Saturday, May 12, 2012

Game Changer and a Picture of a Bike

Warning: This post is not about bikes but it has a picture of a bike in it and it's my blog anyway.

I am just back from my first trip to Asia (Philippines). A game-changer experience for me. Let's start with general impressions:
  • It's a long ass haul to Asia. 
  • We Americans are blessed by virtue of where we were born. Millions of people live in conditions we can't imagine, through no fault of their own, and they don't piss and moan about it. Which brings me to my next point...
  • The Philippines is full of energetic young people who have University degrees and are willing to work hard for relatively low pay. And the Philippines is just a small sliver of Asia.
  • The Philippine people are inherently gentle and kind-hearted. And that is saying something because the Japanese and the Spanish dished out a world of hurt on them over the last 150 years or so.
Incheon airport
over 24 hours with no sleep
it's all adrenaline
The trip started with a wimper (more specifically an automobile coolant leak) so Ruth kindly (understatement) got up at 3:30am Saturday morning to get me to the airport. I was scheduled be in Manila late Sunday night with stops in LAX and Beijing, but the weather in Beijing didn't cooperate and Air China (whose IT infrastructure runs entirely on iPhones) couldn't get me to Manila until Monday. So I had them pull my bags in LAX and book me on another carrier to Manila. Just 31 hours after leaving home I was finally delivered haggard and delirious to the doorstep of the Shangri-La hotel in Makati City, and 7 hours after that (some socializing) I put my head on my pillow for my first sleep in 38 hours. Like my D2M experience, this reminded me we are capable of overcoming many perceived needs - in this case the need for sleep.

Breakfast of sushi, mangos,
mangosteen, and another
fruit I could not identify
Tuesday and Wednesday were all "day" meetings with the Manila team. I put "day" in quotations because the meetings started at 4:00pm local time and ran until 2:00am (shifts  overlap with USA business hours). Day two workday started with dinner with the management team at House of Waygu for some incredible Kobe-type steak. This schedule would have been do-able except it it was impossible to completely ignore the local rhythm of I was up each morning at 7:00am with barely 5 hours of sleep (I need much more than that). I  learned the way to handle this crazy schedule and remain effective was through judicious use of afternoon naps and a really obnoxious alarm clock.

Shopping is not my gig, but we did find time to hit "Green Hills" in Manila. Hard to describe other than to say it is an endless maze through hundreds of tiny stalls selling handbags, watches, clothes, electronics, and jewelry (especially south sea pearls). It is elbow-to-elbow, loud, energetic and the stalls are manned primarily by children (not a child-labor situation, more like family operations). Haggling is required and once you get the hang of it it is kind of fun - your first counter offer is 50% of their opening offer, then haggle down from there. A few times I found myself haggling over 100 pesos and once I realized that was like $2 I gladly rolled over. The prices are mind boggling - high quality Rolex or Coach bag knockoff for $40. Get your iPhone jailbroken or your Android phone unlocked for $20 while you wait.  My wing-women kept me focused and productive, and I loaded up on loot for the girls back home and then...
Taal in the distance
Our ride to the Taal

...I set my sights on more rural sight seeing with a morning trek to the top of the Taal Volcano, an active volcano (last blew it's lid in 1979, pretty violent according to the locals). It is in the middle of a fresh water lake about 2 hours from Manila, and the caldera has it's own lake in it as well (mild sulfuric acid, people swim in it but it ruins their clothes if they are wearing any) with yes, a little tiny island in the middle. Island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island in the pacific. Primitive living on the island, with bamboo huts right out of Survivor (can't even stand up in some of them), chickens and naked toddlers running around in the village, no plumbing or electricity. Eking out an existence through fishing and guiding tourists up the volcano. The long drive to/from Taal was an eye opener. Miles of primitive dirt-floor huts lining the busy highway, no electricity, no windows, or doors, someone crouched over a greasy fire cooking dinner beside the road. Some of these places were actually "restaurants" (for the locals obviously), and some in the shadow of a StarBucks or a GAP outlet. 

Taal caldera from the rim
The trip was a whirlwind mosaic of impressions, some good some bad, some significant and some trivial, almost too many to mention. A few that stuck with me:
  • Uniformed elevator operators.
  • People wearing surgical masks, apparently as a courtesy because they are contagious and do not want to spread it.
  • Jeepneys - privatized mass transit based on blinged-out stretched WWII jeeps, first half a kilometer or so is 16 pesos (that's 32 cents!)
  • Epic traffic jams and pollution that could be pretty unpleasant if near a busy road.
  • Imelda Marcos' imprint is everywhere - she thought nothing of building a massive museum, monument, or mountaintop compound in anticipation of a foreign dignitary's' visit (she was very fond of the Reagans).
  • Flying from Korea (not far from the 38th parallel) over Japan (Hiroshima, Nagasaki), past Okinawa was sobering.
  • They use paper fans here, for real, and carry umbrellas for protection from the sun.
  • Bomb sniffing dogs in front of hotel. 
  • Light switches where up is off, down is on. That took a while.
  • A lyrical "sing-song" accent.
The trip back to The States was a little longer than the trip out due to a miserable delay in Chicago. The whole domestic air travel experience is a stark contrast to air travel in Asia. Korea Airlines was the best example, a real throwback to the romantic heyday of air travel. Gate agents all very pleasant and professional. Stewardesses all attractive young females dressed smartly in snappy uniforms, very attentive with continuous personalized service for the entire 12 hour leg. Decent food. They even cleaned the lavatory between each use. As I landed  in Chicago and shuttled over to the domestic terminal, it was (too) obvious I was home.

Six days was all I could swing this time, it was not enough, and I hope I can make a return trip before long. Maybe I'll throw my leg over a bike while I'm there next time.


"No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense. And that's just the bike messengers."
     -- Unknown

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