n March 21st of 1997, I embarked upon the most momentous journey of my life. I had been planning this trip since November 13th of 1996, the day I asked Emelda to marry me. Since that day, my life has centered around my desire to become one with this woman, whom I love so much.
I arrived at LAX around 4:35 p.m. Since my flight was scheduled to depart at 9:45, I had plenty of time to check in, get a good seat and enjoy an overpriced airport meal. I joined the check-in line which was already a long one. The check-in counter opened at around 5:50 or so and I was checked in by around 6:10. I asked the Philippine Airlines employee to seat me next to a window and directly behind an emergency exit (so that I'd have more leg room) and he said that that would not be a problem.
Since I knew that I'd have a surplus of free time on the long flight to Manila, I purchased several magazines and a book to read. I then made my way through the cadre of security checks and found a not-so-wide selection of one restaurant. I ate a sandwich while watching television. The program that the waitress had chosen was a clone of "Love Connection" and a bad one at that. The couples on the program were searching desperately for love in a strange place; a television show. I was glad that my search for love had ended and I was reminded that I had searched (and found) love in a strange place also; The Philippines, my impending destination.
It had been difficult to concentrate at work that day. In fact, it had been difficult to concentrate since November 13th. It's excruciating to be thousands of miles from the woman you love and quite frankly, my life had been hell for the last few months leading up to this trip. I was very anxious to get to The Philippines and hold Emelda in my arms again.
The plane began boarding on time and after a brief delay on the tarmac, we were airborne. Unfortunately, the man who checked me in failed to deliver on my seating assignment and I was nowhere near an emergency exit. I accepted my 'no-leg room' fate and worked on a scintillating crossword puzzle. Before long, the first of five movies began playing. I enjoyed my second viewing of Ransom (starring Mel Gibson), but fell asleep during the opening scene of Michael Collins.
After refueling in Honolulu, we continued toward Manila and I resumed sleeping. I woke up during the closing scene of The Mirror Has Two Faces (that ending is blown for me now) which was followed by a lovely airline meal (Philippine Airlines actually serves delicious food). I chatted with the couple next to me which was comprised of a white man in his sixties and a Filipina in her forties. Since they had met in the same manner that Emelda and I had met, we had plenty to talk about. It was a weird coincidence for them to be sitting next to me and I enjoyed hearing about their love story.
Star Trek: First Contact was the next film to show. I watched as much as I could before I surrendered to the sandman again. As we neared the end of the flight, Michael was the final film to play. Reinvigorated by sleep, I watched John Travolta play pretty much the same role he played in Phenomenon and I groused about my alleged ability to make better films than most of what I see on the silver screen these days, but enough about movies. I was flying away from Hollywood and toward my destiny.
We landed on time in Manila and I felt happy to be back in my second homeland. After checking in for my second flight to Cebu City (where I would meet Emelda), I headed for my departure gate. I used a comfort room (what they call a restroom in The Philippines) and was surprised to find three comfort room attendants eager to assist me in the inevitable hand-washing to come. They sprung into action and were quite pleasant. Since I had not yet exchanged my dollars for pesos, I gave each of them a buck. They were visibly pleased. One of the young men said that this would enable each of them to buy breakfast and I was reminded how poor most people are in The Philippines are.
The flight to Cebu City was short (about one hour) and sweet. As I neared the moment that I would be reunited with Emelda, I became happier and happier. After retrieving my baggage and going through customs, I found the currency exchange window and pulled out a wad of Franklins (traveler's checks are not always exchangeable in The Philippines and when they are, they get a lower exchange rate). I received the thousands of pesos my Franklins demanded and asked for some change to make a few phone calls. The lady at the counter lamented that they did not have any coins.
Let me backtrack for a minute. While surfing the World Wide Web one day, I had found a special deal on a hotel in Cebu City. The deal was that first-time visitors could get a suite for only $25.00 (U.S.). The catch was that they would not reserve a room in advance for me. I would have to call the hotel from the airport and if a suite was available, they'd let me stay in it for the discounted price. I brought the hotel's phone number with me along with a few additional hotel phone numbers in case the first hotel was all booked up.
Now, back to the exchange counter. Since I had to make the aforementioned phone call, I asked the lady if there was any way I could hunt down a few pesos, so that I could avoid having to sleep at the airport. A lady standing next to her helped out by handing over two pesos. I thanked her and headed for the payphones as several people yelled, "Taxi, sir?" at me. My two pesos would enable me to make exactly one phone call. I hoped that the hotel wasn't booked up as I deposited the two coins. As it turned out, the phone call would not go through. Apparently, the hotel's website has the wrong phone number on it (or I wrote it down wrong). I kissed off the special deal and called hotel number two. The clerk was jovial and since I was now out of pesos, I made a reservation at the Hotel De Mercedes for 1,280 pesos per night ($49.23).
It was approximately 9:45 a.m. Emelda's flight was scheduled to arrive at 3:15 p.m., so I decided to head for the hotel where I could enjoy a hot shower, a rest and a change of clothing (I had been in the same clothes for approximately 35 hours). As I stepped outside, several young men asked me if I needed a taxi. I picked the most articulate one and inquired as to how much it would cost to go to my hotel (it is advisable in The Philippines to negotiate a price before you get into a taxi, lest you get ripped off). He said that it would be 150 pesos ($5.77) and I readily agreed. I assumed that he would lead me to his car. As it turned out, he was simply a porter who carried my bags to a nearby taxi. As I sat down in the car, I realized that I would have to tip the young man (if I had known he wasn't a driver, I could've carried my bags the extra thirty feet to the taxi myself and avoided the extra expense). I shelled out 20 pesos ($0.77) which brought a smile to his face. Okay, it wasn't that much extra.
On the way to the hotel, the taxi driver attempted to get me to try another hotel for which he conveniently carried a brochure. It was quite apparent that the driver would receive a kickback from the touted hotel should he bring any business their way. After seeing the hotel's higher rates (and not wanting to break my word to the Hotel De Mercedes), I declined his invitation and we continued toward downtown Cebu City.
When we arrived at our destination, I gave the driver 200 pesos ($7.69) and he thanked me. The hotel was not in the best part of town, but it wasn't in the worst part either. I checked in and a bellman lugged my bags up to the fifth floor room. It turned out to be a rather nice suite and I was quite glad when the bellman cranked the air conditioning up full blast. I tipped him 50 pesos ($1.92) and received another smile. After he left, I plopped myself onto the bed and took a nap.
After a short siesta, I headed for the shower. There was a strange device in the shower stall which was connected to a long tube which connected to the shower head. This device was connected to a few pipes which led up toward the ceiling and was unlike anything I'd ever seen in a shower. According to the instructions printed on the device, this contraption was my ticket to a hot shower.
First, you're supposed to turn the water on. Next, you turn the device's knob to low, medium or high (depending on how hot you want the water to be). When you get the water to the desired temperature, you're supposed to turn the knob down so that the water does not continue to heat. I followed the instructions to the letter. Since I like a really hot shower, I turned the device up to the highest setting. This was a mistake. The water could've eaten through lead! I turned the heater off and soothed my now-burned skin with the sink's cold water.
Attempt number two was more successful. I turned the device to the lowest setting and the water was tolerable. I turned the knob down and switched the water from the tap to the shower head. The water pressure was pathetic, but I was now enjoying a hot shower. Before long, the water was scalding hot again. I had to turn the heat knob off completely. The temperature decreased and decreased until I was suddenly enjoying a cold shower. I turned the heat back up. The temperature began rising again. To make a long story short, I had to keep turning the knob up and down for the duration of the shower. It was an adventure.
When I reached for my shampoo, I realized that it was back in Los Angeles. Since the hotel didn't provide one of those 'stealable' bottles of shampoo, I found myself out of luck. I reached for the complimentary bar of soap and rubbed it all over my scalp as I continued to constantly adjust the temperature knob. I worked up a pathetic lather and did the best with what I had. After a long while, I realized that the soap didn't seem to be washing out. I turned off the water and exited the stall. After wiping the film off of the mirror, I examined my hair which now felt like a glazed doughnut. I realized that one should not wash one's hair with a bar of soap.
I called housekeeping and asked if they had any shampoo. They did not, but recommended me to the pharmacy in the hotel's lobby. Well, the pharmacy was closed, so I asked the front desk if they knew where I could locate some shampoo. They recommended the pharmacy down the street.
Now, in The Philippines, when I go out in public, my big American ass is the center of attention. Every head turns. Comments are made (nice ones, mind you, but audible ones). Since they rarely see Americans in Cebu City, it is like a movie star walking down a street in America. I can't be anonymous. This is at times quite fun to, but when I'm alone in an unfamiliar part of town, I get nervous. I dreaded the idea of trekking down the street with a wet, soapy head of hair.
The pharmacy turned out to be a half a block away and it was not the hassle I feared it would be. Before long, I was back in my shower stall working the nutty heat knob and relathering my sticky hair. The shampoo did the trick and I sat down on the bed after the shower to watch television and enjoy the lovely air conditioning.
After about fifteen minutes, the power went out. In The Philippines, power outages are quite common. There isn't enough power to go around, so the power company has to scramble to keep electricity pulsing to everyone. The television quit and the air conditioning followed suit. As the temperature began to rise, I began removing my fresh clothing. I was missing America already.
In a short while, I became hungry. Since I had seen a fast food restaurant down the street from the pharmacy, I decided to venture into Philippine society again. The restaurant I had seen was part of the most popular fast food chain in The Philippines; Jollibee. Their mascot is a chubby, jolly bee. I had eaten at one of their restaurants on my previous trip to The Philippines, so I was familiar with their menu.
As I walked down the sidewalk, nearly every head turned. A few people said, "Hey Joe!" A young lady said, "Gwapo," which means 'handsome' and I surprised her with a knowing smile. Inside Jollibee, the cashier couldn't hide her surprise at seeing a white man and giddily asked if she could take my order. I ordered my favorite Jollibee item, the Amazing Aloha Burger (on top of the meat patty sits a pineapple slice and two slabs of bacon) and some French fries. Since they were out of Diet Coke (diet sodas are hard to come by in The Philippines outside of Manila), I had to settle for a large Sprite. The largest size beverage in a Philippine restaurant is about the size of a small beverage in America.
A branch of the popular Jollibee chain
I returned to the hotel with my meal (curiously, they put the drink inside the bag in The Philippines). As I passed by the girl who had made the 'gwapo' comment, she shyly hid her face. When I entered the hotel room, the power had been restored only partially. The television wouldn't work, but the air conditioner was humming lowly. I dug into my Amazing Aloha and sucked up my Sprite.