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.”