A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Two

 

Continued from
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part One

On my 15-hour Philippine Airlines flight, direct from Los Angeles to the Philippine capital of Manila, I’d scored the semi-holy grail of coach class: two airline seats all to myself. 

Sadly, though, both the seats and the plane itself were falling apart at the seams.

The aircraft had been built long before personal entertainment screens had been imagined, and by now its upholstery, seat-reclining mechanisms and plumbing had all reached their expiration date.

At the start of the flight, there were four working bathrooms. Six hours in, the floor at the rear of the plane was flooded…and we were down to one functional loo.

At least the plane’s staff was delightful. And the passengers, too.

Not surprisingly, I was the only non-Filipino on the flight; L.A. has a huge Filipino population, most of whom have at least one close relative who still lives in the Philippines. Every single person who walked by my seat(s) enroute to the bathroom(s) beamed a smile my way and asked me:

-If I was going to the Philippines (yes)
-Was this my first time there (yes) 
-Was I headed to the beaches (no)
-Was I traveling for business (yes) 

None of my inquisitors had ever visited the mountains and rice terraces above Manila, finding themselves too busy with family obligations and beach excursions. But they all made a glancing assessment of my traveling outfit (a cotton sweater, scarf and comfy pants intended to keep me warm on a cold plane) and said, with great concern:

“You know, the Philippines is a very hot country.”

I assured everyone that I was fully aware of the 100-degree-Fahrenheit-plus-humidity weather awaiting me, had packed my suitcase accordingly, and would soon be shedding some layers. This news was always met with an audible sigh of relief.

The takeaway from my friendly, ramshackle flight to Manila? You can’t necessarily count on Filipino planes, but Filipino people are sure to make you feel welcome, connected and possibly even safe. 

A cuddly family in the heat of afternoon at Manila’s Rizal Park

The safe part wasn’t too surprising, as I’d already chosen to ignore the threat of terrorist activity in the Philippines. I had read the U.S. State Department’s warnings about the Philippines, weighed the fact that I wasn’t going to the volatile far-southern region of Mindanao or the Sulu Archipelago (which simply has to be the inspiration for George Takei’s Star Trek character), and assured my mom and my friends that I would be fine. 

At least I had educated myself about this possible threat: neither the digital marketing/advertising/public relations/what have you agency nor the travel agency thought the Philippines’ potential for terrorist activity was a pertinent detail to mention. 

Shortly after an uneventful landing in Manila (which was celebrated with raucous applause), I was greeted outside customs by a smiling gentleman with my name on a placard, then swiftly deposited in the van of a resolutely unsmiling driver. Within moments I better understood his mood, as our hour-long journey from airport to hotel was more slog than drive, inching through a gobsmacking hailstorm of some of the worst traffic on Earth.

My first brush with Manila’s legendary traffic

Nonetheless, I was excited to stay in my very first Mandarin Oriental property, and to swan about like the swellegant glitterati who appear in ads for this upscale brand. All, I assured myself, would soon be well.

And for a few minutes there, it was.

The Mandarin Oriental Manila‘s lobby was a grand sweep of swirly carpet and chandelier shine, the flower arrangements magnificent, the guests well-heeled, and so what if the refreshment I was offered tasted like mango-themed Kool-Aid? It was cold, complimentary and handed to me by a young woman so picture-perfect with her brocade dress and pearlescent skin that I couldn’t help but be impressed.

But was she serious? The hotel’s charge for Wi-Fi would be $25 US for 24 hours? 

Yes, that was correct. And this fee hadn’t been comped along with the room, so I was stuck paying it out of pocket. Brilliant. Hadn’t the travel agency been informed that this was a trip for people dependent on Web access in order to work on behalf of the travel agency’s own paying client?

*crickets*

After grudgingly paying my Wi-Fi fee with a credit card (and vowing to expense it), I was handed a thick, um, manilla envelope that had been left for me at the front desk; I tucked this under my arm and headed for the elevator. Upon boarding, all air-conditioning was swallowed, the doors closing behind me with an airless silence. I was lifted 12 oxygen-free floors and spit out in an even more oppressively warm hallway, where the hotel’s flashy glamour abruptly died. Dazed by the beige blankness, the stillness and the heat, I turned to the elevator for help.

But it had gone.

The Mandarin Oriental Manila rises high above the Makati District

Along the maze of hallways, there were no framed pictures or baseboards or moldings where all of these things should be, and instead, only dark scuff marks, plaster chips and blistered, peeling wallpaper. My room itself was a 50-yard fake out, pretty from far away but tired, stained and worn up close. Jet-addled and sleepy, I eventually deduced that the hotel must be in the midst of a renovation. 

(And it is: the $20 million project is due for completion in the summer of 2013.)

Because really, what could make more sense than ensuring a travel writer the chance to see an otherwise swanky property look like an aging stripper without her makeup? Wouldn’t the Philippine Department of Tourism — and the hotel itself — be just thrilled?

Well, of course they would.

Quick, look over here at the hotel’s pretty swimming pool

Settling in amidst the faded splendor, I logged on to Wi-Fi and right away discovered that two bombs had exploded during the Boston Marathon. I stared open-mouthed at my laptop, tucked up in a Manila hotel bed and horrified to find that U.S. warnings of a terrorist threat to the Philippines had been tragically misplaced.

After sending out Facebook news of my own safety and my hope for that of Boston-based family and friends, I briefly turned to the package left for me at the front desk. It included a revised itinerary, a slim stack of Philippine pesos, and a note from the young public relations/marketing/advertising/what have you rep saying that he was sorry he hadn’t been available to greet me, but that I should call his room. My call went to his voice mail, where I left a message saying I hoped we could meet for breakfast the next morning.  

Quickly scanning the revised trip itinerary, I learned that:

1) There was still no plan for the entire next day in Manila;

2) The “luxury van” would now be picking us up the following evening at 11 pm (rather than 8 pm) for our 10-hour nighttime drive into the Cordillera Mountains;

3) For the entire week-long trip, I’d be responsible for purchasing two daily meals with the modest outlay of pesos.

I read no further. Surely, I need not worry, as the agency rep would certainly have both a plan and a wad of backup cash.

A modest outlay of Philippine pesos

Setting aside the itinerary, I glued myself to Boston-bombing reports on TV for the next few hours. Eventually, I checked Twitter, saw that my colleague, JD, had landed at Manila’s airport, and decided it was time to call it a night and go the heck to sleep.

The next morning I was up at dawn, ready to meet new people and a foreign city. But like any good digital addict, I first checked my email, where I’d apparently received this message late the night before:

“Got your message Melanie, glad you made it safely. Unfortunately I’m shipping out on my excursion at 6:30am tomorrow so won’t make it for breakfast.

Sorry we didn’t have the chance to meet, but please let me know how your trip is going along the way.”

In that moment, I understood something important that had previously been left unclear:

The agency rep had never intended to come along to supervise my and JD’s complex, potentially arduous itinerary of partially-paved mountain-road travel and rice terrace hiking, and would instead be joining two 20-something female bloggers on some of the calmest beaches in the world. 

On a personal level, I can appreciate the wisdom of his choice. However, on a professional one I can only rouse a sense of pure bafflement.

Press trips might offer some plush perks, but they aren’t inherently designed to be vacations; at their functional best, they’re experiential fact-finding missions. While it’s not always a pleasure to be shepherded by a person who’s primarily looking after their client’s interests, it provides assurance that someone (or in this case, anyone) in a position of authority gives a flying crap what happens to their investment in the trip at hand.

But oh, well…so much for assurance. 

 ___________________________________________

 To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Three

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Part 3! Part 3! …This series is my new crack. Thank you Melanie! 😀

  2. I echo what Jennifer said. ^

  3. The Philippines is generally peaceful and safe to travel even in the southern region of Mindanao. I hope next time you’ll have the chance to experience the beautiful places in the regions of Visayas and Mindanao. You’ll be missing a lot if you don’t go. At least, you’ve now explored a few provinces of Luzon, the northern region of the Philippines. I’m glad you survived in one piece afterall, haha!

  4. Wonderful story-telling, Melanie! I will be sure to be more leery of future press trip promises. Can’t wait to hear what happened next!

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  1. […] To be continued in A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Two […]

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  3. […] believe this, but post-museum, we had to go back to the Céleste, get re-packed…and return to the Mandarin Oriental. Happily, I only had to be there for a few hours, and a room had been arranged for me to use this […]

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