on rollaboards, 3 backpacks, and 4 large hockey bag size duffel bags and our trusty giant Hartmann hanging bag. (I justified it by knowing one bag was all beach and snorkel gear)Three people, 10 days, yeah, I know too much stuff. But I suffer from “what if I need it syndrome?” Nothing ruins my trip more then to want something and not be able to find it where we are. We are big packers. I always laugh out loud when I see the “travel light” packing lists on various websites. I think it would be funny to make my own “travel right” packing list. A chore for another day.

Ok, so back to the point scoring. Normally customs, gives us a mocking look as we traipse through with bags on carts that reach our heads. Not here! Thanks to the beauty of the “balik bayan

concept, everyone in this airport is bringing their relative a kitchen sink and more. Customs is used to seeing max baggage allowance. Not even a second glance!! Ahhh joy!

Later I would learn that customs can be even more accommodating when you are bringing 2 fully cooked giant hams and other enough food to feed the brood for a few days into the country, as long as you have the appropriate currency tucked into your passport. The custom’s equivalent of a jedi mind trick, “These are not the droids you are looking for, he can go about his business.” I mean it made it on the plane, so what harm can it do in the country right?

This is where the madness begins. Outside the airport is a driveway and pickup area that is just off the main road. This is a downtown airport. I’ve seen houses with bigger circular driveways. Luckily we are found by Frederick’s Dad and brothers. I’m not hard to spot. Frederick, on the other hand, let’s just say I warned him about not losing me. I was fearful I’d never find him, he was in the motherland and blended in quite easily. Heck, I sometimes lose him in the Oakland airport.

To get from the terminal to the mass of vehicles waiting to pick up their passengers, you have to maneuver your baggage cart 100 feet down 30% angled ramp, with curve. I was just praying I didn’t lose my grip and mow down all the people in front of me and I was praying the house of bags we created on the cart wouldn’t fall off and roll away with it. We survived and shortly there after our “driver” with the van arrived and we headed off to our hotel, The Dusit Hotel Nikko.

I had been warned in advance that unless you are highly experienced, you don’t drive yourself in Manila. Apparently, the traffic is beyond comprehension. Well yes, traffic laws are optional; but it appears everyone knows the way the game is played. It appeals to my libertarian sensibilities, in a wild, wild west kind of way. But, I like to drive in NYC, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask. The trip to the
Hotel was just about 10 miles, but with traffic, it was about 45 minutes. As a comparison when we went back at 6AM New Year’s Day the same trip took 15 minutes. We saw the ever present jeepneys (as of 2002 there were 55,596 Metro Manila) and the urban blight of the big city. This was as bad as I’ve ever seen. Poverty in warmer climates is so much more obvious. Shelter can be more flimsy. We saw lots of tin shacks, even in the city. Warm weather clothing more minimal and the sheer volume of people hanging out, outside instead of inside makes it seem all the worse. This is poverty. It just doesn’t compare to the most bleak projects in the US. Look at this data. More than 98% of the population in the US have a color television. It’s not like that here. Even the wealthy can’t be guaranteed electricity 24 hours a day.

Item -% of US Households with
Refrigerator 99.20%
Dryer 77.10%
Stove 98.30%
Color TV 98.20%
Computer 59.30%
Auto, truck, van 85.70%
Dishwasher 58.10%
Microwave 93.20%
Garbage disposal 47.00%
VCR 86.90%
Freezer 30.80%
Washer 80.00%
Source: US Census

As of 1990, there were 11 Million Housing Units in the Philippines, however, 1,830,118 or nearly 17 percent of these households had no toilets.

These stats on the Philippines are staggering! Check these out....

I tell you all of this just to contrast it to the world we were about to enter beyond the highly guarded doors of the Nikko Hotel Dusit and to always remind myself to appreciate my life, regardless of it's shortcomings.

We arrived at the Dusit Hotel and weren’t allowed up the drive until security checked our trunk (or in this case the back of the van) and looked on the underside of the car with a mirror on a pole. Bomb sniffing dogs walked though our luggage as the porters lugged it on their trolleys. We weren’t walking though the door until our backpacks and pocketbooks were checked and we were “wanded” for metals.

But once inside, we were royalty. Frederick’s Dad stays here quite often and all of Frederick’s family had already arrived and taken up residence in 1 suite and 4 other rooms on the 11th floor. We were room #5 and it seemed like everyone was on staff to pamper us. Soon we learned the Frederick’s Dad had been nicknamed “The Senator” as he’d been securing special service since the entire brood checked in. This is a Thai property and the staff in the lobby was dressed in traditional costume. Lots of bowing and such….it was like real life version the King and I. (I know that’s a different country, the feel was the same)

For the next 9 days we were going to experience what it is like to be in among the wealthiest in a country. We were going to be eating meals that in the US are reasonable, but were well beyond the affordability of the people cooking and serving them. Our own personal Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Next entry, Christmas in Manila.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pics from our One Night In Toyko

Double click through to the Webshots website(Japan 07,link below photos) to see photos in full size, the slide show sometimes crops the photos oddly. Also, my other photos from the rest of the trip are all posted on Webshots in different albums, but I haven't had a chance to finish their blog entries.

Japan 07

When You're Big in Japan...............

Big in Japan, Japan, Japan……

I tell you for the past 18 hours that song has been stuck in my head.
I AM big in Japan! Literally! Ah but more about that later.

"One night in Tokyo and the world’s your oyster…". We only had an hour and 45 minutes, so perhaps the world is now just a clam to us.

We took an American 777 from Dallas to Tokyo in Business Class, but not the Next Generation seats as had been hyped by American. We found the room and the comfort quite bearable. I have to concede that a 14 hour flight, sprinkled with a couple of Monty Python movies, sleep, food and drink is quite bearable. I was completely surprised that wasn’t going out of my mind. However, as I type this I am on our Japan Airlines flight for the 5 hour journey from Manila to Tokyo, on a 747 in coach, and I am nearly ready to kill someone. Moooooooo!

We left Dallas at 10AM and arrived in Japan at 2:30PM the next day. I managed to get about 5 hours of sleep on the flight, so we were able to go about the rest of the day without too much jet lag.

Our flight to Manila wasn’t until 9:20AM the next day, so we thought we’d take advantage of the evening and see a bit…and I mean a bit of Tokyo. We weren’t able to check our luggage all the way through to Manila due to the overnight layover. We cleared passport control, picked up our luggage and cleared customs in fairly decent time. We dropped off our big pieces at the “left luggage” service and headed out to the shuttle bus for our hotel in Narita. Right on time the bus came and we were on our way to the hotel. We stayed at the Holiday Inn right at the airport. The hotel was clean and comfortable and we found plenty of English speakers. After 20 minutes to clean up a bit we made our way back to the hotel shuttle bus, back to the airport and down to the train station to Tokyo.

You always think of Japan being a very advanced technological society. Now that may be true when you are talking about phones, computers and televisions, but the advancement doesn’t extend to paying for those items. We found that ATM machines only work during banking hours and many common items…like train tickets can only be paid for with cash. Thank goodness we suffered the beating of purchasing Yen before we left the States. (Wells Fargo has no clue how to make this easy; we had to find the 1 bank in the Dallas area that had someone on staff who was trained to sell foreign currency. When we did find that bank, it turns out we had to wait 2 days for the teller to pass his proficiency test. And…then we were his second customer! The transaction took about 30 minutes. Michael, can you work on this? LOL!)

I have found a place where customer service still exists. Every time we looked lost trying to purchase a train ticket, figure out which way the elevators were in the hotel or which line to get in to scan our checked bags, there was someone there who stepped up to help without being asked. It’s still someone’s job in Japan to help you!

At 7:00PM we managed to get our ticket to Tokyo, on the Keisei Skyliner Express to Nipori Station. The ride took about 50 minutes.

Different from the airport and the hotel, I had my first experience being completely different. I didn’t expect it to be a big deal, and it wasn’t, but I did get stared at. It was to be expected, as no matter what I did or wore, I am different. I’m a pale even by American standards. I was a giantess! Ah, it could have just been my Boston Red Sox World Series Championship hoodie they wanted to get a better look at! I heard that the Red Sox are the new “favorite” MLB team in Japan after we signed national hero, Matuzaka and Okijima last year. The World Series Championship bandwagon surely stretches across the Pacific. The odd thing is that it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, I just smiled back.

Beyond the window of the train, I could have been on Metro North from New Haven to New York. Aside from the difference in the language on the signage, as we traveled through the night it looked like any other suburbia that melds into big city.

Once we got to our connection station, we needed to change to the local subway, JR Yamanote line to get to Shibuya Station.

Check out the pictures of the subway map and the subway ride.
I’m usually very good at deciphering maps of any kind, but this was a jungle. We were quite grateful for the assistance of customer service agent at the Napori station. Even though he didn’t speak our language, instantly he could see we needed help and negotiated the automatic ticket machine and directed us to the right platform. Soon we were on the 30 minute ride, having the typical Tokyo subway experience. Incredibly crowded, with people happily texting away on their cell phones. Check out my shot from inside the train, that’s taken from just above my eye level.

We made our way out of Shibuya station and walked head on into the electronic billboard jungle, perhaps more beautiful than Times Square.

We exited at the Hachiko gate. The tale of the Akita dog, Hachiko is famous in Japan. In the 1930’s, every day the dog would leave the house of his owner on his way to work and then meet him at the train station. He did so for years, even after his owner’s death. He was adopted by the station as sort of a mascot. There is a statute of him outside of the station exit that is named for him. It’s a very popular and recognizable meeting place. For more info:

We walked head on into the famous “scramble crossing” featured in the movie Lost in Translation. When traffic stops, people descend on the crossing from all directions, however, when the lights flash, the crossing is instantly cleared and traffic flows again. The Starbucks store overlooking the crossing is also one of the busiest in the world.

Shibuya is the fashion and nightlife capital of Tokyo. It is the home of the huge department store, Toyku as well as the shopping complex Shibuya 109. It’s all hip, trendy and fashionable. I did find it odd that 99% of the women I saw were wearing skirts. There wasn’t a jean or pant in site. In winter, it’s skirts of all lengths and width with boots.

We had less than an hour to stroll around, if we wanted to make our train back to Narita Airport. Late night trains are not the norm in Tokyo. If we missed 10:20PM train, we’d be risking having to take a cab from the station in the City of Narita, as that was the end of the line for later trains. With a flight at 9:20AM, taking time to shop and eat in Tokyo was not worth the risk. We’d have to settle for just saying we’d experienced a tiny slice of Tokyo.

Alas, when you have a 12 year old boy, you still have to find a way to feed him. He’s a pretty picky eater, and we found the local Mc Donald’s

but alas, they did not have Mc Nugget’s. His Dad had already told him the tale of how when he was a boy and ate a hamburger at a Tokyo Mc Donald’s it was flavored with soy sauce, so a burger was out of the question. We searched on and eventually found an “American Dog” at a convenience store. It was a corny dog actually. We had some ketchup we saved from the airport in Dallas. It wasn’t good but it filled the hole. We were amused by all of the unique food offerings in the convenience store. Check out the photos for a hilarious sample.

We did have an experience with local Red Sox fans. They stopped Alex and I on the street and wanted to show us that they had the same World Series shirt. (Of course, they weren’t wearing theirs, but I gotta be me!) The difference is that they had theirs signed earlier in the day by Okijima at a local sports store! We just missed him. We chatted a bit and they said they went to Boston last August to see the Sox play. They took our picture, but I regret not taking the time to take theirs. Sigh!

It’s was time to take the long journey back to Narita, retracing our steps from the subway, to the suburban train through to the airport. The local subway eventually emptied the further out we traveled. I did get a snapshot of the famous NY Yankee pitcher, “Hideki Mastsui” sleeping on the train. I had fun imagining this is what years of Yankee losses had done to him, drunk and sleeping in his Yankee jacket on a random Tokyo subway.

Once at the airport station, we encountered the highlight of Alex’s day. The return train was not an airport express, and it delivered us to a different station at the Narita airport. We had to walk 500 meters through an underground hallway to get to Terminal 2, where our hotel shuttle would pick us up. The tunnel was about 10 feet high and 6 feet wide, with a floor surface that was smooth as glass. The hallway was completely empty and went on a 20 degree angle to the midpoint and up a 20 degree angle to the end of the tunnel. So for 500 meters, Alex was in Heely heaven. We were walking quite quickly, as we didn’t want to miss the last hotel shuttle, but he did several laps back and forth on his Heely’s while he waited for us to catch up. Can’t compete with the wheels on his shoes! We caught the very last hotel shuttle at 11PM and settled back in our rooms for a few hours sleep. Our flight to Manila left at 9:20AM the next day.

The hotel room was just what we needed. It had a fridge, internet and was quite clean. The lack of box springs on the beds contributed to my feeling Gulliver experience as the beds were about 2 feet off the floor. The shower spray was just an inch from the top of my head. I’m only 5’ 7”!

The alarm went of at 4:30AM and we hustled to get ready, packed and downstairs for what was promised to be an “American Breakfast”. We give them points for trying and we did find a few things to eat. Alex ate what would become the first of 100 bowls of rice over the course of the next 10 days. Of course, the hotel shuttle was on time and we found ourselves at the Narita airport before 7AM. We had no trouble picking up our luggage from “Left Luggage” and made our way to the check in counters. That were,……get this, closed! It’s 7:15AM and the airport had not opened yet? Odd, very odd! Soon the red ribbon barriers were moved and we were escorted by petite, check in agents wearing their fashionable neck scarves. They seemed overwhelmed by the size and number of our luggage. For us, we were traveling light! At first, there was the panic that we had too many pieces for the coach flight to Manila, but soon they realized that we had come inbound from the US the day before and the problem disappeared. With baggage checked, and boarding passes in hand, we made our way to security. Again to find it was CLOSED! It didn’t open till 8AM. We wandered around a bit, until someone had the courage to start the queue. It’s funny, everyone is happy to sit around and wait, until someone decides they want to be first in line. Within 5 minutes there were 100 people in line. We were about 3rd in line.

Security was the same as the US, shoes off, liquids out…we were through very quickly and off to our gate.
Ahh, here were the Filipinos, waiting for their flight to Manila. Even if you didn’t see them, you could tell these were not Japanese, by the energy they gave off. Filipinos are very happy people. Gone were the insular headphones of the subway. These MP3 players had speakers and played for all to hear. There were groups of families heading home for the holidays with bags of food at their feet; Mom’s offering food to all. After an efficient boarding process, we were on our way to Manila.

Thursday, January 3, 2008


Not the trip, just me. ;-) Internet access (as well as electricity) in the Philippines was very unreliable and prevented me from updating my blog while we were away. Since I've returned, I've been trying to catch up on work and fight thru my jet lag haze. This weekend, I hope to be able to fall asleep before 4am and get you all the juicy details you crave, pix included.

... and tell you how to sneak PB&J thru Tokyo airport security.

P.S. - Just kidding, if you are the TSA