72 Hours of Highs and Lows

Yes, some random bitching and moaning, but hopefully some of you will find some of this somewhat interesting. Life anywhere is filled with minor annoyances. The trick, I suppose, is to control how you react to them. I’m getting better at this. But part of that means getting it out of my system by writing about it.

Continue reading “72 Hours of Highs and Lows”

NAIA Sucks & Philippines Airlines Is Goofy

The Manila airport is awful in just about every way you can imagine. Almost no public transportation to or from the airport. Horrible traffic in both the departure and arrival areas. Rip-off taxi touts allowed to operate openly. Long lines. Air conditioning that barely works. Different security regulations and procedures at each terminal. Good luck if you need to transfer between two terminals – it’s probably quicker to fly to Hong Kong than to get from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.

Someone spent billions of pesos renovating Terminal 1, and soon after it reopened the roof collapsed. And a similar event at Terminal 3.

Today, they had to shut down the main runway at the airport for most of the day because of holes.

You really have to wonder if anyone in charge has even the slightest clue of what they’re doing. Or perhaps all of the money that should be going to maintenance is going into peoples’ pockets. Maybe Duterte should be threatening to shoot the corrupt – surely that would bring about better results than going after low level drug dealers.

Terminal 2 is the worst of the worst.

I get to Terminal 2. There’s a loooong line outside the terminal waiting to get past the first security check at the front door. I play the “senior citizen card” – I’m over 60 so I get to skip the line. That’s okay. We already checked in online and I have printed out my boarding passes, so we follow the signs that point to check-in for the Hong Kong flight, but there is no bag drop line there – it’s all the way on the other side of the terminal. The person online in front of me has 6 bags and for some reason it’s taking the agent 20 minutes to process those bags.

Once in the immigration area, I have to go to the line to pay the insane P2,170 I have to pay every time I leave the country since I have an ACR card. Except in front of me is a family – father, mother, 3 kids – and it literally takes the agent 20 minutes to check their passports, print the receipts, collect the money and give them their change. 20 minutes!

Once I get inside, public toilets are few and far between (there are none in the wing that has gates 9 through 12). Everything is dirty, every area is congested.Not enough places to sit. Smoking lounge closed. You can get better food at a 7-11 than in any of the “food kiosks”. I pay 85 pesos (almost US$2) for a tuna sandwich on white bread that has an ounce of tuna on it if I’m lucky, maybe less, and one teeny slice of tomato.  A can of Coke costs twice as much at the airport than at a 7-11. A pack of cigarettes costs 50% more at the airport duty free than at a 7-11.

I’m forced into Terminal 2 because my company insists on booking me on Philippines Airlines. I still don’t understand why. Usually Cathay Pacific is the same price or within $20. Cebu Pacific is much cheaper but I’m not allowed to use them. Either of those would let me travel via Terminal 3, which has actual restaurants, an actual smoking lounge, and saves me 30 minutes of travel each way.

As airlines go, Philippines is not that bad, I suppose. The economy class food is no better and no worse than what you’d get on Cathay Pacific. Seat space is okay. No screens at all – you’re supposed to connect your phone or tablet to wifi on the plane and then stream video. I haven’t tried it so can’t comment on how well it works or doesn’t work.

I had to laugh when I landed in Hong Kong yesterday and checked my email.

Philippines Airlines had sent me a flight status update email about my flight – and they sent it after the flight took off!

Here’s the email.

phil1

 

And here it is again, with the timestamp showing:

phil2

 

So for a flight that was scheduled to depart at 2:35 PM, they sent me a status update email at 3:04 PM. So when I landed, I was able to receive an email telling me what time I would land. Except that we didn’t actually take off until after 3 PM and didn’t touch down until almost exactly 5 PM.

Anyway, I’m in Hong Kong now. Where things actually work. A day later, reminded of that not terrible but terribly annoying trip, having had two dinners at two long-time favorite restaurants here, seeing some friends, getting a bit of shopping done at Wanchai Computer Centre, I realize that sometimes I really do miss Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific’s Prices Are Not Rational

My mother is coming to Manila in March. She’s 94 years old and a cousin will be flying with her. Cathay Pacific non-stop NYC to Hong Kong, three hour lay-over in Hong Kong and then the flight to Manila.

She’s been to Hong Kong four times (the last time about 5 years ago) but never to the Philippines. My cousin has never been to Asia before.

So I thought, maybe it would be nice if I was to fly out to Hong Kong and meet them at the HK airport and fly back to Manila with them. It might make things a bit less confusing or stressful for them.

Well, never mind. My mother’s flights, Cathay Pacific NYC/Manila round trip are costing US$900. Meanwhile Cathay Pacific Manila/HK same day round trip is US$500. (If I was to stay in HK for 3 days, the price drops down to US$275.)

So I thought, okay, what if I fly Manila/HK on Cebu Pacific and then HK/Manila on Cathay Pacific?

Unbelievably, the one way ticket costs more than US$2,400! I don’t know how that can rationally be explained.

I could fly same day round trip Cebu Pacific for US$160, but that would defeat the purpose of my going, wouldn’t it?

Baby I Can’t Drive My Car

It’s hard not to wonder what the hell the Land Transportation Office (LTO) is thinking. Or if they are thinking at all. Probably the latter.

They’ve announced that beginning April 1st (and no joke), any car on the road without a license plate will be pulled over, the driver subject to large fines, the vehicle subject to forfeiture. That sounds okay – except it also extends to new cars that are being driven with temporary cardboard license “plates” and numbers while waiting for the LTO to issue the permanent plate.

The LTO says they can do this because they are now able to get plates issued within 7 days. That is a complete lie. I’ve had my car for a month now and still don’t have the permanent plates.

The fault is partly with the dealer. Rather than sending someone to the LTO with new registrations every day, they wait until they have some unspecified stack of them – maybe they go once a week, maybe they go once a month, I don’t know. But my registration was submitted at least two weeks ago – and possibly longer than that. The dealer says they hope to have the plates for me in “two weeks, maybe less”, which of course in the Philippines translates out to “two weeks, maybe seven.”

So while I’m waiting, I have a brand new car for which I have paid every fee, signed every form, and I cannot drive it. Even if I were to show the papers to the traffic enforcers who pull me over, who knows how many times in a day that might happen – or how many of them might want bribes to let me continue down the road, 2 or 3 blocks until I get to the next one.

I suppose that in some other country, there might be some sort of congressional oversight that could rein in such reckless activity. But apparently not here.

For me, it means that when I’m going to work, I will have to walk 10 or 15 minutes from my house until I find a tricycle to take me outside of the village to a place where I can stand on the side of a road for however long it takes me to find a taxi who will tell me, “Traffic! How much you pay me?” Coming home will be even worse, since at 6 or 7 PM the street where my office is located has dozens of people standing in it trying to flag down the one or two taxis that come by every now and then – and when the taxi drivers find out where I’m going, they’ll just scoot down to the next person standing there hoping they won’t want a ride to the middle of nowhere.

In a semi-related vein, my new car isn’t so new any more. It’s a bit difficult, well it’s a bit embarrassing to explain, so let’s just say that last night I managed to “remove” the right side mirror on the car.

Today I brought it to the dealer. They wanted me to fill in an insurance claim. (First year’s insurance was included in the purchase price.) I’m thinking to myself, in the US or in HK, you don’t file a claim for something like this. After the deductible, how much is left? And won’t my premiums go up – if not for this year, then in future years? Plus, they said it would take 2 to 4 weeks to get the claim approved. Meanwhile I’d be driving around with no right side mirror, which is really asking for it the way other people drive here.

My wife then went in the back, talked to someone in the repair shop, and got them to agree to reattach the old mirror as a temporary measure. All done within one hour. They couldn’t reconnect the wires, which means no turn signal on the mirror and I have to fold it in by hand when parking, but otherwise it’s perfectly fine for me.

I just feel really, really, REALLY stupid for having done this. I can’t recall having an accident driving since I was an NYC taxi driver more than 30 years ago.

Philippines Driver’s License

Following my run-in with the law (or at least with a traffic enforcer), I thought I should hurry up and get my local driver’s license taken care of. For some reason, my wife was talking to this person and that person, getting promises that someone’s uncle’s best friend’s brother was in the police and would help smooth things out for me. I wasn’t sure why I would need that

At any rate, this morning we went to the LTO office in Quezon City. Nearby, there’s a tiny, grungy medical office that specializes in doing medical checks for license applications. They charged me 80 pesos (I got the senior citizen discount) and it was quick and cheap – but the wrong result.

Here’s what they do – they take your height, weight and blood pressure. They ask you to sit down, roll up your pants, and show that you can move your feet and ankles around a bit. Turn your head left and right – oh, you can move your neck, that’s good!

And then comes the eye exam. They have a backwards eye chart. So you sit under the chart, cover each eye in turn, and then try to read the chart in a grimy mirror on the other side of the cubicle. I don’t have 20/20 vision but I don’t need glasses for driving – but according to these people I do, and that restriction is now on my license. I will have to find out how to get that changed, when I have time.

(They used to require a drug test and it still says that on the web site but this requirement was dropped a long time ago. Basically everyone knew when they’d be going for the test so could clean up for a day or two to pass the test and then pump themselves full of drugs for the next year or two, so someone finally realized this did nothing.)

From there you head over to the LTO office. There are a lot of guys standing in the road offering to be your friend. “Drivers license?” they will call out and smile. They are there for people who seem to think they need a “fixer,” someone to guide them through the process, for a fee of course. I already had a fixer – my wife was with me. But this explains all of the “No Fixers” signs all over the LTO grounds, not that they had much effect as I did see a few people there being “assisted.”

I was doing “conversion of foreign license” and I had everything ready – originals plus xerox copies of the front & back of my HK drivers license (as well as my HK ID card), my ACR card, my passport info page, my passport visa page and the passport page showing my most recent entry stamp.

So I filled out a form and went to window 3. The large sign said it was for student licenses. A much smaller sign (that I was able to read without eyeglasses) said it was the priority window for foreign license conversions, senior citizens and a few other things. I stood in line behind some Koreans. (There’s a reason I’m telling you this.)

The woman examined my papers, highlighted a few things in green, and told me to wait to get called at window 11. I sat down. 10 minutes later I was called back – to window 3. “Did I give you a Korean driver’s license?” Um, no. I had to empty my wallet to prove it.

Then window 11. Photo and signature. I was too tall for how their camera was positioned and needed to squat for the photo. Then sit back down again.

Then window 6. Photo and signature again. Why? Why not?

Then window 7. I paid something around 687 pesos. No receipt.

Then finally window 13. I was handed my driver’s license (with the eyeglass restriction noted) good for two years and a receipt.

The whole thing, start to finish, took almost 3 hours. In a room with no air conditioning.  That’s really my only complaint. Because, when you think about it, start to finish, 3 hours, no test, walk out with your driver’s license, no need to make another trip there a week or two later, what’s to complain about? Clearly the way people drive here, getting a license isn’t difficult at all.

I Got Pulled Over By the Cops

I don’t want to get cocky about it but so far I’m actually not finding driving in Manila all that difficult. It does require a level of alertness that isn’t required driving elsewhere. It requires an attitude adjustment and, for me, a change to a less-aggressive driving style. But so far it’s working.

So my biggest fear has been getting pulled over by the police. I’ve heard that there are some areas where police will specifically go after foreign drivers, presumably in the hope of getting a big bribe.

Tonight, I got pulled over by a cop.

I was making a left turn and had a green light, but apparently in this intersection left turn on green arrow only. So I’m sitting out in the middle of the intersection, direction signal blinking, waiting till I can cross through the line of cars coming at me, and a policeman walked over and waved me off to the side of the road.

Well, the first thing is, I kept a smile on my face and kept calling him sir. Based on what I know of the culture, I thought that getting angry or acting arrogant or doing anything that didn’t show respect for his authority would just get me into further trouble.

Beyond that, I played it as stupid as possible. (I know, you’re thinking, that’s not difficult for me.) He asked for my drivers license. I’ve still only got the Hong Kong one (which only has one’s name and HK ID number, no photo or anything like that). So I gave him that. Then I gave him my HK ID card, which of course does have a photo and more information. He walked to the front of the car to look at them.

“Where are you from?” “Well, obviously I’m American but I lived in Hong Kong for a long time and only just moved here recently.” “How long have you been here?” “Just a couple of weeks. I just got my ACR card yesterday.” Then I showed him my ACR card. He looked at that.He confirmed that I’m okay to drive with the HK license for a brief period of time (90 days). Then he handed back my ACR card and HK ID card but kept my drivers license.

Then he pulled out his ticket book. He told me he would be confiscating my license, writing me a ticket and that I’d have to bring that ticket to City Hall and pay 500 pesos to get my license back. He showed me the ticket. He said he would write me an OR. What’s an OR? When could I get my license back? “Within 5 days.” Can I go get it tomorrow? “Yes, from 8 AM.” So I can go tomorrow, at 8 AM, I don’t have to wait 5 days? “Um, er, uh.” But I don’t know where City Hall is. Where is it? How do I get there? How can I get there without my car? How am I supposed to drive without my license? I need my car for my work. I’m new here. I’ve only been driving here for a week. The light was green, I didn’t know I couldn’t make a left. I couldn’t see any signs. I’m trying really hard to be a careful driver.

I kept smiling, I kept calling him sir, and I asked a thousand questions. He finally ran out of English. He tried to explain something to me in Tagalog and realized he didn’t know how to say it in English.

To be honest, had he said to me something like, “You can pay the fine to me and I’ll take care of it,” I would gladly have done so to get my license back. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to out and out offer to do that. What if he was one of the honest cops? Then things could have rapidly gone bad, too. “You idiot American/rich person/white person. You think we’re all corrupt? You think you can buy your way out of anything?” So I asked what I thought were leading questions, questions like, Do I have any other choices? Is there anything else I can do? Can you please help me? He paused. He thought it over.

And then he suddenly changed his mind. He told me, “If you were a Filipino, I would confiscate your license, charge you with reckless driving, and you would need to take a 5 day class on careful driving. But you’re not a Filipino. You’re a foreigner. And you’re new here. So this time I’m just going to give you a warning. And I’m going to give you back your license. But you need to be more careful.”

I clasped my hands together and thanked him probably a dozen times. I told him how lucky I was that he was so understanding and that now I knew the law and wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

He handed me back my drivers license. We shook hands. He told me his name and said if I got in any trouble driving and got stopped by other policemen, I could ask for him.

Seriously. I was almost in shock at this. I still had one hand on my wallet, ready to fish out some money if he even hinted at it. Instead, we shook hands, told each other a couple of jokes, and he told me I could go.

I know, I can’t ever expect that it would go this way again. But it did go this way this one time.

My wife’s advice after I got home? Next time, don’t be so quick to hand over my drivers license. Argue first. Ask a lot of questions first. As long as the license is still in my hands, I have a better chance of keeping it.

I really hate making left turns here.

OMG I’m Driving in Manila!

Sorry for being quiet last week. There was a quick trip to Hong Kong to finish off my 13a visa, back to Manila to apply for my ACR I-card, a company all-hands meeting to attend, an incredible weekend in Batangas with some of my co-workers (perhaps more on this one later), moving into our new house, and then … last night, getting my car.

As an American, I’m used to left-side drive even though I’ve driven right-side drive for the last 14 years in Hong Kong. But in Hong Kong I was driving a compact car and here I decided I wanted to get a big mutha-effin’ SUV so I could see what’s ahead of me better and to better deal with the bad weather that’s surely coming.

While having a car may not be an absolute necessity, it will make life orders of magnitude easier for me. Going to work yesterday, I had to walk for 15 or 20 minutes until I could get a tricycle. Then a 15 minute tricycle ride out to a main road where I could find a taxi. Waited about 10 minutes till I could finally get a taxi.

The reverse would be more difficult as getting a taxi near my office around 6 or 7 PM is next to impossible (even worse if it’s raining) and then I’d have to deal with taxi drivers telling me, “Oh, sir, traff-EEK!” And I would invariably respond by saying something like, “Yeah, it’s Manila, there’s always traffic, that’s no surprise.” And if I’m in a crappy mood I might add something like, “Why did you become a taxi driver in Manila if you hate traffic?” These things do not help matters any. Their answer is always the same – “How much you pay me?”

So I bought a car. The temporary coding on my car is for Monday, the day my car was ready. (In Manila, they put these stickers on your car that forbid you from driving during rush hours one day per week. Given that public transportation sucks here, I’m not sure how this helps.) So I couldn’t drive the car off the lot until after 7 PM, at which point congestion was easing a bit. We headed straight to get some dinner and then a supermarket and then home. My wife, knowing it was the first time I was driving in Manila, was alternating between praying and crying. I’m sure her blood pressure was at a record high.

In Hong Kong, people drive in a pretty orderly fashion. They speed like crazy when they get the chance (too many idiots who spend their money on Ferraris and Porsches in a territory where the average speed limit is 70 kph) but with well patrolled roads, cameras everywhere and regular crackdowns and roadblocks, people drive predictably. I never got in a traffic accident in all of the years I drove in Hong Kong.

Even though I drove a taxi in New York City for a year (more than 30 years ago!), it may not have adequately prepared me for driving here. Most intersections do not have traffic lights or even stop signs. The cops directing traffic seem to congregate at the few intersections that do have traffic lights – yet they do nothing about keeping intersections clear and everything they can possibly do to make matters worse.

The line markings on the road – things that in other countries represent a concept known as “lanes” – are seen here as decorative items to be ignored. That’s okay. I can deal with all of that.  The use of directional signals is limited – apparently signalling that you are about to make a turn will be seen as a sign of weakness by all around you.

Actually what I have observed is that probably 80% of the drivers here seem to drive at least relatively orderly. 20% of them don’t. And that’s a big enough percentage to account for anarchy. The solution seems to be simple – more traffic lights or stop signs, zero tolerance by traffic police, but I suspect that won’t happen in my lifetime.

The two things I will have big problems dealing with:

First, the motorcycles swarming on all sides around me. I’m slowly crossing an intersection and they’re on both sides of the car, often too damned close. They are probably expecting me to continue in a straight line and I’m sure that any sudden variance on my part will result in a problem.

Second, and far more difficult,is making a left turn onto a busy two-way street. It would appear that you are supposed to just keep inching forward, trusting that at some point some cars will slow down for you.

It’s all new to me and somewhat challenging, to say the least. I’m so looking forward to driving during rush hours. Or maybe I’ll just be working from home more often!

 

An FX Tip

I’ll preface this by writing that this could be one of those things that everyone else knew but me ….

I’m learning about public transportation in Manila. There’s the train – called the MRT here – which only has a few lines that barely cover portions of the city. There’s big buses, which only go down main routes and are most often not air conditioned. Everyone knows about the Philippines’ famous jeepneys, also not air conditioned. Then there’s FX.

These are modified vans or pick-up trucks, always white color, that have big signs on them proclaiming they are UV Express – not sure yet why locals call them FX. They’re kind of similar to Hong Kong’s mini buses. They have terminals, appear to go along fixed routes and you can just scream out to the driver when you want to get off. And they have air conditioning, definitely a plus.

They pack 18 passengers into these, “pack” being the operative word as I figure they might be comfortable for 13 people but 18 becomes very sardine can-like. And they have air conditioning.

The thing is, when you board an FX at one of the terminals, depending on the route and the time of day, the driver might wait there until the van is completely full. My wife has told me that sometimes she’ll end up sitting in an FX at the terminal for half an hour or an hour while the driver waits for that last seat to be filled. Considering that the fare runs somewhere in the US$0.50 to $1 range, sitting there for an hour with the motor running doesn’t seem to make much sense either economically or in terms of the pollution it’s unnecessarily generating. But sit they do.

But what you can do is offer to pay the driver for those empty seats. So for example, today, we took an FX from Antipolo to Ortigas. The fare was 50 pesos, just over US$1. The back two rows (where we were sitting) had three people each. And I wasn’t the only sizable person sitting there, which made me wonder how they were going to squeeze two more people in.

After five or ten minutes of sitting there doing absolutely nothing, my wife asked if we should just pay extra so that the guy would leave right away. No debate from me – sit there for another 30 minutes doing nothing and then get squeezed shoulder to shoulder with strangers while stuck in traffic for Buddha knows how long – pay the money!

After we took off, it occurred to me that the other passengers might have expressed their gratitude to us by each tossing a few pesos our way. But no …..

Today was also my first tricycle ride in Manila. Tricycle here means a small motorcycle with a sidecar and a steel frame that provides some degree of cover. I’ve seen up to 8 people stuffed onto one of these. I’ve ridden on similar vehicles in India, this was my first time to do so in the Philippines. My wife didn’t appreciate my constant screaming at bikes in front of us, “Get out of the way, we don’t have brakes!” Didn’t work anyway.