It all started a week ago. My principal granted me the week off from school (my former vice principal/arch nemesis has left) No small blessing, I didn’t want to waste it. I came to the Far East for the purpose of traveling and so I sat in my office and scoured the internet for deals to Asian spots. I had 6 days off and I aimed to use them. I pulled up a map of Asia and I already knew where I wanted to go. Mongolia. It’s actually quite close to Korea. Six days seemed perfect. The airfare was reasonable even though it was one day’s notice. Mongolia, BABY. I looked up “Mongolia” on Wikipedia and I was sold. The landscape looks different from anywhere I’ve been. Then Wikipedia told me it gets cold in Mongolia in the winter. Hmmm. Really? I know it’s next to Siberia but really? It’s the same latitude as Korea, how much colder could it be? The answer was 25 degrees colder, Celsius. It was Zero Celsius here in Korea that day and a nippy minus twenty-four degrees Celsius in sunny old Mongolia. Ya better bundle up, Genghis.
Mongolia was cold. I got there in my trusty Nike hoodie and caught severe frostbite fifteen minutes after walking out of the airport. Like an idiot I forgot my gloves…
Okay, I didn’t visit the Mongols. I was not paying to go to the coldest place on Earth. So, it was now 3pm on Monday. I had a school function from 5pm till 11pm that night. I had to work quickly if I wanted to leave Tuesday morning. The next place on my list was the Philippines. Some friends had gone there a month earlier and had loved it. The photos looked tempting. The price was right. An hour later, I had bought my ticket. I left for Manila at eight the next morning.
Incidentally, that night’s function was a total trip, my entire school staff got THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND DRUNK and proceeded to do karaoke in ways that I’ve never seen or imagined. Our accountant, a small Korean man who is in his fifties and wears glasses jumped up on a table and jumped around in a suit as he put tissues in his nostrils and ears. He did jumping jacks and pelvic thrusts with four tissues sticking out his head….it was good stuff but I went home at around 11pm so that I could pack and leave the next morn.
I got on the airplane and sat next to two Filipino dudes. By the way, Philippines as a place is spelled with a Ph but the people are always spelled with an F. So, these guys worked in Korea and had not been home in 3 years. Sheeeeeeeet, you think I was excited? Sitting next to them was like hanging out with men the day they get out of prison…they were hyped. They kept telling me how awesome it is and how much fun I was going to have. I believed them.
One of my favorite things when I was a kid was when you were traveling by air, when your plane landed, people would start clapping. If the landing was smooth, it would be a LOUD ovation and otherwise people would clap anyway, at least a half-assed round of applause. As I got older, I realized people did this less and less. I don’t even remember the last time it happened. However, when we touched down in Manila, I heard a handclap somewhere and so then I started clapping and next thing you know, the Filipinos sitting next to me are clapping and soon the whole plane is clapping and these guys are yelling “Philippines!! My country!!” IT WAS AMAZING….people in the front were turned around completely and waving and yelling…I figured if the Filipinos on the plane were like this, some good times were to be had.
Then, the buzzkill. In my hurry to leave Korea, I had forgotten to withdraw money. A bad thing to forget. But, I had $400 in traveller’s cheques. Plus, I had my credit card. As I left Manila airport, the cashier refused to cash my cheques. I found that a bit weird but thought I could just as easily do it at my hotel. I cashed whatever money I had on me which amounted to 700 pesos ($14). I hailed a taxi to the hotel I had booked online. It was in the nicest part of town, an area called Makati. As I pulled into the hotel, the cabbie asked me if the hotel would help with my money situation. I said yes but he told me to find out for sure because he would take me elsewhere if they didn’t. I agreed to check, thinking this a formality. They didn’t help me one bit. They said my credit card didn’t work either and I told them I used it all over the world and I even put my down payment at the hotel on it!! They basically pimpsmacked me and told me to hit the road. I went out and told the cabbie that I would pay him the 200 pesos I owed him and walk around to find a bank for my cheques. I paid him and he was really nice and said he would drop me to a big bank because it was on his way and he felt bad I had to carry my bags and all. The first bank didn’t help. Nor did the second. Or the third…This guy took me to six different places for free. It took almost two hours until finally we found the Am Ex office and they cashed my cheques. I was so pissed off at my hotel that I told him to take me to another one. I also asked him to make it a cheap one because I didn’t know if I could get any more money… and so it was I checked into the Raf Mansion in the somewhat grimy Baclaren section of town, exhausted and grateful to Randy from Sunshine Taxi Service.
The Philippines is great to me because it is a pretty, tropical locale but it’s a very underdeveloped tourism. You don’t find too much corporate tourism around Manila. Maybe you do in Boracay and elsewhere but Manila seems quite underdeveloped. You wheel and deal. You haggle. I love that.
It’s a saying in the Philippines. You use it while negotiating. Literally, in Tagalog, it means “cheaper” but the message it conveys is “Let’s work something out. It’s the Philippines.” And almost always you wind up working it out. The spirit of the people is similar to an island vibe.Though there is so much poverty, they are compromising and generous.
The next day I found out that my credit card would not work in the Philippines at all. I figured that my cheques afforded me around 70-80 bucks per day. My stay at the mansion was costing me about 35 bucks per. It was very comfortable despite looking shady as hell. And there was no service to speak of but I stayed there night after night because it was in the middle of this huge market with hundreds of people pushing stuff and in my mind at least, that was Manila.
I never budget. I don’t account. I keep my tastes simple and so things wind up being inexpensive. Still, I had to budget in a sense because I would have been in trouble if I splurged and made it rain now. I was quite impressed with myself because I cut back on some things, I went all out on others. I probably spent my dough as well as possible. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is some almost borderline smart and practical behavior”. It was trippy. Maximizing the pesos so effectively had me feeling like goddamn MacGuyver.
All the while, I kept saying “MoraLaaang!! MoraLaang!!” …I told people, up front ,that I was strapped for cash, I told them to treat me as they would knowing that they aren’t getting any tips. (Perhaps why I got no service at the hotel, but I doubt it) All the while, I was having a blast. Makati, Mallate, Intramuros, Luneta….I was doing Manila proper…every corner and I was doing it cheap.
Riding Jeepneys (a big open jeep/van type thingy that runs the whole city for usually under 15 pesos (33 cents) and eating whole meals for under 100 pesos ($2), I was loving the vibe. It had a lot to do with the generosity of the Filipinos. There were so many who just hooked me up because they were nice people. There were tour guides who showed me around for free, there were cabbies who gave me a deal, there were resorts that threw something in. Being a cheap man who revels in anything for free, life couldn’t get much better. In some instances, it was heartwarming how generous people were. Keep in mind that all these people KNOW that I have more money than them. They see me in a foreign country, in a hotel. These are things they may never be able to do in their lives. Still, they don’t resent it, they take pride in their country and want you to have as good a time as possible.
One day, I had saved a good portion of my cash for a journey outside of Manila. I wanted to go to the countryside. I could have caught a bus but I had deliberately saved to take a taxi to this place called Tagaytay. It’s where Manila goes to chill. Up in the hills, a volcano on an island in a lake, it’s very relaxing. I was told that 1500 pesos ($33) was a fair fare to and fro. After a No, I found a young dude named Alvin who said Yes. He didn’t seem too happy about it, he kept trying to raise the price on me but I told him my story and he was cool with 1500. Now, after Tagaytay, I wanted to see more. Being a greedy greedster, I wanted to keep going. He told me of the next province Batangas, which was more of the same, just some more lovely vistas, water and mountains. He recommended a boat ride over there but it was a good hour away. I had 3500 pesos on me. I had already promised him 1500. Now, Alvin said another 800 would be the charge to keep going. I told him that if I was spending 2300 on the taxi, how much is the boat trip? There’s no point in going if I can’t afford the boat, I said.
“MoraLaang” , said Alvin. With that, we were en route.
The family with the boat was not as down with MoraLaang as we expected. We talked them down to 1200 pesos from 1500 but they wouldn’t budge any further. I kept telling them to move down to 1000 but they just would not do it. I was trying to save 200 pesos for dinner but they were not concerned with my plans for grub. Then, Alvin said to give them the 1200 and to just give him a flat 2000 pesos. This is after I had already agreed to give him 2300. I told him that wasn’t right but he insisted and said “You came to Philippines. To Manila. To Tagaytay. To Batangas. For your experience, you have to take the ride.” It was an awesome gesture. We bought the ticket, took the ride.
The Philippines was impressive, the people even more so. Like a lot of poor places, the people are warm. An added plus, I think Filipinos are complete characters. They sing constantly, they seem to be obsessed with Celine Dion, they have more pawnshops than any other place I’ve been, they wear more NBA jerseys than any other country I’ve seen, they have few inhibitions. Their culture is a loud and playful one. They also have a lot of great names. I met people by name of Alvin, Edwin, Maleesa and a man named Perfecto. (He assured me that he was Perfect in name only) It’s definitely fun.
I enjoyed every moment there. I met a friend of mine I hadn’t met since high school. I made new friends. I saw some cool things. I learned some stuff. When I got on the plane to come back to Korea, I had exactly 1.25 pesos left (2 cents). I was ecstatic. My mission was complete. Every hour and every peso had been used as effectively as possible.
Having gotten used to being a day late and a dollar short, enjoying every minute and having some change left in my pocket was pretty sweet.