Monday, February 27, 2012

Sometimes A Great Notion: Part 2 - First Day:Manila

"Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own country-men, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds
~ Charles Caleb Colton

"In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes of mice and
men go oft awry"
~ Robert Burns

We arrived in Manila just before midnight and found ourselves disembarking at the old International terminal, the same terminal I had left from 28 years earlier. We were told the "new" terminal was closed, but not why.
But we went through Customs, our papers stamped and got our luggage in what seemed like just a few minutes, despite the large number of "Balikbayan boxes". In reality it took us about an hour, I guess the excitement of being back made time go fast.

Balikbayan is a term that refers to Filipinos
returning to their homeland (there are 11 million who reside and work in countries all over the world). They return bearing "pasalubong" (gifts) in large boxes.

Suitcases in hand we turned and there was Manong Tony, looking much the same as he did the last time I saw him back in '75. He had been like a big brother to me when I was little, and when my two youngest brothers were born he took over some of the responsibilities that had formerly been the sole domain of our housekeeper Auring, like taking me to the movies. After college, he went on to attend seminary and had become a minister. Now we discovered he was a Chaplain in the Philippine Air Force with the rank of Lt. Colonel. He currently was attached to the PSG, the equivalent of the US Secret Service.

After hugs and introductions, we took our luggage and headed for the parking lot. It was warm and muggy, and we started sweating immediately. Our noses were assaulted by the blended, sour odor of diesel fuel exhaust, sewage and uncollected garbage. The Step-Mom exclaimed at the stench, but for me, the old familiar smells were stirring the memories and resurrecting feelings long forgotten: home. I'm home.

I was reminded of the movie Kelly's Heroes, where two soldiers from rural Texas are covered with the contents of an outhouse. Upon being told they stink, Don Rickles comments "kind of reminds you of home, don't it" whereupon one of the soldiers replies "you know it kind of does"

Tony loaded us up, Dad up front and the Step-Mom, Maureen and I crammed in the back, and drove us to the old UCCP Mission Guest House in the area of Metro Manila called Malate. Tony was trying to convince Dad to have us stay with him, but the Step-Mom insisted on a hotel and the Guest House (now called Shalom Center) was the compromise. I wanted to see and experience the old sights and places, and the Guest House was an important part of our pilgrimage.

The city was still very active at 1:00 a.m. and traffic was heavy. Most of the time our driver just drove through the red lights, simultaneously depressing the accelerator and his horn as we approached an intersection. We had no idea whether the drivers in the on-coming traffic were going to stop or not, so it was rather exciting. But the honking must have been a well known signal because it all seemed to work out. When we were forced to stop at a traffic light, a small boy or two would come up to our car and press their faces close to the glass, looking so pathetic, begging for money. The driver would give them some cash and they scurried away. It made Maureen cry and I realized this was an aspect of our trip that I had not anticipated.

The drive from the airport that used to take twenty minutes now took just over an hour. We got to the Guest House to find that the beautiful turn-of-the century two story guest house had been replaced by a modern tall building. We checked in, not knowing what other changes to expect after all these years. But the room was cool and clean, the sheets crisp and white, the water hot and refreshing. We cleaned up and crawled into bed, and were soon fast asleep.

We awoke just a few hours later to the sounds of vendors in the street selling taho, a custardy dish made from tofu, sago pearls and assorted fruit or syrups of your choice. We tried to go back to sleep but we hadn't adjusted to the change in time zone yet. To be honest, I was too excited to go back to sleep.

So, we got up and went downstairs and took some pictures on the street out front and then went through the lobby and out the back door.

There, behind the new tower were two of the original guest houses still standing, looking rather forlorn and uncomfortable. This was one of the things I wanted to see again. Slightly modified, but still mostly the same, there was the house where we lived our first few months in the Philippines.

It was strange and wonderful, the memories of my childhood came rushing back, of daily sounds, smells, and rituals. Of warm, yet still comfortable mornings, the relative quiet before the hustle and bustle of the city gearing up for another busy day of commerce. The hot afternoons when the city would suddenly go silent, the only sound was the wings of the cicadas humming.

Back inside, I asked at the front desk about changing some dollars for pesos and the clerk said they could arrange for a money changer to come by a little later. Dad and the stepmother were still in bed and we were enjoying the break in the Tagalog lessons, so we went to see about getting some breakfast without them.

The days of a multi-course American style meal served family style at long tables covered in white tablecloths were long gone. In the old days, breakfast was preceded by a reading from the Upper Room, followed by several relevant Bible passages and a prayer. Then eggs, sometimes fried, sometimes scrambled or wonder of wonders boiled eggs perched on little white egg cups. Fruit, toast, bacon or sausage and juice would round out the meal.

The Shalom Center now had a cafeteria and served traditional Filipino foods. I steered Maureen towards a breakfast of coffee, mango juice, rice, fried eggs and little red sausages called longaniza and was gratified to find that she really enjoyed it. The coffee came in little packets with the creamer already mixed in and you just poured it into a cup of hot water. She was a little suspicious of it at first, but happily discovered that it was quite delicious. We lingered for awhile after eating, sipping our coffee and slowly adjusting to our new surroundings.

After breakfast we went down to the lobby to meet the money exchanger, running into our "travel companions" as we exited the cafeteria. I suggested to Dad that he take the opportunity to change some dollars to pesos but he brushed it off.

Prior to our trip I had spent many hours on line updating myself on the Philippines, reading travel tips and advice, newspaper articles and consular warnings. The country that we had known so well had greatly changed, but Dad still thought that he knew it all, certainly much better than I.

When we got to the lobby Tony was there and helped us change some money with the money changer while we waited for the parents. They appeared a little while later, and Dad promptly announced that he needed to change some dollars! Too late, the money changer had already left. The step mother needed some sun glasses too, so it was decided we would head over to SM Mall after lunch at Tony's home. We grabbed some of our luggage to store at his home and headed out to fight the traffic once again.

We arrived at the base and the guard cheerfully waved us through. Tony gave us a quick tour around the base and stopped first to let Maureen pick a Kalachuchi blossom, then to let us have some photo ops with the impressive residence across the river.

We kind of felt like we were breaking some rules: You usually don't see this side of the official residence, nor can you normally get this close. But we reminded ourselves that this was the Philippines and things are a little more relaxed here.

The parsonage was attached to the back of the Base Chapel. We arrived at Tony's home and met some of his family. Two of his daughters were at work and we would meet them later. His wife, Beth, was the daughter of old family friends and excused herself to prepare lunch while Tony gave us a tour of the Chapel and his gardens. Orchids, flowers, fruit trees were everywhere. I had forgotten how lush the tropics can be.

Here is Tony and the parents. Dad is trying to figure out how to use the video camera (he shot hours of the sky, the ground or the interior of the car).

Then we were ushered in for lunch. It was an excellent meal that included fried fish, rice, a shrimp, beef and vegetable stir fry, green beans, mangoes, bananas, grapes and suman. They even cooked up a few pieces of whole dried fish called Tuyo just for me.

Dried fish is made by heavily salting fresh whole or split fish, which then are dried in the sun. To prepare them you simply heat a little oil in a skillet and fry them up. The oil reconstitutes the flesh and they emit a very strong odor. Most Americans find the smell horrific, but it always makes my mouth water. For almost thirty years I had been dreaming of this moment, the taste of tuyo and rice filling my mouth.

After lunch, Tony and Dad sat down to discuss the itinerary. Our original plans had been to go from Manila to the island of Leyte for a week, then back to Manila and on to the mountains of Baguio with a side trip to Sagada. Dad immediately changed things up by saying he wanted to go to Baguio first and then Leyte. I tried to explain that we had reservations made at hotels in Baguio and Leyte, that people had taken time off from work to see us and that we couldn't just change things up but he refused to listen.

What I didn't realize then was that he was apprehensive about going back to Leyte. He was afraid that, at best, no one would even remember him. So we changed our plans, which meant we now had to go buy tickets to Baguio and hope we could find rooms.

So first we went to get 4 plane tickets to Baguio. Dad did his knick knack paddy whack dance (slapping each pocket in turn) and said he left his credit card at the hotel. Apparently he had only brought dollars to exchange into pesos. So I had to pay for all the tickets.

Then we headed over to SM Mall. Traffic was miserable and it took us forever to get there. I was totally amazed at the congestion of the city. We were even more shocked at the total disregard for traffic signals, the large number of cars trying to fit into a finite number of lanes. Navigating the ever changing maze was like some crazy dance, a game of "chicken" to see who would yield first. At some point Tony determined that we were headed the wrong direction and began to slowly work his way from the far left lane all the way over to the far right lane. Once there we thought he was going to pull in on a side street and head back the other direction. Instead, tooting his horn and putting on his left blinker he executed a wide turn. Cutting across about six or seven lanes of traffic and into the lanes heading the opposite way, smiling and waving as vehicles would stop just inches from our car. It was a gut wrenching experience, but two things were evident to us, there was no road rage, no cussing or angry gestures. With so many people (around 21 million in the Greater Manila area) rubbing elbows, it was essential that decorum be maintained. So, despite the congestion, people kept their cool.

When we finally arrived we were stopped by guards at the parking garage who cheerfully checked the trunk and under the car for bombs. After we parked, there was another security check, this time for us. We were told that we were not allowed to take pictures inside the mall, but I surreptitiously took a few blurry shots. There were no malls in the Philippines when we had lived there last, and Maureen was impressed at the number of employees (four or five smartly dressed young women in every department) and how friendly and helpful they were.

Dad and Tony went to exchange some dollars to pesos while the Step-mom, Maureen and I did some shopping. Maureen had left her swim suit back in the States, and I thought I'd pick up an embroidered short sleeve shirt. The Step-Mom went to go buy some sunglasses. The exchange rate currently was floating around 56 pesos to one dollar. For some reason this was very confusing to the parents and I wasn't sure why. Dad had done some mission work in Nepal, Central and South America, they both had worked in Africa, so they had relatively recent experience with varying exchange rates. Maureen got her suit, I got my shirt and we wandered over to see how the Step-Mom was doing. She was having trouble picking a pair but finally decided on a stylish black framed designer branded pair. Dad and Tony came up and she said "these are only $10 dollars". Maureen looked at the tag labeled 5,600 pesos and said uh no, they are around $100. The Step-Mom looked annoyed and insisted she was correct and purchased them anyway. Leaving the mall she had an indignant whispered conversation with Dad and after some calculations on a piece of paper the sunglasses were carefully remanded to her luggage for the remainder of our trip, as they too valuable to wear.

After the mall we headed over to the American Cemetery. This again took forever due to the heavy traffic. We had intended to do some sight-seeing but it now seemed rather late to get started. I was beginning to worry about how much time we would waste everyday just trying to get to the places we wanted to see.

When we got there it was just after 5 pm, it was raining and they were closing for the day. But Tony showed them his official I.D. and they just waved us in.

The rain suddenly stopped and the sun tried to peak out. It was serene and beautiful.

Administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission it covers about 152 acres and has 17, 206 graves and an additional 36,282 names inscribed on limestone columns of those missing in action. We walked around for an hour and then it started raining again so we decided to go.

Tony decided it was time to get something to eat and stopped off at McDonalds. After crossing the ocean to get here it was not our first choice but he was driving and our host, so we went along with it. We parked right in front and Tony paid some street kids to watch his car. A guard armed with a shot-gun opened the door for us and we trooped in.

This turned out to be an interesting experience because the McDonalds in the Philippines are nothing like the ones back in the States. For one thing rice comes with the meals and french fries are a special side order. Salisbury steak, Spaghetti and fried chicken are also on the menu. We tried these "new" items and found them to be pretty good!

The Step-mom went to use the restroom and came out shortly and said there is no toilet paper in there. Maureen pulled some out of her travel bag and handed it to her. She seemed most annoyed that we were so prepared.

I can't help it, a decade of living in a rural area of the Philippines, plus being a Boy Scout who was taught to "be prepared", I find my self always thinking of contingencies. Before we had left I had advised her to get some travel "tp" to bring with her, because like when they were in Africa, it is something that is not always provided or available.

We had an early flight to Baguio the next morning, jet lag had finally caught up to us and we were worn out, so Tony took us back the Guest House. We showered and Maureen took a little time to write down the experiences we had so far in her journal. Another day of firsts for her!

A Day in Manila from Waldo Wanders on Vimeo.

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