Manic Manila

Day one of round two: a battle with cabs and lifts.

The 19-hour journey from Los Angeles to Manila was, as these things go, fairly painless. Being an apnea sufferer sleeping on a plane is doubly challenging (probably more so for whoever has the misfortune to sit next to me), but I managed to snooze through more than half the flight to Taipei, arriving in Taiwan at about 5 in the morning. The three hour layover passed uneventfully, then it was two more hours to Manila to be disgorged at 11 a.m. to the familiar environs of NAIA.

Usually customs is a breeze and baggage takes forever (and with a comparatively huge baggage allotment I had brought in a ton of gear, idiotically neglecting to consider the difference in voltage requirements, so having successfully gotten it over here a lot of it is now useless until I can figure out some method of power conversion – doh!), but this time it was nearly an hour in the customs line for some inexplicable reason, probably relating to the Thanksgiving holiday and an avalanche of foreign workers coming home from the U.S. (LAX was also a clusterf**k).

Having successfully obtained my huge baggage allotment of largely non-functional electronic equipment, I dodged the usual array of people wanting to charge unwary foreigners $20 for a $5 cab ride into Makati and headed for the yellow cab stand. It’s usually another half an hour wait here but surprisingly only three people were ahead of me and I got my cab in less than five minutes.

Now, Manila cab drivers are somewhat notorious shysters, but with the onset of Grab they’ve had to raise their game a bit. The only time I ever use the local cabs is coming from the airport (it’s hard to get a signal sometimes at the airport and unfortunately I’d neglected to charge my local phone so I couldn’t use Grab anyway), but my knowledge of the local area and the local language usually keeps me from getting into trouble. Indeed, for some baffling reason I landed in Manila with a functional grasp of Tagalog that evaded me on my last two stays here. I have no idea how this happened, unless my brain just needed the two months’ rest to sort out all the Asian languages that had been thrown at me. But I found as I opened my mouth to the cab driver I could at least bullshit fluency.

My cabbie, a scrawny fellow wearing a jaunty cap who I judged to be about 60 years of age, pulled out of the airport. I immediately glanced at the cab meter, which was not turned on. This is the first sign of trouble, because a regular cab ride to Makati is usually around 250 pesos ($4-5) give or take, but a lot of these guys will try to get you to pay them a cab fee.

“Pakigamit ng meter po,” I said. (Please use the meter)

My driver begrudgingly turned on the meter and then started whining about the traffic and that I was taking him into an area unfamiliar to him. Then he said “200 pesos!”

“200 pesos for the ride?” I asked.

“No, meter plus 200 pesos” he insisted.

“Come on, man,” I said. “I live here. I know what the fee is. Don’t do this.”

He started whining again about the traffic – and if this is a problem for you the last thing you should be doing is driving a cab in Manila – and talked about a “baggage fee.”

“It’s an airport, kuya,” I said. “EVERYBODY has baggage.”

“Ok, sir, what if I pay you 100 pesos” – the meter stood at 50 pesos at this point – “and I let you off here” – we were on the crowded road leading out of the terminal – “and you can get another cab?”

“Another cab how?” I asked.

“You can just go to the stand and get another cab,” he said.

I considered this offer for a moment. I could already tell this guy was going to be trouble. Unfortunately, I was way overloaded with baggage – more than I could reasonably carry and guard – my phone with access to Grab was dead, and there was no visible taxi stand and any cab coming this way would be loaded down with airport passengers. He had me over a barrel. Still, I stalled for a bit.

“Come on, man. I’m not rich. When I am in Asia you probably make more money than me.” (regrettably true)

“If you do not work, how can you eat, and how can you live here?” he asked in classic inarguable Filipino logic.

He then said something about paying for the tolls on the way.

“It seems I have no choice,” I grumbled. Then he rather forcefully extended his hand to shake and then demanded I give him the airport receipt – which I realized later would have been able to use to report him. But, whatever. Just get me to the fricking condo. So I did as I was asked.

That settled, he asked what I did for a living. I reluctantly disclosed I was a musician.

“Oh, you must be a rich famous musician in the U.S.” he said.

Trust me, you never want to hear a local call you “rich and famous.”  And sure enough, the next thing he did was produce a youtube video of a young female friend singing a local song over a headset to a karaoke video, post it on the dash, and play it at its entire lugubrious length, loudly, for my pleasure.

When that was mercifully done, he started to complain that he had had a long night and was tired and demanded I start talking to him so he would stay awake. My irritation growing – particularly as I too had had a pretty long night, 20 hours long in fact – I did not comply with this request. We then approached the toll on the Skyway, the road which would allow us to bypass the traffic going to Makati. He demanded 45 pesos. “You said you’d pay the toll!” I protested. The cabbie, who I will now call Uto (google the meaning), merely shrugged. I made a point of getting my 500 pesos note changed at this point to ensure he wasn’t able to pull the classic cabbie move of getting to the destination and not having any change.

Following my protest about paying the toll, the cabbie muttered “grabe” under his breath (it means “severe” or in this situation “I can’t believe this guy”).

“I know what grabe means,” I informed him.

Upon leaving the toll booth, he then muttered “kuripot” under his breath, the Tagalog word for “stingy.”

“I know what kuripot means too,” I further let him know.

Light dawned on Uto. “You can speak Tagalog?”

“Yes,” I said firmly, happy for at least this one little triumph.

Now on the Skyway heading to Makati, where my condo was just a few kilometers away, Uto now wanted clarity on where I was staying. I had the address AND a map on Google printed out, but he was still confused and kept asking the same questions – questions no tourist coming off a plane from the U.S. should be expected to know the answer to, though I did – “Where’s EDSA?” (This is like asking “Where is the 405?” when you’re in Culver City) “Where is Ayala Avenue?” “Where is Makati Avenue?” Over and over. This not being sufficient, he produced a smart phone and pulled up an app, and then demanded to know why the blue dot showing our location did not appear on the map. How the hell was I supposed to know?

Mounting the phone on his dash, he demanded I point out where we were on a map. Again, no foreigner getting off a plane should be expected to know, but I did. So I kept pointing it out. And he kept asking. And I kept pointing it out.

He then got off the empty Skyway into a mound of traffic.  “Why this way?” I asked. He said, “I thought there would be no traffic here.” Since outside the Skyway there is traffic in Manila everywhere, this was a rather peculiar belief to hold to.

As we stopped and waited to merge into the surface street he then took off his glasses and started rubbing his eyes. “I’m so tired. I slept fitfully last night. It is hard for me to stay awake.”

“I am tired too, kuya,” I said irritably. “I have not slept properly in 30 hours.”

He bristled. “Kuya po,” he emphasized, indicating that he felt that me calling him kuya showed insufficient respect….even though the Filipino term for “brother” is a common appellation for addressing a stranger who is performing a service for you. I knew to be in a vulnerable position with a Filipino man who feels disrespected is quite dangerous, so I immediately apologized even though my patience was beginning to wear very thin.

As we gradually made our way to the crowded semi-freeway EDSA, he began to repeatedly ask me where we were on the map, starting with the junction with the Skyway (this is roughly like not being able to tell where the 101 meets the 405), then rubbing his eyes and complaining about how tired he was, and then accusing me of not being talkative enough so that he could stay awake. I counted him asking me the same questions about where EDSA, Ayala and Makati Avenues were on his map eight separate times.

Then, once on EDSA inching our way to Ayala Avenue and finally approaching the condo, he would not restart the taxi after stopping for traffic, leaving 15 car lengths on the crowded highway in front of us. “Bakit hindi pumunta?” I demanded (why aren’t we moving??). He muttered that he was so tired and he was falling asleep.

Then, as we got on the onramp to Ayala Avenue, and there was again a straight path ahead, he started alternating between pumping the gas and his brakes. “Bakit mag-brake po?” I further asked incredulously. “I’m so tired, I keep falling asleep,” he replied. Then, as we approached the green light to get on Ayala Avenue, he started doing it again. “Deretso! Pumunta!” I exclaimed, afraid we were going to miss the light. Other drivers at this point were beginning to honk at him. He shook his head and lurched into the intersection, then got into the wrong plane, and as I gestured for him to go right, he nearly hit another car in that lane. I could not tell at this point if he really was on the verge of falling asleep or this was some incompetent scheme to slow us down to get the meter a few pesos higher. Either way I was unamused and increasingly alarmed.

At last we were on Makati Avenue – straight shot, barring a short turn, to the condo. But no! At the Ayala Triangle, he inexplicably begins to make a soft right turn onto Paseo de Roxas. “No! No! Deretso!” I urged, feeling more and more like I was dragging around an unruly tugboat. The driver reluctantly stayed on track.

I will give him credit for correctly identifying Buendia Avenue and our turn right after that – the whole drive seemed so interminable that I couldn’t believe we had arrived so quickly – but when we got on to the road that held my condo he started to pull over every 50 meters. “Is it here?” he asked. “No, it’s further.” 50 more meters. “Here?” he asked. I had out my map to make sure I got the exact location right and at that point he unnecessarily pulled over and asked a bystander for directions. We were now only a few dozen feet from the condo, something known to both me and the bystander, who looked confused as the cab driver incoherently asked for directions. I smiled and shrugged and waved at him, closing the window.

I finally was able to get the driver to cover the last few meters to the corner on which my condo fronted, and even though I didn’t see it right away, I said “it’s fine, I will walk.” We were, in fact, right in front of it. The meter read 305 pesos, so his little surcharge nearly doubled the fare. I gave him a 500 pesos note and took great pleasure in knowing I shorted him a few pesos, at least. Then I lugged my stuff to the front door of the condo. He got back into his taxi and continued his lurching stop-start pattern of movement, taking a full two minutes to make a U-turn back from whence we came, as the janitorial staff at the condo looked on incredulously.

My mood improved wonderfully upon arriving at the condo. It was spacious and laid out exactly as I’d hoped it would be. I unpacked some of my stuff and then laid down for a well-needed rest…

…which was interrupted after a few minutes by a sound of tapping that seemed to come from directly on the other side of the wall.

…which then transmogrified into an ever more insistent hammering…

…and then without warning the high decibel sound of an electric drill, seemingly coming from just the other side of a paper thin wall, filled the room, shaking the walls, unbelievably loud. I went outside to investigate. Next to my room was an elevator shaft open with a sign reading “elevator dismantling in progress.”

I went downstairs and asked the guard about this, and he said, “yes sir, it’s going on until January.”

“Every day?” I asked.

“No, sir, just Monday through Saturday,” he said optimistically. “From 8:30 until 5 in the afternoon, sir.”

“That’s not good,” I said. “I have not slept properly in 30 hours.”

“No sir, it will not be very restful,” he replied sympathetically but with the unmistakable and very Filipino subtext of “but that’s just the way it is and nothing about it is going to change any time soon though we will persistently hope for a good outcome regardless” that people of this country have learned to incorporate into their thinking.

I fired off an unhappy email to my Air B’n’B host and went off to look for a massage and a place to load my local SIM. Since my new condo is perched on the edge of the local red light district my odds for a non-sketchy rubdown were low (something confirmed by the helpful security guard) so I walked the 1.5 km back to my old neighborhood in Pasong Tamo, where I knew a cellphone vendor and a reliable spa. By the time I got back my Air B’n’B host had a helpful solution: there was another guest in another room on my floor – further from the elevator – who had stayed here before and preferred my room. Perhaps we’d like to switch? I headed over and checked out the room, and its tenant, an English-Indian digital nomad named Shavanu, and I found it equally to my liking.

“Are you sure you want that room, though?” I said. “The elevator is really loud.”

“It’s OK,” he said, “I’m used to it. I just have trouble sleeping in new places.”

So, Saturday morning, we switched condos, and since he had a cheaper room, he also paid me about $30 to make up the difference. Things were looking up.

Sunday morning, still on jet lag time, I awoke bright and early and at 8:35 a.m. I was standing outside the working elevator shaft, and the already-being-drilled nonfunctional one, ready to go for my morning coffee. Out into the hallway staggered poor Shavanu, looking bleary-eyed like the central casting vision of someone who had been awaken out of a sound sleep by an earthquake or some other natural disaster.

“How do you like the room?” I asked.

“It’s so loud,” he said, a shellshocked look in his eyes. “It wasn’t like this before.”

My elevator opened and I left poor Shavanu to deal with the situation, counting my own blessings as I descended.  Manila…it always has a way of reminding you that sometimes you are the windshield, and sometimes you are the bug.

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