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Sunday, September 20, 2015

THE PHILIPPINES “I shall return.”

About five years ago I went to the Philippines with my Gambier buddy Bruce for some diving and R&R.  I never did a proper blog of that trip, so here it is – better late than never! I found it a great place to visit – even if you aren’t a diver.  Great beaches, wonderful people and very very economical.  As General Douglas McArthur said, “I shall return.”

“Why the Philippines?” my friend Larry asked. “It’s got to be about the 90th place on my ‘must visit’ list.”  But then Larry finds all the adventure he can handle in the sand traps of Maui. Well it’s really one of the last major destinations in the Pacific that I have yet to visit.  That coupled by rave reviews from other travelers I have met during my travels, and the opportunity to scout out a potential care giver for my coming old age.

Why the Philippines indeed.  The Philippines has the climate and beaches of Hawaii, the most literate population in Asia, and the over 1,000 different islands offer a diversity of experiences to satisfy even the most particular of traveler.  Whether one wants to travel as a backpacker or visit five star accommodations, you can find it in the Philippines and almost everyone speaks English.  The amazing thing about the Philippines is that North Americans haven’t discovered it… yet.  The Europeans have discovered the Philippines and are there in droves. In three weeks we saw maybe a half dozen Canadians and Americans! 


It’s the Philippines, not the Philippine Island.  In fact there is no island called Philippine – at least in the Philippine Islands. The Philippines is a nation made up of Islands history.  
The Philippines, a nation of 90 million people is the 12th most populous country in the world and is made up of 7,107 islands that are divided into three major island groups which are further divided into 17 regions, 81 provinces, 136 cities, 1,494 municipalities and 41,995 barangays or barrios.  Multiple ethnicities and cultures are found throughout the Philippines and traveling just a few hundred miles between different islands can be like traveling to a different universe.  Historically each of the island groups spoke its own distinct language, 180 in all.  For about 400 years Spanish was the Lingua Franca spoken in the Philippines until the American threw the Spanish out in the Spanish American War at the end of the 19th Century.  In 1987, the government mandated Filipino and English as the official languages of the Philippines.  Filipino is the “standard” version of Tagalog spoken mainly in Manila and other major cities, but the versions spoken in some of the outer islands are as different to the Manila version of Tagalog as Creole is to French.  In many cases English serves as the more convenient common language. Just getting between the 7, 107 islands that comprise the Philippines can be an adventure in itself.

November 2009

 Just getting to the Philippines proves to be an adventure.  Rather than do the sensible thing and just buy a ticket, I am determined to try and use the thousands of air miles I have  amassed buying toilet paper at Safeway, or nails at Home Depot.

I tried to book my previous trips to Vietnam and Kenya using my Airmiles, only to be told there were “no seats available” on any of the dates I wanted to travel. 

This time I am determined to travel on points – no matter what.  I tell the Airmiles clerk  I am willing to travel any day two weeks either side of my stated date.

“Sorry sir.  No seats available.”

“How about 30 days on either side?”
“No seats available.”
“How about six months?  A year?”

There’s a moment or two of silence while he contemplates this.  But then he comes up with an excuse. “Sorry we can’t book that far.  We can only book 270 days in advance.”

I get a calendar, count  out 270 days in advance, and circle the date, and wait by the phone.

Day 271, I call in to check.

“I’m sorry you’ll have to wait till tomorrow to book at trip.”

“What time do you open?”

“9:00am Eastern  Daylight saving time.”

At exactly 9:01am Eastern time.  I call in to book my ticket.

“Sorry.  There are no seats available for that date.”

I went through each day for the following month.  Nada.

“I know there are three flights a day, seven days a week, to the Philippines from the west coast.  You can’t expect me to believe that you don’t have ONE lousy seat on any of them.”


“That’s it!  That’s it!  I demand to speak to a supervisor.”

“Certainly sir.”

While I’m waiting for the supervisor, I manage to shave, shower, have breakfast, get dressed, and get ready to go out.  Fifty minutes and still no supervisor.”    Finally after nearly 90 minutes the supervisor comes on.

“I’m tired of being f**ked over by you guys!” I shout into the phone.

“Sir, there is no reason to use that sort of language.”

“I am a professional writer.”  I shout back.” I have looked in  the Oxford Concise dictionary, and that word is the ONLY word that describes what you are doing to me.”

“There’s nothing we can do.”

“Yes there is.”  I continue.  I want you to Google me.  You’ll find out that I’m a professional travel writer, and your bosses aren’t going to like what I’m going to be writing later today.  So you WILL find a way to get me to the Philippines, you WILL call me back, because I’m not spending another three hours on the phone.  And you WILL call me back today.” I have to stop because at this point I’m hyperventilating and the vein in my forehead is throbbing.

I slam down the phone, and sure enough, barely a half hour later the supervisor phones back. 
“We have managed to book you a flight to and from the Philippines.”
“See, I knew you could do it.”

“Yes, we can get you out on your requested date.  You just have to get yourself to Toronto.”

“Toronto?   That’s in the opposite direction.”

Ignoring me she continues: “From there we’ll fly you Minneapolis, and on to Tokyo. From there will fly you to Manila.  It will only take about 40 hours- not counting layovers.   Coming home you’ll route through Detroit.”

“Fine,” I said just happy to have somehow scored the tickets.

“I’m not finished,” she interjects. “Unfortunately there were no seats available on your requested return date.  The best we could do was December 12th – two days later.”

 “No problem, fine.”
We go through the details of booking the trip.  As she’s about to say good bye, she adds one final blow.

“By the way sir, you’re allowed to stay in the Philippines for 21 days without the hassle of obtaining a visa.  Unfortunately due to the non-refundable flight arrangements you’ve agreed to, you’re one day over the limit.  Have a nice day!”

But in this case I had the last laugh.
Once I had a  confirmed booking made by Airmiles I called the airline  myself and asked if I could change my routing.
“Sure, no problem. How do you want to go?
“Out of Vancouver.”
“Makes sense,” she replied. 
And in just two minutes I’m routed out of Vancouver.  Unfortunately I couldn’t change the dates, which meant I had to obtain a Visa.

Obtaining a Visa to visit the Philippines is like a trip to the Twilight Zone.  The Philippine Consulate is on the 18th floor of downtown Vancouver’s Pacific Centre – a modern business office building. (Note:  As of last year the Philippine Consulate has moved to Canada Place) But upon being buzzed into the consulate office I find I have entered some sort of time warp.  The inside of the office is like some third world country circa 1940.   The only thing missing is the big ceiling fan.  The phones are black and actually ring.  Unfortunately for the people on the other end, no one in the office seems interested in answering them.  No computers anywhere in sight.  Everything appears to be done by hand. 

I wait my turn, and when I hand him my Visa application, he lists off a half dozen documents that  I need, including, believe it or not, my bank statement.   It appears that, despite Larry’s low opinion of the place, they’re afraid I might want to stay there and live off the state.  Who do they think they are?  Canada???

The clerk seems disappointed that I actually have everything with me and that he will actually have to process an application that day.    Finally after much stamping of documents, I’m told to go to the cashier wicket and pay $34.50
The lady behind the wicket labeled “Cashier” looks at the fifty dollar bill like she’s never seen cash before, and steps out of sight.  I presume to get change.  However I see her putting on her coat and hat and getting ready to leave the office.  I suggest it would be nice to get my change before she goes to lunch.  The other clerk points out that they don’t have change.  She’s going down to the bank.  Twenty minutes later I get my change and I’m told to come back in three days and pick up my passport and visa.

Three days later I arrive back at the consulate office.  The same three people are staring at the still ringing black phones.  After a few minutes a bored clerk walks up to the wicket.  I ask for my visa.  He picks up about ten applications each with a pictured clipped to the upper left corner and begins to slowly shuffle through them.

“It’s Groberman.”  I state. “It begins with a ‘G’.”

He continues to rifle through the small pile, with no success.

“I’ll give you a  hint.” I state, trying to be helpful. “Look at the pictures. When you get to one that looks like me, stop.” 

One more riff through the documents and he stops.  He stares at me, then stares down at the picture, then back to me.   I’m even wearing the same shirt!  After a few moments he uncertainly selects it. 

So on Sunday, it’s off to the Philippines!  More from there, hopefully.

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