headed to PH

For the past 7 years my company has sponsored a home building program based in the Philippines: http://gk1world.com/ . Each year volunteers are recruited from our various business units around the world and sent to PH for a week to participate in building homes for refugees who currently live in a tent city (interestingly, the tents were all donated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). Never having been to Manila, I eagerly filled out the application and was approved to go! After an orientation meeting and several additional lunches and after work get togethers to plan games for the build site’s children, I felt confident about the trip. Still, never having been to the Philippines before I had no idea what to expect. I spoke with co-workers who had previously gone on this trip; they spoke highly of the experience.  One story (about the positive effects of the trip) I heard over and over again was about an colleague based in Ireland who quit his job and went to work for GK.

You’ll be proud of me, fitting 1 week’s worth of my personal items into a carry one; the donations for the children fit into my checked luggage.

Homebuilding, take 2

After a short flight on China Airlines (< 2 hours, during which we were served a lovely small snack – a definite difference from Delta where we got nothing but peanuts on a nearly 4-hour cross country trip) we arrived at MIA (Manila International). After standing in line to exit the plane, we stood in line for immigration with a whole SEA of people. (photos coming soon)

After about 30 minutes (LAX could learn something from this method of processing people, we got our luggage (by now it had arrived and the super friendly airport staff stood by to help grab it off the belt) and stood again in line for customs. Oddly, there was a well-dressed gentleman (who apparently had made it through immigration) who did not have his official immigration card all foreigners entering the Philippines must fill out in-flight. He had a bag labeled “Bahrain Duty-Free” and looked middle eastern so I asked, are you from Bahrain? Yes, he said but then seemed concerned about speaking openly with a woman. I could see his bright red passport, stamped with a fancy gold seal and gold (arabic?) characters. I’ll bet it was real gold!

I could see the airport exit but we still had one more hurdle: money exchange. We had heard that it was best to have USD and that the airport had a better exchange rate. 80 USD netted ~3600 pesos.

Our company had arranged a driver for us, so we went in search of him. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many people milling around. And man was it HOT and HUMID! A bottle of water (don’t drink anything not bottled we were told) cost 40 pesos. And we were off to our Manila hotel, well sort of. Think of LA drive time traffic and add to that motorcycles zipping about, “Pulis” with guns literally walking onto the road, and Jeepney’s (former military vehicles pressed into service as public transport) plowing through the mass of vehicles, and you’ll begin to get the picture.

At the hotel, we schlepped our bags (most of us had a large suitcase just full of donations for the refugee children) to our rooms and went in search of dinner. What an adventure!

The hotel concierge gave me a map and I managed not to get us lost as we walked down an unlit main road, across street without traffic lights. (If you know how directionally-challenged I am, you’ll understand what sort of miracle that was!) We decided on an Indian restaurant on the 5th floor of the Podium mall since there were a fair number of Indian people also eating there. The food was surprisingly good (although they didn’t have the masala dosa listed on the menu). Our little group consisted of: 2 Japanese, 3 Taiwanese, and me, having vegetable biryani, green curry, naan, and raita in the Philippines! The cost? 435 peso each (~10.00)

My asian co-workers had a ball taking photos of practically everything! Tired but satisfied, we found our way back to the hotel. Tomorrow we get up early to get our first look at the build site.

Homebuilding, take 1

I’m sitting at the A1 departure gate at Taoyuan International Airport, waiting for my flight to Manila to board. I’m plugged into a computer hotspot, trying to connect to the internet. I can see the “free Airport wifi” listed on my internet options but for some reason, my new laptop doesn’t feel like connecting to it. (Ah, the intricacies of getting online in a foreign country.) I have a feeling things will not get easier in the Philippines. (read: It’s truly a 3rd world in the “provinces” – or so I’m expecting.)

It’ll be interesting to see if the reality truly is that bad.

Some notes about departing from Taoyuan International Airport: the general public can actually get past the check-in counters and up to a strip mall of duty-free (and other) shops. If you’re travelling with family, this allows you to spend a few more minutes with them, go grab a meal together. Then your family/friends must leave as it’s through the custom’s line and onto security where you do not have to remove your shoes!! It’s all very civilized. No one is herding you into a specific area and droning on about “TSA” instructions, and little plastic bags as you pass by. It appears that the biggest dangers to airport (and personal) security are firecrackers, magnets (big ones, from the graphic), and guns. Now come on, who carries around a big old magnet? or thinks, hey, lemme celebrate my upcoming flight by firing off some small (but really loud) explosive devices? I guess it could happen, but in a nation of really well-behaved and super polite people, I’m guessing it doesn’t happen too often.

I’m drinking a Bernachon coffee (30 NT/1USD, cold, in a can, from a vending machine) and waiting for caffeine to kick in. I was up late last night, packing the suitcases: one for my personal stuff and one for all the donated and purchased items. We were told not to wear jewelery or wear fancy clothes, since the crime rate in PH is apparently quite high. Yikes! I got lots of tips on how to avoid getting pickpocketed from my filipino co-workers. It’ll definitely be a change from super safe Taipei.

My co-workers have arrived and are filling up their water bottles from a free vending machine next to the restrooms. Hmmmmm, doesn’t sound too appealing to me. I can see our plane at the gate…

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As for me, I will take the road less travelled…