Monday, November 17, 2014

The Philippines is poor.  So how poor are Filipinos?  A pack of cigarettes is cheap, perhaps .50 USD per pack yet cigarettes are often sold by the "stick" because some smokers can't afford to pony up for a whole pack.  OTC drugs such as aspirin and paracetamol are sold by the individual pill, just tell the lady behind the drugstore counter how many pills you want (or can afford) and she'll get out her scissors and cut your order from a blister pack.

The Philippines has home grown department store chains like SM and Robinson's but there are also stores that cater to the low income market such as Lopues in Bacolod.  In the US it's often said that Walmart sells nothing but cheap Chinese crap but stores such as Lopues make Walmart look like Nordstrom.  The lighting is bare CFL, clothes are cheap and they look it, they look like they were tailored by a blind man with pinking shears.

Philippine cities have little or no public transportation so people rely on jeepneys, tricycles or pedicabs to get around.  In Manila the Jeepneys look like a cross between a Jeep and an open SUV.  They’re homemade and are usually powered by an Isuzu diesel engine.  People get piled in tightly like cattle, pay 8 pesos (around .20 cents) per trip.  In Manila the tires of Jeepneys are often bald, the lights don’t work,the brakes are questionable and if the drivers have insurance they wouldn't know it because they can’t read or write.  Tar black exhaust pours from the tailpipes.

In Bacolod everyone calls them Jeeps but they don’t even pretend to look like Jeeps.  They’re old Japanese vans that have had their beds partially enclosed to carry people.  


These homemade people carriers belch and bathe passengers and pedestrians in diesel smoke. I could see through rusted or badly welded joints in the floor. They're noisy too. This is what passes for mass transportation in the Philippines augmented by tricycles (a motorcycle lashed to a steel frame sidecar) and pedicabs.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What Filipino Middle Class?

While trying to figure out why the middle class in the Philippines was so small I stumbled across this fantastic opinion piece in the Philippine Star newspaper. The author, Nelson Navarro, makes it clear that the Philippines wasn't always the impoverished economic basket case that it is today and that 30 years ago the neighbors of the Philippines used to welcome affluent tourists Filipino with money to spend. Today countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and even China are modernizing and have thriving economies. The Philippines has slums, barefoot feral children, beggars and so many excess people that according to Navarro’s piece 10% of the population of the Philippines lives abroad as OFW’s doing manual labor or are domestic servants. Philippine government officials and their cronies make money off of the export of laborers and maids.

The Philippines attracts call centers because Filipinos speak English and work much cheaper than English speaking Singaporeans or English speaking North Americans but attracting other foreign investment where the Philippines has to compete with their neighbors is hard. Really, why should multinational businesses invest here? Infrastructure has been neglected, there’s almost no public transportation so employees can’t get to work on time, electricity costs more than anywhere else in Asia and is undependable so brownouts and blackouts are a regular occurrence due to inadequate grid, bribes are required at every stage of business, squatters are rife and the underpaid police and low level government officials augment their income with bribes. Why not have your office in places that have a modern infrastructure and that work better such as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or anywhere in China?

According to one of our hosts he fully expects that politicians to take bribes and steal from the public purse. That’s normal behavior in the Philippines and many other places in Asia. “But do they have to take it all?”, he said. Evidently they do and citizens mostly tolerate it. Manila’s public transportation consists of light rail lines (no municipal buses). The speed of the trains is held to around 20 mph due to a problem with the rails and the lack of spare parts due to a lack of money. New rolling stock is needed but a Czech supplier of rail cars was solicited for a 30 million USD bribe to get the business.

So what about the politicians? Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe collecting wife were the very models of kleptocracy but he's dead (but she lives on as a powerful elected senator as does her son Bong Bong). Current President Aquino has an actress sister named Kris who is all over the country on billboards as the official spokesperson for a fast food chain, Chowking. Her and a basketball player have a son named "Bimby". President Aquino also has a sister named, I kid you not, "Ballsy". Shockingly Ballsy was recently accused and cleared in a bribery scandal. It's that kind of country and will probably stay that kind of country.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

We Missed the Bus to Cebu

I had wanted to travel from Bacolod to Cebu by bus and ro-ro barge but alas, it is not to be.

I like the intercity bus and have taken it before from KL to Singapore, KL to Penang and back and Manila to Bagiuo and back. All were interesting journeys and different experiences; all good. I was looking forward to taking the ro-ro barge, I last took one across the Suez Canal in the 1980's.

We went to the bus station in Bacolod and it was very 3rd worldy.





Some buses had A/C (everyone here calls it "aircon") and some didn't and nobody could tell us which routes had it and which routes didn't.  No advance ticket sales, first come first served on the day of the trip only. All of the buses queued up in the bus station had small seats and open windows but in fairness to Ceres Liner (most bus companies in the Philippines incorporate the

word "liner" into their name) they have 13,000 buses in their fleet that spans several islands. Some of the barges are out and 2 of the 5 daily Bacolod to Cebu runs have been cancelled until further notice. For us the 7 hour bus trip was regrettably out of the question. So we'll fly to Cebu.

Airline travel in general is sterile and often a pain in the ass. We're going to fly Cebu Pacific airlines to Cebu, they're the Air Asia of the Philippines. They have a dismal and self proclaimed on time rate of 63%. After our experience flying from Manila to Bacolod, a 1 hour flight that took 4 hours, it wouldn't surprise me if the bus beat the plane. The bus would've cost $12.25 each plus food and water. Plane will cost $45 each. There are lots of flights from here to Cebu which is about 100 miles east but most have long layovers 300 miles north in Manila.

I had expected Cebu Pacific to try and charge me for sandwiches, snacks, baggage, fuel, insurance, seats and anything they could blow past me on their web page and they did run me through their gauntlet but they even tried to charge me a currency fee. Seeing that I had a foreign credit card they offered me a price in pesos and a price in dollars but when I ran their dollar price through a currency converter it was higher than the peso price when I converted it myself. My credit card doesn't charge a currency conversion fee so I picked pesos. And besides, if I was using a card that charged a currency conversion fee banks are even worse than airlines and they still charge it on a purchase billed from a foreign country in USD. The airline wants to make money, let them get it somewhere else.


Philippine Airlines or PAL or as they say here, "Plane Always Late". Cebu Pacific is owned by the Gokongwei family, another Chinese family who controls this country. I guess I won't get to find out who controls the ro-ro barges.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Haircut

After five weeks away from home I began to look just a bit shaggy and feel overheated in tropical Manila so I went for a haircut at Bruno's Barbers at the Magnolia Mall.  I had expected the usual quick prison barber shearing that I've become accustomed to in the states but as I soon discovered a haircut in the Philippines can come with the works.

I got an intricate haircut with a electric clipper, a scissors and a straight razor, the hair inside and around my ears was intricately shaved, I had a hot towel draped across my face while my back, arms, and hands were massaged right down to my fingers.  Cost with tip $6 USD.  

Manila

When I was in Manila last year I found the place to be a collection of gritty, hot shanty towns with gridlocked traffic and my pocket was picked at the airport. So why am I back?

My wife has many friends here and although Manila is indeed a smog and traffic choked corrupt city the individual people that we've been visiting and who have opened their homes to us have been beyond generous and hospitable.  Mega Manila may be chaotic, overcrowded, poor and steamy but the individual people have been beyond warm and welcoming.




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Flaw in My Thinking and the Possibility of Deportation

One of the foundations of our big sweep through Asia has been the ability to make it up as we go along. Have laptop and smartphone will travel, just look for agreeable fares and hotels and go to that place like a modern vagabond and plot out the next leg based on the same premise. But I almost got caught up in a major flaw in this kind of thinking, the kind that rubs governments the wrong way.

When we went to pick up our boarding passes for the flight from Xiamen to Manila on China Southern Airlines the agent noticed that we only had one way tickets to the Philippines. she asked to see a ticket to our next destination but we told her that we didn't know where we were going after a month in the Philippines.  My wife was born in Manila so the airline wasn't concerned with her but the China Southern agent had me fill out a form absolving the airline of any financial responsibility if the immigration officers in Manila decided to deny me entry and have me immediately deported. Eleanor spoke to the agent in Mandarin but she wouldn't budge.  The concept is sound, what would prevent me from entering the Philippines on a 30 day tourist visa and never leaving? In modern American lingo I'd be an undocumented immigrant. I'd be an illegal alien national and on the lam from the Pinoy la migra.

When we landed in Manila I deposited my form attesting that I hadn't visited west Africa and that I didn't have Ebola and I moved on to the immigration windows.  Eleanor spoke to the immigration officer in Tagalog and convinced them that since she's entitled to a one year Balikbayan visa I should be too.  The immigration officer agreed and I avoided having to pay for my own deportation to China.

The weather in Manila is hot and steamy.  I'm told that the best way to cool down is to enjoy a big bowl of cheese and corn ice cream.


Want Free Internet in a Chinese Airport?

Don't have a Chinese phone number?  Good luck!

I checked "around Gate 10 or 12" and found nothing.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Is Why I Never Buy A T-Shirt In Any Language But English



Also seen in China: 
A pimply fat teenaged girl wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed:
ACNE STUDIO
A perky teenaged girl of perhaps 15 wearing a shirt that screamed:
TITTIES & BEER
An old lady wearing a shirt that said:
I WANT TO F*CK RIHANNA!



Friday, October 17, 2014

On the Rail Road Again

On the way to the Hangzhou East Railway railway station the security check in the Hangzhou Metro finally found my Swiss Army knife. Bags and luggage all get x-rayed and and sometimes inspected at Chinese subway stations but my knife had so far avoided detection on the Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing and Nanjing metros. Often the cops are bored and one behind the screen in Nanjing was sound asleep but an on the ball policewoman in Hangzhou saw my knife on the x-ray scanner and wanted to see it. She asked me something politely several times in Mandarin until I finally pointed to Eleanor. “She wants to see your knife”, Eleanor said. I dug the knife out of my suitcase and presented the contraband to the police woman. She looked at it briefly, smiled and returned it to me. Uighur terrorists bent on butchering Chinese railroad passengers are known for packing bigger blades and don't look anything like Fat White Uncle. A similar security check at the Hangzhou East Railway station either failed to detect my knife or they racially profile and just didn't care about Fat White Uncle and his puny multipurpose blades. I got a quick wanding and was turned loose to get my bags and wait for our train to Xiamen.

We took a few 2nd class high speed rail trips from Nanjing but this time we were headed south from Hangzhou to Xiamen. It's a nearly 7 hour and 540 mile journey so we sprung for an extra $16 US for 1st class tickets. Now that I've seen 2nd class and first class I know that in China 2nd class is the way to go, at least on a CRH train. The seats in 1st class are a bit wider and there's more legroom but our fellow passengers in 1st class seemed a bit more arrogant. They hogged all of the overhead luggage space above our seats leaving none for us which meant that our extra 1st class legroom had to used for some of our bags until the owner of the suitcase over my head relented 2 hours into the trip. If anything they were yelling at each other and bellowing into their cell phones even louder than their comrades in 2nd class. All of their phones were ringing, for awhile it sounded like a telemarketer office. Wall mounted screens were playing a loop of car commercials, an ad for a seafood supply company with a toll free number, shorts extolling the virtues of taking the high speed train; all with a loud soundtrack. My idea of 1st class is leans more to having my pillow plumped and clinking champagne glasses, not that I would know from actual experience.

But this time I had a clear window and could see China whiz by. What I saw were tired looking factories, cranes building gigantic apartment complexes often in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere and a forest of belching smokestacks. All of those smokestacks explain the thick smog that I've seen everywhere in our China travels that cuts visibility and most likely also cuts years off of the lives of the average Chinese citizen.

Any train trip or freeway cruise in the US would reveal that much of the housing stock in the US outside of dense cities consists of single family homes. As China has whizzed by on the high speed train during our trips I'm seeing few single family homes. There must be more single family homes somewhere, I'm seeing plenty of big Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, Land Rovers, Porsches and Cadillacs in the cities so there's plenty of money sloshing around in China for nice homes. What I saw are large clusters of apartment buildings with their windows and decks encased in steel mesh that make them resemble a sad vertical prison. Older apartment blocks often have cracked, moldy and fading facades and look like they're falling apart.  From the outside looking in at night the apartments seem dimly lit.

So China is a country of contradictions. One hand there's the new gleaming modern infrastructure. High speed trains, new bridges, subways are furiously being dug in many large Chinese cities. The stores are full of domestic and foreign food and the streets are choked with cars, trucks and electric scooters. On the other hand many of the houses and factories are falling apart, some goods are hauled with overloaded and beaten up 3 wheeled trucks. I'm surprised at all the sharply dressed women on one hand and the legions of beggars displaying their open sores, burn scars, amputations and pathetic and grotesque infirmities on the other. I'm more accustomed to American women who all too often dress like lumberjacks and American beggars; either sad drunks or able bodied young men panhandling for drug money.  Chinese beggars are hard core but supposedly often members of begging gangs.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

We Try CRH High Speed Rail

Greetings from aboard train D5116, China Railways CRH service from Chengdu to Chongqing. CRH means that this is a high speed train, we're occasionally hitting speeds close to 200 km/h, that about 120 mph and cruising at around 150 km/h (around 100 mph). But it's a Chinese train and even though we're in first class it's full of screaming, whining children and adult passengers bellowing into their cell phones and at each other at the top of their lungs. There are 2 TV screens advising people to not take off their shoes and expose their smelly feet, don't make a mess and other loud announcements from cartoon Chinese police about manners and safety.

I thought that perhaps unlike an airplane I'd be able to look out the window and peacefully watch the Sichuan countryside roll on by. No such luck, my fellow passenger have drawn the window shades so I might as well be on an airplane or on a subway. At least the seat is comfortable and there's more leg and seat room than in airline economy class but without my own headphones the din of my fellow passengers would quickly wear me down. 

Our train left from the Chengdu North railway station, a madhouse and another of the many Chinese firedrills we've experienced on this trip. The Chinese have had security problems at railways stations in the recent past with teams of Muslims separatists from their rebellious far west getting loose stabbing and slashing and many have died. We both got wanded and our bags were x-rayed but neither of us are the people they're on the lookout for. I had a Swiss Army knife in my luggage which they didn't bother bringing to anyone's attention.  The men's room was incredibly unsanitary, I wanted to wash my hands but one man hoisted his little boy up to pee into one of the sinks and an old man was submerging and washing several big bunches of grapes in the other. There was no soap available anyway.

There are people in the US that say that the Chinese are ahead of us in high speed rail technology and that we need to build such railways and catch up. In my opinion that would be a very bad idea for the US.  But the financial cost of such a project in the US would break the bank. Oh wait, our bank is supposedly already broken and we already own an existing money losing passenger rail operation: AMTRAK.

When a train line is being built in China and your house or business is in the way the dispute is not settled after a long wait and a court date. The railroad tells you that their train is coming through and you have a certain amount of time to be gone and go live somewhere else. There might be a token financial settlement but ultimately your house will be bulldozed, you will be displaced and displaced rather quickly, the train is coming through and because it's a priority prestige project by the central government it waits for no one. They don't require high cost union labor or women and minority contractors nor do they take into account minority rights or social justice or any of the other niceties that Americans consider necessities.  The work goes on at all hours, often 24/7.  The way to get Chinese style high speed rail in America is to build it the Chinese way.  Would anyone in the US stand for that?

High speed trains can make sense in China because of the population density of the place, these trains are a Chinese solution to the unique Chinese problem of moving a massive and dense population.  China is roughly the size of the continental US but their 1.3 billion people are concentrated in a swath in the Chinese coastal east. It's as if most Americans lived on the eastern seaboard to perhaps as far west as Chicago and St Louis except there are probably 5 times as many Chinese in China as Americans in the US. China has over 100 cities with a population in excess of a million, the US has 5.  The Chinese have people to move, Americans should be glad for our places with wide open spaces.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

When The Travel Bug Bites

As of this writing we've been in China for a week and change.  In that time:
  • I ripped the toenail on my left big toe
  • I nearly twisted my ankle and almost broke my Birkenstock.  Without glue and tools I will make due.
  • One of Eleanor's eyes is red and sore
  • We're both jet lagged from the 15 hour time change but we're adapting
  • I've had a bout of Chairman Mao's revenge and Eleanor has had several, perhaps enough for honorary member in the Chinese Communist Party
  • Something bit Eleanor and her arm swelled up like a sausage
  • I've got the sniffles and a sore throat, maybe from too much A/C or being packed in too tightly on trains and buses and having half of the population of the People's Republic of China sneeze on me.
Perhaps we'd better slow down and act our ages.  But I know that even when we get packed like sardines into trains and buses, get sent on wild goose chases by badly translated maps and eat things that we never want to taste again, such as Sichuan peppercorns, I know that we're having the kind of shared experiences and adventures that can't be bought and that we'll remember when health or age makes new travels and adventures too difficult or impossible.


Behind The Great Firewall/Golden Shield Project

Although I have access to the Internet at hotels in China it's not the Internet that I know back home, it's the Internet with Chinese characteristics. Before coming to China I had read that Gmail and anything Google are banned and unavailable, along with the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia and Facebook but I'm finding that Gmail is hit and miss (anything Google is mostly a miss). I found something that gets our rooted phones around the Great Firewall and I've been remoting into my PC back home for access to Gmail and Google anything else but it's still a pain in the ass and that's probably the point. Besides, remoting into a PC in another country isn't an option for Chinese citizens

While I truly enjoy sticking to the man and thumbing my nose to his Great Firewall it's ultimately wearing me down. At times my link to my PC back home slows to a crawl and I can wait 15 seconds for the screen refresh of a map to reach me here in China. But strangely enough my US phone number rings through to me here when I'm on WiFi at no cost to me and as long as I'm on WiFi I can place and receive phone calls as if I were at home. And most of the connections have been excellent.

The secret to using the Chinese Internet seems to be in staying away from anything from Google just the way the Chinese government wants me to. That means giving up Google Chrome too. Internet Explorer with Bing comes right up in Chinese and offers the option of English. Bing's local maps come up in Chinese only and can't seem to find my hotel or anywhere I want to go so Bing Maps is useless. Google's maps can find my hotel but can be wildly inaccurate.

Bing's Web searches are quick and government sanitized for my protection. Websites from the US that are Great Firewall approved are slow but they work. A Bing search for the NY Times shows links to various sections of the newspaper but clicking on them delivers a message that says, “The Page Cannot Be Displayed” and implies a connection problem, but not the censorship problem that caused it. That way the user never knows whether the problem is an undersea cable break or censorship and rather than dwell on something that can't be known most users will just go on to something else that works. This is China and you can't fight the Forbidden City Hall. The Internet can be a frustration if you insist on using it in a way that is not government approved.

So I use Gmail, read the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal and my wife uses Facebook here in China. Am I scared of a visit from the Chinese Public Security Bureau? No. Why should they waste their time on me? This isn't North Korea. I'm reading my forbidden websites in English and I know no Mandarin to tell people what I've read. I can't tell anyone what I've read even if I wanted to and in a few weeks I'll be safely out of the country so why should the Chinese fret about me? Besides, the Chinese make allowances for tourists. CNN, HBO, NHK and Newschannel Asia are forbidden for Chinese citizens in their homes but have been available to me in hotels in China.

I'm Back in China

At the supermarket I saw rolls of toilet paper for sale, the brand name is “Face”.   A popular brand of Chinese condom is called "Jissbon".  There's a brand of Chinese made cars with the name of "Riich". I know not whether those are unforced errors, cultural misunderstandings on my part or marketing genius for a unique market.

The more I come here the more I realize that I don't really understand the place. To me some of the food is strange, a distant echo to some of the Chinese food that I enjoy in the States.  The Chinese really seem to like fast food and have Chinese fast food chains, we tried several and they're dreck. Drivers are arrogant, pedestrians are determined but stupid and beat and traffic cops are either blind or don't care so I've seen some interesting near misses along with one entirely avoidable accident (hint: don't make a right turn from the center lane).  Or, as Wikitravel rightly warns about traffic safety where I am now in Chengdu, Sichuan:

Traffic can be insanely hectic and motorists as well as cyclists and other pedestrians often have a complete disregard of you, the pedestrian. Beware when crossing streets; even when the WALK sign is green, (this means nothing to them or to the Police), traffic taking a right or left turn even when they are not permitted to turn will try to run you over or honk at you to make way for them. Accidents are commonplace as are deaths. Look every direction but up. Watch out for taxi drivers, bus drivers and private car drivers who have absolutely no regard for your life. Also watch out for motorists, they are all unlicensed riding silent electric motorbikes coming at you from the left, from the right, from behind and from the front. To stay safe, it is best to walk with a crowd, preferably in the middle.

In Chengdu I watched an old lady slowly cross 6 lanes of traffic lane by lane in a pedestrian crosswalk against a red don't walk sign while pushing an even older lady in a wheelchair.  Cars, trucks and scooters whizzed by blaring their horns, each old lady didn't seem to notice, it was probably just another mundane trip to the store for them.  Those same cars, trucks and scooters would've thought nothing of whizzing by if the old ladies were crossing those 6 lanes with  green walk signal.

Everyone, especially in style conscious Beijing, seems to have an expensive cell phone China is the home office of counterfeit everything so all of the iphones I've been seeing could be knock offs, same with the fancy Samsungs.  I've seen knockoff Birkenstocks for sale here, I call them Knockinstocks. We took the Beijing and Chengdu metros all over and I kept thinking of the term, "Chinese firedrill". Everyone's packed tightly backside to navel and bellowing at each other or into their cellphones.

In Beijing I noticed much less of the the nasty Chinese habit of spitting in public than on past trips. But in Chengdu I hear that regrettably loud throat clearing followed by loud expectoration, or as I've heard it called, the Chinese national anthem, all too frequently and watch out so that my feet don't get splashed.

Eleanor has been indispensable on this trip.  The average pet dog in China understands more Mandarin than I do and I know from past solo trips here that getting anything accomplished when you can't read, write or speak is next to impossible.  Eleanor can't read but she does speak 4th grade Mandarin and that really is making the grade for us.

I had read that the central government in Beijing had a nationwide campaign to rid the country of Chinglish for the 2008 Olympics but they seem to have forgotten about Chengdu, examples such as these are everywhere.  




We'll be in China for another few weeks with more destinations in Asia to come.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Welcome to Airport Free WIFI

Many world airports have free WiFi and Capital Airport in Beijing is no exception.  But don't expect to just attach to the free wifi and start surfing.  WiFi in China has to be traceable so the airport in Beijing has machines that will scan your passport and issue a pass like the one I got below.  I'll say this for the free WiFi at the Beijing airport, it worked much better than the free WiFi at SeaTac airport in Seattle. The last time I tried to use the free WiFi at SeaTac it was unusable.