Wednesday, October 3rd.
2:30 PM: Alona Beach, Bohol Island, the Philippines
“400 pesos,” the man says. He looks like he’s in his forties, with short, black hair and skin that’s endured years of sun exposure. Four other tricycle drivers swarm me. I haven’t even grabbed my backpack from my room across the street.
“300 pesos,” I say confidently, fully aware that I’ll still be ripped off.
“Okay, okay,” he agrees.
“I’ll be right back.”
It’s time to journey back to Seoul. I say goodbye to Alex, my travel companion, and I squeeze into the tricycle’s side car with my slightly oversize backpack. The driver revs the engine.
“What’s your name?” he asks as we begin driving.
“Sarah. What’s your name?”
“Eric. Nice to meet you,” he smiles. He tells me that he lives in Tagbilaran City with his pregnant wife and two sons and commutes to Alona Beach each day to transport tourists around the island. His tricycle says, “GOD Bless Our Trip,” but then again, every mode of transportation here in the Philippines seems to bear a Catholic psalm or prayer in flowing script and/or block letters.
“You single or married?” he asks, grinning.
I laugh, and try to avoid the question. “I’m not married.”
“That guy back there your boyfriend?” he asks referring to Alex. I say yes to avoid a complicated explanation.
We abruptly pull over at a collapsed shelter where a young Filipino boy sits next to an air pump. Eric pumps the front tire, and throws a couple coins in a rusty bucket. He yells goodbye, and the boy solemnly nods. We continue down the main road, passing small shops with Coca Cola signs and basketball hoops made out of tree branches. When we arrive at the ferry terminal, he asks for an extra 50 pesos for the toll. I’m almost positive that it’s only 10 pesos, but I give him a 50 peso bill anyway.
3:20 PM: Tagbilaran City, Bohol Island, The Philippines
I enter the terminal and buy my ticket along with some peanut snacks and dried mangoes. Three men at the baggage claim eye me as I walk over. I hand one my backpack.
“70 pesos,” he says.
“Why? It was 50 on the way over,” I retort.
He chuckles. “Okay, 50.”
I roll my eyes and hand him the cash. In the waiting room, I plop down on a folding chair. In the front of the room, a local band plays a live rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long as You Love Me.” I rummage through my bag for my headphones and text Alex. “People trying to rip me off left and right,” I type.
“Gotta love the Philippines,” he responds.
“Gotta love being a white, solo female in the Philippines.”
We board the ferry. I find my seat next to a young guy wearing a baseball jacket. He immediately falls asleep clutching his backpack and leaning to the right. I watch the sunset from the window; the bright orange light eventually disappears into the darkness. I glance at the guy sleeping next to me and squirm in my seat. I have to pee.
6:40 PM: Cebu City, Cebu Island, the Philippines
I impatiently wait among throngs of fellow passengers as we watch the crew roughly throw our bags into a pile. A tall, blonde white guy wearing a windbreaker is standing next to me.
I lean towards him. “Hey, are you going to the airport by any chance?” I question.
He turns around and briefly makes eye contact. “Uhhh…yes,” he slowly replies.
“Do you want to share a cab? We can split the cost.”
“Ummm,” he glances at a pale, chubby girl wearing leggings, intently eyeing the baggage, “Sure, that would be good. Is it just you?”
I grab my backpack, as they extract a hard suitcase with wheels from the pile. We formally introduce ourselves; their names are Jennifer and Mark. They also live in Korea, and we realize that we were on the same early morning flight to Manila at the beginning of our trip. We meander towards the main road and swarms of Filipino men surround us. “Where are you going? Where are you going?”
“How much is it to the airport?” I ask.
“No, that’s too much,” I say. The couple next to me looks dumbfounded.
“How much you want?” he asks.
“On the way here it was 250.”
“Okay, 250,” one of the men says. He leads us to a cab on the side of the road. I slide into the backseat, and as I look out the window, I realize that they are making Mark give them a tip.
“How much did they make you pay?” his girlfriend asks a couple minutes later.
He twists his body to look over the seat. “Only 50 pesos. I mean, what is that? Like a dollar. Everyone makes you tip here, but it’s barely any money, so I don’t really care that much,” he says loudly, as if the taxi driver isn’t sitting beside him.
I sink into my seat in silence, wondering if he knows that Filipinos can speak English. Hope this guy doesn’t rip us off even more.
We arrive at the airport and he speaks to the driver, slowly and methodically, like he’s speaking to his Korean elementary students. Then he turns to us, “Oh, I don’t have change. I used my last 50 for the tip.”
“I don’t have change either,” his girlfriend chimes in.
“Me neither,” I realize, “I only have a 500– but I can get change at the airport and give you guys 100,” I say. Somehow, between the couple incoherently fumbling with their money and my growing impatience, I end up thrusting my 500 peso bill at the taxi driver, and asking the couple to give me change in the airport.
“Oh, I can give you some [Korean] won,” the girlfriend suggests, sifting through her bills.
We step outside of the cab. “That would be great.”
She frowns. “Well, I only have 10,000 won bills [about $9]. Hmm, Mark, why don’t you try to change the bill.”
“You know what, it’s fine. Just forget about it.” I clearly need to catch my flight and do not have time to deal with this.
“How much is it anyway?” her boyfriend asks.
“It’s like… a dollar!” she exclaims.
“Actually it’s about four dollars,” I say, “but whatever, it’s fine.” I wonder if they’ve been calculating the currency incorrectly the entire trip. I wave goodbye, as I buckle my backpack around my waist, thinking that I probably would have been better off venturing here alone.
8:20 PM: Mactan-Cebu International Airport, the Philippines
After checking in, I buy a disgusting plate of pork asada and rice. The sauce tastes like it was poured directly from a can and the meat is tough and fatty. I drink a can of mango juice to drown out the taste.
I walk towards the entrance of the one room terminal, surprisingly smaller than Portland, Maine’s minuscule airport, and see a sign: TERMINAL FEE 200 PESOS. I only have 150 pesos in my purse. I silently curse that idiotic American couple, and, in addition to the pesos, I shell out two American dollar bills that happen to be in my wallet from my summer vacation. It’s more than the required amount, but the Filipino airport employees don’t seem to give back change.
9:40 PM: Manila International Airport, the Philippines
We land early, but I make up for the extra time in the grudgingly slow Zest Air check-in line. The young employees wear bright polo shirts, and one is sitting at a deserted counter with her feet propped up, reading a book.
“You go to Incheon?” the Korean man behind me asks. He seems to be in his thirties with a thick, black bowl cut. His older relatives accompany him and they push a massive cart of suitcases forward.
“Yes,” I say, peering over my book, not particularly in the mood to chat.
“Really?!” His eyes bulge. He seems shocked. “No transfer?”
“Why you go to Incheon?”
“I live in Korea.”
“You live there?!” He asks, like he’s never seen a foreigner before. He translates everything to his older relatives, who seem bewildered by my presence. I realize that I could spew off these basic tidbits of information in Korean myself, but the thought quickly passes. There’s suddenly a lapse in our conversation and I immediately return to my book about a man who follows the path of sixteenth century Dutch sailors through the Korean peninsula in the 1980′s.
Several minutes later I approach the front of the line. I walk up to the counter and force myself to smile in order to snag a window seat. Three employees, two girls and a guy, are huddled around the counter, glancing at me, speaking to each other in Tagalog, and giggling. The guy checks my information on the computer.
With a soft smile, he asks, “Do you watch WWE?”
“Ummm, no… Isn’t that wrestling?” I’m confused.
They look at each other smiling, as if they’re sharing an inside joke.
“Do I look like someone in particular…?”
“I don’t know,” he says, looking directly at his computer and attempting to control his giggles.
I laugh awkwardly. “Guess there’s a first time for everything.” I subconsciously run my fingers through my salt water-encrusted hair, and glance at my dirty converse. Oh well.
I walk to the gate and see another terminal fee; this one’s 500 pesos. You’ve got to be kidding me. I ask the guard if I need to pay this fee since I already paid a fee at the last airport. He smirks and nods, making me feel stupid for asking. A stern female with frizzy hair snatches my card and she motions for me to sign. ”Hurry,” she barks.
I walk over a counter to arrange my belongings.
“Gotta love the Philippines,” a short white guy with spiky blond hair says to me, chuckling, “they even make their own people pay these fees every time they leave.”
“If I knew about these fees I would have kept some cash instead of using my card.”
“Here. Fill out one of these,” he passes me a departure card. We make eye contact and I notice that his eyes are slightly bloodshot. He looks like he spent his vacation getting high on the beach.”You going to Incheon?”
“Yeah,” I reply, monotonously. “I think we all are.”
I go to the bathroom and change from cropped jeans into stretchy, gray yoga pants. I pull my greasy hair into a bun, brush my teeth, and wash my splotchy face, drying it with a rough paper towel. I take off my bra. I might as well be comfortable.
I sleep throughout the entire four hour flight.
Thursday, October 4th.
5:30 AM: Incheon International Airport, South Korea
I wake up, and surprisingly, I feel quite rested. I rush to the airport train, and hop into an empty car. The train begins rumbling along the tracks, disturbing the morning’s silence. I stare out the window and watch the sun gradually appear over the still fields and calm ocean waves. I feel like I’m already home.
7:15 AM: Dolgoji Station, Seoul, South Korea
The subway screeches to a stop.
Men in tailored business suits and shiny dress shoes traipse through the turnstiles, accompanied by women with perfectly combed hair, wearing makeup that’s too light. I trudge up four flights of stairs with the sun in my eyes, hoping that I won’t see any students on the street in my post-travel, WWE look-alike state.
I pass the Chinese restaurant and the fried pork cutlet place with their lights off and chairs stacked on the tables. I turn at the hospital and see old men in their paisley pajamas, leaning on canes and sitting in wheelchairs, staring as I walk by. When I reach the front door to my building, I think, perfect timing, I still have an hour to shower and eat breakfast.
I punch in the code on my unit’s automatic locking system. It gently buzzes and the light pathetically blinks; the door won’t open. I frantically try again. And again. FUCK! The batteries are dead! Why didn’t I change them before I left? I am such an idiot. I’m wallowing in my own sweat and stench, and I haven’t washed my hair since before I went snorkeling in the ocean the day before. There’s no way I’m going to work looking like this.
I try again. The door barely opens. I barge through the doorway and throw my backpack on the ground, sighing in relief and thinking holy shit. I take the batteries out the door before I can lock myself out.
-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.