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A Warm & Rocky Welcome To The Philippines, Literally

Well I did it. I survived nearly 24 hours of traveling and made it to the other side of the world.

The final days leading up to my departure were filled with every sort of emotion you can dream about. The main two that were dominate though were sheer excitement and nervousness. Thinking about going to places I had never been and have only dreamt about, meeting new people, eating new foods, and experiencing everything life has to offer kept me up at night. But then I would think about leaving my friends and family, my comfort blanket, not having a job or study income and trying to talk with people who don't speak the same language as I, all reasons I started to panic. But knowing this journey is going to be so enriching to my life, I knew I was ready.

The Flight

While I was looking forward to the trip itself, I wasn't looking forward to the nearly 24 hours it was going to take to get the Manila. It would start with a 15 hour flight from Chicago O'hare to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. Despite the guy behind me who kept talking loudly on his phone as we were taxing down the runway and kicking my seat occasionally throughout the flight, along with the baby 2 rows back, who of course had a few meltdowns, the flight wasn't bad.

I was trying to come up with ways to scam my way out of experiencing jet lag. My goal was to stay up as long as I could. The flight took off close to 1am, and I had been up since 6am the morning before. Thanks to a bit of adrenaline, and knowing they were going to searve food within the first hour helped a little bit. I felt a bit special with my meals because I alerted the airline I was a vegetarian, so my food was served first. I should have wrote it down and taken a picture but I didn't and of course now I don't remember what I even had. But it was decent airline food.

After eating my meal and watching Snatched with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, my eyes were fighting to stay awake. So I put on my eye mask, laid my head next to the window and quickly fell asleep.

To my surprise I slept about 6-7 hours continuously. The next thing I knew was, we were already half way there. I watched a bit of TV and got a mid-flight snack (this sadly wasn't vegetarian). It was a ham and cheese sandwich. I ate part of the bread and decided it was time to try to sleep again. And I surprisingly did. Off and on though.

The time I was up during the flight actually flew by (pun intended) pretty quickly. The next thing I knew, I was being served scrambled eggs, a baked tomato, a bowl of fruit and some type of yogurt or pudding. That was the sign there was only another hour or so until we would be landing.

Fun Fact: Because we were flying westward, the sun never rose. And because of the international date line, we took off on Tuesday but would land on Wednesday. Which means, in my life, August 8, 2017 was literally the shortest day of my life and the sun never rose. Looking out the window was just pure darkness.

As we approached Taiwan, I could see cargo ships trudging through the dark waters. And before I knew it, I heard the infamous bing sound, and the flight attendant say, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Taipei Taiwan, where the local time is...."

The 15 hour flight actually seemed shorter than flights I've taken across the US. I don't know how, but it did. And I'm thankful for that.

Layover in Taipei

Unfortunately, I had about 5 hours to wait until my next flight to the Philippines. Fortunately, I discovered the Taipei airport may be one of the coolest airports in the world.

Mind you, since we arrived around 4am local time, the airport was pretty dead and quiet. But let me tell you, there is so much color and vibrancy here. I had passed a few areas along the way and noticed they were pretty fun looking, but I didn’t realize they were the waiting areas for the gates, until I reached mine.

Bright and pink, I was greeted by a 5 foot tall statue of ‘Hello Kitty.’ Pink seating, Hello Kitty pictures lined the walls, there was even a playground in the area for kids. After sitting there in awe for a few minutes, I stepped back and realized that all of the gates had waiting areas with themes.

Each had it’s own uniqueness. One was a library with a good sized collection of books. Just down the terminal, another had movie theatre seats showcasing the best films from Taiwan. A collection of plants from some of the county’s national parks filled another. There were enough to check out that kept me entertained until the sun rose.

Despite being fed on the plane, I figured I should try to find some breakfast in the airport to help my body adjust to eating at a new time. It took me awhile to find a large foodcourt area, and then it took awhile to understand anything on the menu. I eventually found a place with pictures and symbols saying which dishes were vegetarian. The vegetable dim sum came with a mushroom soup. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge fan of mushrooms, but this was pretty good.

Overall, I enjoyed my layover here, and realized I will have to come back and visit outside the airport one day. But for now, it’s time to take off and begin the trip in the Philippines.

Welcome to Manila

As I stepped foot outside the airport in Manila, I was given a warm and humid welcome by Mother Nature herself. The sweat started seeping through my clothes in just a matter of minutes as I stood in line waiting for a taxi. I had anticipated it to be hot and sticky before I arrived, but nothing could of have prepared me for how drastic it really was.

From the airport, my taxi driver began weaving in and out of traffic to get to Makati, an area of Manila where I was staying. Crammed with jeepneys, motorcycles, and people leisurely crossing busy streets, I could tell just by looking at the roads that I was in a whole other world. As the sun beat down, people walking on the sidewalks carried umbrellas to block the intensity of the heat, I’m not sure how much of an effect they had since street vendors they were passing had their grills blazing.

I noticed as we began to enter the city proper, there were some stark contrasts block by block. Some blocks were clearly recently developed with new buildings and flat sidewalks, and the next block would be worn out, walls falling apart, and sidewalks in pieces.

As we got closer to my Airbnb, we were stuck in more standing traffic and for much longer periods of time. I realized that even though the streetlight may be flashing green, it’s a traffic officer on the ground who decides who has the right of way, and controls the real flow of traffic. They stand at most large intersections, and throughout my time in Manila, I saw them at a few small ones as well.

After about 30 minutes in the taxi, we arrived. I checked in and had a huge sigh of relief. Just 24 hours earlier at that time, I was boarding the plane in Chicago. Here we were. The first step of my adventure was taken, and there was no turning back from here.

Let The Exploration Begin

I took a quick 15 minute power nap and decided to start exploring the neighborhood. It was only about a block and a half to the nearest busy street. As I got closer could hear the sounds of horns and revving motorcycle engines echoing between the buildings. The streets were jammed packed with cars. In my 3 days in the city, it appeared that if the sun was up, it was rush hour.

Despite walking along one of the busiest roads in the city, there were times I had to step into the street because the sidewalk doubled as parking spaces for cars stopping at a local business (most seemed to be convenience stores or banks). I kept thinking to myself, I would hate to reverse into this traffic when it was time to leave if I was driving. I’d probably just have to sit there all day. Or bring a friend to stop traffic for me. Fortunately, it’s not a problem since I don’t have a car..

Again, it didn’t take long for me to start sweating through my clothes. I passed a 7-11 and grabbed a water bottle to stay hydrated. I stopped at a local park to people watch for a bit before trying to find something quick to eat. Food was my one concern with the Philippines. I had read online that it’s the most challenging Asian country to be a vegetarian. I knew in Manila it’d be fine since it is a major metropolitan area. After a quick bite, I headed back to my Airbnb to cool off. And before I knew it, I crashed for the night.

The next day, I didn’t do much of anything. And I was actually okay with that. I had figured that my body would need to do as much resting as it could over the next week to adjust to the 13 hour time change.

When I did venture out in the afternoon, I wanted to find some good delicious food. So I did a bit of research on HappyCow (a resource for vegans and vegetarians) and found the Corner Tree Cafe, a 15 minute walk from where I was staying. It was a nice little quiet oasis in the heart of a busy bustling city. I ordered vegetable lumpias and adsilog, a traditional Pinoy dish. Both were outstanding.

After my meal, I ventured around the area some more, but the hot and sticky conditions just made me want to be inside.

Following another night full of dreams, I was ready to get an early start to the day. I thought if I started early enough I could beat the conditions outside….WRONG! I started sweating as soon as I opened the door. I wasn’t going to let it stop me though. My goal was to take a boat ride down the river to Intramous, a famous historical site in Manila. I had read that the boats typically stop at each location along the river every hour. When I arrived to the dock, no one had a clue what I was talking about. One woman overheard me, and told me I could take the jeepney there. But it wasn’t just one, I’d have to make several connections. She insisted on telling me all the things to look out for on the journey, and even wrote some of the directions down in my phone, but I hadn’t built up enough courage to take one jeepney yet, so I knew I’d have to pass. But I thanked her for her help, as she sat on the back of a motorcycle on the side of the street.

I crossed back over the river and continued to drip sweat down my body, but it’s now getting into my eyes, disorienting my vision. I knew I had to find something to do inside and quick! The first thing I learned about Filipinos is that they love malls. They are everywhere, and a new mall wasn’t far from where I was. I had no intention or desire to shop, but it was a place where the air conditioning was guaranteed to work and I could cool off. I did grab another water bottle from the 7-11 again before continuing.

The joy I got from the people and culture I was passing to get to the mall was suddenly changed to annoyance, when I saw the street curved and a large fence would require me to walk an extra half mile or so. Fortunately, on the other side of the fence, there were large luscious trees that provided enough shade to block the sun’s rays for hitting my skin. After a few breaks, I made it to the mall. One problem though. The mall wouldn’t be opening for another 2 and a half hours! This day was not turning out to be as great as I wanted it to be. I certainly was not going to let it stop me or get me down.

Something in me told me to go to another mall. I knew from my research there was another giant mall not to far from where I had ventured to before (but again my perception on how far that was from wher ei was failed me). So I began to walk, thinking I would be there in 15 minutes max. It was double or triple that and there was very little relief from the sun. Set up to what appeared to be highway, I felt like I was walking into hell. Fumes from the busses, and an ‘unpleasant rotten eggs mixed with urine’ smell filled the air. And unfortunately there was no breeze. Occasionally, if a bus was going fast enough, I could get a little bit of relief but it didn’t last long enough. I felt like I was going to die. Along the way, there were not shops or restaurants, it was a concrete wall, separating the busy road from a residential neighborhood. I found a few trees to hide beneath to catch my breath, and help me feel like I wasn’t going to die.

When I did reach the mall, I found a step in the middle of the atrium to just sit and absorb all of the cold air I could. It was so nice and refreshing. When I mustered up enough energy to carry on, I figured I should fuel up and find a place to eat. That’s when I remembered there was a restaurant list on HappyCow in this area.

I logged onto the wifi and saw it again. Chimara Feel Good Kitchen. And the menu looked so refreshing. It was close, just across the street in another mall (I’m telling you Filipinos love their malls). I went through what seemed like a maze just to find the exit and make my way there. But when I did, I ordered a sesame tofu salad and an I AM WISE smoothie. It was just what I needed to get my energy back.

I decided to sit there for a bit to do some research on my plan after the day. It was my last scheduled night at my Airbnb accommodation. The plan in my head was to take the ferry to Coron. The next ferry however, wasn’t scheduled to leave until Tuesday afternoon. It was Friday. I kept thinking, I will not be able to survive in Manila with this incredible heat. I will be miserable the entire time. What was I to do.

I began researching and that’s when it hit…..a vibration at my feet, and I could feel a slow swaying motion. Was this an EARTHQUAKE?! I started to look at other people to get confirmation that I wasn’t going crazy. I then looked out the window and saw an awning moving the way an awning should not be moving. And I could hear a chandelier above me, clattering it’s jewels together. It lasted for about 20 seconds.

Earthquakes have always intrigued me. I loved learning the science behind them in school, but never had felt one before. This was my first one. In someways, I was pretty excited, but then I began hoping no one was hurt or injured. I immediately began checking out the earthquake tracking websites to see just how large it was. Over the next hour, I saw reports between 6.1 and 6.6 in magnitude. And the good news, is that I have not seen seen any reports of any damage or injuries since.

After my adrenaline had subsided just a little bit, it was time to venture elsewhere. I slowly began navigating my way back to where I was staying. I had noticed the the air was much cooler and tolerable. The skies above me were turning grey. And a few short moments later, I could hear small rumbles of thunder. Those who had their umbrellas out to shield them from the sun, were now getting ready to protect themselves from raindrops. I felt a few sprinkles but it didn’t bother me because it felt so much cooler.

I stopped to film a quick time-lapse at one of the crazy intersections and the skies just opened up, pouring down rain. I stood there for another minute or two with a smile on my face, watching people run for cover. I just kept thinking, whether it’s raining or not, I’m going to be soaked. I’d rather it be from rain than my sweat. After I finished my time-lapse I zigzagged my way around the traffic to take shelter. I sat on the steps of a local bank for about 30 minutes with about 20-25 other people, watching the rain and traffic go by. At that point, I felt like the rain was just a touch more a drizzle and I could be ok walking in that. So that’s what I did. People starred at me as I walked down the street, because I really was the only one without an umbrella or poncho, but I have lived in Seattle, where despite the rain no one really uses umbrellas. It was refreshing, so they could stare all they wanted.

Even more refreshing was my air conditioned room. It felt like an ice box. As I cooled and dried off, I began thinking again where am I going to go tomorrow?! I debated going north into some of the rice terraces, but since it’s the rainy season, it wasn’t recommended. Maybe I could take a bus somewhere and explore more of Luzon (the Island or state where Manila is located.

I didn’t know at the time, but it was a decision that would be made when I woke up the next morning.

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