Thoughts on Traveling in Southeast Asia

While waiting on Train 27-Senandang Timuran in Wakaf Bharu, Malaysia I said aloud, “I’m getting a little tired of Southeast Asia.” I was attempting to read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything under the fluorescent light, but various species of bugs kept dropping unto the page, buzzing by my ear, crawling in my hair and neck. We were heading back through the Malaysian jungle to Singapore where we would catch a flight back to Manila—well, 2 hours north of Manila, at Clark in Angeles City.

We had just spent a glorious, relaxing week in the Perhentian Islands, which first required a 14-hour train ride, an hour taxi ride to the coast where the jetty is located, an overnight stay in Kuala Besut, and a 30-minute speedboat ride in the morning. Before that, we spent a few days in Singapore, which I would not group under the same context as quoted above and actually entices me enough to find a job there. Before that, we were in Manila, which does qualify, and before that, my hometown of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, which is its own category.

Of course, it was merely exhaustion talking, but I was reflecting on the obvious sense of displacement that one experiences as a tourist. Our motivations for traveling—experience, expanding perspectives, adventures, stories—requires that we first withstand being stared and pointed at, hustling fair cab/tricycle/boat fares, getting bit by tenacious insects, having snail-slow internet, feeling altogether drained by cultural differences, etc.

The exhaustion continued as we took a late-night bus from Angeles City to Pasay in Manila and a 20 minute taxi cab ride, as well as walked through flash-flooded streets. From there, we must somehow manage another few days to acquire a visa waiver at the Bureau of Immigration. After several issues in the last month dealing with the satellite Bureau of Immigration office in San Jose, we decided to apply for the waiver/extension directly in Manila. Online sources indicated that there was a satellite office in Paranaque, near Neo Chinatown (why is it is “neo” and not simply, “new”?) but upon arriving there, a security guard tells us that the office has closed and that all satellite offices have been re-directed to the main building in Intramuros, about 30 minutes by taxi.

We balance out these aforementioned events at tourist destinations such as the Mall of Asia and Manila Ocean Park. The latter was quite enthralling, minus a couple of notes: a jellyfish exhibition that turns into a bar/club; pools for the lion show that also become a night lounge, complete with a light show; a dentist office that doubles as an all-in-one vaccination place. (In their defense, Ocean Park also has a hotel/mall, so such things could be convenient for tourists.) After Ocean Park, we took a bumpy hour cab ride through Manila—from one that could not drive a stick shift—being blamed for his misunderstanding where our destination was: in Pasay, near the “domestic” terminal (2). He took us to a street that sounded like ours but was obviously not. He insisted that our actual destination was near terminal 4, which does not exist, according to my aunt, who lives here AND works for the airport. In any case, several other taxi drivers got us there previously without a problem. Of course, what was I expecting?

My frustration, which can morph into anger, was building up, but on the morning we are set to return to San Jose, it turned to laughter. In Pasay, Manila, as we were getting ready for a 6:30a flight, we heard a man on an amplified microphone or a PA system emitting a noise—somewhere between mermaids from the Pirates of the Caribbean and videoke. Perhaps there was a mosque or a prayer hall nearby? Perhaps a drunken man was pouring out his broken heart over a love song? We couldn’t decipher.

The morning continued with more laughs: There are 3 gates to enter the airport, but only one is open. The express check-in line for those without baggage is the longest. We are told that we cannot bring our umbrella as a carry-on, except we’ve already taken this umbrella on three flights (SJI > MNL > SIN > MNL). A lady brings a box of pizza as a carry-on. (It’s a pasalubong; perhaps pizza is unavailable in her province.)  A P120 cup of orange “juice” is really orange powder (only P2 at the nearest sari-sari). The smoking lounge vent blows air into the terminal, not out of the window. Our gate number indicates AirPhil, but our flight is with Cebu Pacific.

This is just a short litany of silly things that we all encounter while traveling. In the West, perhaps some of these things have been ironed out so that we function in relative comfort. Being from this region, I was familiar with the pace of life here, so I wasn’t expecting the same luxuries, but I didn’t realize before how much I value efficiency, that comfort itself is somewhat of a handicap in terms of expectations.

Finally sitting down at our gate terminal, after passing 25 rows of chairs, which were occupied by sleeping passengers—one in each row—I said, “Nothing is what it’s supposed to be.” Again, my spoiled American self was talking, but there are patterns that emerge: “good enough” seems to suffice for “what is supposed to be.”

There are so many instances I’ve encountered that fit this description, such as hailing a taxi from the train in Tanah Merah (Malaysia): After agreeing to pay RM60 (USD20) for an hour ride to Kuala Besut (bargaining started at RM80, since it was late in the evening), we are surprised to find that the “taxi” was a rusty white car without any signs indicating such. We trust that we were heading toward the direction of the sea, but the road signs do not indicate that either. It seems that surrendering to trust is a necessary component in surviving travel here, that “what is supposed to be” is really the same as “what is.”



Visit to the Landfill

Over the years during my infrequent visits back to my hometown of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, I have noticed that waste management seems to be an ongoing battle. As a child, I remember trash being dumped in empty lots in our subdivision; thick smoke consumed the air when the trash was set on fire. We knew of no alternative ways to dispose of our trash, nor of the environmental impact of burning residual waste.

In 2002, returning home after almost a decade of being away, I noticed an increase in population and, of course, trash. Our once gray-sand/dark pebble beach in Bubog was littered with plastic bags and disposable cups. Last year, when I visited briefly, nipa huts/cottages with videoke machines lined the shoreline. The trash was still not managed enough. Upon returning last month, I found more dilapidated cottages (now with inhabitants and their animals) but also new buildings were being developed: a 24-hour café, some bigger cottages that will be turned into giftshops. Still, trash seemed to have increased.

On this rainy morning, the day after we snorkeled the mostly pristine White Island, off the coast from San Jose, we drove some 30 minutes away from town to visit the municipal landfill, where the Global Village Association (GVA) education/feeding program was being implemented. The municipal officer who spearheaded the waste management program (under my uncle who was the mayor some years ago) drove us to the site.

The misty green mountains stood in contrast with red clay mud and flattened mounds of colored cellophane bags, hard plastics, broken bottles. There were a few human scavengers, as well as some pigs and goats.

We were told by the municipal officer that prior to their efforts to decrease the amount of residual waste (and subsequently, scavenger families who search through the rubbish for resalable materials), the mounds of trash and the flies that hovered were insurmountable, so much so that you couldn’t stand on it (like we were doing) or have a conversation without flies going into your mouth.

It was difficult to ignore the culmination of our globalized economy. Here I am in the middle of a beautiful, tropical mountain/farming area, but on the ground by my foot, there is a brightly imprinted plastic SIM card container, complete with the barcode and cellphone number. It’s hard to not think of our dismal future, when our current solutions have minimal impact and the negative influence of globalization continues to snowball.

I turned to my partner and said, “The only thing different about the U.S. is that we are able to pay enough money to get our trash shipped to developing countries.” (In some of these developing countries, scavengers must pay to rummage, exploiting the already exploited, the most impoverished.) It’s true. Our cozy lives are not affected by trash on the beach or on the sidewalks because our municipal taxes pay for trash collection.

After seeing the dump site, we went back to the GVA hut where a couple dozen children were awaiting their Saturday meal of rice, tomatoes, and dried fish after brief exercise to a popular dance song. (A bit ridiculous/sad from my perspective, but some enjoyed it.) Some of the younger kids looked somewhat malnourished, but there was still fire in their eyes. Some wore tattered clothes, while others had nicer ones. (We were told that the year before, there were many more children/elders who would come for these Saturday meals. The reason for the decrease, again, is the decrease in trash available for rummaging.)

During their meal, we discussed solutions: what alternative livelihood or trade can be offered for these families? The idea of using the trash to somehow make products was thrown around. Somehow connecting these people with nearby farms who hire part-time help during harvest season was another option. Emphasizing education seems to help, but the municipal officer said that most of these children were unable to finish high school because they would be forced to work in order to live.

It’s hard not to want to help improve the situations these children find themselves in. The municipal officer remarked on how he feels obligated to help develop San Jose because he grew up here. He could simply leave and find himself a comfortable job elsewhere, like Puerto Princesa in Palawan, where things are more developed.  I’m glad to see that there are people with good intentions and the will to try to improve San Jose.

After the dump site, we visited the eco-center/waste management center where they are making compost from the biodegradable waste. As I feel hopeful that these efforts are being implemented, that despite the money/power-hungry politicians that seem to run rampant in this country of my birth, there are sprinkles of good-hearted, optimistic, resilient Pinoys who are not afraid to be agents of change.