When you’re born in the land of the Long White Cloud – the place dubbed ‘middle-earth’ – and then raised in that other place they call ‘The Land Down Under’ – getting to another country usually involves (at the very least) a good few hours up in the air.
Let’s face it, flying within Australia can take up to five hours and involve jet lag!
So, the idea that I can be in a completely different country, new culture, new language (heck even new chopstick etiquette) within a couple of hours still manages to impress me!
Suffice to say, during my time here in Asia’s World City, I’ve managed quite a few short flights that have landed me, rather excitedly, in exotic, seemingly far-flung locations…all within the blink of an eye.With this in mind, I took my latest trip to the Philippines with a grain of salt. It’s just up the road – been there done that. That grain of salt was in fact so teensy; I didn’t even check my e-ticket (properly). I’d been invited to host a corporate awards night as Master of Ceremonies (as I have done many times).
But it seems the close proximity of this foreign land had me held hostage to a touch of complacency. Admittedly – I was a little sidetracked with family in town. As any expat will know, much-loved visitors on your turf means any semblance of normality is totally lost – you happily immerse yourself in the vortex of sightseeing, shopping and eating out. Every day is like a holiday in your own city (until reality bites).
And it did – the morning of my said ‘flight to work!’ Sitting at my laptop, PJs on, casually reading through my notes, I thought I’d better double check the flight details (double check?! Hell I hadn’t paid much attention in the first place)! This is where it all gets a little hairy – with the discovery that my flight was, in fact, leaving Hong Kong in two hours, not four. My international flight – all 1 hour 45 minutes, while less than some domestic flights in Australia, was by no means ‘doable’ on domestic terms. You know the drill – early arrival, customs, forms, x-ray machines, passport, visa, the works!
Slight panic, few expletives, 30 second shower, things thrown around the room in haste, somehow landing in a small suitcase, then a rushed goodbye to my lovely dad who was leaving that night (on the bright side, it saved me drowning in my usual farewell tears) then a bumpy Hong Kong taxi ride to the airport.
I arrived in record time. Truth be told, I was early!
So far so good – that is until they said my flight would be boarding in three hours! “Sorry? What?” “Oh yes (said just that little bit too cheerily) the flight’s delayed 2.5 hours madam.”
Now I’m not one to throw a public spanner in the works, but in my most dramatic Cantonese I exclaimed – ‘Cannot La!’ I would completely miss the start of the event that I was supposed to err start! To their credit they said they’d find another flight IF possible. I just had to go and sit in the naughty corner and wait…. wait….wait. I won’t bore you with my ‘waiting’ but eventually I got on a new flight, a new ‘bigger’ airline – which would land me in the Philippines’ capital ever so slightly earlier (had we not had to sit on the tarmac for half an hour that is).
You know when you nervously tap your fingers wishing time would speed up (I’m sure you’ve all felt my pain at one point or another, probably with something a lot more important to get to, like a wedding or heaven forbid, a funeral!) I was even one of those people I normally scoff at who jump up the second the seatbelt sign goes off (ok maybe a little sooner) had my bag down from the overhead locker and was marching towards the exit! Tut Tut!
About now you realize, it may only be 1 hour 45 minutes in the air but that’s where the intimacy ends. At Philippine airports they like you to queue. You know when you’re in line for the supermarket checkout and you try to pick the shortest queue? This time my crystal ball failed miserably… How – oh how did I end up in customs behind a mother and her pubescent son who had no visa. NO visa?!
Time frantically ticking; I muttered a few more expletives under my breath (apparently providing a westerner behind me with a good chuckle). Eventually I make my great escape – bag ripped off the conveyer belt (and here’s the cruel twist in airport escapes) another queue, another queue so long it’s winding past the luggage carousels while everyone is subjected to more X-rays, the contents of their bags strewn across the table.
I might only be a hop, skip and a jump from Hong Kong, but sharing the same geographical postcard is largely where the similarities finish. Signs are pinned around the airport warning against ‘bomb’ jokes and unlike the largely ‘safe haven’ that is Hong Kong, security is paramount in the Philippines. The danger of bombs going off in Manila to this day remains a real threat.
Regardless of whether you’re entering a shopping mall, a hotel, taking a train ride or simply entering an office building – your bags will be searched, even if it is just to get a Mint Mocha!
This, I’m told, is everyday life in Manila.
There’s no escaping the fact it’s a third world country with a quarter of the population living well below the poverty line. Pickpocketing is rife and kidnappings are sadly common. What was once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ is now declared by many as the ‘Forgotten’ city.
Government advisories continually warn travelers to exercise a “high degree of caution.” In fact, since researching for this piece, it’s come to my attention that perhaps I’ve been a little naïve during my recent excursions. (In a country with so little – texting on my brand new iPhone5 in public is probably not the smartest move!) Maybe I should take my husband’s advice and ask for danger money?
In all seriousness though, despite its position as the underdog, this archipelago of 7,000 islands is, if nothing else, a popular haven for beach loving tourists. With islands like Cebu touted as one of the safest, foreigners flock to the tropical paradise in their droves.
Much to my dismay I’m yet to be one of them – last time I barely got to see outside of the hotel, apart from a rather large, glossy shopping centre, next to a casino – that could easily have you fooled about the economic status of the Philippines. (That said, optimism is at an all time high and the economy is on track for a bigger and brighter future.) This time wasn’t much better in the sightseeing stakes, but I did get a 20 minute car ride through the outskirts of the city – enough to quench my thirst, albeit briefly and with clenched fists!
Having made it (huffing and puffing) out of the airport into the hustle and bustle that is the Philippines, the tropical humidity literally slaps you in the face, as does the flurried nature of this city that quickly sends your head into a spin (if it wasn’t already).
Locals rushed at me from every direction “Need a ride?” “Which hotel missy?” It was 630pm and I was hustled along a busy street to the Marriott Hotel’s headquarters at the very end of the row (of course), ushered into a tiny room filled with about 16 others (not that I was counting) acutely aware I was the only Guailo and woman in the room.
It was a friendly affair, but this crowded and sweaty sojourn had me even hotter under the collar. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, my ride arrived. Plunged into the monstrous traffic jams the Philippines is famous for – bikes, scooters, cars, buses, vans, and the iconic graffiti-plastered ‘jeepneys’ (I’ve since discovered were military jeeps left in the country after World War II) weave in and out of lanes in every direction, horns honking furiously – but somehow managing to stay on the straight and narrow.
I didn’t feel like a businesswoman about to host a fancy dinner in a grand ballroom. Instead it’s like I’ve been transported to another place and time – a backpacking jaunt in a steaming far eastern city. As far as the eye can see, a sea of ramshackle infrastructure set against a backdrop of neon signs and giant gleaming billboards reminiscent of a colorful patchwork quilt.
For a minute, I contemplate getting out and soaking up the shambolic madness, but the thud of reality hits me over the head. Minutes pass and we roll up to ‘Resorts World Manila!’ It’s unlike anywhere else in the capital I’m told and is the stage for the Philippines’ new tourist hub with three hotels, a casino, restaurants and lots of those oh so shiny shops I mentioned earlier.
It’s 7pm…security is tight and there’s no bypassing it. First we must wait while armed security guards (with guns that are by no means small) scan the underneath of our car, the boot is opened and checked with sniffer dogs in tow. (Guessing now’s not the time to mention I’m in a hurry.) Once through, we arrive at the grand hotel entrance, much like any other 5-star hotel entrance, except before I can enter, my suitcase is put through an x-ray machine, then given the once-over by a cautious canine who is (thankfully) most uninterested in my belongings, my handbag is opened and poked with a big stick and I am thrust through a metal detector.
Once in the grand lobby, people are dashing this way and that and I’m hastily shown the function room where, low and behold, people are already arriving, clinking their champagne glasses and smiling for the paparazzi.
Feeling all eyes on my bedraggled self, I stutter something about urgently needing to ‘get ready!’ and I’m escorted to the hotel lobby toilets (which admittedly aren’t as uncivilised as they sound). Make-up splashed on, hair sprayed to within an inch of its life, dress, heels… host-worthy jewels. I’m ready for action (at least that’s what I tell myself).
Stepping on stage I take a deep breath – no one any the wiser as to my slightly harrowing journey.
I suspect I’m yet to see the real Philippines in all its glory, but I’ve definitely had a small taste of this Pearl of the Orient. There’s a trait Filipinos are renowned for having – Pakikisama – which means ‘getting on well with everyone.’ If nothing else, I leave with one thing firmly imprinted on my mind – this is a nation of endearing people who couldn’t be more friendly or hospitable if they tried.
From beginning to end, genuine heart-warming smiles greeted me at every turn, making me feel nothing less than welcome in their country (even when they were prodding my handbag with a big stick)!
In Australia – to that we’d say – ‘Cheers Mate!’
Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband.
Mum to hyped up blondie Ava, Nicole has swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag but is still enjoying the best of both worlds, freelancing as a Journalist, Presenter, Master of Ceremonies and Media Trainer.
Read Nicole's other Expat Focus articles here.