Next week marks the fourth anniversary of the Best Business Trip Known to Man. In 2006, I had the opportunity to travel to Manila in the Philippines, staying for five weeks to train a new staff for my company. It was a great adventure, both in the office and out.
Recently I came across the emails I sent home during that visit, and decided to condense them into today’s blog post.
October 7 — Safely arrived in Manila. Haven’t figured out how to make long distance calls yet and there was no one to ask at 2am when we arrived at the hotel. I’m in the business center now trying to use AIM but it’s got that pop-up-block thing on. Flight was uneventful, not quite as arduous as I’d feared. The Japan transfer was uneventful, except it happened through Nagoya instead of Tokyo, like I’d thought (good thing I didn’t have to know that). I did travel with John Brzbzbzibkzi (sp?) from the NY office. He’s a nice guy, about my age and style. Hotel is very nice. Breakfast buffet was fairly Western. Outlets in my room seem to work. TV selections last night didn’t look too good, but maybe because it was the middle of the night.
October 8 — Walked around outside the hotel a little, and found a 7-11 that had a pretty good frozen choco-coffee drink. Manila is definitely a big step up in modernity from India. It’s hot and humid and smelly but not that bad. Crowds on the street were smaller, and there are no beggars or people dying in plain view!
October 10 — Got to tell you about my foot-in-mouth moment last night. We got a handout with the office address and phone number on it. I joked “Hah, you spelled ‘Philippines’ wrong,” and the three other proofreading trainers immediately jumped me and reminded me that one “l” and two “p’s” is correct. I was mortified.
October 11 — Don’t want to jinx it but things seem to be going exceptionally well here. Just Western enough to feel close to home (except for the “Pepsi, now with Bamboo”). I had to handle my first training class almost single-handedly last night. The Indian guy who’s supposed to be helping me is a little hard to understand, though he’s real good keeping up with the handouts. Got back to hotel just before room service ended at 11. I had something called Oriental spaghetti. Not bad at all. Easily could’ve passed for Occidental.
October 12 — Tuesday night training went well. We had a real downpour on the drive there. The local paper this morning talks about a fresh terrorist threat that could include Manila but was mostly for Mindanao, in the south. Plus, there’s a volcano not far away that was spewing ash and another typhoon headed roughly in this direction. And, a North Korean nuke test. Bring on the locusts!
October 14 — Walked around the so-called “MegaMall” near the hotel, and truly it was mega. The malls are huge here, and they’re everywhere — not sure why. And they’re building four more. What could be more impressive than a MegaMall and the Mall of Asia? Gargantua Mall? Elephantine Mall? Mall of the Universe?
October 16 — Not much new. Same routine starting to get a little boring. Haven’t really done anything yet except work, hang around the hotel, and try to sleep. (Isn’t it about time for this country to have an insurrection?) Room service food also getting a little tiresome. I had a satay and rice dish last night that was a little spicy for so close to bed. Uprising broke out in my stomach instead of on the streets.
October 17 — We’re finding the training materials to be severely lacking, and have to make up a few exercises of our own. Those cartoon features “Spot the Difference” are real popular over here, so I brought one in to do as a comparison exercise (it’s sort of like proofreading). I asked secretary to make copies for everyone, and the picture on the left came back really fuzzy and obscured, so of course everyone says “that’s the difference.” Maybe I’ll try a spelling bee next.
October 20 — Had a very interesting adventure driving to Subic Bay on Sunday. It was a three-hour drive to get there, and we were supposed to have a van that would fit 12 people, but they must’ve thought we were all Filipino-sized instead of chunky Americans. Four of our nine-person group were bigger than me and all the room we had was a standard-size back seat and middle seat. So we had four in the back, four in the middle, and the fattest woman of all in the front seat with the driver. We should never have even tried, but we were too polite, saying “No, it’s fine, we’ll squeeze in.” We went to a place called White Rock Beach Resort. They had hammocks, warm ocean water with mountains across the bay, golf, beach chairs, a bar, etc. We spent about 4-5 hours there, waiting to see the spectacular sunset so we could all take photos. I mostly did crossword puzzles and listened to my iPod. It was one of those experiences you’re very glad you did, but you’re also glad when it’s over.
October 21 — Back in Manila, I took a ride on the “el” train. This will also include my first jeepney ride, which I’m told is like being packed in a sardine can, right down to the smelly strangers. In class, had an exercise with the trainees where I asked them to write two anonymous questions, one work-related and one personal. One of the funny questions: “Why do you wear rubber shoes?”, an apparent reference to my running shoes. I explained that I like to run, then asked them about their various exercise activities, which revolve mostly around trying to survive in a teeming Asian megalopolis.
October 22 — Finally made it to the Mall of Asia. Really impressive — broad walkways, bright with skylights, an outdoor park, skating rink, the works. Baked goods are really big over here, so you can imagine the fun I’m having collecting these. Took a subway where they have a special car just for the women, I guess so they don’t get groped. Good idea.
October 23 — Walked around the hotel neighborhood a little more and discovered even more malls. One called Robinson’s Galleria had a Cinnabon (with bun options unavailable in the U.S.), not to mention a “Pizza Hut Bistro” with tablecloths, fine china and silverware, and another restaurant called the “Burgaloo”, which claimed to be American. Menu looked like something from Denny’s, except with prices in pesos. Walking back, I saw a Scion minivan. An absolute abomination!
October 24 — For some reason, on our day off for Ramadan yesterday, we thought it would be neat to climb a volcano. First a two-hour drive, then a half-hour outrigger trip across a lake, then an hour-long steep uphill trek to the peak, through dust and deep ruts and horse dung and locals trying to rent you a horse even though you’re almost there already. We were exhausted by the time we got to the top, but it was a great view. No lava though, just a lady selling coconut drinks. I may have seen some steam coming out of a rock — not sure.
October 25 — Training on first shift now, still stuck with my humble but able (at least when I can understand him) assistant Uday. Uncertain whether we’ll be able to declare more than just nine of our 54 trainees as “passed,” not because they aren’t doing well but because the exam is ridiculous. I may just fudge the results and declare everybody trained. Went to a Chinese place for dinner last night with several fellow trainers, and we got to share stuff like garlic-sauteed asparagus, black mushrooms and bok choy, shrimp dumplings, and various fried dishes. Best of all, we went to Cinnabon again after to get Choco-buns for breakfast.
October 26 — Had something for dinner from room service called “gratinated prawns.” I’m hoping it was cheese and shrimp, but not sure.
October 27 — I walked past a Dunkin Donuts and they had something I’ve seen elsewhere over here: a senior citizens check-out lane. I guess that’s the place all us old folks can take the time to fumble for our change and write checks for $2.85. Halloween is real big over here, and the mall was in full decoration. However, they’re also starting to play Christmas music. Very disorienting.
October 28 — I’m finally starting to get the hang of street-crossing in traffic around the city. When I went out earlier, I walked a fine line between bravado and foolishness. The best bet is to find a local who’s also crossing at the same spot, and use them as a shield, following closely by their side. Still, pretty death-defying.
October 29 — We’re apparently getting hit by another typhoon, this one called “Paeng”. I can’t find out much about it; the local weather forecast on weather.com just mentions the usual scattered thunderstorms notice they put up every day. I saw a radar photo and it looked pretty well-organized, but I guess it’s no big deal for the locals. Looks like a friend and I will be taking a weekend excursion to Hong Kong. He’s been there before so I’m leaving all the details to him. Except the $600 for my cost — that I have to be involved in.
October 30 — I guess we got that typhoon last night, though nobody seemed to care. I heard lots of rain during the night and woke up to find my window had leaked and my carpet is soaked. I put down towels and called the front desk. They may want to move me, but I hate to repack and unpack again. I’ll probably just stay here and squish around the room unless it starts to stink.
October 31 — Turns out “Paeng” was a “super-typhoon” they tell us now that the danger has passed. Didn’t seem that super-typhoony to me.
November 1 — Took the train down to Makati City for our day off and saw a movie, “Marie Antoinette.” Some of the casting seemed a little weird — especially New Yorky Jason Schwartzman as the young king-in-waiting. But the costumes and settings were fun to watch. I was just disappointed they didn’t cut anybody’s head off. After that, I walked to the Manila South Cemetery, where they were having graveside festivities as part of All Souls Day. Families come to the graveyard to hang out with dead relatives, have picnics and buy balloons. Pretty macabre if you ask me, so don’t. Then went to a mall and met some of my fellow trainers for Indian food at the Bollywood Bistro, followed by dessert at a chocolate restaurant. Hardly what you’d expect from the third world.
November 4 — Starting to pack for our weekend trip to Hong Kong. I found the hotel online we’re staying at. It’s called the Imperial but didn’t offer many other details, other than that it has a spaghetti restaurant and “wirless boardband”. Back at the office, we’re getting increasingly desperate for training ideas. We were given ten days to complete five days of material, so I’m busy making up a crossword puzzle that uses proofreading terms. Next, we’re going to have to break out the coloring books.
November 5 — Training facilities continue to deteriorate. As new courses begin, they’re taking our proofreading space and shoving my group further and further into a corner. Where we are now, people using the bathroom have to cross right in front of our overhead projector to get to it. May turn this into a game — guess what kind of elimination they did based on how long they were in there.
November 7 — Back from Hong Kong, and boy was it unbelievable! We stayed in Kowloon, which is apparently not Hong Kong proper but close enough. Wandered through a park near the hotel and saw people doing tai chi and swans. Had a great first day — up on Victoria’s Peak, harbor rides, etc. Then we went to Stanley, on the far side of HK Island. It was a bumpy but scenic ride. Ate lunch seaside and drank a beer. Later spent lots of time wandering around “Central” which is what they call downtown Hong Kong. Had a nice breakfast next door to the Imperial which, turns out, is a dump. My room does have a nice view of Nathan Street, however, which is one of the roads famous for so much lighted signage. For some reason, we went to the Hong Kong Museum of Art to see a big exhibition on French impressionism, not exactly what I came here for but my traveling companion John liked it. Had dinner at a seafood place. I got the seafood pasta which was only OK, primarily because so much of it was taken up with a whole octopus. Just before heading to the airport, we had high tea at the famous Peninsula Hotel. It’s kinda like eating lunch but the food is taller. At the airport, they almost didn’t allow us to leave because we had no proof we were eventually headed back to the U.S. instead of just the Philippines. I was surprised that Americans would have to prove they had no intention of relocating to Manila.