Palawan Bike Trip 001
March 7, 2008
You’d think that after as many bike trips as I’ve gone on, it would be easy to pack and prepare. But it isn’t. Each time it’s like I’ve never done it before. Partway through the packing, you start to think that it would be better not to bring a bicycle. It’s great to have a bicycle as a way of getting around and for me it’s still the best way to travel. In fact, I couldn’t imagine traveling without a bicycle. Yet, when your bike is in a million unwieldy pieces that refuse to fit into a square box, and you have to make yet another trip to a bike shop to find that last elusive spare part (which you haven’t a hope of locating in the country you’re going to), you start to think how nice it would be to throw a toothbrush and a t-shirt into a bag and just go.
But then you realize that once you get to where you’re going, you will have to start looking for transportation over and over again. Some people have no trouble doing that. I find it very trying. I dislike it so much that I would likely end up doing very little. Going places by bus and train and taxi just seems like so much trouble. I might not go to a place if I have to take a bus, but if I have a bike then I just hop on my bike and go there.
In the middle of packing, I also started to think I must be some kind of lunatic to need so much stuff. Among travelers, there is a great deal of pride associated with traveling light. The lighter you travel the better. I’ve long since gotten over that idea. I travel with a lot of stuff. I always have. Still, when you add a bicycle to the mix, you end up with so much stuff that you start to think you’re crazy. There’s the bicycle, but then there are the bags that have to attach to the bicycle. Then there are the racks that have to attach to the bicycle to give those bags something to attach to. But you’re not done yet. You need tools. You need a spare tube. You need spare spokes. It starts to seem a ridiculous thing to do. You might even, after all of that, convince yourself that it’s still a good thing to bring a bike on a trip. However, then you have the airline to consider. The bicycle is the perfect way to explore another country, but before you can get there you have to dismantle the bicycle and make it acceptable to an airline. It’s an irony that an object that makes traveling easier makes the getting to and from the airport something of a nightmare.
I made my life more difficult this time around by suddenly having my travel plans changed from April to March. I suddenly had to get things done faster. I had done a lot of preparation last year for my trip to Cambodia, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I already had racks and bags and basic tools. But I wanted to make a lot of adjustments and there was still a lot of work to get done. Finally, I changed my mind at the last minute about how I was going to pack the bike. At first, I was going to just break down the bike minimally and keep the wheels on it and just roll it up to the check-in counter at the airport. I was told that this was possible as long as I wrapped it up well. So I spent a long time on a Saturday breaking down the bike and trying to wrap up the greasy parts while leaving the wheels on. This turned out to be a difficult thing to do, and I wasn’t very happy with the result. I had the bike out on the balcony of Rooftop Paradise and every time I saw it, I cringed. I just knew it was going to cause trouble at the airport. So at the very last minute I decided to get a bike box and box up the bike anyway. I went to a bike shop near work during lunch to see if they had a box. I didn’t think I would have much luck, but it just happened to be a day when they got in a shipment of perhaps forty bikes. The friendly guy gave me a box right then and there. Taking the box home by MRT wasn’t easy, but it got done.
Things seemed to be coming together, but then life threw me another wrinkle and I came down with a really bad cold and sore throat. Putting a bike in a box at the best of times is a chore. Doing it when you’re sick is no fun at all. However, there was nothing to be done, and I set about it. I was glad to see that the bike box I had picked up was big enough. The box was for a mountain bike and my bike is a kind of road bike.
Things didn’t go smoothly at first, but that was because I was being impatient. I’d already packed up the bike once, and I didn’t want to do a lot of work, so I just tried to jam it all in. This became very frustrating especially as there is very little maneuvering room in Rooftop’s tiny living room. I finally came to my senses and realized that there were no shortcuts. I’d have to start from the very beginning and just work through the process slowly and methodically. I know this probably sounds like I’m talking about assembling a space shuttle or something. Putting a bike in a box shouldn’t be that difficult. However, for me it is. When a bicycle arrives at a bicycle shop, it is always neatly in a box and the guys there assemble it. It stands to reason that one should be able take the bike apart and put it right back in the box. Maybe for some people that’s true. But for me it isn’t true. The frame can get into the box just fine. All you have to do is remove the seat post and handlebars and attach them to the frame somehow. Then you remove the wheels. Then you detach the rear derailleur and somehow wrap it up along with the chain and tie it up inside the frame to protect it. This is all a bit fiddly and it takes time, but there are no great problems. Then the frame can just slip inside the box. The problem is that you also have to get the wheels in there, and they just don’t want to fit. It is the most frustrating thing in the world trying to find a way to get those wheels in there in such a way that the hubs aren’t sticking way out and punching holes in the cardboard. You also want the wheels in there in such a way that if the box ends up lying down flat with suitcases on top of it (which airlines insist on doing), the wheels won’t bend into pretzels.
I wasn’t in the best frame of mind, and things just weren’t coming together for me. I almost wanted to pitch the whole bike over the railing and down into the street. I had to buckle down again and really force myself to work through it methodically. In the end, it all came together and my assembled frame and wheels slid into the box without too much trouble. Whether it survives the journey in that box remains to be seen.
Packing up the rest of my stuff was equally difficult this time. I don’t know why. There just never seemed to be an end to things I had to do. Part of the problem is that the bicycle is just the first part of the equation. After the bicycle is in a box, you’re now faced with the bicycle bags. I spent some time trying to figure out if I could get away with just two rear pannier bags and a large handlebar bag. That would have been nice. The odd thing is that a full touring set of pannier bags – two front, two rear, and a handlebar bag – is larger and heavier then what most people take along on entire trips. And this is with just the empty bags! I’m a bit experienced at this however, and I know that sometimes what can feel like a good idea really isn’t. It seemed like a good idea to have just the two rear pannier bags. Then I don’t have so many bags to carry, and it will be easier to get the bike ready for riding. But by doing that, you end up with all the weight over the rear wheels. Plus, it will be difficult to get at things inside those two bags. They will be so full that it will be difficult to get at things and there won’t be any extra room. I decided it was better to bring all four pannier bags. Then each one can be lightly loaded and my gear can be nicely organized among four bags rather than just dumped willy-nilly into two. Finally, I realized that even if I brought all the bags with me, I didn’t have to bring them all on the trip if I didn’t want to. I’m flying to Manila and then to Puerto Princesa. Then I’ll be returning to Puerto Princesa to fly out again. So I can leave the bike box there along with any other stuff that I decide I don’t actually need.
With that decision made, I could finally get around to packing in earnest. Even that, however, isn’t so straightforward. There are a lot of things to consider. For one thing, I have all the bits and pieces of the bike to deal with – things like the pedals, the seat stem, the seat, and the kickstand, all of which had to be removed from the bike. They can be greasy and have lots of sharp steel edges. You can’t just throw them into a bag with clothes and cameras. They have to be wrapped and padded. You also want to keep them organized for when you have to put the bike back together again. So all these parts and the tools you need have to be packed carefully. Otherwise, it will be very easy to lose important parts or damage them.
Then there will be lots of times when you’ll want to park the bike and go walking. Therefore, you need one bag that is your essential bag. I call it my survival kit. This is the one bag that contains everything that is super-important and everything you might need if you want to just go into a restaurant and leave the bike outside. You pop off the one bag and go in. If someone steals the whole bike and all the other bags somehow, it won’t then be the end of the world.
Then you have to think about going through the airport and how to carry your passport and money and tickets and ID. Finally, there are all the little details of life – making sure you pay rent before you leave, cleaning out the refrigerator so nothing goes bad, making sure you have addresses and phone numbers and other things like that for emergencies. It’s just supposed to be a little holiday, but by the time I was done, I needed a vacation to recover from preparing for my vacation.
I guess this kind of vacation is also rather new to me. The only other time I’ve taken a trip like this was my trip to Cambodia last year. That too felt like a huge amount of work for a somewhat short holiday. My other cycling trips have all been very long. I was in Ethiopia for nearly a year, in Guinea for six months, crossing Canada for six months. My other backpacking trips were also a year long as a rule. So I’m accustomed to a lot of preparation. However, when you’re only going for a few weeks and you leave right from work and go back to work on the day right after your flight black, it starts to seem like too much work and too much hassle. The costs are also out of proportion. Preparing for a bike trip and the flight costs the same whether you’re going for one week or four months. The most expensive parts of the trip are the flight and the bicycle. Countries like Cambodia and Ethiopia are so cheap that once you have gone to all the expense of getting there, it makes sense to stay as long as you possibly can. Staying for only one month hardly makes sense at all. Including the flight and bike and everything else, the first month can cost as much as two or three thousand dollars. Once you’re there, adding a second month would cost only a few hundred in daily expenses. So would the third, and the fourth, and the fifth . . . I guess these short holidays are the price one pays for having a long-term full-time job. What then are the benefits of a long-term full-time job? Right now I can’t think of any. Working just gets in the way of living. This is especially true when one is pursuing a career in the glamorous field of ESL. It’s not like one accrues seniority, benefits, and pension plan contributions by working longer. You get paid what you get paid. The only benefit to the work is that you get to do it overseas and see other countries. But if that work keeps you chained to a desk and getting even small amounts of time off is a problem, then there really isn’t much point to it. It’s better to just work as long as you are happy, and then quit completely and be totally free. Then you can travel as long as you want, and it would be much more cost-effective. It’s not like there won’t be any ESL jobs available when you return. And you’ll be getting paid exactly the same amount as when you left. So what would be the point of staying? I guess the only benefit is that it avoids some paperwork and some hassle as you have to then get a new work visa and pack up your life. However, the amount of work is comparable to what I had to go through just to organize this little trip. And now I’m paying rent on an apartment that is just sitting there empty. It’s just a storage compartment for the junk I’ve accumulated since I got to Taiwan. I’m paying more per day just to keep that apartment than I’ll be paying each night for a hotel on Palawan.
The plane just landed in Manila and we are waiting for our spot to open up at the terminal. The trip has already been something of an adventure. Just getting my luggage down to the street and then into a taxi was an adventure.
I got very little sleep last night unfortunately, and I’m quite tired and lightheaded. I had a lot on my mind, but I was also coughing and my nose was running. I just couldn’t fall asleep. I lay there for hour after hour trying to get comfortable. I’m sure I slept a bit, but right now it doesn’t feel like it. I even got up at about 3:30 to wrap some cord around my bike box. I had only taped up the bike box before. There are handholds in the cardboard, and you can carry it with those. But I remembered that in the past, those hand holds would get ripped right open. I decided it would be best to wrap some heavy cord around it to give something else to hold onto. That took a half an hour or so, and then I went back to bed, but I still couldn’t sleep.
I didn’t fall asleep until right before my alarm went off. By then it was too late. It was time to get up. I wasn’t looking forward to the flight at all. It was looking like a long and difficult day beginning with getting out of the apartment. Luckily, I didn’t have much to do. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to do last-minute packing. I like everything to be done completely, and then all I have to do is grab the bags and go. If I left things undone, I’d likely forget in the morning. There were still some things I had to do though. After showering and shaving and having breakfast, I went around Rooftop Paradise and unplugged some appliances, such as the heater and microwave. I then had to take out the garbage and recyclables. Finally, I was ready to head out the door.
I still hadn’t made up my mind about how I was going to get to the airport. I was going on the assumption that I was going to take the airport bus. The advantages of the bus are that it leaves not far away from Rooftop Paradise, is not that expensive, and has big storage compartments that will fit a bicycle box easily. The disadvantages are that it is still three or four blocks away, is somewhat slow, and is not that punctual. The times I have taken that airport bus it has always worked out, but I always stand there at the bus stop getting more and more worried. It can take a long time for the bus to come, and you start to think that it won’t come at all. It doesn’t help that it is right in front of the Formosa Hotel, and taxi drivers wait there en masse. There is a constant flow of taxi drivers coming over to try and talk you into taking one of their taxis for NT$1,000 instead of waiting for the bus. They are not above lying, and they have told me before that the airport bus doesn’t stop there anymore and that the airport bus just doesn’t exist anymore. Even if you don’t believe them, it is a bit annoying to have them hovering and asking you over and over again. It would be pretty silly to go to all the trouble of carrying your heavy luggage to the airport bus stop, waiting for forty minutes, and then finally breaking down and taking a taxi anyway. If you were going to take a taxi, you might as well have taken one right from your front door!
I was moving fairly slowly this morning, and at the last minute I decided to take the Shuffle that I usually use for podcasts. So I turned on the computer and opened iTunes and downloaded all the new podcasts and then copied them to the Shuffle. That took a few minutes, and as the minutes ticked by it was making more and more sense to me to take a taxi. I really wasn’t looking forward to carrying my bike box all the way to the bus stop at the Formosa Hotel. I probably would have just decided to take a taxi right from the beginning if cost was the only factor. The NT$1,000 or so that they charge is more than worth the convenience to me. The other factor though is the size of my bicycle box. I didn’t think that any taxi could carry it. I’d have to go searching for a larger than normal taxi. I pictured getting taxi after taxi and bringing it to Rooftop Paradise where we’d find out that the bicycle box didn’t fit. I decided to risk it though and I allowed some more time to drift by. My flight was at eleven and having set my alarm for 6:30, I had plenty of time.
I had spoken to my landlady, Lin Tai-Tai, a number of times about this trip. I had given her rent for both March and April and had given her my departure and return dates as well as the keys to the scooter and a list of emergency numbers and e-mail addresses. It seemed like overkill, but I figured it could be helpful for her to have these numbers in case I got delayed in the Philippines or was injured or something else happened. I left her the keys to the scooter in case it had to be moved for some reason. I’ve been parking it right in the building entranceway, and I could think of a dozen reasons why it might end up being in the way.
Lin Tai-Tai wanted to see me off in the morning, and she and her husband were sitting at the table in the window waiting for me to appear. In order to exit from Rooftop Paradise, I have to go down some stairs onto a front balcony that is right outside their apartment. So they always see me coming and going. I’m probably giving the impression that Lin Tai-Tai and her husband were concerned about me, but that isn’t all that was going on. They are intensely concerned about security, and they want to know to the minute and second when I leave and come back so that they can throw all the heavy steel deadbolts that lock the door. I use keys to get in and out, but when I’m gone for a long time, they like to also lock the door with steel bars and whatever else they can find. When I went down with my bicycle this morning I found that they had taken security to a whole new level. They had actually hired a welder to weld solid steel plates over all the doors. I’d guess the steel plates are about three eighths of an inch thick. Nobody was getting through that steel. The door was now incredibly heavy and it swung open and closed like a bank vault. This is in addition to the motion sensors that have always been over the outside of the doors. It has never really bothered me, but I didn’t enjoy it either that they always knew when I left and came back. They would often jump up when the motion detector went off and rush to the door and throw it open to see who was there. I’d wave and grin sheepishly time and again. “It’s just me, the guy who has lived here for four years. No reason to get excited.” I’ve often wondered why they settled on just a motion sensor. I can’t imagine that these days it would be that much more expensive to install a video monitoring system. Then at least they could see that it was me without having to interrupt their TV watching and rush to the door every time I came home.
I carried my bicycle box down the stairs and then went back up for my one pannier bag and my knapsack. I had filled up one front pannier bag with all the heavy bike parts, tools, and things and then put it inside one of the larger rear pannier bags. I stuffed clothing and other things around that to fill it out and figured I’d check that. The other two pannier bags and some other things were inside the bicycle box with the bicycle. Then I had my regular North Face backpack which was going to be my carry-on. The idea is that when I’m cycling, I’ll simply stuff the entire North Face pack inside one of the rear pannier bags. Then I can just pull the knapsack out and go walking. It means carrying the weight of another bag, but it makes sense in the end because pannier bags are brutal to carry around. They’re designed to be durable and hook onto a bicycle without dropping off. They aren’t designed to be carried around very easily. They have shoulder straps, but I know from experience that they’re brutally painful after about ten minutes. And these particular pannier bags that I bought in Taiwan are horrible. I bought them for my trip to Cambodia because they were the only pannier bags available in Taiwan beyond the pieces of crap that you can buy everywhere. I hated them in Cambodia, and I still hate them today, but they are all I have and are better than nothing. I have a better set of bags, but they are in storage in Canada along with my usual touring bike and all my other gear (which I wish I had here).
I figured that rather than get a taxi and bring it back to Rooftop Paradise, I would compromise and carry my bike and other bags down the lane to Chungshan. Then at least when I flagged down a taxi, they could see at a glance what they’d have to deal with. Even getting the bike box down to Chungshan was an effort. My arms were trembling and my fingers were bent into claws by the cord by the time I got there.
It’s funny, but living in a largely English world in Taipei, I think I get complacent. I rarely step outside my narrow world of home and work. I often don’t even have a sense of being in a different country. I’m just where I am and it doesn’t even occur to me that everyone around me is speaking a language I don’t understand. It never seems to matter one way or the other. Recently, I’ve broken out of my normal work routine in that my company has sent me to a different city to teach some classes at a high school. The experience of taking a train there reminded me pretty strongly that yes, I am living overseas. However, the thought that I’m living in a foreign country doesn’t really come up that often. This morning I was in that odd frame of my mind, and I didn’t even think about the taxi and the taxi driver. I just assumed that I’d say “airport” in English and off we’d go. Certainly, every time I’ve been with someone else leaving Taiwan, it was never a problem. A foreigner with a large amount of luggage probably wants to go to the airport. It’s not a difficult thing to figure out. However, it didn’t work out that way with me. Things have a habit of not working out with me.
I got down to Chungshan and put my bicycle box down on the ground. A taxi flashed past me, and I saw the driver look over and spot me. He was already long past me before he concluded that I was a possible fare. I thought there was no way he was going to pick me up, and I started to look for the next taxi. I’d forgotten, though, where I was. This is Taipei after all, and throwing on the brakes and then reversing for half a block through rush hour traffic is practically taught at driver training. I really thought my trip was going to begin with a major accident. Even for Taipei, this driver’s antics were extraordinary. He was really moving fast backwards and the scooter drivers were taken by surprise. Scooter after scooter had to hit the brakes and swerve around him at the last second. Other cars and taxis had to do the same. To make it worse, there was a truck illegally parked on the road blocking one lane so that there was only one lane open. The taxi driver had to thread himself through that one lane while driving backwards and without killing anyone. He managed it, but it was a ridiculously dangerous piece of driving.
He pulled in beside me, and I got him to lower the window. I told him I wanted to go to the airport, and I indicated the large bicycle box. He seemed perfectly happy with that information. I thought we’d then discuss the price, but he just jumped out of the taxi and raced around to my side. I knew I should probably settle the fare beforehand, but I couldn’t be bothered. Most drivers ask for a thousand. I suppose one can bargain them down to eight hundred or something, but I knew I wasn’t going to bother. A thousand would be fine with me.
We first attempted to put the bike box in the back seat. It was a near thing, but no matter how many different ways we angled that box in there, it wouldn’t quite fit. It stuck out by about an inch. That really bothered my taxi driver and he figured there must be a way to get that last inch. We pushed and pulled and lifted and angled, but nothing we did allowed us to close the door. He hadn’t gone instantly for the trunk, so I assumed that the trunk was out of the question. Why else would he even try to put it in the back seat? However, I got that bit of logic wrong like everything else, and after we gave up on the back seat, he just popped open the trunk and indicated that we could put it in there. I thought we could have just done that from the start! We slid the box in and that was that. It didn’t go in all the way, but it didn’t matter. It was in far enough and the trunk lid came down nice and solid still. The driver didn’t even want to use a bungee cord or a rope or anything to tie it down. So we were all set to go.
I jumped into the taxi and expected us to start zipping to the airport. The driver, though, turned to me and now he wanted to know where I wanted to go. He had nodded when I said “airport,” but I guess it was just a polite nod and not a nod of understanding. It’s odd, but I found myself having a bizarre exchange with the one taxi driver in Taipei who doesn’t know the English word “airport.” I didn’t know the word in Chinese, so we were at something of an impasse. I blush to think of it, but next I started imitating a plane. I stuck out my arms like wings and made a whooshing sound like I was flying through the air. Then I flapped my arms like a bird. Neither of these performances helped in any way, and he still didn’t know where I wanted to go. I had to think this fellow was fairly slow on the uptake. I think the amount of baggage I had was a dead giveaway, but I guess a bicycle box doesn’t look like a suitcase. Finally, we resorted to the oldest of techniques. He rummaged in his glove apartment and handed me a piece of paper and a pen. I was going to write down “airport,” but I decided that that probably wasn’t going to help. So, God help me, I drew a little picture of an airplane. I drew the fuselage and the tail and a little window at the front, but there was still no glimmer of recognition from my driver. Then I drew a wing, and the light bulb finally went off! He knew where the foreigner wanted to go. We settled on the expected thousand dollars for the fare, and off we went.
I learned on our way to the airport that his insane driving before picking me up was not an accident. This was how he drove. I’ve often heard it said that the lane markings in Taiwan are more suggestions than actual division lines between lanes. For this guy, roads and intersections were just suggestions. He just went where he wanted to go and when he wanted to go.
I think this might have been my first time taking a taxi to the airport, and we got there much faster than I expected. I knew my flight was leaving from Terminal 1 and I got out there without a problem.
The airport was oddly empty, and I easily got a luggage cart and put my bike box on it. Then I strolled through the airport looking for the check-in counter for Philippine Airlines Flight 893. I found it without a single problem, and I rolled my luggage cart into the line. There were two unattended carts ahead of me, but no people. And there was a sign saying that check-in would begin at 9. It was still only about 8:20.
Soon after, two Filipinas rolled their luggage cart behind me. They asked if they were in the right lane. I told them as much as I knew, and we ended up having a nice chat about the Philippines and other things. They both worked in Taipei, but only one of them was going to the Philippines. The other woman was there just to help and accompany her friend. They’d noticed the address stickers I’d put on my bike box and pannier bag. The stickers asked for one’s surname and initials, so I wrote “Nienhuis, D.J.” They saw that and got quite excited. They thought I was an actual DJ. I explained that D and J were just my initials. They thought that was quite funny, and we talked for a long time and they ended up wanting to have their pictures taken with me. I was struck by how open and friendly and confident they were. I’m sure it had a lot do with their English ability, which was far superior to most of the Taiwanese I know, but I think people from the Philippines are just naturally open and friendly.
I also met an American man. The first luggage cart in the line belonged to him, and he had quite the tale to tell. He was flying from the U.S. and had booked his own tickets on-line. Somehow he got mixed up with the time and date changes, and when he got to Taipei, he learned that his connecting flight to Manila didn’t leave until the next day! He’d arrived quite late at night, and the Taipei airport started shutting down around him. He ended up having to spend the night in the airport waiting for this eleven o’clock flight to Manila.
This was just the beginning of his story. He’d gone back to the States with the express purpose of selling and giving away all his possessions and then coming to the Philippines to settle down and live. He was an older fellow, a Vietnam vet with a full medical pension, and after traveling in the Philippines, he decided to live there. His pension can go a lot further in a country where he gets an entire beach house for the equivalent of US$140 a month. And to sweeten the pot, he’d met a pretty 24-year-old Filipina and they were going to get married. The age difference didn’t seem to bother her, her family, or anyone else in the Philippines. I’m now in the airport in Manila, and already I’ve noticed three white guys in their fifties and sixties walking hand-in-hand with pretty Filipinas in their twenties. People here just seem relaxed, and I like that. I need some relaxing! People simply deal with you quite naturally and are eager to talk. I was quite surprised on the little shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal that a little lady tapped me on the arm and indicated the empty seat beside her. She smiled in a warm way and patted the empty seat as if she were inviting me into her living room for a cup of tea. It was very nice. I almost stepped on her toes as I maneuvered into the seat and I instinctively touched her shoulder as I apologized. She patted my arm in return to say that it was all right. That was more human contact in one minute than I’ve had in months in Taipei.
Checking in for my flight was not too great a problem. After all my agonizing about packing and weight limits, I’d learned quite late on Thursday that Philippine Airlines only charges NT$112 per kilogram if you are over the limit! It makes me wonder why this little fact never came up in all my endless dealings with travel agents in Taipei. The topic of my bike and my concerns about weight came up dozens of times. You’d think in one of those encounters, someone would have told me that the overweight fee was so reasonable. I was thinking that I should bring nothing with me and then buy everything I needed when I got to the Philippines. But with this new information I realized it was a lot more cost-effective to just bring whatever I needed and pay for anything that was over the limit. In the end, I checked in 28 kilograms between my bike box and the one pannier bag. The technical limit is 20 kilograms, but it is an open secret that everyone on Philippine Airlines gets a break and gets an extra 5 kilograms for free. That meant I was only 3 kilograms over the limit. With taxes and all the other fees, I ended up paying NT$429! All that agonizing was for no purpose. I said earlier that working sucks. Well, travel agents suck, too. I’m not sure what they think their job is if they never troubleshoot for passengers. I guess they just punch things into a computer and that’s it, which means that many of them are probably already out of a job and many more will be soon as booking online gets more and more common. If all they do is a computer booking, and we can do them ourselves, then we don’t need them anymore. In my case, I could easily have booked this flight online. I opted to use a travel agent because I wanted to get an actual paper ticket, and I thought I would get more service and more security. Well, the travel agent ended up giving me an e-ticket anyway even though I went to her office to pay! And I didn’t get any extra service, either. Everything I found out about Philippine Airlines, the terminals in Manila, and the weight limits, I found out myself by going online.
I asked about keeping my bicycle box upright on the airplane, and people seemed open to the idea. But I had to leave the check-in counter to pay my excess luggage fee, and when I came back, I saw my bicycle box lying flat on the conveyor disappearing into the wall. I’m sure that it was soon buried in heavy suitcases. I can only hope that the wheels don’t end up irreparably bent! If they do, well, I’ll just have to spend my time swinging in a hammock on a beach and snorkeling all the time, rather than cycling.
I chatted with the American vet quite a bit more after that. His troubles were far from over, because there was such a large amount of time in between the flight that took him to Taipei and the one that was now taking him to Manila. When you fly out of America and Canada to international destinations, you get a huge weight limit. I think it’s about 60 or 65 kilograms in total between two bags. I know this because I’ve taken my bicycle out of Canada a number of times and I’ve had huge amounts of gear. I could have two pieces of luggage each up to 70 pounds in weight. But international flights in Asia have a 20-kilogram limit. He had two huge suitcases with him and they were fine for his flight from America. Now he was being told that he was way over the limit. I think he won his case and got them to understand that he was just transferring in Taipei and it was all part of the same flight, but it took a long time and a lot of effort and some special forms. When next I saw him, he was in the departure lounge still filling out some forms. He’d been awake for days by this point and his hands were visibly trembling as he was writing. He said later that his hands were shaking so badly that he could barely sign his name. I understand perfectly. On long-haul flights I’ve been on, I felt towards the end that I was losing my mind. I get so tired and so befuddled from lack of sleep that I can barely function. I was just flying from Taipei to Palawan and what with packing and being unable to sleep, I was practically a wreck. This poor guy had been in airports for a very long time.
It looked like there was a happy ending though. He was a very nice and gentle man, and he was taking things in stride. No tempers were being lost or anything like that. He said that despite all the problems he had faced, the airline staff and airport personnel had all been very friendly and helpful. There was someone in a uniform standing beside him in the departure lounge as he filled out the form, and this employee gave him a present before he left.
The flight itself was more pleasant than I had any right to expect. Things tend to go wrong for me where airports and airplanes are concerned. But in this case, I was assigned an aisle seat in the emergency exit row. They thought I looked manly enough to handle the emergency procedures in case we crashed. These rows were true emergency exit rows with a huge amount of legroom. In keeping with his problems, the American vet had asked to be seated in these rows, thought he had been seated in them, and then found out that he hadn’t been. He had two artificial knees and found the extra legroom to be essential. Perhaps they didn’t seat him there when they learned that he had artificial knees. One of the requirements to sit in those rows is that you be physically capable of a number of tasks, such as removing the emergency exit door and lifting it out of the way. They were taking this very seriously and the attendants came by and made sure that the people in my row all studied the procedures. I had two row mates: a Japanese businessman and his wife or girlfriend. The woman was very worried about this emergency exit stuff and talked to her man about it. He laughed and indicated me, “He can understand English better than me. Let him read it.” He had picked up the very detailed instructions, saw that they were in English and promptly put it back in the seat pocket. He spoke English enough for halting small talk, but not much more than that.
I was surprised when I read the instructions at how detailed they were. People in this row weren’t expected to just pull a handle and open a door. They were also expected to make judgement calls and take a leadership role. In particular, the instructions said that I’d have to look out the window in the event of a crash and determine whether it was safe to exit there. If there was fire or smoke, I’d be expected not to open the door and, in fact, block it and prevent people from exiting that way. That seems a pretty serious responsibility for someone with zero training or experience. I was also expected to exit the aircraft and determine a safe escape route and lead people along it. It surprised me that they would request a simple passenger to assume all that responsibility. I think most people treat these emergency exit procedures as something of a joke, but this document didn’t read like a joke at all.
I chatted with the Japanese businessman for a while. His English was hard to understand, but I got an impression of what he was about. He worked for a company that sold software around the world and because of that he did a great deal of traveling. This wasn’t a business trip for him, though. He was going to Cebu for two or three days on a holiday. He had it all planned out – golf and fishing during the day and gambling at the casinos at night. He had thought about going to Palawan before, but he never went because for him and his girlfriend there was nothing to do there, particularly no golf, shopping, or gambling. He gave me a lot of advice about life and what I should do since I was a “young man with no wife or children.” He had me setting out on some pretty extraordinary adventures and then buying a hotel somewhere exotic. I guess these were all things he wanted to do but felt he couldn’t because of his career and personal life. I had a vague feeling that he had a wife and family somewhere in Japan and that the woman with him was his mistress. She was much younger and much more fashionable and affectionate than I imagined this man’s wife would be.
Things got a bit more complicated for me once we landed in Manila. I had originally booked my ticket with Philippine Airlines because I understood that meant my luggage would go straight through to Palawan, and I wouldn’t have to change terminals or airports in Manila. Of course, when I went to pick up my ticket, I found that out of the four legs of my trip, one of them – the Manila-Palawan leg – was with a “partner” airline. This meant that in fact I’d have to deal with my luggage in some fashion and perhaps even change terminals. This annoyed me and is yet another example of how travel agents really don’t take their jobs very seriously.
I tried to get more details in Taipei, but it was confusing. The woman at the check-in counter told me quite clearly that my luggage was cleared all the way to Palawan. That was a big relief to me and so I asked for confirmation and more details. She then explained that when I got to Manila, I’d have to go to a transfer counter to get my boarding pass, then collect all my luggage, pass it through customs, and then check it in for the next flight. This didn’t sound like “cleared all the way to Palawan” to me and I asked her some more questions. She kept saying that my luggage was taken care of, but then she would explain how I would have to take care of it.
When I got into the airport in Manila, I saw a transfer counter to the right even before immigration. I went there as instructed to get my boarding pass for my next flight, but they took a look at my e-ticket and told me that since I was now switching to a different airline I had to do something different. Oddly enough, they said the same thing as the woman in Taipei. They said that my luggage was cleared all the way to Palawan, but then in the next sentence explained how I’d have to get my luggage myself and bring it to the next check-in desk in the domestic terminal. He explained the steps, and I didn’t really understand any of it. Nor did I understand what “cleared” meant in this context. It sure didn’t sound cleared to me. I had no choice but to just go through immigration and then see how things went from there.
Immigration was pretty straightforward, and then I was dumped right out into an area with a single long luggage carousel that snaked down the length of the room. I saw my pannier bag first and I collected that. Then I saw my bike box, lying flat and going round and round. Of course, the hub of the real wheel had punched through the cardboard and there was a gaping hole in the side now. I could only hope that there wasn’t much damage done to the wheel in addition to the damage done to the box.
I got a luggage cart and put my bike box and pannier bag onto it. Then I looked around. I had no idea what to do next. The one thing I DID know was that I wasn’t going to make a single move without asking airline employees every step of the way. More than once in my life I’ve gone through a door in an airport only to find that it was the wrong door and that I then couldn’t come back. In this case, everyone was simply grabbing their luggage and then going through this big customs area and walking outside. I eyed those doors with extreme suspicion. Once I went through them, I’d be in Manila, and who knew if I could get back into the airport if that was a mistake? I watched people for a while and carefully examined this big room. There didn’t seem to be anything to do except go through customs. There was nowhere else to go! But I stayed cautious and I went up to a group of men in airline uniforms. I showed them my luggage and explained what I wanted to do and then showed them all of my paperwork. Again, I wished I had a proper ticket. Handing over these two pieces of paper printed out from a computer printer seemed silly and confusing. It took them a long time to read the papers and figure out what kind of ticket I had actually purchased.
It was very lucky that I talked to these guys, however, because it turned out that there was another option. It was an option that no one could possibly have figured out unless they were told and led through it. In order to get my luggage onto the next flight to Palawan, I had to collect my luggage off the carousel, go over to customs and have it cleared. Then, instead of going through customs, you turn around, go back and put your luggage back on the carousel! The luggage snakes around, disappears through the wall, and then someone on the other side will hopefully notice the new tape that someone has stuck on the box, realize it is for a transfer, and then bring it to the next plane. Perhaps this sort of thing is common in airports, but I had never encountered it before. It felt very strange to put my luggage back onto the carousel. In the end, I had the airline employee do it and I went with him every step of the way until I felt confident that this odd procedure was what was really expected of me.
Now that I had done this, I had to actually go through customs for real. I felt like I was going to be arrested or something. I had gone to customs and then put my luggage back. Now I was actually going through customs, but I didn’t have any luggage! Do these things happen to other people? I don’t think so. I never hear such strange tales from other people, but no matter what, I always seem to encounter these weird things.
My journey wasn’t yet over, however. After going through customs, I was now outside the airport in Manila. I was officially in the Philippines and the next step was to check in for a flight that, as far as I knew, I was already checked-in for. However, I had to do it without any luggage and blindly hope that my luggage would follow me even though I had no idea where I was even going.
Outside the airport, I ran into the Japanese businessman and his girlfriend. They too were transferring to a domestic flight to Cebu. So far they hadn’t had much success. It’s not like we all were inside the airport looking for the check-in area. No, we had all gone through every step to exit the airport and now had to just turn around and go back in. But where? All the doors we saw were clearly labeled for international departures. We split up and went in different directions and wandered around the outside of the airport. This felt completely wrong to me. All my instincts told me that we were supposed to be inside the airport going through tunnels and gates and security checks, not out in the sunshine on the pavement trying to find a way inside. I saw nothing in the direction I went except the end of the airport. I turned back and ran into the Japanese businessman who had found a promising area. It was around the corner and up a bit, but it looked like an entrance into the airport for domestic departures. The three of us walked there and seemed to be in the right place.
Again, I wished I had an actual ticket. The security guard was asking everyone for their tickets, and all I could do was hand over my two pieces of paper which had an itinerary on it. But it really wasn’t a ticket. It was just a piece of paper.
It looked like we were in the right place, and I started wandering up and down looking for a check-in counter with my flight’s number on it. I found one quite quickly and then ran into the next small problem. The woman kept asking me for my baggage claim stubs. I handed them over, but she kept handing them back and saying they were the wrong ones. I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I looked at my baggage claim stubs and they were all clearly labeled China Air even though I’d checked-in for and flown on an Air Philippines flight. This totally flummoxed me. I got out my boarding pass and was very startled to see that it too was for a China Air flight. Was I losing my mind? This woman clearly thought I was. She kept asking about the China Air flight and I kept insisting that I’d flown to Manila on Philippine Airlines. I showed her my e-ticket nonsense and she understood that, but she couldn’t understand how that Philippine Airlines e-ticket jived with both a boarding pass and baggage claim stubs from China Air. I had to agree with her. I was confused as well, but I could only keep insisting that I wasn’t crazy – this was the boarding pass I was given and the baggage claim stubs I was given by Philippine Airlines. She started making some phone calls and eventually a nice young man came over who had all the answers. He explained that Philippine Airlines and China Air shared the same ground crew in Taipei. Therefore, they use China Air papers. I don’t think that makes any sense, but he was confident, and he convinced the woman that he was right. She finally handed my baggage claim stubs to another man with a walkie-talkie. He got on the walkie-talkie and orchestrated things so that my bags would get on the flight to Palawan.
From there, it was smooth sailing. The departure area was quite comfortable and spacious. I found a place where I could sit and have a cup of coffee. I had an hour and a half until the flight left. I saw the Japanese businessman and his girlfriend once in a smoking area, but I didn’t see the American vet again. The last time I saw him was on the shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal. He seemed to be holding up okay. I hope he got on to Cebu and reunited with his 24-year-old girlfriend okay. After what he went through, he deserved some happiness!
The flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa only took an hour. The views were wonderful, though. I first got some wonderful views over Manila and then some great views of some islands. I wish now I’d taken out one of my cameras, but I didn’t, because the glass of the window was so scratched. I really had no idea of the orientation of the flight and how we approached Palawan, but after a while we started following a long narrow island that had to be Palawan. It was beautiful from the air, and I gazed out over low mountains, tropical rainforest, and narrow rivers snaking their way to the ocean. I spotted bits of road here and there and for the first time I started to appreciate what perhaps I’d set myself up for. It’s quite easy to pick a place on a world map and say that I’m going to go there and ride a bike by myself. It can be something else entirely to get there and see the place and do it. I got excited looking down at those roads, but I also felt a bit nervous.
I felt even more nervous as the plane started its descent into Puerto Princesa. It’s very nice to be in transit. You get all the perceived excitement of being on a trip, of beginning an adventure, and yet you don’t have to do anything. Your biggest task is just to make it from counter to counter and terminal to terminal drinking the occasional cup of coffee and chatting with interesting people. Nothing is expected of you, and you have no responsibilities. There are no real consequences to any of your choices and actions, and you don’t feel that there are any. However, as the plane starts to go down at the final destination, you know that you’re going to be reunited with the heavy luggage that has been taken away from you. And now you won’t have the luxury of all the airport trolleys and systems. I knew there would be no customs or immigration to go through at Puerto Princesa, and that was a relief, but I knew that I would have to then find transportation to my first home. I was pretty confident that things would be easy. Even from the air the airport looked pretty casual, and my experience of the Philippines has always been that things are laid back. There would be ample time and space to take things slow and get my bearings.
Still, I couldn’t stop the rising tide of nervousness. It’s easier when you’re with someone, but when you’re by yourself you can’t help but get a little nervous. When you’re backpacking, you almost always link up with some other traveler and pool information and find a taxi or tuk-tuk to share. If I were backpacking, I had the perfect opportunities to do just that. In the departure lounge I struck up a conversation with an American Filipino named Ernie. His family and home is in Seattle, but he still had roots in the Philippines and he had come back for a holiday on Palawan with “the guys.” The guys consisted of a group of six or seven friendly and energetic Filipinos. I could easily have linked up with them and been well taken care of I’m sure. Then in the arrival “shed” at the Puerto Princesa airport (we just walked off the plane and to this shed where our luggage would be brought to us) I met who I assumed was another American. He was a guy perhaps in his thirties and he was traveling around Asia. I didn’t get much of his story, but he intended to be on Palawan for a couple of weeks. He was clearly traveling alone and also clearly wouldn’t have minded joining forces with someone. Had I just a backpack, we could have done just that and teamed up and gone looking for a hotel together. But with the bicycle box on its way, I really had to head off by myself. Even if we went to the same hotel, I wouldn’t have much time to hang out. I’d want to take some time to assess the bike and start putting it back together.
The luggage came to the shed on little wagons and a bunch of guys started to pile it on this little carousel that went around and around in a small oval. It looked like the suitcases were racing each other around a little race track. My bike box was on the last wagon, and by then the American guy had left.
Everything was pretty casual at the airport. As I said, we didn’t even go inside a building. We just walked off the runway to this big shed. There were a lot of people milling around in this shed. Many of them were porters and wore special vests with numbers that identified them. Number 21 approached me to see if I wanted a porter. I instinctively said no. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction. You think everyone is going to start selling you things you don’t need and ripping you off along the way and offering you services you don’t want and generally hassling you to death.
This young fellow, though, accepted my no and quietly walked away. The second he started walking away, I realized that a porter wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It’s not like it was going to be expensive. Why not have someone help me with this massive box and my other luggage? It would actually probably be safer. I don’t think these porters would be in the habit of running off with luggage, and with him doing the muscle work, I could relax a bit and make sure that I don’t find myself the victim of a pickpocket within ten minutes of landing on Palawan.
So I decided that a porter wouldn’t be that bad, and I said yes to the next guy who showed up. He grabbed a luggage cart and we loaded up my box and my pannier bag. To leave, we had to exit out a very small gate. I was glad to see that there was a guard there comparing baggage claim tickets with the items that people were holding. At least this was an attempt to keep people from just walking off with things. Of course this system didn’t work for me. The guard wasn’t Einstein, but even he thought it was odd that I had China Air baggage claim tickets and yet my baggage was covered in Philippine Air labels and tape! I also had three baggage claim tickets and only two pieces of checked baggage. There is no answer to that mystery that I can think of. I checked in only the box and one pannier bag, and the woman at Philippine Airlines handed me three China Air baggage claim stubs. I didn’t even notice at the time. Anyway, through my porter, I explained the problem to the guard and he didn’t understand what I was talking about, but my luggage was clearly unique. No sensible robber would try to sneak away with a giant forty-pound box and a bright yellow pannier bag that looked like it belonged in the space program. I think the true owner of these items would spot them!
There were about a fifty tricycle drivers waiting at the airport. I left it up to my porter to pick one for me. I told him that I was looking for any old hotel and that I just needed someone to take me to one that wasn’t too expensive.
There was a bit of a crush of tricycle drivers, but one of them emerged victorious and he led us to his tricycle. The going rate for a tricycle ride he said was fifty pesos, but we could pay what we wanted.
It was clear that there was no way my bicycle box was going to fit into the tricycle in any normal way. It was just too big to go anywhere. I knew that the instant I laid eyes on the tricycles, but these guys generally know what they’re doing, and they’ll usually find a way. This fellow’s solution was to simply hoist the box onto the roof and tie it down. He asked me if that was okay, and I just said sure. I didn’t see it falling off, and I figured he knew his business.
He was a friendly guy and we chatted a little bit as we put putted along. I wasn’t thinking that much about where I wanted to stay. I didn’t really care, and I didn’t want to spend a long time looking. I’d have loved to find the perfect place with amazing atmosphere that is really cheap and yet really convenient and all that. However, the more important concern for me was to simply get off the streets and into a room before the sun went down so I could start assembling my bike. I knew there would be lots of opportunities for hanging out in that perfect bungalow. For my first night, I just wanted anyplace. I had actually brought a Philippines Lonely Planet with me, but I didn’t bother consulting it. It stood to reason that Puerto Princesa would be loaded with hotels, and it would likely be more interesting to just let the porter and the tricycle driver bring me somewhere. For all I knew, they would bring me right to the place where they got kickbacks, but who cares? At least it would be different and something of a story.
I did have an idea in my head that I’d like to be near the seaport of Puerto Princesa. I’d seen it from the air, and it looked interesting, but I figured I could spend one night wherever I end up and then when my bike is assembled, I could go anywhere I wanted.
My tricycle driver brought me to a place that looked a little bit pricey for me. In fact, in all of my discussions with the porter and the other tricycle drivers, I was surprised at the figures they were quoting. The going rate for a room they said was 800 pesos, which is about $20 US. I was hoping for something under $10. I mentioned I’d rather pay in the neighborhood of 300-400 pesos. They said there were no rooms in that range. I know that there are, but I didn’t want to waste a lot of time looking. Besides, I also need a place that is organized enough and safe enough so that they are willing to store my bicycle box and perhaps other gear while I’m away.
With those thoughts going through my head, I decided to be open-minded about the place my driver brought me to. It was clearly not a backpacker’s hangout. Yet, it wasn’t luxurious either. It actually looked a little dumpy. There was a reception desk and the woman there said they had air-conditioned rooms for 950 pesos and rooms with just a fan for 650 pesos. I asked to see a fan room and wasn’t surprised to see that it was quite large and fairly well-appointed. It’s about fifteen feet by twenty feet and has a big double bed, a TV, a fan, a big bathroom, two easy chairs, a desk with a desk chair, a wardrobe, a telephone, a lamp, and a Gideon’s Bible. They provide nice clean pillows and sheets, a towel, toilet paper, and even hand soap. There is no mosquito net, but I brought my own and can probably set it up easily. All-in-all you get a lot for your 650 pesos. One thing I really liked about it is the size. There is a lot of empty floor space which I will need for assembling the bicycle. I asked the receptionist about storing my box there and she understood perfectly and indicated a big storage room where they could keep it for me. I was a little disappointed that this place was so close to the airport and not “where the action is” but for my purposes it might be good to be so close to the airport when it comes time to pack up and fly out.
I told the tricycle driver that I was going to stay here. He was happy because it meant he wouldn’t have to drive me around to any other places. He was less happy when we lifted the bicycle box down from the roof of his tricycle and he found out that the hub of my rear wheel had punched a hole right through his roof! I had had no idea that the roof of his tricycle was made of a simple painted canvas. I thought it was some kind of metal and so I never even though about it. If I’d know it was made of canvas, I would have stopped him or done something. Once I knew it was a canvas roof, I was very surprised that he was willing to put that bicycle box up there! It is a heavy box and might easily have crushed the whole roof.
I didn’t know what to say to him about that hole and I apologized for the damage my bicycle had done and said I was sorry, but there wasn’t much else I could do. He didn’t ask for me to compensate him for the damage. Actually, I was still completely clueless as to what things cost in the Philippines. I hadn’t done any real research or thinking and didn’t know much about money as yet. I think as far as I got was figuring out that one US dollar was worth about 40 pesos.
This room also comes with a free breakfast, so that might make it even more of a good deal. I don’t know. The rooms are all arranged around a kind of jungley courtyard in the back. It looks like there is supposed to be water and ponds and fountains in there, but it is all dry right now. The place seemed deserted when I checked in. Because it’s so close to the airport, it feels a bit like staying in a cheap and seedy motel. There are probably much nicer and more atmospheric places out there, but this is home for now and it might actually end up being a great place for me. I’m certainly glad about the huge floor space and the possibility of storing the bicycle box. That solves some problems right there. The tricycle driver kept trying to sell me on different places by saying that the room fee included breakfast. I told him that I didn’t need that, but now that I’m here I don’t mind having a complimentary breakfast in the morning. I don’t have my bearings at all, and it saves me from having to go out and forage right away.
I haven’t eaten anything since the lunch that I had on the flight from Taipei to Manila and I’m starting to feel some serious hunger pangs. I might just have dinner in the restaurant at this hotel. There was a guy sprawled in the lobby area who said that they had great food. I should probably eat before I try to unpack and assemble the bike. That could turn into quite the adventure.
I mentioned that I haven’t got the slightest clue about money yet, but I did buy a couple of things in the airport. I think I saved the receipt just to remember the prices. A small bottle of water was 45 pesos and a cup of coffee was 70 pesos. That seems pretty expensive now, but they are airport prices.
I’m out in the restaurant now. It’s a bit nicer than I thought it was. It struck me at first as empty and grungy and unused. But it looks like it might actually be used quite a bit. There are about 13 tables with four chairs each. Two white women were sitting at one table just finishing dinner. Now I’m the only person here. I guess one very handy thing about the Philippines is the amount of English spoken. Pretty much everyone speaks English and you can function in that language. That makes life a lot easier when it comes to the day-to-day stuff.
When I came into the restaurant, I just walked up to the desk where the waitresses were congregated and looked at a menu and selected something. We all spoke English as we talked about the different things on the menu and it was easy as can be. They were friendly women and even challenged my masculinity by wondering why I wasn’t ordering a beer with my dinner. I couldn’t let that pass. I hadn’t planned on having a beer, thinking that I needed my wits about me to assemble the bike. I also just haven’t been drinking beer or whiskey at all for months now. I just got out of the habit. But when they mentioned it, it sounded pretty good and I ordered a San Miguel. I deserve it after a day like today.
In the end, it was an enjoyable day full of interest, but it was also not the easiest of days. It never is when you fly somewhere. I don’t think where I am has caught up with me just yet. I was talking to Cindy late last night, and I mentioned that at that time the next night I would be in Palawan. It seemed fairly odd at the time. And yet, here I am. I’m certainly having a little bit of that “what the hell am I doing here?” reaction, but it isn’t that strong.
I can already feel that my plan to cycle to El Nido and back might be a bit more physically challenging than I had realized. It isn’t terribly, terribly hot, but I can feel the heat and humidity. I chose the fan room not so much for economy, but because I thought a fan would be a better and more natural choice. However, my room is actually very humid and somewhat uncomfortable. It might be hard to sleep in there. I can see that cycling from town to town might be a very hot and grueling experience. We’ll see. My San Miguel came, and I was surprised that it was so salty. Then I realized that the salt was actually coming from my lips and mouth.
I’ve been wondering about the water here. I think I’ll have to drink a lot of water, and I don’t want to be buying bottled water all of the time. I brought a water bag and I have some water purifying chemicals. Perhaps I’ll have to just drink treated tap water. It makes sense. I drank the water in Ethiopia and Guinea after purifying or filtering it, so why not here? Of course, I was also endlessly ill in Ethiopia and Guinea. Still, I’ll only be here for four weeks at the most. No matter how sick I get, I will be gone before too long. And when I get back to Taipei I can get checked out.
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