I have a rule for traveling, which I learned from an ex-girlfriend. Here it is:
“On the first day in a new place, you’re allowed to make a mistake.”
This may seem mystifying to more laid-back and self-confident people, but I find it tremendously liberating. It means I don’t spend the rest of my holiday fuming and fretting over a schoolboy error, wasted money, or breach of local etiquette on day one. And it’s only fair, given that tiredness from travel and disorientation in a new environment can lead to lapses of judgment which you might otherwise avoid.
However, I’m still irritated by having been scammed almost immediately on arrival at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), so I’m sharing the story with you in the hope of saving others from the same fate.
On our last epic trip, to Taiwan’s remote Lanyu Island, we traveled out in stages, then returned in one crazy two-day journey, arriving home exhausted. So on this occasion, we decided to go all the way to our furthest-flung destination, Moalbaol on Cebu island, in a single leg, and come back more slowly. As a result, we ended up flying into Manila at 2am, with a 5am flight to catch to Cebu.
This seemed like plenty of time to clear immigration, get our baggage, and maybe have half an hour’s sleep before the next flight. What I had not realized though is that NAIA has only recently escaped the label of “the World’s Worst Airport”, a title it held from 2011 to 2013. An improvement program means that it’s now only the 8th worst in Asia, but it was still chaotic enough to cause us problems.
We landed on time, but then the pilot announced that another plane was occupying our berth and we had to wait. (Why we couldn’t be found another berth was never explained.) We waited on the tarmac for over an hour, before finally disembarking. To give credit where it’s due, the airport staff moved us to the front of the queue for immigration, but then a painfully long wait for our baggage left us with very little time to get to a different terminal for our next flight. Even worse, as we waited I gazed with horror at a sign which seemed to suggest that the shuttle bus to the other terminals only ran every half hour.
As our bags finally appeared we snatched them from the carousel and ran the length of the airport to the mysteriously hidden tunnel which led to the shuttle bus. At the desk, though they told us that the next bus wasn’t due until 5.30am – half an hour after our flight took off.
An official-looking man with a clipboard and an ID badge told us not to worry, to come with him. He helped us with our bags and led us back to the main terminal area. Another feature of NAIA that I hadn’t realized is that although the terminals share a single runway, they are miles apart. We would need to take a taxi along the skyway, the helpful man told us, and he took us to a desk, where they held out a list of prices and said it would cost PHP 1,700. I gabbled thanks and shoved the money into their hands.
It was only when we got outside that two facts dawned on me. Firstly, we had been charged over USD 30 for an 8km journey. Secondly, we could have just stepped outside the terminal building and jumped into a taxi, which would have charged us less than PHP 200. Instead, we stood waiting for our car to arrive, while the clock ticked down and my rage built. My mood was not improved when the driver had the gall to ask us to pay the toll on the skyway, and then solicited a tip at the end of the journey. “I’ll give him a tip…” my wife growled.
Still, we made our flight. As scams go, hanging round pretending to be an airport employee is pretty mild compared to the notorious NAIA trick of sneaking a bullet into your luggage then blackmailing you. And it wasn’t a huge financial loss for us, while the money must have mattered a great deal in an impoverished country. Perhaps what it brought home to me is that, for all the frustrating bureaucracy, we are rarely hustled in China, whereas everyone in the Philippines wanted to get money out of us. But it put me in a sour and suspicious mood when we arrived in Cebu and had to book transport to Moalboal (a 90km, 4-hour journey which cost us PHP 2,500.)
Fortunately, on arrival in Moalboal, our experience of the Philippines vastly improved. In my next post, I’ll explain why.
Photos: Kang via Wikimedia Commons, Andrew Killeen