A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Nine
The story is almost over. I swear.
But I really don’t want to leave you hanging. I mean, we’ve come this far, right?
This is the tale of the daylight drive back from Banaue to Manila, my last night and day in the capital…
…and what happened after I got home.
If you’ll recall, I’d discovered that the travel agency’s Manila-updated itinerary had us leaving Banaue on the same day as my 10pm flight home. This seemed crazy-pants, as a 10-hour drive through mountains and cities + a 40-minute side trip to the airport + three hours for check-in and multiple passes through security = stressful situation at best, more likely resulting in a missed flight.
And being in Manila even longer.
After I pointed out this faulty plan to the travel agency, their one act of mercy (before vanishing) was to arrange our return from the mountains a day earlier. Only Noni the Van Driver knew where we were headed, but perhaps that was for the best. At the reasonable hour of 8am, our merry band left Banaue, bound for Manila.
The drive was amazing. With daylight on our side, we were actually able to see out of the windows. Winding ever lower through five provinces, we bounced back and forth in time: rice terraces gave way to artisans’ workshops, electronics markets, mopeds and colonial churches.
Crayon-bright, ramshackle cities gave way to flat rice paddies, and fields of wheat spilled out beneath lush and ever-smaller mountains.
At the midway point, in San Pedro, capital of the Nueva Vizcaya province, we stopped for lunch. One of Noni’s favorite places, the Marquez Restaurant is a faded 1960s cafeteria, full to the rafters with families who’ve come to get their eat on. If you budget $10 US at this place, you could possibly kill yourself with food; I spent $6 US, and got an enormous veggie egg roll; a bowl of beef stir-fried with a type of cucumber I’d been curious about (but found to be inedibly bitter); a Coke Zero and a water. Noni ordered an entire fish (his usual meal), and JD got egg rolls and minced pork topped with peanuts. I skipped the rice, but I think I was the only person in the entire restaurant to do so.
I reckoned that I’d have never found this place on my own, and was happy that Noni had; with a whole array of home cooking on hand, it was an opportunity to see what Filipino people really think of as Filipino food.
Our major pit stop of the day was at a freakishly huge, clean and fancy rest stop with sparkling bathrooms, clothing kiosks and a sexy, low-lit Starbucks selling huge cookies and strong coffee. I never drink Starbucks at home, but here? Gladly.
By the time we hit traffic in Manila, JD and I were starting to feel a little jumpy. (Of course, we’d just had caffeine — but still.) What would be awaiting us? Were we going to cry in front of each other if the hotel was craptacular?
But it wasn’t. In fact, The Hotel Céleste was delightful. So delightful, in fact, that if you have reason to be in Manila, I’d recommend you stay there. An artsy riot of color and shape, the lobby walks a line between garish and pretty, but the velvet seating is comfy and the staff smiles with genuine warmth. To boot, the Wi-Fi is free <golf clap> and their air-conditioning is like a blessing.
Also exciting? The hallways had actual decorations, my room was lovely, clean and quiet, and the big glassed-in shower reminded me that modern civilization isn’t all bad.
Having said our goodbyes to Noni, we dragged our weary selves a couple of blocks over to the Greenbelt, a giant shopping mall complex with five buildings arranged around a central park and a Catholic chapel. After a semi-endless wander through just Greenbelt 5 with our mouths hanging open (“Is that an entire camera store? And a showroom that just sells sofas? Oooo, look at the fancy chocolates…and Levi’s…and Hello Kitty…”), I chose a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner.
I could have chosen one of 100 other types of food, including a “Japanized” place next door called John and Yoko, but life is short and lemongrass is long. Our waiter was approximately 12 years old and deeply tragic at his job, but the pho, green papaya salad and spicy noodles food were reasonably tasty — and sleep was soon calling.
Our last morning together (who ever thought it would end?), JD and I had a kick-ass breakfast at the hotel, then wandered back to the Greenbelt to check out the attached Ayala Museum. A palace of Filipino history, art and culture built by the all-powerful Ayala family, this was the ideal place to acquaint ourselves with all sorts of things we didn’t learn throughout the week. The museum’s focus leans toward the aristocratic and missionary — much like the all-powerful Ayala family — but a starlit sky full of LEDs over a flotilla of ancient sailing vessels, rooms full of gold jewelry, and 50+ dioramas of the history of the Philippines’ were pretty damn cool.
I know you won’t 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 this time around, a room had been arranged for me.
As comfortable as I managed to make myself, the real objective of the day was a meeting in the lobby that afternoon. A meeting, that is, with the young PR/marketing/ad agency/what have you rep.
This experience was not unlike watching a baby deer get pushed out onto a freeway in an attempt to toughen him up. The young man appeared with a fey, jaded and irritating guy in his 30s who, unbeknownst to us, had been a third writer on the beach itinerary. Why he was present at our lobby-bar pow wow, I’ll never know for sure, but I assume it was to make Young Marketing Rep feel safe.
I just remember said writer waxing on about how relaxing and lovely his trip had been, and a struggle within myself to not insist that he shut the %$#& up. All the while, JD was very focused on his iPhone.
I did most of the talking, and Young Marketing Rep was suitably contrite, assuring us that our expenses would be paid and nodding at each mention of a grievance. He agreed that the planning had been sloppy, and insinuated that his dismay with the agency’s handling of the situation was prompting him to soon give his notice. (The agency’s story differed, insinuating that upon his return to New York, they fired his ass.) At the end of the meeting, I shook YMR’s hand and said that I hoped we wouldn’t be working together again. He nodded one last time.
The airport journey, check-in and security really did require about 3 1/2 hours, and though this time around the Philippine Airlines plane was a whole lot newer, it was also entirely full. I was snugly wedged between two people: a distraught woman whose sister had just died, leaving her to feel overwhelmed with guilt as she limped back to her unmoored life as a widow in Wisconsin; and a man who drank three beers in quick succession and snored like a saw. Thankfully for all of us, on this flight there were entertainment units at every seat. Less thankfully, the food was awful — in a glutamate sort of way.
But I managed to make it home to my own bed, where I stayed for several days.
While there, I began this series. I’d never before unleashed my full, snarky wrath upon these electronic pages, and I was soon surprised by a flustered phone call from a vice president at the ad/marketing/what have you agency. Her heart sank upon reading the first post, and she continued to torture herself by reading as that week went along. She’d never been so embarrassed, regretted the whole experience, and felt she should send me a gift certificate for a day at a spa, or even a bottle of wine. (She did neither.) She alluded to the choice of travel agency as the result of meetings between the Philippine Department of Tourism and the Philippines’ embassy in New York, but I still don’t buy it.
Two weeks later, she cut me a check for my expenses and got me some answers to my questions about the trip I’d just taken. This information amounts to:
No one knows when the mountain roads will be finished; no one knows the names of the now-being-built hotels up in Sagada; and recommendations for tour companies, transportation and hotels can’t be easily narrowed down from the standard lists published on the Philippines Department of Tourism’s website.
In other words, if you want to go see the admittedly amazing rice terraces for yourself, then your guess about how to do it with minimal wear and tear is on par with mine. I think staying and eating in the Sanafe Hotel in Banaue would be a good idea, and I recall seeing a lot of big pink buses with the name Florida on the side (run by G.V. Florida Transport, which doesn’t have a working website or phone number), always chock full of folks traveling up to the mountains from the southern reaches, but I never did see the inside of one of these vehicles. The tour company that employs Noni and Kelly is certainly a viable option once you’re up there, but try not to think about the fact that their logo has a typo so hilarious that it could make you cry.
I’ll say this: I’m not sorry I went on this trip. Yes, it took a lot out of me, and no, I didn’t learn what I would have liked to about the northern Philippines. But I did sharpen my powers of observation, saw (and heard) some incredible things, and learned a heck of a lot about my industry and its understanding of its own relationship with the online space.
I wouldn’t tell you not to go to the northern Philippines, but I’d certainly encourage you to wait a while. A nice, long while.