Philippines - Day 7 (Traveling to Boracay)

This is entry #9.

Link to entry #8.
Jolayne is also chronicling our trip here.

Day 7.  Friday, April 5th.  I'm now typing this on my iphone (yes, tiny phone) with a bluetooth keyboard connected.  I've never done that before on a phone (though it actually works incredibly well).  That's because I lost my iPad Friday evening.  I was crestfallen.  But that's getting ahead of myself.  Let's go back to Friday morning.

After a delightful couple of days in Zambales, it was time for us to move to the next phase of our trip.  We were headed to Boracay.  Boracay is a world-famous tropical destination island in the central region of the country.  When planning the trip, I thought that it would be fun to see a place a little further from where I served my mission.  The trouble is that Boracay was not at all close to where we were.  We had a full day of travel ahead of us.  

We began the morning by waking up early and catching another gorgeous sunrise.  

I then decided to go again to the palengke, but this time with Amy and Misha joining me.  It was market day, and the older girls hadn't yet experienced all that the palengke offers.  So off we walked.

We grabbed a trike down there (I now knew how much one was supposed to cost after asking a couple of people on our first day) in order to buy some pandasal (bread rolls), look for aloe for burned skin, and hopefully get some money from the ATM.  I was down to my last 600 pesos ($12), and worried about making it through the day.  The problem, though, was that the main ATM machine was offline and the other one didn't take Visa (there are only two).  No money.  Didn't find aloe either, though we tried several places.  One guy tried to sell me Vasoline instead.  Hm, nope.  

The marketplace was much busier than the day before; Friday was fruits&veggies day.  The kids took a quick look at the wet goods section (all the meat and fish) and were ready to leave.  Not their enchelada.  They were more than happy to stop for more of the yummy donuts at the bakery from the day before, however.  Our trike driver waited for us and took us back, and I even managed to find him amongst all the trikes that were more than happy to solicit my business.  

We then cleaned up and got packed and were ready by 830a to leave the house.  It was a wonderful place to stay, and we enjoyed Bhoyet and Analyn Garcia, the host family.  That's Analyn and her daughter on the far left.

Aircon buses to Olongapo and Manila come by every 15-20 minutes in Zambales, so we hired the same trike drivers from the day before to take us with our gear, the short distance from the house to the main road.  They arrived on time and we started strapping all our luggage in.  We more than filled the two with all of us and our gear.  My pre-planning struck again, and the bungy cords I'd brought along came in quite handy as we strapped stuff down.  Still, Jolayne's bag fell off during the short ride out to the main road; luckily nothing was damaged.  At the bus stop, I didn't have any small change and one driver didn't care much, but the other one did; took us several minutes to find someone to break my P100 bill to pay them properly.  

An aircon bus came by shortly after we were dropped off, but wouldn't stop; must have been full.  So we waited for the next one.  It didn't come very quickly.  During that time, Analyn and her daughter Hannah came out and told us that they needed to go to Olongapo as well, so they'd ride along with us too.  Cool.  The primary bus company in this region is called Victory Liner.  It's so pervasive that you can even use it as a verb; you can mag-victory somewhere.  I rode them very often as a missionary, though not very often on the aircon; we usually stuck to the cheaper (and slower) fresh-air variety.

Finally another bus came, and it did stop; but there wasn't room to sit, so we'd have to stand for the hour-long ride into Olongapo.  I elected to take the sure thing and stand rather than wait another undetermined amount of time to perhaps stand anyway.  I had budgeted what I thought was plenty of time to get to the airport and even allow for some delays, but I didn't want to start out slow.  We quickly tossed our bags into the undercarriage and boarded.  After thinking it over, we let Misha ride in the cabin! :-)

We all stood except for Jo after a nice man gave up his seat for her and Kristen to share.  Our fare for 5 of us was P300, about $7.50.  I was glad I had enough money left.  I was down to about P200, not much to spare.  I would definitely have to hit the ATM in Olongapo as I didn't have enough left for fare to Manila.  Catching THAT bus, we'd come to learn, was the first tender mercy of The Lord for the day.  The ride was to last about an hour.

The bus was very full but was comfortable as it could be.  It was much better than taking the regular-fare Victory Liner.  A few stops after we got on the bus was completely full (even the aisle) and so we made pretty good time (except for the traffic) towards Olongapo; no more stops.  The primary road (National Highway) in Zambales is the only throughfare and thus gets very congested.  This is the same road Jun had negotiated in frustration a few days before. In towns it comes to a complete stop, and we sat for 5-10 min not moving at all.  

As we got near to Olongapo, people started getting off and finally the kids had a place to sit.  Once we pulled into Olongapo, I instructed the kids to not let any of the porters take their bags, as they'd just want to be paid for their "service".  The terminal was a busy, hot, loud place; it was perhaps a singular location that really described our trip (kind of like the palengke experience).  As soon as the kids got seated safely in the terminal (outside and hot), I ran off to find an ATM.  It was Friday and thus payday, and although I found an ATM quickly, there was a long line of about 10 people.  During my wait, I was approached by a crazy (drunk?) dude who started lecturing me about how messed up the world was.  Hm, was he perhaps exhibit #1?  I was worried he'd ask for money or worse, but he got bored and moved on.  

I waited about 15 min through the line and got to the ATM but it declined to give me any money.  Boo.    I knew I had funds in my account and after trying twice, had to use another ATM.  I waited nearby in yet another line and found success, though I was a little worried about people who might be watching me as I withdrew large sums.  I suppose most everyone was withdrawing large sums, so I wasn't alone.  I got it all done (equiv of $500) and ran back to the terminal.  I thought about stopping along the way for a snack to take to the kids.  I decided to just run back instead, and it was a super decision.  As I got in line for tickets, I read the schedule to find out that an express deluxe bus was due to leave right then to Pasay, which is the terminal closest to the airport, where we were headed.  I hoped we could make it!  

The lady in the booth told me there were only 4 seats left.  I said we could put Kristen on our laps if it meant we could make it.  She'd had to ask the conductor, she said. She did and we learned that there were in fact 5 seats left and that the bus was ready to leave right then.  We quickly boarded (without yet purchasing tickets).  Tender mercy number 2; we made the bus!  

The fare was P300 each, which was spendy by local standards, but means for all of us to get to Manila, it only cost less than $50.  This bus even had a bathroom and was very comfortable, though its wifi didn't work.  The ride lasted 3 hours and went via the tollways which cut hours off the normal trip.  We didn't slow down (it's all relative in the Phils) until we got to outer Manila.  Then the road got busy, bumpy, and slow.  Very slow.  We made our way through Caloocan and down ESDA (the main highway in that part of town where I used to drive as a missionary when I'd go to the area offices).  During the ride I tried to get the data card I'd purchased for my iPad to work, but it kept having issues.  

The kids watched movies on their iPods and snacked on things we'd brought (which was good since that was about all they had most of the day).  Jolayne managed to catch some iconic shots along the route.  I'm glad she got some shots of the rice fields in action.

Manila is not my favorite city and I had hoped to skip it all together.  But after multiple flight cancellations it became necessary. 

We finally made it to Pasay (a city within Manila) and disembarked.  It was 130p, 3 hours before our flight.  Right on time.  The next express bus would have been 90 min later, and would have put us too close flight time.  Tender mercy number 3.  We grabbed our bags quickly and arranged for a large taxi to the airport.  They wanted P400 each, which was more than we'd paid for the whole family from San Antonio all the way to Olongapo!  I knew it was coming and didn't have many choices, though.  And the traffic in Manila is so bad that even though we only had a few kilometers to go, it would take 20-30 min.  As we pulled up to the airport, I realized we hadn't yet stopped to drop our extra luggage.  Weight restrictions on my ticket were severe, and we were only allowed 22lb each (10kg), with overages costing nearly $2/lb.  Our plan was to leave a couple backpacks full of stuff at the Marriott, which happens to be right across from the airport.  They don't even charge for that kind of thing, I've come to learn in my travels.  Saved me probably $100 or more in baggage fees.  I had to go through security to get into the building (and the vehicle was also searched in front of a drop-barrier along side a guard holding a loaded M15.  Different place, for sure.

We got to the airport and our cabbie (who wasn't even driving a legit marked cab, btw) asked if he could keep the change from the P500 I gave him.  That was beginning to grind on me; everywhere we go, someone wants money, and they're always asking for the extra, etc.  No big deal at first, but it's become a pain.  I agreed, trying to keep in mind that although I was being fleeced, I came from a much better life.  Once at the airport, we had to go through security just to get into the building.  Then off to the check-in counter.  I didn't know exactly how much our bags weighed, so it was kind of like a price-is-right game when we were asked to put them up on the scale.  We were only over by 3kg, and that still cost me P450 ($11).  Doable.  I was directed to another counter to go pay my fee (in cash only), and then bring the receipt back to the original counter.  Sillyness.  The checkin lady then lost one of our passports and suggested that she'd given them back to me.  Nope.  Had to ask her 5 times to get them all back.  Then she found it; oops.  By this time of the day we were all starting to get pretty frustrated with things.  Then they determined that I hadn't paid the terminal fee in my ticket, though all internet-based tickets were supposed to have the fee included as of a year or two ago.  But since I couldn't prove I paid it, I had to cough up another P1000 ($40) just for the privelege of leaving Manila.  Ka ching.  I got to that counter and saw the sign that said they take visa.  In an effort to save some cash, I gave her my Visa.  Not possible, she said.  Grr.  More cash.  This was really starting to grate on me now.  The Philippines is one of only two countries left in the world that make you pay the fees that way.  Finally we were off to actual security, where they separate men and women, but at least we didn't have to take off our shoes.  In fact, it was a sham as I watched the way they checked people; wouldn't have been hard at all to slip something through.

It took a good hour to get through everything, but we were finally inside the terminal.  It was perhaps 330p now and we hadn't had anything substantial since breakfast.  My girls all crash pretty hard when they have low blood sugar, and they were dragging by this time.  There weren't too many food choices, so we wound up eating (very expensive) fast food again from some no-name place.  It wasn't good, but we hadn't had anything except the snacks we'd brought on the long bus ride.  

Then we headed to our gate, which was pure cacophony  it's the best way to describe what was easily my most crazy airport experience of my life.  

The domestic departures area held about 500 people across 3-4 gates.  But there were no planes there.  The gates were for buses to go out to the planes (with airstairs on the tarmac).  The loudspeakers were crazy and impossible to understand, the aircon was weak, and the room was very uncomfortable.  After 6-7 hours of travel already, we were at the end of our ropes.  Our flight wound up boarding about 30 min late, but there were no "boards" to check status, and the announcements were either too hard to understand (not because of the Tagalog) or simply not made.  Finally we were asked to line up,  we were in the back so had to wait for about 4-5 buses before our turn finally came.  We loaded on, made our way to the plane, and went up the rear air stairs, which was nice.    

Our seats were in the last row.  The humidity was so high, the air vents on the plane were all pushing steam out.  It looked kind of surreal.

On the plus side, the plane appeared nearly new.  However, the seats were SO close together.  There was just no way I could sit straight at all.  I started by putting Kristen next to me so I could sit sideways with her.  Ultimately, we learned the seat next to us on the other side was unoccupied, so I made Amy switch me to that I could sit sideways in two seats and be a little more comfortable.  Tender mercy na naman (again).

Finally the plane left and then we waited for about 20 min for our turn to take off.  So we were now about an hour late.  Apparently there's only a single runway at the Manila airport, with no room to grow.  Amazing.  The climb out after takeoff was quite bumpy, but it smoothed out after we broke through the clouds.  They passed out snacks but you only could get water or coffee; soft drinks were for sale.  We passed.  I passed the time by reading some magazines on my ipad.  The flight finally landed right about sunset at a small airport in Kalibo, about 90 minutes from Boracay, then a ferry ride and finally a cab to our hotel.    

After we landed, we turned around at the end of the runway and taxied back on the same runway to get to the terminal; no taxiways.  And this is the "big" airport 1.5 hours away, whereas Caticlan is much closer but even smaller.  Kinda funny, though we always felt safe.

We quickly grabbed our stuff since people started pushing pretty quickly.  One thing about the Philippines is that people don't really wait in line the way they do in the west.  Line waiting is more like a gaggle of people who happen to be in the same place, and whoever pushes through first gets to go first.  Honestly, if you're from the west, it gets annoying pretty quickly as your personal space is continually impounded.  I noticed at the airport there was a sign in front of security that said essentially  "line up, and that means a real line, not a wiggly line".   

They pulled up airstairs again to the rear and we were amongst the first to deplane.  Got down into the single baggage claim and waited (with more nonsensical queueing) for our bags to come up.  They did so pretty quickly.  We then made our way out to find our contact, Ike Tabernilla.  Ike is the Philippine president of the BELIEVE foundation.  He happens to live near Kalibo and agreed to meet us.  We didn't realize, though, that he was going to take us all the way to Boracay.  Since it was now dark, that was a great favor.  Tender mercy yet again.  We loaded our stuff into his double-cab pickup and crammed all of us in (we'd done the same earlier) and were off.  It was to be a 90 min journey from Kalibo to Caticlan where we'd catch the ferry.  By this time it was very dark.  

About 30 min into our drive, I realized something horrific.  My stomach completely dropped as I exclaimed to everyone that I'd left my iPad on the plane.  OH NO!  I just kept repeating over and over.  I didn't know what else I could even say.  I was completely astonished at my own stupidity.  My iPad was lost!  I was immediately sure there was near zero likelihood of getting it back; no matter where in the world, when someone finds something like that, they claim it.  Surely in a country where an item like that represents perhaps two months salary, it would be gone.  I had the airplane mode turned on, so I couldn't even use the location services to send it a signal and warn of its loss, etc.  I was just devastated.  We did not have money to purchase a new one, either.  Not only that, but my iPad had all my notes for the trip; it was my lifeline to all my planning (though I did have backup printouts of the most important stuff).  Between that and the long day of travel, I had nothing left to give.  I was just barely holding it together.  Poor Jolayne felt the same way.  

Things had gone SO well for every moment of the trip thus far; I suppose I was due for a little of the inevitable not-so-great stuff that happens to everyone on nearly every trip.  But at the time I was having trouble noticing all the tender mercies I'd already witnessed during this long day.

To top it all off, our new friend Ike may well be the slowest driver in all the Philippines.  He averaged no more than 20mph on our trip.  instead of 90 min, it took well over 2 hours.  We were much more used to the prevailing get-there-fast-but-maybe-dead approach we've seen everywhere else.  Once we got to the jetty port (after 8pm) I had to go purchase tickets for the ferry.  Instead of a single window to buy them (or an automatic matchine, even), I had to go to three windows: one for the environmental fee, one for the terminal fee, and yet another for the ferry passage itself.  I came back something like P700 poorer (relatively expensive) and had a fist full of different colored tickets.  I was about to punch the next dude who told me I'd need to wait in a line and buy tickets.  To my amazement, Ike volunteered to even go over on the ferry with us to make sure we got where we needed, which was really nice of him.  He and his friend helped carry our bags on onto a large bangka (a narrow boat with outriggers).  The boat pushed back pretty quickly (in the dark, remember) and made the 10-12 minute crossing over to Boracay island itself.  We still had yet to see anything in the actual area, due to the nighttime.

After disembarking the ferry we were met with either a trike or "multicab" option.  We chose the latter (basically a tiny jeepney) as to be cheaper and Ike negotiated a price of P300 for us, which was very reasonable.  Ike rode with us some distance to the main shopping area and then wished us well as he left with his friend to enjoy their Friday evening.  It turned out good that we'd pre-negotiated since the driver later got lost and drove us around the island for at least 20 minutes.  We had no idea what was going on and had no sense of direction since we hadn't yet seen the place during the day.  We just went along.  Finally we figured out that the driver was thinking of another Palm-named resort, not the Palm Breeze Villa where we were destined.  He used more gas but I stuck to the original P300 price.  We finally rolled into the hotel around 830pm.  12 hours to get there from our starting point.  And minus one ipad.  Kind of an empty day.  I felt like I'd been punched in the gut, and I was embarrassed at my own stupidity.  

We had intended to go get some food at this time since we hadn't eaten much at all that day, but since didn't know our way around yet, and although there were options for delivery food, we elected to go with powerbars and then sleep.  We were just on empty; it was the hardest day of the trip.

On the flip side, the Palm Breeze Villa is just that, more of a villa than a hotel.  And it's great!  There are only 5 rooms, and nice pool, and an absolutely stupendous view of the water.  It's very private and quiet, and the rooms are clean, large, and well stocked.  It's the perfect place to stay, and we managed to get their only two connecting rooms, so the kids have their own spot and so do we; everyone is happier when we're not sleeping on top of each other.  

Next: Philippines - Day 8 (Boracay)


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