Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Vietnam Is Starting Out A Little Rough

Well, it is not really the fault of the country. But Vietnam is starting out a bit rough for me. 

Right before I took the plane to Hanoi, I got the news that my car back home has been totaled.  Luckily, everybody is all right.  But my little car that took me up into the Arctic twice, shuttled me reliably all over almost every province in Canada and most states of the United States is no more.  It will take me a while to figure out what that means for my journey and how it will affect me when I get back. Because now I will almost certainly return not only somewhat financially depleted, but not having any transportation to help me generate what might be some needed income.  I'll survive, and I'm certainly glad nobody was hurt, but it is definitely a blow.

When I arrived at the airport last night, I had to go through one of the most chaotic processes so far for entry.  I had to submit a visa approval letter, and give them my passport, which they held on to for a while.  And I had to submit two ID photos, which I was ready for and had with me to submit. But then I had to fill out a form on which I was supposed to put a lot of details from my passport, but they had taken my passport.  So I was waiting for my passport to come back to finish filling out the forms (in duplicate), when I heard my name called over the public address system in the airport.  I went over to the desk, and was going to explain, but they just took the forms and stamped them, and gave me my passport back.  They didn't even seem to care much what was on the forms.  But I had my hands full with all kinds of papers, and things were slightly chaotic.  And I got in after midnight, so it was late and I was really tired.

I went looking for my ride.  I had reserved a car from the hostel, and it was the first time in my life that I was one of those people who has someone waiting for them with a placard with their name on it.  The driver was easy to find, of course, he had a placard with my name.  But as I was heading out, I realized that I need to get money.  So the driver showed me where the ATMs were, and I went over to get some money.  The ATM only let me pull out two million dongs, which is a little over ninety dollars.

Then I took off with the driver, and we headed back to the hostel. But suddenly I realized that I had failed to retrieve my card from the ATM.  I checked my wallet, and sure enough, it was not there.  So I told the driver I needed to go back to the airport, kinda panicky.  He had a hard time understanding, but finally I got through to him what I needed, and he turned around.  

I went over to the ATM.  No card anywhere in sight.  There were a couple of cards on top of the ATM, but neither of them was mine.  This machine is apparently not primed to remind you very well about your card, if others had left theirs there.  I asked some people around, they really didn't understand and just shrugged.  I asked the guard, who didn't really understand at first and kept showing me where the ATMs are.  No, I know where the ATMs are, it's just...oh, crap...

Well, the card was just gone.  I needed to contact my bank to report it missing, but I have no data in Vietnam, and would have to wait until I got to the hostel to use their wi-fi.  I was really anxious the whole trip from the airport to the hostel, and it was a long one.  There was no traffic at all at that time of night, but it still took a really long time to get to the hostel...the airport must be pretty far outside of Hanoi.

I checked into the hostel a little before three in the morning, and for some reason, they didn't charge me any money, but they took my passport.  I guess I pay when I leave, but they are going to keep my passport the whole time?  I got the wi-fi password, called my bank, and got disconnected a few times from the weak wi-fi connection.  I wanted to scream in frustration.  I was really tired and wanted to sleep, but knew I had to do this right away, and also, since it was three in the morning in Hanoi, it was during business hours in the US.  I also checked my account online and saw that somebody had withdrawn money after I did.  Shit.  They must not require that the PIN be entered again for subsequent transactions, and now I know it was stolen.  I found the wi-fi router and stood right under it, and that allowed me to complete a call to my bank.  The guy I talked to was very helpful, cancelled my card immediately and got the address of the hostel from me to send me a new one.  So right now I'm without my ATM card, but hopefully I'll get a new one soon, and I should have enough money to last until it arrives, especially since I haven't paid the hostel bill yet.  This has all been pretty emotionally draining and it has been a difficult day.

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's a Private Party

Last night I went up to the bar on the hostel rooftop.  I have been going up there at night to socialize with people, and just chill on the roof.  I saw a group of people who looked like locals, and went over to say hi to them.  I asked this guy how he was doing today, and he responded with, "Actually, this is a private party."

Well, my first thought was, um, I don't think so.  I saw the greeter/bouncers there, the guys I see every day, they greeted me warmly, and didn't say anything about no entry.  So maybe you and your buddies are having a private party, but, clearly there are other people here from the hostel who are not hanging out with you.  My second thought was, "Oh, you're an asshole." Yes, I understand. I know asshole. I don't quite speak fluent asshole, because I just don't hang out much in the asshole community, but I do know enough asshole to know the response is to walk to a different place and find friendlier people who are not assholes.  Which I did.

See, if you don't speak enough asshole, your response might be to SAY the things that I was thinking.  That would be a mistake. When assholes are surrounded by their fellow assholes, and you say things to them, they often become hostile assholes. I have observed this in the wild. And a flock of hostile assholes is likely to stampede. You don't want to be around a hostile asshole stampede. It can get ugly.

I have met a lot of people here who are not assholes. Many locals are pretty cool and interesting.  One strange thing I have noticed in the Philippines (and I even Googled to confirm this) is that Filipinos often say "yes" when they mean "no". Seriously. Check it out yourself if you don't believe me.  So if somebody answers with "yes", but they have weird body language or you have the smallest reason to suspect that they don't mean to answer in the affirmative, you have to kind of gently ask follow-up questions (but maybe not questions that require a yes or no answer) or explore the matter further to determine if it is really a "yes". There is some kind of cultural thing where some Filipinos just don't want to say "no".  Maybe part of it is that they want to acknowledge that they heard what you said. I really don't know.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Security in Makati

I can't speak for the rest of the Philippines, since I've only been to the area near Manila, but there is some serious security in Makati, and other places in Metro Manila. There are private security guards all over the place. They are on the corners in the streets, at the doors of the establishments they are guarding, and even running crowds through metal detectors in some cases. Sometimes they carry very large and powerful guns.

There are metal detectors to enter the subway, and also at the entrance of many malls. But the guards manning them don't seem to take the same methodically rigorous approach that you might see at the airport (not that airport searches are the gold standard, but they seem to have certain protocols that the searchers try to adhere to...still, I made it through the last two airport searches that I went through having forgotten that I had a bottle of water in my carry-on, and nobody confiscated it either time). They seem more like they are going through the motions. The searches they conduct at most of the metal detectors in Metro Manila seem kind of half-hearted.

Also, you can't just walk down any street in Makati. There are wide swaths of neighborhoods that are like gated communities, only there are no gates; there are only guards that will not permit you to enter at all the entry points. Then there are also streets for blocks on end that are completely closed off by physical gates and fences like the kinds you might see around paid attractions like amusement parks or outdoor concert venues. And then there are also long barrier fences that fence off poorer neighborhoods from major arterials.  I've been frustrated many a time in trying to just walk from one place to another. You can't just look at Google Maps and follow the streets to try to get somewhere.

Even the hostel I am staying at has a lot of security. There are lots of security guards all over the place at the hostel.  I've noticed they have guest books at the door, so they must know who is staying there and who has checked out. But there is a rooftop bar that is open to the public, so outsiders are allowed to come in to patronize the bar. One thing that is really a bit different and maybe even weird is that all the employees, or at least many of them, seem to know my name. When I'm walking around in the hostel, I'll often be greeted with "Hello, Stuart." Today I was walking around town, and I ran into a couple of hostel employees who greeted me by name.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hanging out in Makati

I arrived in the Philippines, at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, a little before midnight on August 16th. I had searched for the cheapest flight out of Japan, to wherever, using Skyscanner.com, which is now my go-to app for looking for cheap flights. No shit. You can pick a country...in this case, I picked Japan, and sort for the cheapest flights out of that country, and you don't even have to pick a destination. It will show you the cheapest flights, and then you can look at every day of the month to see if you can find them even cheaper. You can pick a destination, of course, if you want, either by city or by country, but in this case I was just looking for a roulette wheel spin to my next destination. The cheapest international flight I found was from Fukuoka to Manila, for about eighty bucks. So Manila it is. I hadn't even been considering the Philippines, but since the flight was cheap, I went for it.

The flight was on Cebu Pacific Air. I had never even heard of this airline. Once I got directed to their site to book my flight, I had to opt out of all kinds of sneaky add-ins that would have increased my fare a lot more. The only one I kept was the one-bag option, so I could check my backpack (it's a little too big to be a carry-on), and then I could carry my other bag as a carry-on.

As a sidebar, I'm traveling with the Osprey 70 Farpoint, which is probably one of the best travel bags, in my opinion. It has a 55 liter main bag, and then a front compartment bag that holds 15 liters that unzips from it to make a day pack. The day pack is a little small and has not many extra pockets, but it is great as a little day companion for a little bit of stuff. But right now, I am carrying a pair of tennis shoes in my day pack, and they take up almost the whole pack. They are the original shoes I brought with me, and I had to change to a pair of sandals because I was in the rainy season in Korea and they kept getting waterlogged. But I take them out and store them in my hostel room if I need the day pack for an outing. I haven't worn them at all since I switched to sandals, but eventually I will if it gets cold (which it won't for a while). I originally was traveling with just the Osprey, but as I gathered food and had the need for liquids, I started needing another bag. So I bought a cheap but highly functional extra bag that I wear on my front, but it doesn't have a lot of stuff in it, and I'm using it mostly for food and drinks. I was trying to avoid a front bag, but am trying to keep it down on the stuff I keep in it, so it is not too burdensome. Usually I have about 14 kilos of stuff in the Osprey, and two to six kilos in the front bag.

Anyway, I finished my interaction with the Cebu Pacific website, which is buggy and difficult, and full of scams that you have to opt out of. It probably took me two hours to book my flight. I figured that would be good practice for the Philippines.

After booking my flight, I went online to research the Philippines, and Manila in particular, since I was going there. There are some really cool places to go in the Philippines. The ones I have heard are the best are Palawan, Cebu, and the area with the rice terraces in the north part of the island of Luzon. I have even talked to one guy who went to Mindanao and had a great time, even though it is the island that is the center of the Muslim insurgency in the Philippines. But the shit I read about Manila scared the crap out of me. If you want a taste of the stuff I read, Google “Manila Danger” for some hair-raising tales. There were incidents of people being robbed at gunpoint, pickpockets everywhere, gangs of people looking to rip people off at the airport, etc. But there were also a lot of people insisting that it was a perfectly safe place, and they had had no problems. So, even though I had some trepidation, I decided to choose to believe that the danger stories were outliers, and most people have a safe and fun time. But the downside was that I only chose to stay in the Metro Manila area and not go to any of the amazing scenic spots. At least now I know where they are, so the next time I come, I can go to those places. But this time, I chose to chill just in Metro Manila (actually in Makati, which is one of the cities that makes up Metro Manila), until I split for my next destination, Vietnam, in which I will allow myself a lot more wandering space. And, really, I need the chill time. I've been traveling intensively for five months straight, and it is good to just sit and not have any expectations. So if any of you want to push any destinations in the Philippines on me, and insist that my trip won't be complete without them, well, that would be awesome, but my circumstances are different. Maybe (probably) next time.

Anyway, as I said earlier, I arrived a little after midnight. I had some trepidation about arriving so late, and wasn't sure I'd be able to find a safe cab, but it all worked out. Coming out of the airport was a little bit intense, because I had just arrived, didn't know what to expect, and was suddenly surrounded by throngs of humanity wanting to offer me all kinds of shit. I couldn't even pay attention to what they were offering, because they were all shouting over each other; all I could say was, “No, thanks.” It was human sensory overload in the worst way...I've had sensory overload from flashing buildings in Seoul and Tokyo, but never anything on the human interaction level like I did coming out of this airport. I just watched my shit, payed attention to my surroundings, had packed for security, and it was fine.

I took a Yellow Cab to the hostel from the airport because I heard they were the safest, though they were the most expensive. But it really wasn't that bad. It was about twelve bucks (about 500 and something pesos). I could have gone cheaper, and would now that I have experience with Manila, but it provided me with safety at the time, and it was the right choice to make with the information I had at the time. The Yellow Cab was very professional and dropped me off right at the hostel and waited until I had made my way in.

This hostel I stayed at (and am still staying in) is in Makati, which is the financial center of Manila, and has a reputation for being the safest area in the Metro Manila area. It is called Z Hostel, and it is a very secure and comfortable place, although maybe the security is a bit on the overkill side. But, better safe than sorry, right?

So, I get to the hostel, a little after midnight, and for some reason I'm not ready to crash yet. On the plane, I had a whole row to myself, so I just put up all the armrests and lay down on all the seats. There were three empty seats next to me, and they made a nice sleepy bed, so I relaxed (I wouldn't say that I slept, but I had a restful, peaceful time) on a bed made up of the three seats making up my row. I went up to the rooftop bar at the hostel, and immediately encountered a group of young-uns who were going out partying. Well, who am I to be the stickler in the party plans...of course I'm going out with the ravenous throng. So I followed someone who knew their shit about where to go in the area, and went with a group of people after midnight to some bar in the area, even though I have no idea where I am. Everybody ended up dancing on the dance floor, and of course I danced most of the night and even ended up dancing in the gogo cage for quite a while. Somebody had shown me a video they took of it, but they disappeared into the crowd. We all ended up out until about 6 in the morning; I was kind of shocked when I left the club and found that it was daylight outside. The next day I slept most of the day.

Just a few blocks away from the hostel is P. Burgos, which is one of the major red light districts in Makati. There are highly aggressive sex workers on the streets soliciting customers. They will follow you down the street and even get grabby sometimes. The strange thing is that the highest concentration of sex workers are right by the police kiosk on the street...though prostitution is illegal, it seems to be fairly tolerated. But who knows if selective enforcement occurs. The traffic light at the corner of P. Burgos and Kalayaan has never worked the whole time I have been here. The intersection is very busy and anarchic. People are constantly trying to force their way through from all sides and it can sometimes lead to gridlock. It is also really hard to cross the street there, as everybody is trying to run you down from all sides. Well, I wouldn't really say their purpose is to run you down, they are just trying to break through and make it through the intersection, and pedestrians are just potential collateral damage, having to really watch their asses as they make their way across the street. Metro Manila traffic is just plain awful almost all of the time. You can be stuck in gridlock for a good portion of the day trying to make your way across the area, which happened to me in the jeepneys I took. Even the traffic coming from the airport when I took a taxi at midnight was fairly bad.

I spent the next few days exploring the area in Metro Manila. Metro Manila is made up of several cities all clustered around the Manila area. I am staying in Makati, so I've probably seen more of that city than any of the other cities in the area. But I have also been to Manila proper, and spent a lot of time in Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila, which was the original site of the city of Manila back in the 16th century. It was also the center of governance during the Spanish Colonial period, which ended in the late 19th century when the Philippines were transferred to the US after the Spanish-American war. Due to three centuries of Spanish colonization, almost all the place names are in Spanish. But this overlay of Spanish is illusory, as hardly anyone speaks Spanish...it is just a vestigial remnant of a long-ago period of Spanish Colonization of the country. I don't think I've ever been to a place where there is such a disconnect between the place names and the language; it is really kind of strange and interesting. However, there are a few borrowed words from Spanish in the Tagalog language. Many more people speak English, which is an official language of the Philippines, along with Tagalog.

When I was heading to Intramuros, I took a jeepney to the Manila Metro Station. In Manila, the Metro does not cover a lot of the area as it does in many other cities, so jeepneys have evolved to fill the transportation void and get people from areas not covered by the metro to the metro stations. So daily transportation for people in Metro Manila is usually a two or three step process. You either walk or take a jeepney to the metro station, take the metro, and then walk or jeepney to your destination. Or in some cases, you might just take a jeepney, or a series of jeepneys. They are incredibly cheap; the usual fare is seven pesos, which is about fifteen cents in US dollars. When a jeepney is starting its route, it will usually sit there for a while until enough people have boarded to make it worth it to get going. I'm not sure what the tipping point is, but it seems to be at least about half full, though if nobody else is coming for quite a while, it will probably take off. The stops are very loose...you can just let the driver know you want to get off, or people on the sidewalk will hail the jeepney like you might a taxi. Jeepneys started out after World War II as converted jeeps that have been elongated, as there were a lot of Jeeps left over after the war, but now they are manufactured especially for their intended purpose. They seem to be pretty much a phenomenon solely of the Philippines. The jeepney has two rows of bench seats which are basically long padded boxes, one one each side. It has about four feet of vertical clearance; not enough to stand up, but enough to take a seat. And if the seats are full, people can congregate on the back bumper and hang on to the rails in the back. You hand your fare to the driver, and those in back will pass their fare to the front. I have seen street children, some looking as young as about three, snatching rides on the jeepneys just hanging from the bumpers with their butts barely above the ground. And there are a lot of street children in Manila. Some of them are begging or sleeping by the sidewalk or street, and I've even seen naked toddlers walking around with nobody else in sight.

After taking the jeepney, I got off where almost everybody was getting off, at the train station. I took the train to Central Station in Manila, which was the closest station to Intramuros, and walked the rest of the way. There are many pedicabs that try to aggressively recruit people for rides to Intramuros from the station, but I wanted to walk. After leaving Intramuros and taking the train back, I got on a jeepney again, but it was going the wrong way. On the way there, I was told to take a jeepney going to “Buendia”. So I tried that again, but this time it meant it was starting from Buendia (which is the name of the boulevard and also the name of a train station, though it turns out there is more than one Buendia station far from the other one...that is a phenomenon that is repeated in Metro Manila, as there are many stations with the same name, sometimes nowhere near each other), and going to one of the other destinations listed on the jeepney. Jeepneys usually have several stops or destinations listed on the side. If you are not familiar with all the destinations, which are mostly stations in Metro Manila, it is easy to get on the wrong jeepney. Anyway, this jeepney dumped me off, after passing through some of the sketchiest neighborhoods I had yet seen, in the middle of Pasay City. I ended up walking back to Makati from there rather than risk taking another jeepney to an unknown destination. I will have to learn more about the names of the destinations and where they are if I want to take more jeepneys. But I'll only be in the Philippines for a couple of weeks, so I may not have time to become all that familiar with the names of all the places. There is a map of jeepney routes online, but I took a look at it and it is a confusing, tangled mess. And they probably change all the time...they are all run by independent operators.

In the next few days, I spent more time exploring the Metro Manila area. I walked across the river from Makati to Mandaluyong, which is a much poorer area than Makati. Many of the streets in Mandaluyong are badly torn up and filled with open sewage and inadequate drainage from the frequent rainstorms of the rainy season. The prices for almost everything there are cheaper than they are in Makati. I also visited Quezon City, which is a fairly large city and also one of the wealthier regions. I'll probably spend the rest of my time here just exploring more of Metro Manila and checking out the scene here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Capsule Hotel in Kumamoto, and Some of the Previous Places

I'm staying in my second capsule hotel in Japan, here in Kumamoto. Even though the sleeping compartments are small, it is almost like staying in a spa. There are hot spring baths that I use every day, you can opt for massages and other treatments (of course for an additional price), and there is a large common "relaxation room" filled with recliners with TV sets at the end. I'm laying in a recliner now, but I have the TV off. I'm the only one in the room right now. They have blankets in little cubbies that you can put on the recliner or cover yourself with.

When you check in, they assign you a robe and towels at the front desk. You have to put your shoes in a locked shoe compartment before entering, and they also assign you a locker that has the same number as the compartment you sleep in. There is a flat screen TV, a radio, an alarm clock (which i somehow accidentally set for this morning while pushing buttons on the console), a light, and an outlet. Though Japanese outlets are the same as the ones in the US and Canada, they all only have two prongs, so I still have to use an adaptor for my laptop, since it has three prongs. But anything else I have that uses electricity has two prongs.

One thing I like about this capsule hotel in Kumamoto versus the one in Tokyo is that you get to keep the key to your shoe locker. In Tokyo, you had to turn it in to the front desk before they would give you your other locker key, so you kinda had to beg for your shoes. And sometimes there was a long line at the desk, so I had to wait quite a while. But now I can retrieve my shoes right away. This capsule hotel also allows fen ales to stay here, whereas the one in Tokyo was for males only.

In this capsule hotel, the little molded plastic shelf to put things on in the capsule is very small. It barely fits my cellphone. The one in Tokyo was about three or four times the size.  You have to vacate the capsule for a couple hours around ten in the morning, and take everything out of your capsule, so they can change out the bedding and clean the capsules. It's not a big deal, I am usually either touring the city, or hanging in the relaxation room. But I wish the relaxation rooms had outlets in the recliners. The recliners will recline all the way to flat if you want.  Oh, I just found a recliner that has a wall outlet next to it, sweet. It looks like it is the only one. There are people who live here long term also, because it is cheap. I could see doing that, at least for a while. This one is a little more expensive than the one in Tokyo...it is about 25 bucks versus about 17 a night in Tokyo. But here you can pay your whole stay up front; in Tokyo I had to pay each day at a time even though I had reservations for several days. Also here I chose to keep my backpacks with me in a little corner outside the capsule, rather than keep my big pack behind the front desk and my little pack in the locker. I saw lots of people doing that in Tokyo and nobody messed with their stuff. I have locks on my packs and not much of value in them anyway.

The last place I stayed was in Miyazaki, at a place called the Peace House. It was a fairly nice looking and clean place, but it was difficult to get to from the train station and far from everything in town. The woman who ran the place was very nice and accomodating, but spoke only Japanese. Fortunately, I met a guy named Takeshi who drove me all sorts of places for the two days I was there and basically acted as my personal tour guide, so it wasnt a big deal that the place was far from everything. But it was so sweltering hot that I had difficulty sleeping at night. At least in the sweltering place I stayed in Osaka, there were fans that blew right on me so I could sleep. Not here. I even got out of bed at one in the morning to take a shower so I could cool off, but there was a line of people who had the same idea. Finally I got in to the shower, but once I got back in bed it was just as hot again.

In Kagoshima, I stayed in an actual hotel, because I couldn't find hostels. Hotels are good because they give me space to repack well, whereas in a hostel I usually have to just cram things wherever I can stuff them.  Before Kagoshima, I stayed in some of the cheapest places I had stayed in Japan, in Kyoto and Osaka. Between the two cities, I stayed five nights, and paid about ten bucks a might. In Osaka, the rooms were about the size of a capsule hotel, but with full size ceilings. No air conditioning, but the fan made it tolerable. It was also a fairly social place, and there were always people gathered around in the common areas. I met people from several different countries. The strange thing was that the elevator only stopped in the odd floors. I stayed on the sixth floor, and had to walk up or down the steps from the fifth or seventh floors. And I was newly injured from my fall in Kyoto, so it was not terribly easy.  In Kyoto, the hostel was really nice, and it was hard to believe that it was so cheap. It was right near the Kyoto Zoo, and was very well located for making my way around town.