Monday, June 30, 2008

Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee

Di and Ed and I are home from the Philippines. The short version: Our trip was a success, we had a great time, we saw Fran and met her host family and co-workers, and the whole experience was amazing. So now, I'm going to blog the long version, beginning where I left off with my previous post.

We'd booked a room at the Country Inn and Suites near the Eastern Iowa Airport for June13--Friday the 13th--in case we'd have to drive up early to avoid bridge closings. By Friday, rumors were flying about the bridge to the airport. We left work early, and as we hurriedly packed, Channel 9 News was reporting that the I-380 bridge over the Coralville Reservoir was closed. If the bridge were closed, we'd have to drive 5 hours out of our way to get to the airport. I began trying to plot a more direct route along the back roads.

Thankfully, we never had to try my alternate route. As we pulled out of the garage at 3:30 pm, I turned on KXIC, which reported that the bridge was still open but would close at 6:00 pm.Getting out of Iowa City was an adventure in itself. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on some streets, everyone trying to find a way across the Iowa River. We finally made it to I-80 and then onto I-380.

Water was lapping at the shoulders of the approach to the bridge over the Coralville Reservoir, but the bridge was still open, and we made it across. The bridge closed just an hour or two later. On the other side of the bridge, we were stuck in traffic for two hours, among people trying to cross the only bridge open across the Cedar River, the I-380 bridge in downtown Cedar Rapids. But we eventually made it to the hotel, checked in, and settled in for the night.

The next day, everything went smoothly. At the airport, I overheard someone talking about a wild taxi ride that morning along gravel roads from Iowa City to the airport--my alternate route. But we were glad we'd come up the night before.

Our flights to Las Vegas through O'Hare departed and arrived on time. At McCarran, we got our first taste of the Philippines at the Philippine Airlines (PAL) ticket counter. The counter didn't open until two hours before the flight was scheduled to take off. There was a long line, with many balikbayans (returning Filipinos) pushing carts loaded with big boxes full of goods. We waited patiently, the counter opened, the line moved smoothly, and soon, we had our PAL boarding passes.

I'd read horror stories about PAL, such as "PAL stands for Plane Always Late." But the flight to Manila via Vancouver was better than any flight I've had via a domestic carrier in a long time. We flew Fiesta (economy) class, but the legroom was good and the service was excellent. The seats may have been designed for someone shorter than me, but with a pillow behind my back, they were comfy.

The stopover in Vancouver was odd. We all had to deplane and bring our carry-on baggage with us. We were kept in a comfortable holding area, a little bit of nonCanadian territory, while the flight crew changed and the plane was serviced, and then we reboarded.

Back on board, we were given a pillow, a blanket, and an overnight kit--a blindfold, some socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste. We were served several tasty meals throughout the night, the best airline food I'd had in a long time, at no extra charge. With the excellent service and some sleep courtesy of a little lorazepam my doctor had prescribed for the flight, the 12-hour trip from Vancouver to Manila was not the ordeal I had feared.

We landed in Manila on the morning of June 16, two days after we'd left, due to having crossed the International Date Line. Ninoy Aquino International Airport has three separate terminals, and shuttling among them can be a nuisance. Booking our flight to Legaspi straight through via PAL, we stayed in Terminal 2, which simplified our trip. We still had to go through immigration and customs, and we had to exchange some dollars for Philippine pesos to pay the airport fee. The immigration official laughed at my virginal passport--"It's about time!" he said as he stamped it.

Soon enough, we were at the gate for the flight to Legaspi, the last leg of our trip by air. Aboard the plane, we knew we weren't in Iowa anymore when the cold air from the air conditioning condensed the humid Filipino air into rolls of mist.

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