Roaming Roxas

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On my previous trip to the Philippines, I took a walk from my hotel along the edge of the bay, primarily along the hyper-busy Roxas Boulevard. At the time, walking along Roxas was one of several experiences that made me think of Manila as “a city tearing itself apart. Some parts of the city are horribly neglected, with, it seems, little public will to maintain sidewalks or street signs or public parks.” The sidewalks along Roxas, although large, and clearly intended as a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, were broken apart. The few statues that remained had been seriously dismembered. And yet this sidewalk was within 200 feet of some of Manila’s tallest sky scrapers, and (I’ll assume) high-rent bay-front properties.

I went back to Roxas on my current trip, and I was incredibly impressed to see extensive construction being undertaken on the pedestrian thoroughfare. There were plantings, and trees, and nice long benches, and brick sidewalks.

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Alas, this new construction was not immune to the Manila condition. The newly constructed thoroughfare was already starting to crumble, before it could even be finished. People were living in their ramshackle, make-shift convenience stores, and were using construction supplies to augment their dwellings.

And at the picture up top, notice the two holes in the sidewalk? That’s a perforated drain, with concrete slabs covering the drainage ditch. And the slabs are crumbling all along its length. Some were broken. Some were missing. Some were just moved aside. The result is that there was trash throughout the drainage ditch, and an unaware walker could break a leg.

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Can you find the person sleeping in this photo?

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From a distance, the vendors’ umbrellas look almost festive–like you might be entering a street festival. But from up-close, it becomes clear that this is subsistence retail. These people had built, borrowed, or stolen carts so that they could sell bags of chips (I didn’t look too closely at them) and bottled soda. Many people were sleeping in or near their carts. There were probably 30 or 40 of these carts–chips and soda–within a mile of each other. How there was enough foot traffic from non-cart owners to sustain them is a mystery to me. Some vendors had diversified and were also selling massages.

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In my previous trip, I was heartbroken at the sight of the kids who were growing up in the area. It hasn’t gotten any better. In fact, I saw a lot more kids this time. And their conditions, despite the newly constructed sidewalk, aren’t really any better.

P1010404At one point I approached the bay wall, and realized that I had been missing half of the community during my walk. In addition to the subsistence retailers, there were also subsistence fisher-families. It was almost like the wall had been designed to hide them from view.

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Fresh fish? I decided to not have a taste.

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And this last picture is of the Manila Yacht Club. Perhaps this is where the middle class keep their boats and the slip fees aren’t enough to cover beautification. Perhaps they only pick up the trash from the shores once a year. And perhaps the people of this city get inured to the trash such that they don’t see or care about it when they go out on their pleasure boats.

Mike and Gil

From my room in Manila, I can see a pedestrian quay that has recently been constructed. It juts into the bay a short distance, and looks like it would afford an excellent view of downtown. It’s even visible on Google maps. So one afternoon, in the middle of the night, I was feeling bored with the resort pool area and decided to take a little amble to the quay.

P1010285Stray cats are a common sight in Manila, and I feel a pang in my heart for each one of them. I want to take them home.

Anyway, when I got to the quay, I could see that it was largely complete, but there was still some on-going construction. There were maybe a half-dozen men working on finishing touches, like painting a fence, or touching up some concrete. There was a temporary fence across the quay “blocking” me from getting to the end of it, but there was a doorway open, so I walked toward it. Out of a guard shanty (which I had not noticed) came one of the ubiquitous security guards, telling me that I could not got out to the quay because it was under construction. I made a friendly plea for an exception, but he stood firm, so I turned the other way to explore the opposite end.

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While I was hanging out, relaxing, taking some pictures, a friendly construction worker starts making conversation with me. It was the usual stuff, and Mike seemed especially familiar with the US. Our jovial conversation attracted the attention of other workers (whom I hadn’t noticed before) and they all seemed amused that Mike and I were getting on so well. Mike introduced me to all his friends, and insisted that we go to the “closed” end of the quay to meet more of his friends. With Mike as my escort, the security guard smiled and let us pass.

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Selfie time with Mike to celebrate my entrance to the forbidden quay. Of course, Mike has some friends who are off the side of the quay doing some concrete touch up.

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And he has friends who are fishing.

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Gil (pronounced Hill), below, had been diving for shellfish, and was also a good friend of Mike’s, and quickly became a good friend of mine as well.

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I asked about his catch for the day, and he told me the name of it, but I didn’t recognize the name he used, and try as I might I cannot remember it. Within minutes, Gil was offering to cook some shellfish so that I might try them.

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The fire was already burning with a paleolithic kettle on top. They scavenged some corrugated steel for a cook surface, and put the shells right on it. Even the aforementioned security guard helped to stoke the fire.

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After the shells started to split apart, and looked like they had been cooked reasonably well, I ate a few of their salty-delicious innards.P1010322

 

While Mike, Gil, the security guard and I were sampling the shellfish, a couple of police men arrived, and Gil put more shells on to cook. The policemen were friendly and really enjoyed the snack. When I asked Gil to pose with his spear-gun, the cop on the right joked that he should apprehend him with his dangerous weapon.
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Gil’s supply was quickly dwindling, and I realized that I had brought no money with me on my amble–just a camera and a bottle of water. So I begged Gil to stick around for a few more minutes while I ran back to my hotel room.
I took off at a trot, but my flip-flops were a serious hindrance, and I took them off. I jogged the maybe-half-mile back to the hotel across sidewalks and roads, and realized as I approached the hotel, that my feet were hurting pretty badly. Hrm, Manila, in summer, heat of day, and my pasty-white feet on the blacktop. Yeah, that was stupid.

Anyway, I got to my room, grabbed some cash (and another water bottle), and put shoes on. I jogged tenderly back to the quay. Mike, the security guard, and the police were still there, but Gil wasn’t. I waited a while, caught my breath, drank my water, and took a few more pictures.

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Gil didn’t return, and when I checked the time, it was 4AM in the afternoon. I desperately needed to get to sleep. I walked back to my room, showered, and crashed. I have blisters on my feet (i.e. second degree burns) and a shell.

Security Theater in the Philippines

P1010284I’ve mentioned previously that the Philippines (at least the small bits I’ve seen around Pasay) have the most elaborate actors in security theater I’ve ever seen. I’m now on my second trip to the same area, and nothing has changed.

Except my determination to get a picture or two of a “security” guard. I had noticed this particular guard at one point in a walk around the Mall of Asia because of the rustiness of his “weapon”. I put weapon in quotes because I think it would be more useful in helping an old man walk than in stopping any sort of nere-do-well. In particular, I’m referring to the pistol-gripped shotgun slung across his chest. I’d walked by a few other guards and had noticed that a) there was no clip where there should be one, and b) the breach was open. With no clip, and nothing in the breach, I was pretty sure the tool was useless. But here is a closer look.


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When was the last time you saw a gun that was that rusted? Oh, and where is that trigger? I’ll guess it is rusted solid against the back of the trigger guard.

One last detail–see that very large side-arm holster? I peaked inside as I walked by him. It was stuffed with a handkerchief. Seriously.

After taking about five shots (ahem, pictures) from the shade across the street, I seemed to get noticed. We stared at each other for several long moments. I chose to move on, and not disturb the performer any longer. My welcome on his stage had clearly worn out its welcome.

Four and a half hours in Hong Kong

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What can you do with a four and a half hour layover in Hong Kong? I don’t know what you could do, but I can complete a whirlwind tour of the city, making use of three different modes of transportation, and still getting back to my gate in time to have a relaxing dinner. Your mileage may vary. Your tolerance for risking missing your flight may be much lower than mine.

Planning

This little tour wasn’t something I just stumbled upon–I spent a fair bit of time searching and reading and learning. I came up with a number of possible ideas, and it was only the day before my trip that  I settled on this route. But there are a few prerequisites that all had to fall into place to make it possible:

  • The Hong Kong airport is a model of organization and efficiency. I read in many “what can I do with a layover” articles that HKG was not to be feared for long lines or chaos. Yes, circumstances can change day by day. But reading in multiple sources that HKG was easy to traverse gave me hope that this was even possible. In contrast, EVERYONE says that you should be at the the Aruba airport 3 hours prior to departure because of the lines to enter lines.
  • The Airport Express train line is easy to figure out and stops at two key destinations: Kowloon and Hong Kong Central. Plus it runs every 10 minutes.
  • Immigration into Hong Kong is reported to be very easy. Western travelers should have no problems.
  • I’m in good health. My knees sometimes play havoc with me, but of late they were feeling good, so I felt up for the amount of walking I would be doing.
  • I didn’t have to mess with my checked bag. Although I would be switching airlines in Hong Kong, I didn’t have to collect my checked bag. Therefore I didn’t have to store it, or worse, take it with me.

With those issues laid to rest, here is the plan I laid out:

  • 1:30PM Arrival HKG
  • 2:15PM Board Airport Express line to Kowloon Station (Departs every 10 minutes)
  • 2:45PM Arrive Kowloon Station. Use Exit C. This gives me 75 minutes in Sky 100.
  • IF I can depart Kowloon station by 3:30:
    • 3:30 Taxi to Star Ferry Pier Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry departs every 6-8 minutes
    • 3:40 Ferry to Hong Kong
    • 3:50 Walk to Hong Kong Station
  • 4:00PM Board Airport Express line at Kowloon or Hong Kong Station to HKG (departs every 10 minutes)
  • 4:30PM Arrive HKG
  • 6:00PM Flight departs

The first thing to notice is that I had options. If the sky was overcast, I could skip Sky 100. If the lines for Sky 100 were too long, I could skip the ferry ride. And of course, if I my flight didn’t arrive in time, I could just turn around.

Here’s how it actually went…

1:35PM flight arrives HKG. I was seated in Business Class, so it was pretty easy to get off the plane, and start making my way out. The signs were easy to follow, first for immigration, and then for “city”. There was maybe a 5-10 minute wait for immigration, but the lines felt like they were moving briskly and there were a lot of inspectors. My immigration inspector said not a single word to me. For customs, I walked out the “Nothing to declare” doors without breaking stride.

Next came the ticket station for Airport Express. I reviewed my intended plan with the young woman at the counter (get off at one station, get back on at another) and she made sure I had the right ticket and handed it to me with a smile. If I were to do this again, I would probably wait until I could get the ticket after I got cash, but that is a minor quibble.

On my way out of the airport, I stopped at an ATM and withdrew Hong Kong dollars. I had read that most taxis didn’t take credit, and that cash is still king for most transactions, so I wanted to be prepared. The smallest withdrawal I could make was HK$500 ($62) which was way more than I needed, but I figured better to have it than not.

2:15PM Sitting on the Airport Express train. Exactly as planned. The train departed, was smooth, clean, and quite nice.

The walk from Kowloon Station to the entry for Sky 100 was longer than I might have thought–my path was through a mall, and up several levels. But the signs were plentiful, and the crowds were easy to pass through. I purchased my ticket for Sky 100 and rode the elevator to the top, with no waiting. I was in the observation deck by 2:50PM.

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Despite having spent HK$168 ($21), I stayed on the observation deck for only 10 minutes. There certainly was more to see from the deck, but I knew now that I had a fair bit of walking to get to a taxi.

In fact, I didn’t really know where I was going to get to a taxi. I made my way back through the mall, heading toward Kowloon station and the parking deck, hoping that something would be obvious along the way. And it was–a set of doors to my right led to a parking circle to a hotel, and there were taxis all around. I walked up, and a taxi was hailed for me. Once in the taxi, the driver said not a word to me. I hoped that my “Star Ferry Pier” was enough to get me where I was going.

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Based on my Google Fu, I planned on the taxi taking 10ish minutes, and costing HK$60-100 ($8-12). I watched the meter, and watched the approaching harbor, but really had not much clue what would happen to me. When the taxi driver stopped, the meter was just shy of HK$40, and we were in the middle of the street, with buses and taxis all around. “This is it”. I couldn’t even see the harbor because of the buses. I gave the driver HK$60–he had wasted no time in getting me there–and made my way to the sidewalk.

At this point, I was a little disoriented. Yes, there was the water. Yes, Hong Kong island was in easy view. Yes, people were everywhere. But there were no obvious signs to the ferry. Mostly there were lots of signs of political protest, and women offering services that I declined to inquire about.

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I wandered the quay for 3-4 minutes, and then spotted what I was sure to be the ferry coming in to dock. I made my way that direction, found a machine to buy my fare token (it was a staggering HK$3.40, or $0.40 for the premium weekend fare), and was seated on the boat at 3:26PM–14 minutes ahead of schedule.

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The ferry ride was quick, and afforded a nice harbor view of the city. Upon exiting the ferry, I was able to follow signs for “Central MTR” which was the station I wanted. I was on the train, ready to head back to the airport at 3:45PM.

I’m really not sure it could have been faster or easier to get through security. There were no lines anywhere, and I had made it all the way to my gate by 4:30PM, easily 30 minutes ahead of my hoped-for schedule.

The airport is clean and modern, but it was crowded and chaotic. I couldn’t find a place to sit to eat my dinner, and there were no seats open at the gate. This is all a normal part of traveling, especially through busy airports, but it made me all the more happy that I hadn’t been sitting around in the airport for the whole layover.