Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: It Is Good To Be Home

The Philippine International airport is unlike any other international airport I have been through. You go through immigration, pick up your luggage, and clear customs just like any other airport but there the similarities stop. Where most other airports have large indoor terminal areas to meet people, rent a car, find a taxi, etc., in Manila, you find yourself walking immediately out the doors and onto the street. There, a swarm of taxi drivers await the passenger trying to out shout the other drivers and tempt you to take their vehicle. Because I am white, they pay extra attention to me because I am rich and naive to their trumped up prices. Fortunately, I have the Filipina wife card to play and that trumps everything. A few words spoken in the native language of Tagalog by her and they all are off to prey on other less rich and less naive passengers.

Though you are outside, you still aren't where you need to be if you want to meet your friends/relatives or get to your vehicle. For that, you must cross the street and descend into another building with two ramps, one with A-L descending left and another M-Z descending right. As Abbey's, we take the left most road which unlike Frost seemed to be the one most traveled and descend to another open air street that calling chaotic would still seem conservative. On one side of the streets, hordes of passengers disembarking from many international flights that all come at the same time in the late evening wait with their luggage. On the street, all manners of vehicles spaced out 3 to 6 inches from the bumper and side panels of those on all sides jockey for position to stop and pick up you and your luggage while blocking the most other vehicles as possible. Lots of horn honking and whistling by police at this point but nobody is paying attention as everyone is having a tearful mini-reunion with some passenger with 300 of their closest relatives. Lastly, on the far side of the street is a barricaded sidewalk in front of parking garage where hordes of Filipinos still scanning the descending ramps for their long lost relative wait patiently stacked ten deep. Periodically upon spotting their long lost relative, a mass of 300 or so of the closest relatives will swarm out of a narrow opening in the barricade and without looking, race across the five lanes of traffic, slipping between the bumpers where possible and walking over the others where not, traverse to the other side where they join the chaos.

That is where Mrs. Abbey and I are as we are carefully guarding out bags from the ever-present thieves while scanning the crowd for one of her 300 relatives. Out of the periphery of my vision, I see a figure come racing towards and bear hugs my wife as their momentum carries them out of sight behind me. I whirl around to protect my wife from her attacker only to see that it was her Tita (Aunt) Daisy. Tears start flowing from them like a water sprinkler and as I stood there guarding our bags, I couldn't help but loose a few of them myself. As I took my turn joyously hugging Tita Daisy, my wife frantically scanned the crowd for the one person that means as much to her as myself, her mother and thirty seconds later, there was another running bear hug and lots more tears by all parties. I kept waiting for the other 298 to appear but it was not to be this time. The last person of our reunion party, Tito (Uncle) Pito would eventually be roused from his sleep by Daisy and would jockey the van into a position about three lanes out and blocking two of them. We charged out among the traffic, quickly loaded up the van and set off into the Manila night. By my watch it was now 12:10 in the morning on December 23rd.

Heading off into Manila is not for the faint of heart or for those who aren't native to the area. The streets follow no pattern or grid like other countries and contain very few if any lane markings or signs. Immediately upon our departure, I was completely lost as we randomly turned left or right onto other roads with no signs or markings. We made a brief stop at the office where Mrs. Abbey's brother works for more hugs and tears before heading for the outskirts of Manila and the provinces beyond.

My wife and relatives slipped off into Tagalog as they got caught up and I for the most part watched the world unwind outside the window as I listened on catching words here and there and generally following the gist of the conversation. My wife speaks better English than perhaps the majority of native born Americans but her mother speaks it roughly and with a little difficulty so I have always emphasized that they speak their native language whenever it is more comfortable and I will follow along and learn it as best as I can. Besides, mother/daughter conversations probably wouldn't interest me anyway.

After a couple hours of driving, fatigue sets in and they start drifting off to sleep so I take my cue and crawl into the third row bench seat that is barely three feet long. I curl up all six feet two inches of my frame into a contorted fetal position and with my head slamming the side of the van with every pothole we hit, I fall asleep and awaken only a couple hours later when we stop for gas and some food.

Filipino gas stations are very different than their American counterparts. As first glance they look similar but the differences are great upon closer inspection. Most have an armed guard on the premise and those that don't probably have several guns inside under the counter. All are full service and kept very clean. I mean so clean that after every car leaves the attendants mop the concrete by the pump clean. I never saw a cigarette butt, discarded plastic bottle or over flowing trashcan during my entire time there. Inside the convenience store, it too is clean and looks very similar to the United States. Lots of snack type foods wrapped in individual cellophane packages, a drink dispenser, hot dogs roasting in the display rack and even arroz caldo.

Arroz caldo is rice porridge served in a bowl over meaty chicken bones and it is very delicious. So when my hosts asked whether I wanted a hotdog or arroz caldo for supper/breakfast/middle of the night meal, I chose arroz caldo and for gas station food, it was delicious. After I finished, I left my wife, her mother and Daisy to finish their hotdogs while I went outside to talk to Pito who had taken his hotdog outside to eat while guarding the van. (Thieves are everywhere.) Whenever I walk around in places like that, reactions are normally the same. The elders all politely star with curiosity or perhaps envy (remember, all whites are rich) and the younger generation will occasionally give me a hello or a "hey Joe" greeting. The very poor always immediately flock up to my side begging for pesos after telling me Merry Christmas (or Happy New Years) and those selling things come over to show me their wares. At this time having not yet been to an ATM machine, I was pesoless and so all went away disappointed not that they would get money even if I had pesos. It sets a bad standard for all subsequent whites visiting the area and most look like scam artists, often carrying infants to drum up sympathy.

With full bellies and a sun just beginning to illuminate the mountains to the east with backlighting, we crawled back into the van and started east. Soon we were crawling up the steep mountain switchbacks, occasionally slowing down when we came to restrictions where the road had been narrowed down to one lane such as due to a landslide taking the other lane with it sometime in the past. Though we are in the same van as my last trip we are moving much faster than last time mostly because we are 297 relatives fewer and much lighter. We grind up the mountain and sometime around six o'clock with the sun now shining rosily in the east; we pull into Baguio City and up to my mother-in-law's house perched on the side of a steep mountainside. My wife and I both felt the same, our journey was over and it was good to be home.

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