Saturday, April 23, 2005

Arriving in Manila

The first time I arrived in Manila was a mere 10 months ago. I was lucky; I was chaperoned by 3 colleagues who'd been here, done this. All I had to do was follow their lead. Thus through immigration, customs and then outside. Light a smoke and follow them across a two lane road and down a ramp to where the rest of the Philippines greet their returning relatives. Hectic, crowded, incredibly humid and warm and intensely interesting. Siew disappeared to find our driver; HI and CP and I waited. Siew returned with our driver and off we went on the trek to Baguio.

My second time in Manila I was alone and somewhat nervous. It must have showed! Scarcely had I appeared at that two lane road outside the terminal than I was assailed by what seemed like a thousand taxi drivers all of whom wanted my business. Flattering. Driver after driver I spurned with the news that I had a driver waiting. Eventually I made it to the ramp leading to where the rest of the Philippines... well you get my drift.

At the bottom of the ramp it wasn't much better. Again I ascribe it to nervousness. As it happened, my driver was late to arrive and I was left as pretty much the only westerner in the waiting area. He was late because of floods on the road between Baguio and Manila; those floods killed 1200 people so I'm not inclined to apportion blame.

So there I was, feeling left out to dry with the vultures circling. First up was a friendly woman who offered me her mobile phone. Now I wasn't born yesterday; I knew there'd be a price to pay. On the other hand... So one phone call later and I know he's on his way but when's he going to arrive? My guess was as good as anyone elses. About this time the airport cop decides to notice me. He wants to see my passport. Now if this had been in Australia I'd have refused. None of his business; if immigration had passed me that should be good enough for him. In New Zealand I'd have asked why he wanted to see it. In Europe I'd probably also protest. In the US? No way! Likewise in the Philippines. I have no desire to discover first hand the inside of a Philippines gaol! Cowardice? Of course. So I showed my passport. Three times in 45 minutes. To the same airport cop. It was becoming obvious that money was going to change hands pretty soon.

The timeline is a trifle hard to describe. Remember the friendly woman with the mobile phone? She hadn't yet approached for the shakedown. But she took good care to keep me in sight. Likewise the cop. Eventually my driver arrived. I hadn't met him before so I asked to see his card; proof that he was indeed my driver. Card proferred. He turned out to be an incredibly nice guy who I was sorry to have doubted. But my benefactors realised that the pigeon was about to depart and hadn't yet been plucked. Suddenly it all turned real (not that I hadn't already realised it was real). Woman approaches, loud in her unctious benevolence, hand outstretched 'pay for phone call'. Airport cop standing close by watching... I reached into my wallet and realised a great truth. It's not good to travel if the smallest note you have is a US$20. It's not like they're going to give change! So over I hand a twenty. Smiles. 'And my friend?' she says, nodding at the airport cop. What could I do? He also got a 20.

Yeah, I got lucky; they only got US$40 which, for we in the first world, isn't a lot.

So now we come to my third passage through that aiport. I'd learned. No eye contact and certainly no saying 'I have a driver'. Just plunge on regardless. Got out of it unskinned.

And my fourth passage through Manila Airport (yesterday)? Incredible as it seems; I didn't even notice anyone. Got across that two lane road like a gazelle; got down the ramp, smoke hanging rakishly from my gob and got to the M line just in time to see my name on a banner. Total time spent? Maybe 3 minutes.

In a few days I'll write about leaving Manila.

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