The Big Push into La La Land
Manila (Luzon), Philippines
A long, sleepless journey; a stunned nomad.
The Big Push
July 27, my time in Laos was up. In two days a flight was waiting to take me to the Philippines to meet up with my lovely Afro-Peruvian friend, Tatiana, but first I had to get out of northern Laos and back to Bangkok.
Catching the early-morning bus out of Luang Prabang wasn't as hard as giving up my quiet, comfortable, US$5/night room at Vilay Guesthouse. Calling an audible (and breaking my original travel itinerary), I pushed past Vang Vieng to the capital city of Vientiane, and watched the dwindling sunset fade into the Maekong as I crossed the border back into Thailand with a pair of young monks encountered at one of the bus terminals. It had a been a long, dusty, 14-hour ride in a bus filled with sacks of vegetables in the isles and people that smelled like the livestock they managed, and I was pleased to have the company of the golden-cloaked monks in my tuk-tuk taxi, instead of the Lao civilian with an AK-47 variant tucked under his jacket.
I managed only a few moments of sleep on a noisy ground floor room on the Thai border that night, before getting up the next morning and purchasing a train ticket back to Bangkok.
My general policy is not to travel the same path twice, but if I have to, then in a different manner than the first time. Knowing full well that the bus ride taken to this exact same town less than two weeks ago was anything bus visually stimulating, I opted for a sleeper-class train ticket to usher me the hundreds of kilometers back to the capital.
I idled the rest of the morning and afternoon away by finishing off another novel, and exchanged it for my fourth Andy McNab book (in two weeks) from a local bookstore. I didn't know it at the time, but I would end up starting and finishing the entire novel on that train ride back to Bangkok.
The train, fraught with delays and lacking air conditioning (which I knew of in advance) was a stuffy, sweaty mess. I couldn't sleep a wink, and spent 16-something hours enjoying the book and wondering why I didn't take the comfortable nine-hour bus journey instead.
Arriving in Bangkok yesterday morning, I picked up an inexpensive (150 baht) room at the New My Guesthouse near Khaosan Road. I was tied, but had no desire to use it for sleep—I had plenty of errands to run—but just use it as a place to shower and store my backpack until grabbing a shuttle bus to the airport later that night. It was inside this room that I discovered one of the most random items I've ever seen discarded in a hotel room.
A good cold-water scrubbing later, I remembered that the color contrast between my hair and my beard had been nagging me, and I finally made up my mind to do something about it. I found a salon nearby (for the right price) and instructed the reassuring pair of Thai women accordingly. The result of the coloring attempt was a total disaster.
My hair doesn't look like the ashy blond/brown of my beard, but like someone dipped my head into a bucket of ink the color of dark-chocolate. I was, and still am, stunned (and rather mortified) every time I look in the mirror. What a mess.
Darkness couldn't fall fast enough as I waited to depart the Khaosan area and make my way to Bangkok's swanky international airport/greenhouse for my fourth time since arriving in the region this May. I must admit, the look of the ticketing concourse at night is quite a sight.
Fatigued, and patiently waiting to check into my flight in a long line of middle-aged Filipino women with a collection of very large suitcases (who were wrapping up their group holiday/tour), I tried to put the color of my hair out of my mind as they rotated cameras and bodies during an impromptu photo session that found me sandwiched between women that barely came up to my shoulders.
I see no reason to trust the airlines with my backpack, and since it's small enough to fit in the overhead compartment on most flights, all I need to do is remove any powders, liquids, creams, gels, lighters, knives, and cans to take it with me on flights. I was recently given a little red duffel bag that seemed up to the task, and I tossed a small handful of the items security would take issue with into the bag.
Placing the little duffel of 2.5 pounds on the movable belt to be checked, the ticketing agent gave me a puzzled look and questioned me two or three times over—"you're sure that's it?" After just having checked several hundred kilos of suitcases she seemed rather stunned.
The Philippines requires an onward ticket out of the country, which the airline delivering the passenger is charged with enforcing—meaning the airline asks to see proof of your flight out of the country. This was not the first time I successfully fooled an airline agent (or immigration official) with my fake onward ticket technique (I like using a faux flight back Seattle), and it certainly won't be the last.
Even though I've been to Bangkok's new airport several times, I've actually never departed from it. Passing though the immigration checkpoint where seated officials with Logitech cameras the size of golf balls mounted on poles snap a photo of your face as you're being processed, the departure concourse just beyond is rather impressive. At night the entire scene sort of reminds me of a contemporary nightclub.
The international airport adds an interesting little twist on security screening process. Instead of creating a security choke point where all passengers are funneled through a singular checkpoint, there are no x-ray machines and metal detectors found directly after immigration officials stamp your passport. Instead, the shops, eateries, and chic lounges are immediately accessible, with the security screening taking place just before entering each gate cluster. It would seem the benefits for passengers are numerous, and I enjoy the concept that you can take all the food and beverage you want into the departures concourse while you wait, as long as you don't take it to the gate (where the whole liquids/creams/etc policy is enforced). Bravo BKK.
I was flying Cebu Pacific, a relatively new LCC (low cost carrier) on the scene. At US$125 for a one-way flight from Bangkok to Manila, the price didn't wow, but it was the cheapest on the market. The only catch was the flight time—only one flight per day, and it's at 1:30 in the morning.
I really didn't care for my Cebu Pacific experience. Although the Airbus A300-series jet was brand new, the seating configuration was obviously designed with the average physical attributes of a Filipino in mind—I was cramped. The flight was in the dead of night, but the crew kept the cabin lights at maximum for the majority of the three-something-hour flight. I pinged an attendant and inquired about the obnoxious lights, but her lack of English ended our conversation prematurely. The food/beverage cart passed by at some point and I asked for a cup of water, to which this attendant replied that they "no longer provide water for free," but she could sell me a bottle for 40 pesos. I looked at her in disbelief—there's low cost, and then there's just plain stupid.
Easily the best part of the flight this morning was the sunrise as we started our descent into Manila—I felt like I flying inside of a heavenly painting of oil and acrylic (like a scene out of What Dreams May Come). Peering down at the island of Luzon, Manila stretched out in ways I've never seen an island city sprawl before. I later the population was huge, on the order of 1.5+ million (the highest population density of any major city in the world).
My Filipino immigration official ranks up there with many other asinine government agents I've had to deal with. This fellow's lasting mark on me will be in the form of the entry stamp he placed on an already full page in my passport (when there are plenty of empty ones to select from), squeezed into margin of the header.
From the air I could see the incredible collection of impoverished dwellings that comprised segments of the city (particularly along the winding banks of a river I flew over). On the ground, in the early morning hours, I couldn't help but feel like I was looking at Guatemala City—and that's definitely not a good thing.
La La Land
Tatiana arrived in Manila yesterday afternoon, about 12 hours before me. I taxied to the hotel from the airport and showed up at the hotel door—absolutely exhausted, as I still am, after less than five hours of sleep spread over the past three nights. My brain and body are fried.
It was three hours ago in a darkened room that I gave Tatiana a much needed hug—waking her, as my flight from Bangkok arrived at daybreak—when she took my wrist and put my hand on her abdomen.
"Your son," she said, hesitantly.
…She's nearly four months pregnant, from my visit in the first week of April—her tummy now certainly showing it now. She had her second ultrasound from a doctor on her pass through Cairo, who says the kid is more than healthy, and thinks it's a boy (but it was in an obstructive pose to be certain). She hasn't told her family yet; she wanted me to know first.
Needless to say, with the travel week I've had, lack of sleep, plus seeing Tatiana again (on our third continental plate now)—then getting this little surprise—I'm in a bit of shock.
I'm just kinda on autopilot at the moment—we're talking some about her experiences so far, and how she went to the drugstore and took the "morning after" cocktail, but no joy.
I told her there are a lot of question marks that I don't have the periods for a the moment, but we'd figure them out.