Life in the Philippines – bagyo and Baguio – storms and strawberries

Manila Bay hidden by an incoming rain squall

One of the difficulties for the foreigner in the Philippines is the similarity of some words or sounds in Tagalog. Tagalog is the Austronesian language of the Tagalog people, generally from central Luzon. Its vocabulary has been much influenced by Spanish and English, and it is the basis of a standardized national language of the Philippines (Filipino). The other national language, mercifully, is English. All Republic Acts in the Philippines are written in Tagalog and English.

Two words that to me sound alike are Baguio and bagyo. Baguio is a mountain city of some 350,000 residents that was initially established as a hill station by the United States in 1900 at the site of an Ibaloi village known as Kafagway. It has grown over the past 100 years or so and is known as the summer capital of the Philippines. Famous for its cool air, pine trees, fruit and vegetables and strawberries in particular, it is one of the major towns in the Philippines that does not have air-conditioning installed everywhere.

Bagyo however is a storm. We have just had four or five days of a storm here in Metro Manila, brought about by a combination of the Habagat and a Low Pressure Area (LPA) in the Pacific east of Luzon.

There are two kinds of winds and seasons that occur here every year. The Amihan refers to the northeast monsoon and the Habagat, the south western monsoon.

The habagat blows up from the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) and generally brings with it a lot of moist air. When there is an LPA in the Philippine Sea to the east of the Philippines, the habagat is intensified, as was the case over the past four or five days. FLood warnings were at the yellow level for three of the four days in Manila, Bataan and Zambales, with orange warning signal for Bataan and Zambales over a day. This season is normally over the period June to October (the wet season).

The amihan usually occurs over the period October to March and generally there is a little rainfall associated with it but more characteristically, there is a lowering of the temperature in the Philippines as the wind carries cool air that originates in Siberia and Mongolia which passes across China to blow down to Southeast Asia. This makes Christmas, January and February the best time, temperature and humidity wise, in the Philippines.

I also believe that habagat and amihan are two characters from Philippine mythology. I shall investigate that later.

Life in the Philippines – Paluwagan

Paluwagan has existed in the Philippines for many years. It is a group forced savings system and similar money saving systems exist in other countries and cultures, however, in the Philippines, and regardless of what the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP – the Central Bank) says, it is almost ubiquitous. Paluwagans exist in the cities such as Metro Manila and down to the farms on Mindanao and Samar. Even retired folks have been know to be part of a paluwagan.

So, what is it exactly? It is a means of group saving or money lending. A group of people, perhaps workmates, friends, extended family and such, get together and agree an amount they can afford to “save” or deposit to the paluwagan. They agree on who will hold the funds, how frequently payments will be and then the order of receiving payments – the order is usually random unless there is a compelling reason to help out one or two members of the paluwagan group first.

The mechanics are quite simple. Each member contributes the same amount each week (or month or whatever cycle is selected). One member then receives the collected funds each cycle. The next week all contribute again and the second member receives the collected funds. This continues until all members receive the full funds after which the paluwagan then terminates. In many respects, it is like the terminating Building societies of 18th century England.

A paluwagan payment set of cycles could look like:

There are six members and all agree to contribute 1,000 pesos per month for six months. The payment order is agreed, in this case, Anne, Bob, Charlie, Dave, Edwin and Francine. In January all contribute 1,000 pesos and Anne is then given 6,000 pesos. In February all contribute 1,000 pesos and Bob is then given 6,000 pesos. The cycle repeats until everyone has received their 6,000 pesos.

The benefits of paluwagan are:

  • quick access to a lump sum of money
  • easy to set up
  • no fees
  • forces saving

The disadvantages/risks:

  • unregulated
  • prone to money problems (dishonest members)
  • strained relationships among friends and family
  • no interest or profits

The paluwagan however, is effective among friends, colleagues, co-workers and family where all can be trusted and if there is a large group, say 10 to 20 people, and they are contributing 1,000 pesos each cycle, then the lump sum of 10,000 to 20,000 pesos is very useful.

As with all things in the 21st century, there are a number of online frauds and scams to be avoided. However, when lending face-to-face to the paluwagan among a group of trusted friends,  colleagues etc. the risk is low.

Life in the Philippines

I’ve been living in the Philippines for nearly five years now (I arrived in Manila on 9 August 2014 so five years on 9 August 2019). It is an interesting and friendly country with much familiar and much different. Most of the five years has been spent in Manila, famous mostly for its traffic and balut. I have been fortunate in the apartments I have stayed in to be able to see Manila Bay (battlefield of course for Dewey’s Squadron in the Spanish-American War) and generally a nice view into the distance, although a few too many high dwellings.

Many days the sunsets are wonderful and on clear days I can see the Bataan peninsula which forms the northern edge to the entrance to Manila Bay and was the scene of one of the death marches in World War 2. It is also the home to the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Construction of that commenced in 1976 and was completed by 1986, just in time to see the Chernobyl meltdown. It was decided not to power up this power plant and it sits on the Bataan peninsula to this day. Who knew?

Interestingly it is not that far from Mt Pinatubo which famously blew its top in 1991.

Sunset over Manila Bay – Bataan in the right background, Corregidor in the left

To the south I can see the Cavite peninsula, forming the southern edge to the entrance to the bay and in the middle, Corregidor, famous as a fortified island, fortified by the Spanish, the Americans and then the Japanese. It was supposed to protect the entrance to the bay. From there you can see the concrete battleship Fort Drum (originally known as El Fraile Island).

I was fortunate to take a day drip across to Corregidor a few years ago, which I promised myself I would write up here. Still, it’s my blog so things happen at my rate.

I will start to cover life in the Philippines more in the future, especially the life of the expat turning local as my plan is to remain here after I finally retire. In the meantime, ingat ikaw.

A Day in the Life

Some folks get the idea that travel is fun (which it is) and therefore business travel must be more fun because someone else is paying for it. It isn’t. Following is my journey from Macksville to Jakarta.

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It started with the XPT train journey from Macksville Station. Temperature was about 30 degrees and a bright sunny day. The train left Macksville on time at 1:30pm and headed south at a stately pace. We stopped at a number of stations on the way to Sydney, including Kempsey, Wauchope, Gloucester and such. By the time we got to Maitland we were running about 5 minutes early so got to sit around there for five minutes longer than necessary.

We passed long coal trains (80 coal wagons) and some pretty countryside but the worst part of the journey was the child screaming all the way to Sydney.

We arrived at Central Station in Sydney at 9:06pm on time.

A taxi to Jeff’s where I spent the night.

A taxi was booked for 7:15 the following morning to take me to the airport.

Sylvester Stallone: "I heard you were bitten by a cobra".

Chuck Norris: "I was but after five days of agonising pain the cobra died".

From the in-flight movie, the Expendables 2.

2013-01-08 09.37.49Tuesday was flight day – up at 5:45am to the sound of Frodo throwing up on Jeffrey’s carpet. Back to sleep and up at 6:30 for a shower and a taxi to the airport at 7:15.

Having a bite at the airport the amusing sight of the day was the bloke who spills a full cup of coffee over the table and his wife. A quick clean off of her skirt and she’s off to the toilet to clean up. His next move, remorselessly, is to pick up the coffee cup and drain what is left before worrying about any sort of clean-up to the table and surrounds.

Aircraft boarding call is made and we board. Disconnect from the air-bridge and commence taxiing on time. We then sit on the taxiway for about 30 minutes, plane in front of us and six more queued behind us. We eventually get to the runway and are airborne.

By the time we are half way to Denpasar, the Expendables 2 movie is almost finished. We have also had an almost continuous stream of turbulence and altering of course and height to try and avoid the turbulence. Seems the great heat of Australia on Tuesday is also affecting the weather 10,000 metres above ground level.

The big plus on this Garuda flight is the in-flight immigration. Brilliant!

We arrived at Denpasar, collected bags, passed customs, handed the bags to the transfer desk then walked to the domestic terminal.

Denpasar domestic terminal is being rebuilt so inside it the temperature is thirty something degrees, there’s no WiFi, no air-conditioning, lots of building works, sweat is dripping from my fingers and my new Popeye t-shirt is melting. Also the flies are Australian in their persistence and annoyance.

Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored. Sat in that terminal for five hours waiting for the next flight. There was no point taking a taxi into town (I’ve never really been to Bali) as it was raining and the traffic was too heavy.

Finally it was time to board. There was the ride out to the plane on an airport bus. The door I was leaning against flew open as the bus turned. A quick death grip on one of the poles and a few choice adjectives helped in regaining the main cabin of the bus.

2013-01-09 12.18.10The outside air was cooler than the terminal and the inside air of the aircraft was just wonderful.

Finally arrived in Jakarta and headed out through the maelstrom of "private" taxi drivers to the peace of a White Horse taxi – there was a queue at the Silver Bird stand.

We then zoom along the airport road until the toll gate and the Jakarta traffic slows us to a pace a bullock cart would be pleased to achieve. It takes about the same time from the airport to the hotel as it does from Bali to Jakarta.

Finally the peace and tranquillity of the hotel. I’d been up for 19 hours getting from Ashfield to Jakarta and had 8 hours travelling by train the day before – just another normal day for Thomo. It was definitely time for a glass of Dr Feelgood.

Oh, and lest you think it all gets better at the hotel – the last photo is the view from my window!

The West Lake – Ha Noi

2012-10-03 14.55.16After a meeting this afternoon in Ha Noi that was near the West Lake we decided to walk for a little to stretch the legs before catching a taxi to the next meeting. We took a walk around the West Lake which is the largest in Ha Noi. There were some nice houses around the lake, coffee shops, places to sit and and it all looked very nice. Even some of the locals fishing.

Fishing here is interesting. It is done with a hand line and a bamboo pole with a ring on the end. The fisherman uses his hand to work like the reel does on a rod you would buy elsewhere. I was amazed with the distance these guys were getting on the cast however.

The only downside that I could see was related to the smell of the lake. It really did not smell all that healthy. Indeed, the lack of health seemed to be borne out by the number of dead fish that we saw on the edge of the lake as we walked around.2012-10-03 15.04.56

A Most Bizarre Flight

20120907_161457As regulars here will know Thomo spends a good deal of time in aircraft flying from here to there and back again. In my time I have flown on some pretty amazing airlines, some very ordinary airlines and some downright scary. Friday night’s flight on Garuda back to Singapore was perhaps the most bizarre one.

I was flying GA834 from Soekarno-Hatta Jakarta to Changi Singapore.

The oddness started when the tannoy announced that they were boarding the flight whilst I was still walking to the gate – and I was walking there 5 minutes before scheduled boarding. Arrived at the gate to find that the aircraft had not arrived yet. I then spent a pleasant 10 minutes considering what we could board instead of the aircraft.

Another tannoy announcement, distorted in the best Sydney CityRail manner, but which sounded something like “Mr Thompson Ian Leslie please see the desk staff”.

“Hmm” thinks I, “flight looks very full, wonder what this is?”

I was asked if I minded swapping seats as a father was travelling with his son and they could not get seats next to each other. I agreed and went back to waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

In fact, we waited another 45 minutes or so past departure time before boarding. We boarded. Once the doors were closed, the two seats beside me were still empty and where I was sitting before swapping was, sure enough, taken up by a man with his son next to him. Two people turned up from the business section and sat next to me. The ‘plane was disconnected from the air-bridge and started engine power-up.

The co-pilot then came out of the business class toilet and sat back down in the cockpit. The cabin crew closed the door again. It was fortunate that he had finished in the toilet as an old gentleman travelling in business class needed the toilet and as he was unsteady on his legs, he had to be assisted into the cubicle.

We  reached the end of the taxiway but the old guy was still in the toilet. The ‘plane then sat and waited until the old chap could be persuaded back out of the toilet and re-seated. The gentleman now sitting next to me was called forward to assist as it seems it was his father. We waited and eventually he was brought back to his seat, at which point the cockpit was informed and the aircraft powered onto the runway, then accelerated and took off, by now 60 minutes late.

At this point I was getting ready to assume my usual flying position of eyes closed and dozing when the cockpit door flew wide open. This permitted those of us with an aisle seat an uninterrupted view of the “office” of the aircraft. We saw the co-pilot’s arms reaching out to switch switches on or off and generally do flying type things. It was interesting, I must admit to watch the arcane movements off the flight crew taking the ‘plane off. I did wonder what the spinning thing was next to the throttles on the Boeing 737-800. I thought flight decks were all computerised now and fly by wire.

After all that, I was very concerned then about selecting the chicken or the fish.

I Flew Budget – Jetstar (Valueair)

20120831_220945All the regular flights were full, it’s holiday season in Indonesia. No Singapore Airlines flights available, no Garuda, Lufthansa full, everyone full in all classes. Our corporate travel policy is that we must book through travel agents, no direct flight booking but this time I had to be in Jakarta and there was no alternative. Not even the 5:00 am Singapore Airlines flight had seats. Jetstar it was.

The first issue was that the online booking website froze at the point of paying for the ticket. We called Jetstar then.

“I’m sorry you have this problem with the website. Yes I can confirm that the booking has not processed. Are you aware that if I book the flight for you there is an extra surcharge?”

“Really … but it is your website that goes belly-up when we try an pay, not our fault mate!”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that but it is the policy".”

Off to a good start. To be honest, I have flown Jetstar in Australia but there it was booked through a travel agent so all was kosher. This was a new experience.

The rest of the booking process was fine (over the phone) and payment was accepted. Jessica booked it, paid on my credit card. Jessica received a confirmation email about the flight.

Two days before being due to travel, Jessica got an email reminding her that she was flying to Jakarta on Wednesday. She wasn’t, I was. However Jetstar had the right passenger and I booked in online.

Arrived at the airport, checked in (nice, pleasant check-in staff) and went to the departure gates to wait. Love Terminal 1 at Changi now, it’s better than many Australian shopping malls.

Jessica had booked me the option pack as I had luggage and she felt that I might be a bit hungry after a day of meetings so she had a meal organised as well. I will state now that the meal delivery kind of made me feel like I did way back when working in the Middle East and I was put on an Umrah flight to Jeddah during Ramadan. A plane full of fasting pilgrims and Thomo, served the full meal in the middle of the cabin. It was kind of like that. The flight attendant comes to me before take off and asks, “Mr Thompson – the chicken stew or the chicken rice?” I took the chicken stew and a Mountain Dew. The rest of the cabin got a Kaya roll and water.

The meal itself was tasty enough. It was not a Neil Perry creation but flavourful enough and certainly hot, fresh out of the microwave.

The packaging however was especially designed so that the clear plastic stretched over the food tray could not be torn off. It just ripped around the edge. The plastic knife provided was little assistance in this area and the whole exercise of getting the plastic cover off with the plastic knife was akin to trying to cut a diamond with a piece of quartz. Still, it did provide some amusement for the passengers around me.

Jetstar (Valueair) was not so bad. Still, looking at the photo above you can see why it is a budget airline – the plane seemed old, around 7 years or so and it rattled badly.

Ten Things I learned in the UK

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Friends Douglas and Gillian decided to get married – the decision, like all good decisions, was contemplated and made jointly and the result was an April wedding in Dundee, Scotland. Right says Thomo (you’ll remember my full handle is Thomo the Lost which never augurs well for long distance travel), I think we should go to Scotland for the wedding. It’ll do us good as we’ve not had a wee holiday for some time (OK, so I didn’t say “wee” but I could have).

A quick bit of planning, reference to 18 airlines online booking pages on their websites (sorry KLM – your booking page caused me problems, sorry Qantas, you are just too expensive and sorry Qatar, yours was the most appealing but your return flight meant I would have missed Salute) and we were ready to go via Etihad Airlines.

The plan was to fly into London Heathrow (not my airport of choice but the only one I had at this stage), rent a car and drive on up to Dundee via Carlisle and Edinburgh. Credit cards were flashed, money changed hands and we were off.

The 10 things I learned?

  1. Heathrow sucks. Sorry, you might be holding Olympics in a couple of months time but you really cannot organise things. They are so used to queuing that they think this is a normal state of affairs. We queued for over 90 minutes (this is not an exaggeration and judging from what the nice immigration lady said, this is quite normal). It took 90 minutes to reach the immigration officer. Lesson – fly into Schipol in the Netherlands then arrive in London through Stanstead. Or fly into Birmingham, Manchester, anywhere but Heathrow!
  2. If you already own a GPS, pay the upgrade for the Western European maps and use it. In our case, the cost was AU $99 and we had to bring it from Australia. we could have “rented” one in England for AU $20 a day. As we were travelling by car for 11 days, the arithmetic there is pretty straightforward.
  3. The English generally are quite nice, especially up north. That is, they are quite nice until you meet the Scots then the English seem a bit miserable. The Scots really are suh a warm, open and friendly group – well, except for the buggers driving around Edinburgh.
  4. Single Malt whisky does not keep the cold out … but my goodness you feel great about being cold.
  5. Scotsmen can’t drink – neither can South Africans. Surprisingly, the last two men standing at the wedding were the two Aussies (and the groom it must be said but we were still leading 2:1)
  6. When you are driving, you really get an idea of exactly how small England and Scotland are, especially when you have an Australian view of things. We would think nothing back in Oz of driving 500 kms in a day and will, at a pinch, do 1,000. Try that in the UK and you run out of island very quickly..
  7. The Scots missed the boat when they didn’t invent pockets. The kilt is fine and warm but my hands were cold. Trying to put them in your sporran just doesn’t work. Build me a kilt with pockets and I’ll be a happy bloke.
  8. Did I mention Heathrow sucks? When you’re busy with your creams and such in your plastic bag prior to the security check, you may sometimes not hear the words “take iPads out of bag”. Not sure why you have to do that – it’s a freaking x-ray after all – I suspect that most security checks have no real idea what they are looking for and it is all for show.Anyway, be that as it may, you forget to take your iPad out and your bag goes through the x-ray. Anywhere else in the world, the security staff frown at you, you take the iPad out and the bag and iPad are immediately x-rayed again and you are on your way with no real delay to other passengers. Did I mention the English love to queue? At Heathrow, your bag is put aside with the bags of other similar security miscreants and it remains until a security officer can come along and test the bag for explosives, search the bag and then (wait for it), put the bag and the iPad in a different coloured tray and pass it through the x-ray again. This whole process adds a further 20 minutes to the user security experience.
  9. The English love to complain about the hotel room they booked on the Costa del English Tourist on the Mediterranean being in a building site. I am pleased to inform you that the practice is alive and well in the UK. The Holiday Inn in Wimbledon South (sorry Kas, we ran our of time) was a building site. The taxi driver drove three times past it before we noticed the name behind the hoardings. Waking in the morning to see a big burly workman staring in your window is always a pleasure as well. Room service breakfast was to move to part of the building site, grab your sausage and powdered egg and take it back to your room to eat. All this luxury for GBP 80 per night.
  10. I learned what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.

Having noted all that, at the end of the trip both of us are hoping for Scottish Independence. We also know that we will return to the Highlands, especially to the area around Spearn Bridge. We will also return to the lovely pub in the Lowlands at St Boswells – the Buccleuch Arms Hotel, a lovely spot to spend a night or two.

Oh, and one other useful hint for weary travellers … the left luggage operations in the London mainline stations are a godsend.

Thank You Etihad Airways

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30 minutes spent online trying to sort a flight itinerary out to attend a mate’s wedding in Scotland in April. Worked (finally) all the connections and which day Etihad flew to Birmingham or Aberdeen etc. Finally got an itinerary sorted, pressed the button that takes you through to actually booking and paying for the flight and the result?

A Bug in their software.

Sigh – maybe I should check Emirates instead!