The Hunger Games – Philippines – Day 1

 
For many expats in China, Chinese New Year break is a really good excuse to get out of cold Shanghai in the expectation of reaching a warmer clime.

I am no exception; back in December, right before Christmas break (literally, the day I was leaving for Chicago), I booked a trip to the Philippines with a few other teachers. It seemed so far off at the time, but suddenly, Chinese New Year was upon us.

Last Thursday night, right before I was meant to leave, it snowed pretty heavily in Shanghai. It was the first real snow I’d seen all year. It was also very chilly and windy; I could hardly wait for warmth!

I spent the night before the trip packing and repacking my bag, as the weight allowance on the second leg of the flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa is only 10 kg. I borrowed someone’s bathroom scale and lifted the bag over my head several times – hoping that benchpressing my suitcase several times would result in excellent arm toning – to get the weight of the suitcase. Roughly 11 kg. Well, nothing else was coming out of that suitcase, so I packed it and waited eagerly for the beginning leg of our, as one person termed it, “Hunger Games”-like adventure.

*****

Top Maglev Speed – 429 km/hr

The morning of our flight, Friday, Feb. 8th, was freezing cold and fraught with the danger of some very icy spots on the already very slick pavement. I was in charge of hauling my luggage over to the other apartment complex where everyone else lives, and this was a chilly journey considering under no circumstances was I going to bring a winter coat to the Philippines with a 10 kg allotment.

After gathering the troops – at this point, four of us – we grabbed a taxi and headed to the Maglev, an amazing magnetic train that gets you from the far reaches of Pudong to the airport in seven minutes. It runs at a top speed of just over 400 km/hr. It’s pretty neat when you whip around bends and watch the cars on the highway as if they are just standing still. When you have only one or two suitcases, it’s a great way to travel to the airport.

Sarah & I in front of Lounge 69 – Huzzah,
Business Class!

Er, this a-way…

Once at the airport, we realize that our tickets to Manila are in the business class section. I’ve never really flown business class – normally I get the distinction of walking past the self-satisfied people already reclining in their business class seats on my to economy – so I wasn’t sure what this entailed other than more legroom. We got through the check-in line much faster because of it, which was very nice. Then, we got a pass to the business class lounge, which was stocked with freshly-brewed coffee and breakfast-type foods. We were allowed into Lounge 69, which meant we had to have a picture in front of the sign…

The food, snacks, and drinks in the lounge were pretty tasty. I had a custard steamed bun, some kind of fried rice egg roll, and a bear claw pastry with custard. Most amusedly, the container with Cheerios in it was labeled “Cereal Crop Circles.” Now, all I could think of was the movie Signs, and I was left wondering if aliens were indeed among us, clearly gathering near the cereal crop circles.

I snagged a few other snacks as well before we had to board, mostly because we had a few hours’ worth of a layover in Manila, and from what I’d heard of the airport, I wanted to bring some snacks with me. Since we had a short time in the lounge, I chugged my Coke Light and a cup of coffee and was just personally happy to have some coffee before take-off. However, I did pay for all this beverage consumption by having to go to the bathroom a million times on the plane. But, in business class, the bathroom was empty most of the time. Major perk.

On our flight was a bunch of familiar faces from Concordia – apparently the expat population was vacating the country for the New Year festivities. One family, who had just moved from the Philippines this year, gave us tips about where to eat in Puerto Princesa. We were getting ready to push back from the gate when I realized that, while in the luxury of business class, I was surrounded by an insubordinately large population of toddler-like children. I felt hives starting to break out all over me as I envisoned three hours of crying and running. I wasn’t too far off – one boy screamed and beat up his father the entire time. Lovely. Good thing I had a few mimosas and a set of noise-cancelling earbuds to help me make it through.

It’s about time for us to land in Manila when I realized, quite shamelessly, that I loved flying business class. It makes a world of difference in your attitude when you arrive at your destination. The three of us agreed that it might be worthwhile to save up for our long, stateside-bound flights and get business class seats. After three hours, I felt marvellous (minus the toddlers). After fourteen hours on a plane to Chicago, I might be a completely different woman after several mimosas, good airline food, and hot towels.

The meals on PAL were probably some of the best airline food I’ve had. It was some kind of peppery beef, garlic rice, sweet flan, squash, smoked salmon, fruit, ice cream – and coffee! God bless the delicious coffee. Even the novel I was reading, a chick lit piece called Cupcakes at Carrington’s, was all the better for my time spent in business class.

After our delightful trip via business class, we landed in Manila – where it is hot, humid, and muggy, and seemingly crazily disorganized compared to the cool, effortless efficiently of the Pudong Airport. Nobody had any idea of what to do with our bags. This person said that, that person said this. Finally, customs told us to drop our bags by the sketchy “bag drop” area where they stuck some kind of “domestic connection” tape to our bags and hauled them off. I clutched my passport to my heart and hoped that I’d see again what few summer clothes I’d brought with me.

Church across from airport

Sarah and I left, but we were out in the hot, muggy air when we noticed that Marco had yet to leave the airport. We waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, when he came out, he said he couldn’t leave because of something with our bags and customs wouldn’t let him out? Well, our bags had been “rechecked” already and sent on their merry way. Now, we could only hope that it was true…otherwise, I’d be spending a week in the tropics in Under Armour, a hoodie, jeans, and gym shoes. Not excited. We prayed to the luggage gods that be that our things would be put on the next flight and would arrive in Puerto Princesa with us.

Resort World entrance

With much more ado (and a great deal of confusion), we finally get on the bus to go to the domestic terminal. We check in there for our domestic connection, and the girl seems rather confused that we don’t have our bags. So we keep asking her if our luggage will get there. Yep, it will. Are you sure? Yes, I’m sure. But this answer is more hesitant. And that’s concerning. Well, the luggage gods were going to be even busier!

CNY

But, since we had loads of time to kill, we went out to the taxi stand. My mission was to find a Starbucks. There’s one at Resort World, which was literally across from the airport…after you crossed a monstrous road and intersection. Since that seemed rather dangerous, we took a taxi instead. We headed inside for some – very high class shopping? Good night, the brands in there. I was trying to figure out where all the super-rich people were that would buy this stuff, considering most of the wandering souls in the mall looked more like exhausted world travelers or young teenagers. And most of them just wanted Starbucks.

Mission: Accomplished!

The key thing here was the Starbucks. We figured that getting a Starbucks mug now, when we had a week of bumpy road traveling ahead of us, probably wasn’t intelligent, so I settled on the most delicious frappuccino I’d ever had – dark mocha. I mean, delicious. Maybe because it was the first frapp I’ve had in years with whip on it, but dang, it was tasty.

CNY Decs

The entire food court was decorated for Chinese New Year, the very thing most expats were running from in the first place. When you consider that Manila is only a three hour flight from Shanghai, it makes sense that there were would be a sizable Chinese population in the Philippines. But truly, it was pleasant to be in a place where the English language was everywhere once more. I could read signs!

We returned to the airport after a few hours, had a quick supper at Mrs. Fields – can’t forget the cookie! – and before long, we were being summoned for our flights. Sarah and Marco were called, but they never did get around to my name. Personally, I’m not disappointed, as I’m sure it wouldn’t come out sounding anything like my name anyway.

The flight to Puerto Princesa was just about an hour long, and compared to our luxurious business class seats on the first flight, these economy seats (sigh!) were really cramped, and I felt like my knees were up to my chin. At least it wasn’t a swampjumper – more of a United Express sort of jet. No propellors, though that would have been entertaining to say the least.

The airport in Puerto Princesa was more like a – I don’t know. It’d had the check-in counters, the baggage carousel (one), a flight waiting room, and a runway. Very compact. Difficult to get lost in, unless you tried and ended up back on the curb. It’s late – around 10:30ish. But the first thing I noticed when I departed from the plane was the sharp, humid scent of – the sea. I hadn’t smelled the ocean like that since Florida. Galveston, Texas, just doesn’t have that same sea smell. And this was – strong.

The air was a hot embrace around us as we wearily plodded inside to get our bags. Or, at least, we hoped to get our bags.

And out they came. Thank goodness, because I was already melting with the clothes I was wearing right then.

But now, for something completely different.

There weren’t…taxis, per say, on Palawan. Well, at least not the four-wheeled kind.

Sarah said, “We have to catch a tricycle to the hostel.” And my first thought was, I had to rent a shiny, red tricycle and pedal my butt to the hostel with my rolling suitcase dragging along behind me? What the heck!? By this point, I was wishing I had my bow and arrow – just in case, you know?

Like a child waiting for her turn on the carousel, I was
pretty psyched to ride in a tricycle. 

You may be able to tell that I have not travelled in Asia extensively.

These little alien-like motorcycles go tutting past us – three wheeled motorcycles with the little cage on it for passengers.

“Uh – tricycles?”

“Yeah, what did you think they were when I said ‘tricycles’?”

I don’t think Sarah wanted to know what I thought at that point, but the thought still entertains me to this day. Too much creative thinking, really.

We negotiate a price for our ride – too high, way too high, we find out later! – and toss our luggage into the suspicious-looking luggage rack on the tricycle’s back. At least he ropes it in so it won’t be a-bouncin’ down the streets of Puerto Princesa.

It’s late and dark, and there isn’t a great deal of electricity the further we head out from town. I’m tired and half-asleep, though my butt felt every pothole from the airport to the hostel.

“Am I really sure about this?!”

The further we rode away from the main streets of town, the more apprehensive I grew. When would the giant spiders steal out of their webs and come looking for me? Would I be sucked dry by the mosquitos? What would this place look like?

Finally, we came to rest half way down a hill, and Banwa Art House was nestled behind a tall bamboo gate. I entered slowly, expecting a spider to ninja-chop me the moment I stepped underneath the massive tree in the front yard. I took my thumping, rolling suitcase (I clearly have not done the whole backpacking in Asia thing before either) inside before I was assaulted by ninja-chopping spiders, but, instead of spiders, a great fat bat fluttered overhead and out the door from whence I’d just come.

Where the heck am I? This might be the Hunger Games after all. I might have to somehow catch and eat that bat later on, and the bat knew that. It got out before I figured out that I was kinda hungry…

Banwa Art House had woven walls covered with local sculpture and art works. It was a nice-looking place, but I was so tired that I just wanted a bed, a can of Raid, and mosquito-netting in order to be happy.

After settling in to our dorm-style bedroom, and meeting a troupe of European guys and other sundry guests staying at Banwa as well, we took a quick, dark walk around some of the streets. I was amazed – and awed – by the size, number, and clarity of all the stars in the black velvet sky.

Following our walk, we returned to Banwa and played UNO on their beautiful terrace/cafe until midnight.

It was a beautiful night. It was an amazing night.

Too bad I’d have to sleep with one eye open to watch out for huge ninja spiders…

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