The Dreaded Philippines.


After a fair night's sleep, ablutions and breakfast Margaret, the owner, chatted. She was not pleased that I was contemplating marriage to a much younger lady. Funny how normal people who normally behave irrationally suddenly become wise and rational when forwarding their ideas on why only people of the same age should marry. It seems to me to be an emotional response cloaked as prudential counselling. "What happens when you are this and she is that?" Or: "Is it fair on the children of such marriages?" etc.

But Margaret was able to relieve my worries about getting to the airport easily and economically. The shuttle bus passed the end of the street. So I phoned the operators and they said that one would be leaving shortly at 11.30. It was still before mid-day. I somehow thought that I was on the way to some place similar to London Heathrow and that there would be plenty to do and see - and eat - while waiting until nearly midnight to embark on the PAL (Philippines Air Lines) flight to Manila. Anyway, I had a book didn't I? The coach had a little luggage trailer attached in which I stowed my ex-mother-in-law's, loaned suitcase. I carried the little back-pack on my knee.

The Brisbane International airport is very spacious, new and constructed of galvanised tubes and glass. Reminiscent of a large farm building. Ideal for growing massive tomato plants in a temperate climate. There were a few touristy shops and a fast food shop. All very sterile-looking! Here and there were palms and clusters of meagrely upholstered, rather straight-backed, chairs. After checking my luggage I struggled with reading, trying to nap and eating the greasiest burger ever made. The film of grease on my teeth and with pants crumpled from half lying on the little chairs drawn together made it a daymare. Time was punctuated with ding-prefaced, hushed, flight- departure announcements. Size dwarfed the waiting passengers. Oh why had I not thought to spend the day in Brisbane by the river and browsing the department stores. I had climaxed too early.

Towards departure time the gloom was relieved when I struck up a conversation with a Korean teenage boy. He had been sent over to school for two months to obtain some English language familiarity. He had quite enjoyed his time in Bananaland (Queensland) and did not seem to relish returning home to enter tertiary education and mix with Korean girls. They were too involved in painting their faces and augmenting their breasts. And too snooty by half! He gave me his e-mail and we did send a couple to each other after I returned home. Then I lost his address though I do remember it was milktea@something.

My flight was called and I mixed in with fellow passengers descending to the embarkation compound. The Point Of No Return! Things were livelier now. Many brown faces in fine clothes and ornamentation. Here were the shops where one could buy duty-free cigarettes and booze. A fellow Brit with Filipina wife told me that I simply had to take Western cigarettes and Scotch whisky as arrival presents. I did as instructed and had them packed in ubiquitous, advertising, plastic bags. An obviously cultured Filipino couple with children were returning from a holiday and they were interested in discussing where I was from and where educated and what was my mission. People were multiplying rapidly and, for the first time, I saw many Filipinos at close range. And they looked so affluent. Many were obviously home-bound for a holiday and intended to show their folks that their move to Australia was to be envied.

Our flight was called and we strolled to the departure gate. To my surprise the announcement asked us to stand back and allow the elderly and those with children to board first. That was a first for me. Maybe the Third World had some rather good ideas. When the rest of us were allowed to walk the plank it was a bit pushy. Then I realised that I could have gone aboard with the wrinklies and kids. I really must remember that I am old and take what few pleasures that offers.

We took off, a bit late, at 11.40. Next to me was a middle-aged Filipina returning for a holiday and, true to form, she had gold rings and a bracelet or two along with stylish clothes. Interestedly, I weighed up the air hostesses. These women are usually indicative of a nation's acceptable females. They were disappointing. Tallish and with not very typical Filipina faces. Pale, no stubby noses and a bit stand-offish. Funny that! I thought - all those pretty brown faces with perky little noses one saw on the pen-pal sites and with high unemployment in the Philippines none seemed available to their National Carrier, PAL. I know the reason now. The hosties need to be tall to reach the overhead lockers and it is large noses and pale skins that are considered attractive. Many Filipinas even bleach their skin with readily-available creams. And some even have a nose job or stuff plastic springs up their noses to obtain that "Western" look. (See SPOT THE CONKS) And yet many Western women are out tanning their skins and having nose jobs to lower their nasal profile. Well, that's people!

The uneventful flight ended at Aqino International in Manila at 6 a.m. PAL provides a shuttle coach to the domestic airport but only for PAL passengers. This costs a small fare but it is negligible compared to battling the taxi drivers and probably being roundly swindled. A year later I tried to use the same shuttle but as I was not, this second trip, a PAL passenger, they would not allow me although I offered to pay.

The domestic terminal was seedy. In a relatively small room passengers had to queue at the counter of the relevant airline’s desk to check in. Filipinos are not good queuers like the Brits - more like Egypt or a Latin country. The line is ragged and people attempt to slide into this "line". There is an interesting method of jumping most of the queue. One notices that some passengers have hired an airport "boy" to carry their bags from the entrance. This chap stands alongside the queue near the front and slowly insinuates the bags into the queue with his knee. He does it over a small period of time presumably to test whether anyone will object. Some queuers just casually push the bags aside and he restarts the manoeuvre. Eventually, he gets his customer in sooner than if he had joined the end of the line. It is very bustling and noisy with not a lot of space between these unruly queues. For a disciplined Westerner it makes for uneasiness. The dislike of being tricked in a potentially hostile environment. And I had been pre-warned about pick-pockets by my pen-friend. And one is so obviously foreign. Perhaps one out of 20 Westerners scattered among a couple of thousand brown skins of mostly, smaller stature. And I was wearing a blue Australian Akubra "cowboy" hat that I normally wear against the fierce North Queensland sun.

After checking in the domestic ticket, along with some other documentation, is passed along the counter to an official who is collecting a tax. Mine was placed under an existing pile by his side. The hired baggage boy's put their customers' documents on top of the pile to further expedite the process. After extracting the tax from those before me the official snapped my name and asked for some pesos. I had none! But he accepted Aussie dollars and quickly consulted a list for the exchange rate. It was not many dollars - about six.

And so to the embarkation lounge. Again, very crowded and all seats occupied. These were loose, small and hard but in rough rows. But the occupation was often by passengers' bags - not people. Some single seated passengers occupied two or three seats this way. Although there were people meandering about looking for seats none of the seated offered to remove their bags to allow the unseated to occupy them. But there was a fairly steady turnover and I did get a seat next to an older man. He seemed well educated and informed and was curious where I came from and why. That I was visiting a girl I had been writing to was casually accepted as quite normal.

At the back of this rather dingy hall was a massage parlour with half windows so one could see white coated men bending forward plying their trade. There was a public lavatory and a few shops serving food items and soft drinks. Not unpleasant; but very obviously not First World. The front wall had a few glass doors at which passengers assembled upon being called. Tickets were checked and they passed through to board their 'planes.

My PAL flight to Cagayan De Oro was late but not by more than 20 minutes. Then my turn to be let out of the stuffy heat and onto the tarmac. The European Airbus seemed luxurious and cool with above-head information monitors. Daily newspapers were handed around by the hosties and, in about an hour, we were circling ready to land at CDO. The airfield seemed to be perched on a plateau with many close mountains. This reminded me that a Cebu Airline's plane had crashed into one of them a few weeks previously with, I think, total loss of life .

The reception lounge seemed little more than a farmer's cow shed and there were clusters of expectant Filipinos waiting for their loved ones. But was my friend there? I should explain that she lived a two hour bus ride away so I had told her not to bother to meet me. I had no reply to that late letter so I thought that she might be there anyway. After picking up my case from a table I passed through the embracing Filipinos and out the door onto the car-park. An army of vociferous taxi drivers tried to wrench my case from me asking "Joe" where he was heading and offering never-to-be repeated cut-price fares. I said that I was expecting someone and they hung back.

One fellow had a different technique. "What's your destination? Is it a girl friend?" etc. I stated the town she came from and he said that lots of his close relatives lived there and perhaps he knew her. I said her name and he promptly reassured me that he knew the family well and that she was a good girl. That meant a very special rate for me. He showed me a printed, well-creased list of fares to different local destinations and pointed to my destination. "This is the legal fare but I will cut it by 20%" I said that I would go to the little cafe along the block and wait there. He followed me, all the while trying to grab my case as I trolled it behind me on its little wheels. I entered the cafe and he hung around for a little while anxiously looking over to where the rest of the passengers were leaving. He obviously decided that they were a better bet so off he went.

Almost exactly one year later I arrived again, only this time to be met by my second marriage prospect and her sister. Through the crowd of arriving passengers who should bustle up but the very same taxi driver. "Ah, you're back", he said. "Is this your girl then?" I was not a little astonished that he could remember me. It must have been my blue Akubra hat.

I drank a litre bottle of mineral water heeding the warning to check the seal because it was not unknown for them to be re-filled with tap water. I had been warned never to drink the tap water - not even rinse after cleaning my teeth. I drank this cool water leisurely while keeping an eye on the cow shed entrance to see if a likely girl was present. The crowd rapidly cleared. There seemed to be no one out of the few people still strolling around who could remotely be a girl like that on the photos that she had sent to me.

But I decided to wait a while in the car park. There were a few shady trees so I sat under one on a kerb stone with my feet in the dry, dusty dirt. It was a relief for the humidity was quite oppressive; even for one who lived in the Aussie dry tropics. After half an hour I assumed that she had heeded my advice and stayed home. A comparatively timid taxi driver approached. I said that I wanted to go to the bus station at CDO and asked a price. He said that he would discount the written fare. It would be 120 pesos (less than $AU6) and I agreed. We drove off past the sub-divisions on that plateau and started descending the winding road to Cagayan De Oro City.

The driver’s disarmingly timid attitude soon changed now he had my bags locked in his boot (trunk). The price changed to 180 pesos. After a couple of days of exhausting stress and work I submitted like a lamb. After all, I rationalised, the fare was still only $AU7. And he was scratching for a crumb wasn’t he? Then he had the opportunity to charge another add-on.

As I had no pesos we called at a bank where I exchanged a $US travellers’ cheque for the local currency. Travellers’ cheques are usually very acceptable to banks and considering that the RP is an ex-American colony American Express should be immaculate. But the palaver to exchange one was frustrating. They wanted my purchase slip in addition to my passport. Even after this they had to make a call to head office to read the details before cash was handed over. And I thought that once I had passed the entrance guard with his shotgun that the worst was over.

The bus station was only a few blocks away but the delay had been about twenty minutes. So I could not complain when the driver demanded another 40 pesos. He unlocked the boot and handed me my bags. Immediately, a swarm of youths plucked and tugged at me endeavouring to separate me from them. My head was spinning because that litre of water was all sweated away. Fleetingly I wondered if I should jump back in the taxi and return home. Then arrived a saviour!

There was a voluble string of commands and the young men cringed away. I turned to see a diminutive young woman beaming at me. She held out her hand and asked for my case. I gave it to her. "Where are you going?" I told her. "Follow me." She led me directly to a bus through a milling crowd of travellers. She refused to let me carry the case which was counter-balanced by leaning her slight body about 45 degrees to the vertical. Onto the bus she stepped and only then allowed me to take it so that I could slide it onto the above-seat rack. Had she been strong enough she could not reach it. Thank goodness I had some pesos. But she was upset and refused my note. After sliding the window open she indicated that I should seat myself after which she jumped off the bus.

Strange place this Philippines, I thought. A voice to my right brought me back to the bus station and turned my head to the open window. The little grinning brown face was just above the window bottom. After explaining that her grandmother ran a café "over there" she wanted to know the whys and wherefores of my presence. I explained that I was visiting my pen-friend. She pleaded with me to stay in CDO and take a holiday with her. She was upset when I asked her if she was a prostitute. It seems that she had been the girl-friend of an Austrian for a couple of years. He was the RP manager of a well-known brand of appliances but, after a two year stint, had returned home after promising to write her. But he had not written and this had disappointed her. It appeared that I would take his place and, during my time in the RP, I could stay with her in her flat and we would go to the beach together and generally have a good time. I gently explained that I had been writing to the girl at my final destination for a year and must honour my promise to see her. She respected that but still wanted me to fulfil this obligation and then come back to stay with her. By this time the bus was full and the revving engine indicated that we were about to leave. So we left her waving goodbye. My feelings were mixed.

Turn over.

 Copyright © Clive Halliday 2001.