Friday, July 8, 2005

Joe Philippines - 9: Going Back Home

Typhoon Harurot was the worst typhoon to hit the Philippines in the last five years and the outer bands of it as it departed for Hong Kong were still lashing out at us as I made my way to the airport. Huge rollers coming in from the South China Sea would hit the barrier wall separating the ocean from the van I was riding in not twenty feet away. The resulting twenty-foot wave carried on heavy winds would engulf the road, our van and all other traffic even just a few feet away, giving the illusion that we were just a bubble in a washing machine. Though we were underwater about once every ten seconds, are driver kept going and only turned the windshield wipers up to medium speed as if it were all a mere annoyance. Such is life on a typhoon prone island.

I felt lucky to even be in Manila because the storm started lashing out in earnest just as we were leaving Sagada in the northern mountains of the Philippines for the long (through the night nonetheless) journey to the Manila airport. Once in lower elevations, while stopped for a breather, we would learn that Sagada, Baguio City, and other towns we had just passed through were now flooded and most of the roads, including the very one we were on, were shut down due to mudslides. Based off the time estimates, I figured that I had made it through with an hour to spare. For once, I was glad that we had set off in the middle of the night.

During the last few days of my stay in the Philippines, I had caught a monster of a cold. The shock to my body of living in a completely foreign land than what I was used to and being exposed to new and apparently very virulent strains of the cold virus had weakened my immune system and I was now starting to pay for it. My head felt like it contained roughly twenty pounds of snot and it was all backed up in my sinus cavities muting my hearing, making my eyes water, and my throat feel like I had just swallowed some hot coals. My body was chilled so I knew I was running a low grade fever and this really worried me. Hong Kong was now in the midst of the SARS epidemic and I had to fly right through it on my way home. If a fever flushed man sweating bullets and running a fever walked up to you the security officer in the airport, would you let him go or quarantine him like what they had been doing?

We arrived at the airport and I got my luggage out of the car as I made my goodbyes. My wife was catching a later flight to London and I was going to America so I was going solo. I handed all of my remaining pesos and most of my dollars to my mother-in-law and told her to spend if frivousely on herself and made my way to the first security checkpoint. Earlier during my trip, I had commented on how beautiful the handmade brooms or walis of Baguio City were and my wife's family had responded by buying me a half dozen of them. Having no other way to transport them back, I had bought a roll of duct tape and had wrapped them completely from business end to handle so that the end result looked like two or three rifles that had been taped together with some foreigners name and address written in magic marker. At the time it had looked good but now standing in front of some security guards who looked as if they would rather do a full rectal cavity search as look at you, I was having second thoughts. But an hour later and two searches, the non-invasive kind, I was at my gate and waiting to board my plane but not without having to stop a pay an official 'leaving tax' that the airport charges that completely wiped out my money leaving me penniless.

Not long after, I find myself sitting in the plane at the end of the runway looking out the window and seeing nothing but lots of rain blowing sideways to the ground. The plane was shaking in the strong gusts and I figured I was going to be stranded here for the night, now with no money. But after an hour, the winds paused and the rains slackened enough that our pilot lost no time. Almost a full three seconds after he told us to prepare for takeoff, it was full throttle as we launched the plane out over the sea and the departing Typhoon Harurot. We flew right over it since we were both making our way towards Hong Kong and it was a rough flight, the roughest in my lifetime of flying. Almost as soon as we cleared the typhoon and the flight leveled out, it was time to descend down into Hong Kong for a smooth landing. I was positive it would be smooth sailing from here.

The Manila ticket agent had only issued me the ticket to Hong Kong saying that I had to get the rest of my flight tickets issued when I arrived there. I thought this was odd and when I was standing there trying to explain it to a Hong Kong help desk lady who was telling me that I should have gotten my tickets in Manila, I knew I had been right. The women of Hong Kong are very demur and it is unbecoming of a lady to talk loudly so with my ears plugged with snot, I was having to strain to hear her speak through the thick glass window separating us. To make matters worse, the day before I had left for the Philippines, my direct flight from Chicago, O'Hare to Hong Kong had been canceled and rescheduled on two flights meeting in Los Angles and I had nothing to show this other than my original itinerary number from my e-ticket. After almost two hours of trying to explain things and the clerk leaving twice to walk all the way across the airport through customs and security to talk with the ticketing agents, she finally came back with my tickets and I was free to proceed.

My flight had been delayed an hour, so my three hour and twenty minute layover had now been reduced to only twenty minutes. I thought about having to spend the night without money in the Hong Kong airport and began to run. Then I came to a screeching stop. There was another checkpoint up ahead where security was taking everyone's temperature with forehead thermometers to look for fevers that indicate a possible SARS infection. Crap. Frantically I look around and see an empty glass of ice sitting at a nearby table and I grab a few ice cubes from it and smear them across my forehead. I wipe the melted water and feverish sweat from my forehead and walk up to the guard with my coolest, I'm completely normal and feeling good smile that I could muster as he checked my temperature and waved me on. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth, I took off running and made the last and final boarding to my flight.

The cabin of the airplane was like a sauna when I walked in and the pilot was saying something over the intercom about the air conditioning wasn't working properly but please bear with them. As the attendants went through their speech on safety, I started popping pills and dosing myself with cold medicine in an effort to make the fourteen-hour flight somewhat bearable to my flying companions sitting around me. The plane soon took off and once again, flew right over the incoming Typhoon Harurot in a worse bought of turbulence yet. Within minutes, six people in a five-seat vicinity of where I was sitting had filled up their airsickness bags and the sweltering air reeked of puke. I however, with my head banging against the side of the cabin in my window seat, was now within the power of the cold medication and drugs and was feeling just fine. So fine in fact, that I slept the next twelve hours without even waking to wipe the drool from my chin. The rest of the flight went smoothly including the eight hour layover in the middle of the night at O'Hare in Chicago thanks to the earlier mentioned rescheduled flights, which meant that I missed the last flight out and had to wait until morning and the next flight. I spent that time sometimes wandering the vast (and empty) terminals of O'Hare and alternately trying to get some more sleep on the chairs at a vacant gate while an automated voice came on the intercom every fifteen minutes and told me to keep track of my luggage at all times.

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