The smell of the air as took me back to the last time I visited the Philippines when I was in 5th or 6th grade. I was exiting Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila after a 21 hour flight a couple of nights ago. (I’m having a pretty difficult time figuring out what time or day it is now) My first and last visit was such a long time ago, but it didn’t take long for things to look and feel familiar.
I should have been overwhelmed by the holding area outside of the airport. They don’t let anyone meet you inside after you disembark from your plane. The Phillippines’ biggest export is labor. So there are huge numbers of people coming and going from the country at any one time. Even larger numbers await them when they return. In order to keep everyone from overwhelming the airport, they set aside a large outdoor waiting area. On the airport side, you set yourself up under one of many signs, which easch one corresponding with the first letter of your last name. Across the street of taxi’s for those with no one to greet them, is a huge, barred holding pen filled with friends and relatives.
Even just after midnight, early Monday morning, it was packed with several hundred people. Despite that I was able to pick out my mother almost instantly in the crowd before I even finished descending the exit ramp. Still, it took some time to manage through the crowd to meet her.
Even after a 45 minute delay on Amtrak, randomly running into a dancer friend, Deb Rogan, on the 20+ minute ride up to BWI, 21 hours flying in between 3 hours of layovers in Detroit and Nagoya, Japan, my trip wasn’t over.
Word to the wise: If you ever have the opportunity to rent a car while visitiing the Philippines, don’t take it. Don’t even think about it. I don’t care how confident or crazy you think you are behind the wheel. You wouldn’t be able to pull out of the parking lot without getting into an accident. Mostly because you would have no idea where you are going, stuff isn’t well marked, traffic lights are rare, and everyone seems to treat the lines on the road as suggestions.
My parents have a car here, but they hired a person specifically knowledgable in driving in the city to drive their car for them into Manila. It’s what he does for a living because not many people living outside of the city have the guts to take on Manila traffic unless thy do it on a regular basis. That aforementioned smell I talked about is mostly pollution from the huge numbers of vehicles going in, out, and through the city, and God help you if you get into an accident because no one has any insurance.
We travleled four hours to my parent’s province. Manila at that hour is still a lively place, so getting out of the city took some time. There were still tons of people on the street eating or socializing at any number of places that were open. This just adds to the hectic traffic situation.
The driving doesn’t get much better in the rural areas because the main modes of transportation are motorcycles, scooters, and bikes. Most times they’re converted to trikes which means they have some sort of passenger side car attached to them. They can take up to 7 people at a time, paying the driver 7 pesos each. Not that there are that much seats on these things, that’s just how many healthy people can hold on any any one time. They dominate the roads which get narrower and narrower as you get further out from the big cities. Traveling in an automobile is a constant game of playing chicken with oncoming traffic doing the same thing as you try to figure when is a good time to pass these slower vehicles on roads that barely qualify as two lanes.
This makes the traffic situation pretty bad even in the hours before dawn on a Monday morning. I get the impression tha filipinos are used to constant travel; taking any mode of transportation they can find, whever they can catch it to get to some place where they can find work.
Large numbers of food stands and gas stations can be found open on the side of the road to serve these travelers at any hour of the day. The only concession that these are unusual hours is the fact that you’ll find many servers passed out asleep at their cash registers whenever there are no paying customers or friends to socialize with around.
We didn’t stop at one of those stands, but at a rest stop off the highway outside of the city. There I got a first taste Philippine “cuisine” from a chinese fast food place called “Chow King.” This was actually not much of a step up from my experience with authenic japanese airport food several hours previous. It wasn’t bad, but anything tasts good after traveling for that long. It made the simple meal we had when we finally got to my parents’ home at about 5 am local time that much more satisfying.
We had some babinka (a sweet coconut and egg pastry) with a wide array of fruits I’ve never heard of including banans and mangoes. Did i mention the water smells funny? Don’t even bother drinking it, and definitely hold the ice on anything you order.
This is all just from getting here. Due to my messed up sleep schedule I’m writing this before dawn after a short nap earlier in the evening. I’ve given up on trying to readjust to local time, but that leaves me with plenty of time to kill when no one else is awake. Maybe I’ll do a few more of these before I head back to DC.