Why is it every time I go to the Philippines, Hong Kong gets nailed by a typhoon?
In June, it was Maggie. This time, as we were winging our way to Manila, Typhoon Cam swept in and forced the hoisting of signal no.8 for nine hours. As the seventh typhoon to hit the territory this year, Cam marked the busiest storm season in 35 years.
We flew out the night before and missed it.
I've mentioned I don't care much for Manila, but this was business, so avoiding it wasn't an option. After this trip, my impression of Manila hasn't improved.
The trip began well; we took a Philippine Airlines Airbus 330 with comfortable seats; the flight was smooth, everything was perfect. Everything but dinner, that was. Airplane food has improved, but this particular chicken and rice dinner was scary.
The real fun began after we landed. We needed transportation for 12 people and decided to hire a van. That was our first mistake. The van was supposed to hold 16 people, but after eight had climbed in the back with the luggage, three wouldn't fit. I was in the front. The driver went back, piled the luggage on top of everyone, and got all inside.
Welcome to Manila. Our hotel was 15 minutes away, so no one complained. It was almost 11.00pm, and the traffic was light.
However, we didn't count on the driver getting lost. The fare had been paid, so he wasn't feigning to wheedle more money. He was clueless. Manila is divided into several large sections called cities that are made up of smaller districts. Our hotel was in a rough area known as Makati City.
We drove over an hour and the driver stopped four times to ask directions; he didn't carry a map. While I was up front trying to locate our hotel, my wife and 10 friends sweltered in the back in 30C heat with no air conditioning. At 1.15am, we arrived at our destination, the Makati YMCA International Hotel.
One look and I knew we were in trouble. The driver had to wait for the security guard to open the outer gate to the driveway. The guard was strapped. In the Philippines every security guard, hell, anyone wearing a uniform, carries a gun.
The hotel sounded good when we booked it. We have a YMCA in Hong Kong and it's a real hotel; I thought this would be similar. What was I thinking? This is Manila, where 5-Star hotels are really 3-Star hotels, and anything less is, well ... less.
This YMCA was located smack in the center of the run-down San Antonio Village. Upon check-in, they asked us to pay in advance, then handed us a long rectangular plastic tag attached to a key. Can you say: motel? The tiny room had nothing but a bed and a wardrobe containing two hangers. There was no fridge or TV, things we've come to expect in hotel rooms. The bathroom had no tub, only a space next to the toilet separated by a shower curtain, which meant water would spread over the floor when we showered.
As for showering, we discovered hot water was non-existent. That'll wake you up in the morning. At least the place didn't have hot and cold running cockroaches. The air conditioner worked fine, so it wasn't a total disaster. We unpacked and flopped into bed as we had to be up at 7.30am.
In the morning, we ate at the restaurant next to the hotel pool. We were in a hurry, so everyone ordered the same thing: the American Breakfast, consisting of bland, runny scrambled eggs, two small sausages that tasted like Spam and singed white bread that passed for toast. That's what one gets for 100 Philippine Pesos.
In my humble but accurate opinion, the Village People were full of crap.
After breakfast, we waited for our taxis. They arrived 10 minutes late. This is known as Filipino-Time. Lesson One: In the Philippines, if you want something to arrive at a certain time, order it 10 to 30 minutes beforehand.
As we travelled the short distance to the Makati Coliseum, we passed through shanty towns of tiny little shacks made of tin and wood, where entire families live. Children and dogs ran through the streets. Utter squalor are the only words that describe it. These are the poor of Manila.
As it was the wet season, rain pounded the roof during our meetings in the coliseum. The sound on the concrete was so loud it drowned out the speakers at times.
After our meeting adjourned, we discovered why Makati is avoided, even by Filipinos. Whenever it rains, Makati floods. Leaving the building, we noticed a conspicuous lack of taxis. We walked along the road to locate one, but every exiting street was flooded. Most streets were under about four inches of water, but I was in a suit and dress shoes and didn't feel like wading.
The only thing coming into the district were tricycles: strange hybrids of old, smoke-belching motorcycles and covered sidecars that hold one or two people. We needed to get back to the hotel; we had no choice. We rode through the flooded lanes and tried to stay dry. When we reached a main road, we bailed out and hailed a taxi.
The next day, as we rode in a taxi through the flooded streets back to the coliseum, we came up behind a man on a bicycle who insisted on riding through the waters in the center of the street, leaving no room for the driver to get around him. The driver didn't honk, instead he crawled along behind the dork at barely five miles per hour.
Once inside the venue, the rains came, which was weird because it only rained when we were inside. This was a stroke of good fortune, however, because we had no umbrellas and would have been soaked through had we been outside.
Later that afternoon we escaped the floods, in a taxi this time, checked out of the YMCA and flew back to Hong Kong. This time, dinner on the plane was edible.
Upon arrival at Chek Lap Kok Airport, the sensation of re-entering civilisation swept over me. It's amazing what 48 hours in an poor country does for one's perspective.
We returned to a soaked but otherwise unharmed Hong Kong after Typhoon Cam's passage. When we left, I knew Typhoon Cam was on its way. I was worried we wouldn't be home to stem any leaks if Cam turned out to be as strong as York. Though the eye passed directly over our area, not one drop of water came into the flat.
After our wet adventure in Makati, it was nice not coming home to a flooded flat.
September 29, 1999
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