Oh, and the traffic. Relatives you have not seen for a while will always manage to pick you up even if they’ve had very little sleep preparing for your arrival, hiring a driver, using up precious hours in the car. For them this is not sacrifice or inconvenience but a necessary, even happy, obligation. Concerned, you feel guilty about how much sacrifice you can lay out in return, if the roles were reversed. But before long, you accept the gestures of hometown kindness and feel settled.
The PAL Surprise
I am anxious about long travel these days, as I have not the energy of my younger years. To alleviate the discomfort, we treated ourselves to a reasonably priced business class promo fare on Philippine Airlines. This turned out to be a pleasant experience and, I daresay, one of the best-kept secrets of today. For those who want to be pampered but not sliced raw by the high prices of regular airlines, you will probably do no better than PAL’s pampered class. The seats are not Emirates-level, but comfortable enough to lie almost flat down. The menu is combination Western, Asian and Filipino, and nobody can beat their arroz caldo, whether in the lounge or on the plane.
I love the fact that flights are direct from the West Coast, although if one does not live in a city hub of PAL, one has to take that extra connecting flight, which is often uncertain or inconvenient. Also, if one buys the tickets separately outside of the PAL website, the connecting airlines are not obliged to check your luggage through to final destination. This means you pay extra for two pieces of luggage on the domestic run. This time, the local flight we took to Vancouver honored our request to tag the bags all the way to Manila. And, coming back to the US, as a surprise bonus, we were welcomed in Vancouver after the trip by an airline agent who saw us through US customs and ushered us to our next flight. Is this PAL, or a common courtesy of the connecting airline?
The flight attendants were friendly and hospitable, especially Dinah P., who chatted with us about our plans for our trip. As we had been to Palawan the year before, we wanted to try the south, maybe Cebu and/or Bohol? As she had Cebuano origins, we asked her for tips on things to do, places to stay, etc. She shared the name of an ex-PAL employee, Shajid Hafeel, who could help us tour Cebu.
Cebu (and Shajid)
We decided to fly to Cebu on a budget airline, which is a boon to tourism – they’re cheap, but be very sure of your flight dates. If you change dates, you virtually lose your ticket. The budget airline also charges you (peso and centavos) for every little bit of amenity, food and water, printed paper tickets, and insurance to change dates. I missed a flight due to a local flu which got me down, and although I gave the airline authorities all the information necessary to get a refund, they still wanted more and more information that eventually wore me down, making me decide the exercise was not worthwhile.
From the Internet we booked a hotel named Alpa Suites in Mandaue city, which was reasonably priced, with a good Filipino breakfast. Everything was of good value in general except for the towels, which could have been whiter, newer and softer. But if that was the worst complaint, I guess I could live with that.
A tip on airport transport: It is not necessary to book at the hotel, which would cost 500 pesos. Rather, one can take a taxi from the airport for 200 pesos.
Since we had no better ideas, we did call Shajid, and texted him (0933-331-6944), and he was willing to drive us around for 2,500 pesos for a full day and more. Entrance fees were separate. Best deal in ages, compared to hotel offerings and the Internet ads. He was polite, gentle and in spite of his name, very Filipino. He certainly knew his way around. He recounted to us problems with his name, sparking some initial hesitation from people possibly due to current events, but he assured us he had no objectionable affiliations; he was Cebuano and spoke good Tagalog and English. He just inherited his father’s name and his Qatari blood. He recounted that his mother who met his father in Cebu a few decades back, agreed to follow her husband to his hometown in the Middle East and, to shorten the story, suffered culture shock. She gathered strength and the necessary funds, spirited her son away when he was just two years old, and hid until they were forgotten. Shajid did try to contact his father later, but his father seemed no longer interested in connecting with his past life.
In Cebu, we were taken to the famous sites – Magellan’s Cross, the Cebu Heritage monument, the Santo Nino basilica. Fort San Pedro, the Yap-San Diego ancestral house, the Lapu-Lapu shrine and the unusual Temple of Leah, built by its owner to honor his wife. The Greco-Roman building was anachronistic and surreal, but impressive in its imposing stature.
We saw one of the largest malls (SM Seaside City) built near the sea, with modern architecture and oddly paired with a contemporary church within the complex. This church is in honor of the first Filipino saint, San Pedro Calungsod. . Understandably, the church was open to visitors, and worshippers, only when the mall itself was open.
No, we did not swim with the gentle whales (butanding) in Oslob, as I am uncomfortable in more than shallow waters, and I did not want to wake up too early (around 4 a.m.) to coordinate my trip with the set schedules of the butanding. I was more than willing to listen to the stories of others who have had this experience.
However, I tasted the sweet mangoes, the crispy lechon and the wonderful seafood dishes.
Noteworthy was the presence of many Korean tourists with their own guides (I was told that, strictly speaking, this was not allowed; a way to get around this is renting or buying licenses from Filipino guides. Although the practice draws some resentment from Filipino tour guides, it increased tourism in Cebu, specifically by Korean tourists.)
Even the traffic situation in Cebu was not unlike Manila. The trip back to our hotel took two and a half hours; it would normally have taken 1/3 of that time.
Bohol (and Jerry)
Since we wanted to see Bohol, Shajid conveniently passed on the contact details of his friend, with the curious name of Jerry California (0930-014-9004). If you trust me, he says, you will definitely like Jerry. Best recommendation.
We took the early hydrofoil ferry to Tagbilaran, at a discount (for seniors). Jerry was there at the port and he took us everywhere worth viewing in Bohol. Unlike Cebu, there was no (or not much) traffic, only fresh air. An ex-seminarian, Jerry was a good, trustworthy guide who charged a very reasonable price (about 200 USD for two). He was thoughtful enough to carry a USB charger in his car to help out when our camera ran out of juice. We did enjoy Bohol, especially viewing the Chocolate Hills! You have to see this unusual terrain. At the time, the rainy season had colored the hills green.
We took the Loboc river cruise, which included lunch and a motor trip – a good deal. We visited the tarsiers, which normally sleep during the day. Advice to visitors: do not miss the Hinagdanan cave, a naturally lighted cave with its own lake; the volunteer tour guide was informative, cheerful, funny and technically knowledgeable about taking pictures in a dark cave. He called us Kate Middleton and Prince William, and we gave him a good tip.
We returned to Cebu in the evening via the ferry.
Arriving early in the morning in Manila, we faced the reality of the horrendous stop-and-go traffic that is a result of the ever-increasing number of cars. I was told that cars have become more affordable with easy financing options, and so, there are soooo many vehicles. The usual one-hour trip to a destination has become 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
You do not know traffic unless you live in Manila. One spends a lot of life in the car and ages a lot in traffic. The traffic situation kills social life, makes you unfriendly to relatives and discourages any social (and probably business) interactions. It creates the phenomenon of micro-cities where one does not need, nor want to go outside one’s district or neighborhood. It has encouraged the boom in cell phones crucial to communications and makes it easier than meeting face-to-face. Cell phones have encouraged texting and, consequently, poor spelling.
Driving rules are non-existent: There are no shoulders, no lanes to speak of and alertness to dynamic movement is fundamental to survival. One advances, based on strong guts and skill in inserting your vehicle in any space that you see in front of you, and you have to weave in and out of lanes to get to your destination. Although there are no rules, it is surprising that there are not as many collisions as one might expect.
You miss the good old days while knowing you can’t go back again. Beware of being intolerant at how things work in the Philippines. The warmth of family, the food and the national character still remain, and you realize you can never take the childhood out of you.
Oh yes, the food, glorious food. One can get impatient with the time warp experience of living in the past but easily settle with the breakfasts of tuyo (dried fish), sinangag (fried garlic rice) and itlog (egg). The ukoy (shrimp fritter), lumpiang ubod (fresh eggroll), hubad (eggroll filling), isdang pinirito (fried fish). Inihaw na baboy (broiled pork). The bibingka (rice cake), pancit luglog (noodles), suman sa latik (rice, coconut wrapped in palm or banana leaf). Of course, there are varied restaurants all over the metropolis that offer anything your palate misses. But you will always need transport and patience to navigate traffic to get to these places.
I do miss the ease of traveling from place to place; I remember my friends and I would go to Aristocrat, Tropical Hut, Little Quiapo and Ma Mon Luk, to eat. As a student with a paltry allowance, I could take either the JD, CAM (identified by three lights on the front top), or MD buses that charged only 15 and 25 centavos at most to get to these places for a good lunch.
I remember Max’s Chicken. This used to be THE special restaurant to celebrate happy events like birthdays. I had fond memories of the spring chicken. Longing for a Proustian recall of that spring chicken and the happy memories of our celebrations with my parents and relatives who are no longer around, I had to ask my friends to take me to today’s Max’s. Somehow it no longer tastes like the Max’s of my childhood. Where is that old recipe?
The Grab Option and the Senior Card
A silver lining during our trip is our discovery of the glories of the Grab car, a competitor of Uber. Unlike Uber it did not ask for a credit card reference. Download an app, input your home and destination, the price of the trip is indicated, which is reasonable and a trustworthy (as it seems right now), the driver and a clean car appear at your doorstep (or at a landmark close to your location) and you pay him according to price given on your phone/computer. No tip is expected but is appreciated if you are particularly pleased with the service. This does not erase traffic woes, or improve the time it takes to get you to your destination, but at least the fixed price no matter how long the ride takes is quite settling.
In the Philippines when one reaches 60 years old, one is granted a senior card, which gives you 20 percent off for prescription drugs and meals at most restaurants, a plus to getting older.
Oh yes, the wedding. It was wonderful, luxurious and a memorable start to a future. From the church to the reception, it took us three hours on Ortigas Avenue because we made a wrong turn. I guess it was worth it to be present during the celebration of hope, joy and a new life.
Gia R. Mendoza worked as an international civil servant for many years, and is now retired in Washington State. She enjoys writing and painting.