Paalam mga Kaibigan

My brother arranged a Grab for me at 6 AM Friday and I got to the Manila airport by 7 AM. I left a little surprise for them in my guest room closet: Grampa George’s iconic hat for Eric, and a cool Starbucks Boracay bottle for Maylin.

Sir Eric and Queen Maylin, in Mandaluyong City

I always like to talk to the local drivers when I travel, and the Grab guy was as nice as any. The conversation steered its way to politics and he made the statement that America is the most powerful nation, so Filipinos respect us the most.

I had to explain that it depends on how you define “powerful” today. America might still have the most powerful military but everything else here is crumbling — especially culturally. The true power I saw here was Asians treating family, friends and strangers with courtesy and respect.

There was a line a mile long outside the terminal but a uniformed baggage handler grabbed my bags and said, “Have something ready for Security and they’ll let you right in.” Well naturally I thought this was a heist but before I could put up a fight he signaled to the Security guard and he slipped my bags right on the conveyor. So once inside I happily gave him my last few Pesos.

In the Immigration hall I was reminded once again of our cultural differences. The lines were excruciatingly slow, as expected. Philippine citizens on one side, everyone else on the other. None of the Filipinos were cursing, swearing or even talking loudly. Yet several American millennials surrounding me were doing all those things at once. An elder Filipina-American from Kentucky had struck up a conversation with me and I wanted to tell these kids to shut their yaps and show some respect. I was embarrassed.

My Delta plane loaded up and then of course sat on the taxiway for a half hour due to poor Air Traffic Control. But four hours later I was in Narita again, where I had to go through two more security checkpoints even though I was on a connecting flight in the same terminal. Delta had warned me about this but at least my bag was checked all the way from Manila to Portland. Eric had explained the the Philippines had failed their TSA audit for being lax.

Landfall at the Oregon Coast, near Astoria and the mouth of the Mighty Columbia River

Eleven uncomfortable hours later I was in Portland, where American incivility reared its head again at Customs. An ugly white uniformed woman was yelling bruskly at new arrivals to pick the right line or face her wrath. I was shocked when she literally yanked the arm of a tired Filipina and told her to get out of the Americans’ way. Turns out they were US citizens. Her first clue should have been the smiling husband’s US Navy cap. Again, I was ashamed to see kind, humble people treated this way by a TSA agent who very likely voted for Trump. Oregon, remember, was originally founded as a white supremicist utopia.

Racial profiling like this is why the civilized world increasingly sees us as the Ugly Americans. But no one treated me this way in Japan, the Philippines and especially Boracay. To the contrary, I felt like I didn’t deserve being treated like a rock star.

The US Customs agent asked me three questions:

“What were you doing in the Philippines? How long has your brother lived there? Did you buy anything there?”

“I’m going to give my wife a pearl necklace,” I said, exhausted.

“Good idea,” he said. “Welcome home.”

Ironically my lovely wife Olivia wasn’t waiting to pick me up at the airport as expected. I had apparently screwed up the time zones on our Calendar so we both thought I was arriving Saturday. Yeah, 34 hours after I let her know I was leaving Tokyo? LOL, time travel can be confusing, po. 😉

Goodbye for now, my new friends. I hope to see you again soon!

Back to Manila

Philippine travel is a model of inefficiency. Every flight so far was delayed an hour and the terminals are crowded. So be sure to plan ahead. Of course my little brother Eric knows the ropes so it’s all good. And everyone is so nice and polite — even after you leave.

The boat to Caticlan

I’ve never seen crazier driving than from Manila to Mandaluyong City. The lines on the roads mean absolutely nothing here. Yet our Coupon Cab wove through traffic like a cigar shop on wheels. Everywhere you look, buses and motorcycles take turns making unsafe lane changes. It can be harrowing for the newbie, but Eric explained there is no road rage here and you never see accidents. Just amazing. I don’t know how they make it work, but they do.

They have a vehicle here called the Jeepney. They’re surplus US Army Jeeps that were converted to long, open air taxis. But they’re also a common target for “holduppers.” Brazen thieves who hop in to rob the passengers or just swipe purses when the Jeepney is stuck in traffic. So you always lock your doors here. Especially when there is zero traffic or law enforcement.

We picked up Eric’s wife Maylin (My-lean) and had a Spaghetti dinner in the Megamall. After that we stopped at one of the cleanest grocery stores I’ve ever seen, which caters to the elite in this area.

There I was introduced to Filipino “candy.” Apparently the dried squid is the most popular. But not more delicious or nutritious than a can of Pringles — right, Miss Vanessacolada?

I’ve gotten to see a little how American expatriates live here. This is Eric and Maylin walking to their condo’s freight elevator. The grocery store then comes and picks up their cart. I think Eric’s talking about Pinky joining their Mobile Legends squad, and Maylin’s about to slap him. 😀

Scenario One Down!

On Tuesday after breakfast and a swim, we walked back through D’Mall and shopped a little. We had a couple beers at a midget bar called the Hobbit Tavern, then settled in for a pizza at the Red Coconut.

For some reason I decided not to phone home. I’m sure Olivia will understand. 😉

These are the famous Paraw Sail boats. They’re catamarans so you sit in nets and skim over the ocean. That sounds like great fun but I couldn’t convince Eric to do it. So I’ll save that experience for when Olivia comes here.

This was our last full day here, so I was determined to put my drone up at sunset. I had asked at the bar but even the manager (Gerry) didn’t seem to know the law, and couldn’t give me access to the hotel’s roof. He said it was “prohibited” but we thought he meant at the hotel.

You see, I had also scoured the Philippines CPAA website before I left. That’s their equivalent of the FAA in the US. And every indication was that drones are okay here as long as you don’t fly within 100 feet of crowds, more than 400 feet altitude and less than 10 kilometers from an airports. There are signs all over White Beach listing what you can’t do, but there’s not a single sign prohibiting drones.

You know where this is going…

I walked all the way back south to the secluded cove I had scoped out the previous day. I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself so I waited until all the patrols were out of sight. Then I launched from the sand about five minutes before sunset, knowing that one battery was worth at least 20 minutes of 4K video.

I won’t be able to watch it until I get home, but I’m sure it’s spectacular. Even though the sunset wasn’t as dramatic as last night, I flew over several sail boats at just over 100 feet.

The next thing I know, a local Filipino “sentinel” approached me, took photos and made a call. Within five minutes I was surrounded by four local cops and a tall PNP (Philippine National Police) guard wielding an M-16 machine gun.

“Sir, did you know flying a drone is prohibited on Boracay?”

“No, I wasn’t aware.” I explained that I had researched this before my trip and it all looked okay without the need for a recreational permit. But they weren’t having any of it. The interpreter explained that I was within 8 kilometers of an airport (doubtful) and there was a local ordinance passed in 2017. She produced the law on paper and I wasn’t about to argue.

Usually, if you are in restricted airspace for any reason, your drone’s GPS system will disable flight. But naturally the Philippines wouldn’t be part of a system that advanced. They’re still struggling with clean drinking water.

So yeah, this was pretty much my worst nightmare. Not so much because of the legal ambiguity, but because I’m suddenly trying to land my aircraft amid a swarm of people with guns who keep demanding my ID. But at least I had the fortune of being the dumb American tourist.

Once landed, I apologized profusely and asked, “Is there a fine I can pay you?”

“Yes, they will give you a citation and you will pay ₱2,500 to them,” the interpretor said. “You will then go to the Police Station in the morning and the Mayor will give you a receipt.”

“That’s okay, I don’t need a receipt. And I fly home tomorrow morning anyway,” I said, hoping that’s all it really was. When they wrote down my Oregon driver’s license info and asked for my hotel and room number I started getting nervous. I was concerned this might be an “apprehension” but then she said, “Don’t worry, sir. They will bring your receipt to the hotel for you.” I nodded in agreement but my intention was to remain scarce in the morning.

Fortunately I had the cash on me. They allowed me to stow my gear properly and didn’t confiscate anything. And because the fine amounted to just $47.57 US, I now have a great story to share on the Mavic Pro drone forum — and 20 minutes of awesome video I presume. It’s also possible I caught the swarm of cops on video. In fact if I hadn’t been so frazzled I might have thought to aim my camera at them on landing.

It was a long walk down to that secluded cove so I still can’t believe how quickly they tracked me down. Nor how professional they were in enforcing their local law. I had halfway expected them to shoot Scenario One out of the sky! 😉

Next time I might bring one of these Bionic Bird drones.

Look for a video link here next week, once I have time to edit my life of international crime. 🙂

Boracay Day 3

I did a bit more sightseeing along White Beach on Monday. These are the “pump boat” water taxis.

And of course I’m a Vespa nut, although these are Chinese scooters.

Back at my home stool, Pinky offered to make me a special cocktail. It took a long long time to carve this coconut. With white rum it tasted a bit like a milkshake. Delicious! And just as filling, too. She is married with a three-year-old son. But she jokes that she’s only 16.

Another amazing postcard sunset over the “Skypool.” I took some nice video but it’s too big to post here. Look for it on Vimeo when I get back to Portland.

Boracay Day 2

On Sunday Eric and I started with an awesome buffet breakfast at the sand’s edge and just people watched. We took a swim and waddled up north on White Beach to the D’Mall entrance.

The beach is lined with small shops, massage spas, restaurants and security guards. The activity vendors were persistent but not overly aggressive. I was surprised to see American fast food right on the beach. Shakey’s, McDonald’s, Subway and KFC are quite popular even here.

But every hundred yards or so there is a strong smell of sewer gas, even right next to where people are dining. So you stop and wonder how that can be. And then you realize there are manholes right in the main pathway, just under a layer of sand. Poor planning, Boracay. You can do better.

Later I walked alone a mile south to try and find a safe drone launching point. (More on that later!) The sand here is the consistency of brown sugar. Not quite white but more blonde. It stays cool in the 90-degree sun and feels good on the feet.

Back at the Skybar we were getting to know our “barmaids,” Pinky (yes, like your little finger) and Vanessa. They work on their feet six days a week and stay in a boarding house on Boracay, traveling hours back to their villages on neighboring islands on their day off. Pinky is the savvy Bar Team Lead, and Vanessa the Ambassador of Smiles.

The language here is Tagalog, but they all know basic English. Still, the mistranslations can be quite perplexing — and funny. Eric and Pinky were Mobile Legends addicts, so they had lots to talk about. We promised to bring our wives next time to keep us out of trouble. 😉

In the evening we switched to Mai Tais and the girls were happy to make them Hawaiian style, with guava juice. Yum! I dubbed it the Pinky Mai Tai and suggested they should start charging for drinks here. And yes, drinks are incredibly cheap in the Philippines — especially when your brother is charging them to the room!

This bar only serves Filipino food and the “beef” here is not what you think. They don’t have western cows here. When they aren’t feasting on seafood or chicken here they eat Carabao, which is fattier and gamier than beef. So now I can say I’ve tried water buffalo. 🙂

Boracay Day 1

On Saturday Eric and I took a Grab back to Manila’s airport for our Air Asia flight to Caticlan, Boracay’s neighboring island. Security was lax and the lines were long and slow. I had expected a turboprop plane but no, it was a modern A320 jet with supermodel hostesses.

45 minutes later we touched down on Caticlan Island. Our hotel’s shuttle van took us to a waiting room for a welcome drink, followed by a private speedboat ride across the Philippine Sea to Boracay Island. Baggage handlers did all the heavy lifting.

Boracay’s main drag is littered with construction debris and crawling with motorized tricycle taxis. Our van could barely squeeze through all the traffic and pedestrians. I’ll post some video later.

And once again, everyone on the hotel’s staff was amazingly polite. While waiting to check in I was trying to tear the tag off my suitcase and within seconds a bellhop swooped in with scissors to save the day.

Our room was very nice. The Henann Palm Beach Resort just opened in January after President Duterte had closed down the entire island for ecological cleanup. Our room was clean and had all the amenities, plus direct access to the pool.

We found a table at the upper “Skybar” and were treated like royalty. I’ve never been called “Sir” more often in my life. We settled in with a few piña colodas and enjoyed an amazing sunset. Oddly these drinks were made with coconut powder, not coconut milk or creme. But they were great and went down smooth.

The view was shared by throngs of Korean, Chinese and Japanese tourists. Oh sure, there were a few other old white guys there. And most of them had a young Filipina girl on their arm. One 60ish Australian must have weighed 280 pounds and his petite, blinged-out girlfriend looked about 20. Apparently that’s a thing here, and the Filipinos are okay with it as long as the Westerners don’t “have a temper.”

On Boracay Time

Sorry for the lack of updates here, but this is the vacation part of my vacation and the days sort of blurred together. The hotel is very nice. Our room had direct access to the pool and the sunsets are amazing with all the Paraw Sails parading across in the Philippine Sea like a postcard.

Eric and I spent half our time in the Skybar being teased relentlessly by the tag team of Pinky & Vanessa. There Eric became an Honorary Millenial for his addiction to Mobile Legends, and I earned the title Kuya Lane. Kuya means “the big brother” here, measured by age — not weight. 😉

More later. We have to catch our boat and flight back to Manila.

The Thrilla in Manila

I landed in Manila two nights ago and was waved through customs without so much as eye contact. My brother was waiting outside. I hadn’t seen him or his adorable Filipina wife Maylin in seven or eight years. A taxi with a grindy transmission took us to Eric’s expatriate enclave in Mandaluyong City.

On Friday we went to the adjacent mall so I could shop for jewelry to take home. We had an early dinner at Chili’s, where Eric enjoys rock star status. Fortunately for me, he hates seafood too.

Genuine South Sea pearls, set in diamond mounts.

Exactly ten petite Filipinas swarmed around us at the pearl counter at Kultura, smiling and giggling. I’m sure I could fit a couple of them in my suitcase. But none of them knew what the phrase “loose pearl” means. Maylin later explained that even though English is taught in the schools, much of the slang and nuance gets lost in translation.

That evening I set up my camera on a ledge outside my guest room window on the 54th floor, and shot an hour’s worth of the sunset in time lapse. I have no idea how it turned out. I also recorded the street sounds as well, for background.

Manila is a pretty gritty place. A bit like a modern version of Havana. The people are warm and nice, but no one could direct me to the world famous Manila Folder factory tour.

Off to Boracay in an hour for five days of pinã coladas and chillaxing. Eric let me know that there are two rounds of security theater at the Manila airport, even for domestic flights.

Oh no, Tokyo!

Go, go Godzilla. (Yeah) — Blue Oyster Cult

Thursday morning I set up my camera by 7 AM to shoot time lapse of commuters from my third-floor window in the station’s north rotunda. I let it run until my card filled up. I don’t know how it turned out. It was rainy out and I never saw the crowds I was expecting on a workday. The station itself was very crowded, however. And a lot of Japanese were coughing. Lukasz had explained that the masks are commonly used for allergies, but I have my doubts.

I returned to Starbucks and the same little barista girl actually recognized me. “Good morning, would you like the same as yesterday?” I was floored. “Yes please, plus an American waffle.” I was fortunate to show her that I could be booger-free for at least one morning.

I mailed my postcards and packed up. I had planned to go for a walk but felt like a bit more sleep was in order before checking out at noon.

I’m now on the Narita Express making the one-hour run to the airport. The train is very comfortable. My flight to Manila is at 5:30 PM on Delta. There are travel advisories in effect for the Philippines now so Trump probably said something stupid about Duterte or some shit. Will tread lightly there.

In fact, Delta’s check-in agent advised me that when I depart Manila to Tokyo next week, I’m to expect “triple security.” So something’s up between the two island nations. She issued my return flight documents as a precaution.

I’ve still got over ¥31,000 in my pocket but there’s time for a nice meal at Narita. I also need a couple more SD cards for my camera and drone. Eric says they might be cheaper in Manila. So if I don’t spend all my Yen here I’ll just exchange it for Pesos.

So yeah, I got ripped off pretty good by Travelex converting Yen to Pesos. But at least now I have $210 worth in case I need to bribe someone when I land in Manila. The trip so far is well under budget, unlike Cuba.

With time to spare, I found a nice little diner in the international terminal and had their fried pork cutlet with cabbage and rice surrounded by a gaggle of Hong Kong stewardesses. The Kirin was good as always and I’ve grown fond of Japanese architecture. So simple and elegant — even at the airport. They do try to please, always.

In a gift shop I scored a nice Godzilla t-shirt in my size. And it was ¥11,000 less to boot.

Now I’m waiting to board my long flight to Manila. I panicked a bit after security because all the signs said “Immigration” and no gates were visible. The correct word is “Emigration” when you leave a country. It turns out all the departure gates are downstairs. But still, the signage sucks here for gaijin.

Sayonara, Japan!

Time (& Mental) Lapses

I met up with Lukasz from outside an enormous department store above Shinjuku Station.

While waiting for 19:30 to roll around, I wandered into the store but was repelled by thick clouds of perfume. So I found an inconspicuous spot and took some photos of commuters while a group of protestors blocked the main entrance over some election.

There I spotted my first homeless man, leaning against the station’s glass doors. He was the spitting image of the mentor in the old Karate Kid movie. And right on cue, no more than a minute after I took his picture, he slowly opened his dirty pants, pulled out his penis and and peed on the station floor. Not a cop in sight, and no way was I getting involved. Strangely, several commuters noticed the act without breaking stride.

After a brief intro, I learned Lukasz is a Pol who grew up in Chicago. So I told him all about my neighbor Bob, who also taught photography.

We headed off to a nearby bridge where the private instruction started with some fundamentals about how aperture size and shutter speed determine a shot’s exposure, especially in low light. I relearned how to read a histogram and make adjustments based on a few test shots.

Within a few minutes we were capturing incredible shots of traffic light trails set against the Neon Canyon. The bridge was pretty bouncy and there was a lot of foot traffic right behind me, which I’m very uncomfortable with. But this was more important.

Together we figured out how to use the intervalometer and soon produced 10 second time lapse clips at one frame per second. Some of the individual frames are amazing standalone shots, so I’m convinced time lapse is an ideal workflow for scenes like this where there is a lot of semi-predictable movement.

There is a very long and narrow alleyway nearby. Dozens of small restaurants line the alley, and each was packed to the gills with locals. Lukasz suggested I use my iPhone in time lapse mode to plow through the alley. So I swooped in and out of open windows, got closeups of people’s food and generally made a nuisance of myself. But no one seemed to mind, since this was the crazy party side of Tokyo. Unfortunately this shot came out too fast to be usable.

Next we hopped the subway to Harajuku, home of the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. While taking off my backpack on the train, the flap was unzipped and all my equipment tumbled onto the floor. So embarrassing. I was apparently far too distracted by everything to perform even the most basic tasks, like protecting my camera. But it’s as if the Japanese thought of this. The subway cars’ floors are rubberized, so there was no damage beyond my pride.

There is an observation deck outside Harajuku Station where we set up my tripod and shot another five or six minutes of time lapse from above. By now I was getting pretty confident.

I’ll post my best photos later after I’ve had time to offload them — maybe at my brother’s place in Manila. I left a 5-star review for EyeXplore on TripAdvisor, and we agreed to keep in touch. This was $219 well spent. I would never have thought to do all this without Lukasz’s direction and patience.