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.

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