Archive for March, 2009

Manila

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Now that I’d arrived in Manila, what did I do?

Most of the time was, of course, work related. However I did have a day or so the weekend before the meeting started, and a couple of hours in the odd evening to wander around.

The meeting hotel, the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, is a little to the south of the centre of Manila, but being a cheap backpacker at heart, I thought I would walk up to the city to try to see some more of the local environment. As soon as I stepped past the security guards at the bottom of the ramp up to the hotel’s entrance, taxis were hooting their horns and stopping, or at least slowing down. It isn’t hard, is it? If I have my hand out shouting “TAXI!”, it means I want a taxi. If I’m walking down the street, it is safe to assume that is what I want to do. Tootling your horn (no, that isn’t a euphemism, I’ll get to that in a minute) and stopping beside me isn’t suddenly going to make me change my mode of transport. Anyway, rant over.

Well, first rant. Taxi drivers pale into insignificance compared to the other thing that tarnishes my images of some countries — prostitution. Or at least the assumption that because I am white, I am looking for an Asian woman to sleep with (or in some cases, an Asian boy). Only two taxi-toots out of the hotel I hear a “hey, hey” to see a woman pointing at me then at herself, and this was before 11am. I walked on, my opinion of Manila already slightly dented.

It was hot and humid, and in my rush to pack, three things I’d forgotten were sun-cream, sunglasses, and a cap to shade my face (the latter being as much for everyone else’s benefit as my own). I put those top of my list of things to buy as I wandered around with little firm idea of where in particular I was going to go once I reached “the city.”

Like much of Asia, Manila loves its shopping malls. The first one I stopped in was a slightly older affair, with plenty of dirt around the edges. Not the gleaming polished marble floors you expect from the name. I had a quick walk around, but as shops don’t open until about 10am, everything was still being set up, so I went back out. The most common form of mass public transit in Manila is the jeepney. This is a small bus with open sides and highly decorated, ploughing the streets of the capital on well-known routes which are displayed in the front window and often painted on the sides. What I hadn’t been expecting were the sheer number of them. On some streets there were as many jeepneys, which can hold perhaps 20 people, as you’d see Hackney Cabs on a London street in rush hour.

I let them pass and continued up. The next area I went through contained lots and lots of “KTV” bars, I assume the acronym stands for Karaoke TV. I knew that karaoke is popular in Asia, which is odd given how easily embarrassed locals get, but there were an awful lot of KTV places on A. Mabini, which I found quite curious. Further up was another mall, but this one was the gleaming, polished marble monolith that I’d expected. Inside it was massive, and I spent a little while wandering around trying to get a grasp of its geography before giving up and reverting to type with an iced latte in the ‘Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf,’ whose sister branch in Kota Kinabalu I’ve frequented on more than one occasion. It didn’t take long before another guy sidled up and said he was waiting for his wife, then letting on that he’d let me sleep with her, and when I tried to be polite he offered younger partners, at which point politeness went out of the window and I looked to see if there was a policeman around before just walking away.

There are quite a few western men with Filipino women in Manila, and it may be wrong to comment on that straight after the previous paragraph, because I’d like to believe that most of them are in love and fighting just that kind of prejudice, but after spending some time travelling around Thailand, I can’t help but wonder that for some, even if it is a tiny minority, it isn’t quite the whole story.

A little while later, cooler, but still lacking sun-cream, sunglasses, a cap, and a lens cleaning kit for my camera (something else I’d realised I had forgotten whilst taking photos of the spectacular sunset from the hotel the previous evening), I left the mall and walked back to the hotel. The hotel had a pool and bar facing west to Manila Bay, and most evenings provided the sort of sunset that I’d been missing for the past five years.

When the sun had set, I decided to try again and headed out along a similar route looking for some food. The karaoke bars had now taken a much seedier edge, with women in short skirts standing outside and men (or should that be ‘pimps’) trying to persuade me to try their bar. I rapidly tired of that and turned back to the hotel down a different road which had families out playing in the street. It didn’t look seedy, but it did feel a little edgy as I stood out like a sore thumb, and the families were obviously poor.

The following day I decided to be a little more organised and started off by catching a cab to the “Mall of Asia.” Supposedly this is the third largest mall in the world, and it didn’t take me long to find a baseball cap at Adidas, sun-cream from Watson’s pharmacist, and more coffee from another ‘Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.’ About half the shops in MoA appear to be food outlets. The taxi cost less than £1, so I wasn’t worried about splashing out on that mode of transport, and did so again to take me straight up to Fort Santiago at Intramuros.

Intramuros is the only remaining area of Manila that still has a significant amount of colonial architecture, most of the rest having been destroyed by bombs, earthquakes, or Imelda Marcos’ zealous redevelopment plans, and Fort Santiago is the location of several significant events over the country’s history. After wandering around a bit more of Intramuros and nearby bits of Manila, I caught another cab back to the hotel.

Breakfast at the hotel was something worth getting up for. The largest breakfast buffet I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. Almost every nationality was represented with miso soup, sushi, steamed pork balls, eggs, omlettes, bacon and sausages, rice, pastries, cooked meats and lots of juicy, succulent, fruit. If you have a yearning for a good breakfast, this is the place to go. Only slightly let down by the random tea and coffee service. Then again, there was plenty of fruit juice if you can do without a morning coffee.

This probably doesn’t paint all that nice a picture of Manila, but it is worth remembering that as with most countries, you don’t get fair impression of them from just their capital city. I’d still love to come back to the Philippines at some point and explore some of the 7,000 islands, climb some of the volcanos and settle back in a hammock on the sandy beaches. This was, after all, just a work trip with a disproportionate number of hours spent inside windowless conference rooms of an air-conditioned hotel.

Manila (or at least getting to it)

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

I’d been looking forward to this since it was booked, a trip to Manila in the Philippines for APRICOT 2009, the Asia-Pacific network operator’s forum. I’d wanted to go for a while, so when one of the programme committee suggested I submit a talk on our recent backbone upgrades to 40Gbit/s, I jumped at the chance. It was my first time heading back to South-East Asia since April 4th, 2004. I can be so precise about the date as that was the day I returned from my year away.

Preparation had been to my usual minimal level. I’d taken the day before I left as vacation to give me a chance to pack, but I still went into the office for a videoconference and checked my email before just buying some travel guides, heading home and getting ready to go out with George in the evening. An evening which was supposed to finish early, but which to no great surprise finished at the usual time.

As I was going to be away for the best part of three weeks in tropical Asia, I didn’t want to carry a heavy coat with me. I’d made that mistake before, and somebody that works in the Holiday Inn, Bangkok, will have picked up a nice North Face fleece in April 2003, so I left for the airport through a chilly London in just a polo shirt with a t-shirt underneath to save some space in my case, which was already packed with a bunch of shirts and t-shirts to save on the number of expensive hotel laundry jobs. Whilst later than I’d expected (a phrase you may recall I used frequently on travel updates during my year away) and having to use the tube all the way as it was easier to get to the now unloved terminal 4, I was still there in plenty of time.

Terminal 4, now that only a handful of airlines use it following BA’s move to ‘T5,’ is a much nicer place. It is still the same building, still just as tatty, and some of the shops have closed, but the restaurants that are open now have spare seats, and there is room to wander around. The flight to Hong Kong was twelve hours of average economy-class flying in Qantas. Nothing special to report, but the on-demand video system helped me while the hours away with ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ ‘Australia‘ and ‘Body of Lies.’ The hot chocolate with marshmallows was also a nice change, and made up for the shoddy food service where the wine didn’t arrive until after I’d finished my meal.

At Hong Kong I had to deal with the Philippines Airlines transfer desk, as my bags had only been checked as far as Hong Kong, but they dealt with everything painlessly and I didn’t have to go through immigration and re-check my bags, as I’d originally been expecting.

The flight from Hong Kong to Manila was on a Philippine Airlines 747. It looked very much like it had been bought from British Airways, as it had the same blue seat coverings and grey designs on the outside of the galley and WC walls. The flight was quite empty, so there was plenty of room to stretch out, just a shame it was on this two and a half hour segment rather than the previous twelve hour one. Immigration in Manila was far easier than I’d been expecting. I just handed my passport to the official, he stamped it and handed it back. Two european-looking chaps in the queue next to me didn’t have such luck and I overheard them being told they needed to pay for a visa. I didn’t catch which country it said on their passport though. I waited at the baggage carousel with some trepidation, still not being entirely sure my case had made it on the plane, but sure enough, there it was. Unusually, I had to show my baggage claim ticket as I exited the hall, to prove the case I had was mine, but soon enough I was in a taxi and heading to the hotel.

The journey was relatively short, but the traffic was an experience. Traffic lights have phases that last several minutes, junctions with traffic policemen have phases that last even longer. Cars drift from lane to lane, and whilst there is liberal use of the horn, it isn’t excessive, but still there are few badly dented cars on the roads. I’m still not sure I’d want to drive a car through Manila, much less a scooter or motorcycle. The journey cost the princely sum of PHP180, just under £2.60. A bargain for the entertainment it provided, especially as the driver spoke a bit of English and I was able to ascertain he’d been brought up in Pasay (the area of Manila between the airport and the hotel) and had recently changed to being a taxi driver from driving private company cars.

After all that drivel, I have now arrived in Manila. I suffer from jet-lag far worse on eastwards journeys than I do on westwards, so after I checked in, I did a brief ‘wow’ from my balcony at the view of Manila bay and the warm, humid, welcoming embrace of South-East Asian air, before heading back into the air-conditioned room and collapsing into bed, with the lights still on and partially clothed, and sleeping.

I’ll continue in another post.