Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Philippines

Partially written at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila:

Awaiting our flight out of Manila to Kuala Lumpur.  The hospitality here in Manila has been wonderful, we haven't been able to buy a meal and it hasn't been for lack of trying.   Eleanor's friends opened their hearts to us and in at least one case, their homes.  They showed us the city and even some of the countryside.  But as wonderful as the Filipino people have been the Philippines itself is heart breakingly broken.

Take the airport in Manila.  Most Asian capital cities have wonderful new airports speeding arrivals to their downtowns by modern high speed rail lines.  NAIA is not one of those Asian airports.  It looks and smells like an American Greyhound bus station from the 1970's.  Light fixtures are dark with missing or blown out bulbs, the ceiling is stained by roof leaks.  The 2 guards who were supposed to inspect our boarding passes were too busy taking cell phone selfies to bother with us.   Except for the liquor store the shops at the airport are few, dimly lit and poorly stocked.  This airport doesn't need a makeover, it needs a wrecking ball.

But it's not out of character with the city that it serves.  Manila traffic is absolute chaos.  I saw many stop signs in Manila but I never saw a car stop for one.  When we were being taken around Manila kids would approach the SUV at a red light and get right up to the windows attempting to sell home made feather dusters, brooms, plastic Santa Clauses or sunglasses with built in LED's.  This is the kind of place that I've read about where if you stop for a traffic light and dangle your arm out of the car window street urchins could steal your watch in a flash.  I was cautioned by locals to not ride the rapid transit rail lines, they were tightly packed and unsafe due to violence, groping and pickpocketing.  A friend of Eleanor's told me that the rail rapid transit lines have no escalators because the money to buy and install them when the lines were originally built had been pilfered because the government in the Philippines is a kleptocracy.

Before I came to Manila I had read about the jeepneys, the icon of the Manila streets.  When I got here I saw them, they're banged up homemade minibus/trucks that carry people or sometimes cargo, a sort of home made ragtag private rapid transit substitute for the buses that the government doesn't seem to provide. Passengers and barefoot feral children hang off the backs of the jeepneys in traffic.  When the jeepneys move they belch coal black diesel exhaust onto everything and everybody so Manila lives under a brown cloud.  The spare tires on a jeepney are often bald, sometimes so bald that the tire cord shows.

Worse yet are the tricycles, sort of a local tuk-tuk.  A tricycle in the Philippines is a motorcycle lashed to a sidecar.  I saw tricycles carrying 7 people at once with 4 crammed into the sidecar and 2 people sitting behind the driver. With such a load the tricycle can't move very fast and for safety's sake that's probably a good thing.  But that slows down the cars, trucks and jeepneys to the speed of the tricycles which gums up everything.  Because of the insane traffic entry into Manila is restricted by licence plate number.  The well to do get around this by simply buying and licensing a 2nd car.

Or take the cell phone system.  Locals tell me that it's necessary to have several cell phones or a phone that accepts multiple SIM's because while the local competing cell phone carriers do interconnect with each other they charge more to connect calls to their rivals so many people have service with all of the companies because it's cheaper to do that then to pay their higher charges to call people who use competing companies. Businesses often list several phone numbers, one for each carrier.

So if the government is a screwed up bribe and kickback machine why not vote them out?   Corruption is rampant but the electorate votes the same folks back in with majorities that would make Saddam Hussein proud.  When we were were in Batangas province, I saw incredible poverty with spots of very conspicuous wealth.  I checked, in recent elections the governor was reelected with almost 94% of the vote.  But it's worse than that, read a few paragraphs here about the governor  That kind of comic nonsense is the norm in the Philippines, the people get the government that they deserve.  I broached this subject with several people I met in the Philippines, all were aware how sad and desperate it made the country seem.

So the Philippines makes due economically by exporting workers to more prosperous economies and exists financially by remittances sent home by these OFW's or Overseas Philippine Workers.  The rich families that control the Philippines make money every time an OFW deposits their earnings into one of their banks or calls home to friends of relatives via the phone companies that they own at toll rates that are kept artificially high.

When we were in Dubai we had dinner with Eleanor's niece Rachel, she's been an OFW in Dubai for 10 years.  Exporting workers means that the motivated best and brightest of the Philippines are working and benefiting someone else.  Some of the money comes back but the talents and skills that the country needs do not.  There's an separate OFW entrance and lounge at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.  I asked Rachel if there were any advantages to being an OFW at the airport.  She replied that the only one she would think of was that OFW's were exempt from having to pay the exit fee of $12.70 US.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why I'll Never Fly Malaysia Airlines Again

I've flown Malaysia airlines before, this year we flew them from Kuala Lumpur to Manila and back.  The flight to Manila was 90 minutes late, the flight back to Kuala Lumpur was 2 hours late.  Airlines have scheduling problems and things happen that aren't within their control, it happens to all airlines.

But my recent flight from Manila to KL was perhaps the worst flight I've ever been on.  Stuck on the tarmac, screaming children directly behind me, the person behind me had long legs and we all had confining seats so he kicked me in the ass for a half hour.  A dirty look made that stop.  Eleanor had a talk about proper mothering with the fat Filipina with the screaming child, that worked for only a few minutes

The 737-800 was in poor shape.  My seat pocket was bent out of shape, broken and ripped.  The carpeting on the main aisle down the airplane was worn and unraveling.  My seat belt was worn out.  It was so old and worn out that I could stick my finger through the webbing and that's a safety hazard (see below).  If the seat belt in my car was this worn out I would've replaced it before it got as bad as I saw tonight.  I've flown Air Asia before and while the terminals was bargain basement the flights were better than Malaysia Airlines and the planes in better shape.

I showed the holey seat belt to the steward when he asked me to buckle up.  He thanked me to bringing it to his attention, assured me that the seat belt was absolutely safe and said that he'd let someone know about it just as soon as we got to Kuala Lumpur.  Assuming that he did that it'll be great for the next butt to sit in that seat but it only convinced me that Malaysia Airlines is either too poor to fly safely (they've been losing money) or they don't care about their customers and employees.  Either way I won't fly them again, a blatant safety problem such as the seat belt below makes me suspect that the safety neglect could be deeper and I'd rather not fly such an airline.

Buckle up for safety on Malaysia Airlines!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kuching: Beware of Extreme Weather

Kuching is the largest city in East Malaysia, the capital of Sarawak state and is on the island of Borneo, a large island that Malaysia shares with Indonesia and Brunei.  Sometimes parachuting into a foreign city clicks and sometimes it clunks.  Kuching has been partly clunk.

For one thing I picked the wrong hotel.  We stayed at the Citadines, they're a Singaporean chain that I've had good luck with in the past in Bangkok and Tokyo.  But the Citadines Upland Kuching is in a terrible location for anything downtown, one that I should have noticed from a map.  The Citadines Upland Kuching is located on a 4 lane divided boulevard halfway between the airport and downtown and is central to nearly nothing except an under rented mall across the boulevard.  There are no sidewalks.  Although on the 10th floor we awake daily to the sounds of chickens and especially roosters.  The hotel staff told us that there was no bus to town.  "Taxi only, we call for you!" said the check-in clerk.

But there is a bus.  From our 10th floor window I saw a beat up green bus taking on passengers at a covered bus stop right outside the hotel.  We gave it a try and it worked, sort of.  The K-8 bus meandered through the city and took us to a downtown street that doubles as the local bus station.

Last stop, everybody out!
From there we jumped into the city to be exposed to the weather, which seems to alternate between a searing, punishing, will sapping equatorial sun and steamy humidity and the tropical downpours and violent thunder and lightening storms that roll in from the interior jungles.  The buses stop running at 6PM, or sometimes 5:30 PM or whenever they want to pack it in for the day.  We were marooned at a bus stop in the afternoon watching others wander away after they had given up any hope of the bus.

The next morning we were waiting for the bus to take us into Kuching when a small beaten up beige Toyota van stopped and the others waiting with us at the bus stop scampered aboard so we did too.  It took us downtown to the same street as the bus, we paid our fare of 1.50RM and scampered out for our morning broiling.

There were 9 of us in this tiny van.  The driver is the one wearing the Islamic headgear
We got a one hour respite from the searing sun by taking a river cruise. The boatman seated us in the boat, prepared for the journey by taking a leak against a wall before we headed down river.  The boat was so tiny that shifting my body for a comfortable position or a better camera angle caused the boat to list.

But the shade and the breeze as the boat headed up and then down river was so refreshing in the stifling afternoon heat that we took the river cruise twice.  The second time we had run into a semi retired tour guide while we waited for one of those city buses that never come.  Richard Yeo gave us a river tour seemingly just out of personal pleasure.  He seemed to be an all round great guy who answered all of our questions about Kuching and helped to turn our trip here around.  That's him with Eleanor below.

Hi Richard!
Questionable hotel location in a city with great food but weather extremes. Our next destination will still be tropical but I've already secured a reputable hotel in the best part of town.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Back From the Dead

It took a while for the will to live to return to my food poisoned body. Between hurried trips to the bathroom I spent most of a day in the hotel curled up on the bed in a shivering ball waiting to either get better or die. Eleanor kept waking me to feed me ibuprofen and insist that I take a long pull on a bottle of water. The next morning the shivering gradually subsided, the fever ebbed and I felt like pressing on for another day.

So we went to the Kuala Lumpur Auto Show at the Putra World Trade Center.  There's nothing special on the car market in Malaysia but I wanted to take in the whole experience.  They were displaying Chinese semi trucks, Volkswagens assembled in India and locally made Peroduas.  But in some ways it was like the car shows I remember as a kid growing up in New York.  Back then cars were displayed at shows with the aid of provocatively dressed women but we're enlightened now and no longer do that in the US.  The official state religion of Malaysia might be Islam and many local women wouldn't dream of walking outside without their hair covered.  Female police officers here keep their hair tucked up inside of a sort of canvas helmet but they still do cars shows here the old school way, with provocatively dressed women posing for men holding fancy cameras with long lenses.  How refreshing.  How sad that such displays are against our state religion but an Islamic country seems to have no problem tolerating this.  As for how women are seen by the Malaysian car industry check out Perodua's Female Empowerment Movement, FEM for short.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Kuala Lumpur: Sick

5 days without sleeping and pushing myself hard has finally caught up to me.  Chills, shivering, dehydration, fever, runs, headache with a touch of delirium.  Food poisoning?  Parasites?  Several big thunderstorms swept through during the night and in my delirium I couldn't tell whether the thunder and lightening was outside the hotel or inside my stomach.  The answer: both.  Eleanor is fine, it's just me.  Right now I can't be away from the can, it's at times like this that I'd rather be in my own home.

We ate at a banana leaf restaurant in KL's Little India the other day, a strange experience.  That night I bought some prepackaged cut yellow watermelon at the Cold Storage supermarket and Eleanor didn't eat that.  I once ate at an Indian restaurant in Seattle with friends from NY and I was the only one who got food poisoning.  Am waiting for my body to expel the poisons before we decide what to do next. 

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Hello Dubai

We flew to Dubai nonstop from Seattle on Emirates Airlines.  After I purchased the ticket I wondered how Emirates keeps their daily nonstops on this route full.  Now I know.  Our 777 to Dubai was packed but when we landed in Dubai and got to passport control and the luggage carousel we were pretty much alone, no crowds, no lines. Where did everybody go?  The answer is that most of the people on our flight were transferring  to connecting flights to India.  For anyone going from Seattle to India this seems to be the way to go.  The flight goes over the North Pole via Canada and comes down south to the Middle East over Norway, Sweden, Russia and Iran.

During the flight an Indian woman in the row ahead of us discovered to her horror that her vegetarian meal was actually sacred cow and she ran sobbing to the bathroom and would only leave the bathroom after being consoled by her husband. The rest of the flight for her and those of us around her consisted of an apology tour of stewardesses and pursers. The flight itself was was tight and approaching the 12 hour mark of the 14.5 hour flight I was thinking that prisoners on death row in an American prison confined to such a tight space would be contacting their jailhouse lawyers citing cruel and unusual punishment.  Of course at the conclusion of the lawsuit the prisoners would still be in prison but at the end of our flight we were in Dubai.

Camel milk in my morning coffee, 250 ml's sells for around .68 US and as the label says, it's Camelicious!

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