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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Leaving my new office and heading to the country...

Manila, Philippines

Over the weekend, I got to spend some time at Montpac Outsourcing It's actually an accounting firm with offices both in Hawaii and the Philippines that our family business recently retained to get a better handle on our finances especially since I would no longer be there to keep a careful eye over our accounts (you all know how I am about money!).

It actually turned out to be a wonderful arrangement that we were working with Montpac. Henry, the owner and brain behind this organization was extremely helpful and hospitable; offering me assistance whenever and however he could. Henry was kind enough to allow me to 'set-up' office; i.e. offer me unlimited access to email and his employees so that they could answer whatever questions I had. He even had one of his staff send out a package on my behalf! Henry even was generous to take this unemployed hobo out to dinner with his friends! Even though we only started working with Henry and his company for just a little over 3 months, he has extended such considerable generosity and hospitality to me. Even his partner Bernice sent me a really nice email welcoming me to the Philippines. So thoughtful. It further proves that they are great people, managing a great company that we are happy to be working with. If anyone ever needs expert advise and someone to handle their accounting, please look Montpac up! Besides Henry's many years of experience working for and sitting on the Board of a handful of Fortune 500 companies, they are just really good people. Henry even cooked me a pasta dinner so that I wouldn't get hungry on the bus ride up to the country! Oh and he even supplied me with contact solution because I'm running out and have not been able to find it anywhere in Manila! Thank you Henry!

Needless to say, it was great to have that time to get on the computer and work on my thank you cards and just sort out my travel plans. I decided that I would finally be leaving town that night, heading up north. Destination: Illocos Norte. When you leaf through Lonely Planet, you'll find that there's not much to see or do in Illocos Norte. So why did I want to come here? Only because 95% of Highway Inn's Filipino employees are from Illocos Norte! I wanted to see the life that my hardworking employees left behind in search for a new life in the land of promises and palm trees. There are two options when going to Illocos Norte 1) Plane 2) 10-12 hour bus ride. I had discussed this with my employees in preparation for my trip and all encouraged me to take a plane. I dissented however and chose to take the bus. Why? because I need to pinch my pennies! So I opted for the $15.00 air-conditioned first class seat up north.

I stopped at the bus stop earlier that day to reserve a seat only to learn that they don't take reservations! So I needed to be back at the terminal an hour early, 8:00PM, to catch the 9:00 bus. Having the rest of the afternoon open, I made plans to meet up with my old high school and college classmate Jeremy (see previous post: discovering Chinatown) who had just flown in the night before. I wasn't going to be able to stay around for his concert at Paco park on Friday, but I wanted to stay around so that I could see him before I took off. It had been more than 2 years since I last saw him. His friend Jared also came along for the ride and the three of us had so much fun hanging out for the day, having lunch and drinking my favorite coffee (CBTL - yes the chain exists here!).

Oh, and I almost forgot! The other crazy thing that I did was I bought a ticket to Taiwan! Yes, the boys tipped me off that the new "Spirit of Manila" Airlines was having a promotion and tickets between Taipei and Manila were starting from as low as $20.00 could be had! That's how they got here! It's a bit complicated but in an effort to avoid having to extend my visa (the Philippines extends most tourists 21 days; anything longer requires you to apply for a visa extension and pay a hefty $100.00+ fee). I had known about the 21 day limit but didn't think that it would cost me money so I had booked a return 24 days later. I didn't want to pay $100 for only 3 extra days so what I did was purchase a ticket to Taipei to do my visa run (avoid the visa extension) and pushed my return flight to Hawaii back to March in time for the Food Network premier. I won't stay in Taiwan the whole time but am actually trying to figure out the best way to get to Japan so I can meet my parents and also a stop in Hong Kong so I can see my good friend Cory Ann who will be performing hula there in March at the Hong Kong Disneyland. Anyway, I still need to figure all of this routing out but I know (it has to) work out...Let's all just pray that this new air carrier transports me safely.

Needless to say, it was a real treat to hang out with the boys. Ever since the rest of the Malaysian wedding gang left (only 3 days earlier), I have been in a really bad funk. Maybe it's still depression stemming from the realization that I chose to walk away from a pretty damn good life. The funk? Well, usually I'm up early (only when traveling mind you; somehow my internal alarm clock goes off between 6-7AM) and have a whole list of things on the agenda. Although I had been in Manila for over a week, I really didn't do or see much. All I was constantly on the lookout for was the big black and white "free wi-fi zone here" signs. Sad. I guess it's because is my connection to my "old" life. Honestly though, I have never visited a city without hitting up all the museums and cultural sites. Oh well, I guess I have an excuse this time around. Anyway, the pollution also didn't help and I was ready to skip town right after the gang left but wanted to wait to see Jeremy. Anyway, so glad I did. The guys took my advice and were going to try and catch AVATAR at the IMAX theater so we went our separate ways and I went back to Henry's to get my stuff and make my way down to the bus stop.

After Henry made dinner, I left at 7:45PM even though I was supposed to leave at 7:30PM. I was told with traffic, it could sometimes take 40-45 minutes to travel 5 miles from Henry's condo to the bus terminal. I was also told that once the bus fills, they depart early because they really have no reason to wait around. Letting my cab driver know that I was in a rush, he must have taken all possible shortcuts, stepped on it and got me to the bus stop at 8:03PM! Rushing out of the cab, I went directly to the ticket counter where the sign read "purchase your ticket here." The cool thing was that the guy acknowledged me by making eye contact then made an announcement on the PA. Just as he was pushing the sign to the side to help me, everyone got up and queued up behind me. I couldn't believe it! I was the first person in line! So, I knew I'd get on the bus! Phew!

Jeremy and Jared also didn't get seats to AVATAR so they offered to pick me up dinner (if you know me, you know it's not unusual for me to have 2 dinners!) and brought it over to me at the bus terminal. I got to hang out with the boys for an extra half an hour. Not only was it great company but a single female alone at the bus terminal usually isn't the most ideal situation. Thanks boys for looking after me!

Pad Thai Dinner love the boys....

While we were waiting for the bus and taking photos, we also met a lady who introduced herself to us as Aunt Joanie. Come to find out, this ate (Filipino word for older sister/aunty) is from WAIPAHU! Represent! I mentioned to her that our family business was in Waipahu and after learning it was Highway Inn, she confessed that her friend worked there! And no other than our longest employed non-family member, Juanita Villegas, who has dedicated more than 40 years to Highway Inn (one of the secrets to our modest restaurant's success)! Juanita is such a gem having worked under my grandparents at the young age of 22, then working with my father when he took over in the late 70s and then with me when I took over 7 years ago. She is truly the bridge that has crossed over the generations, allowing us to keep and uphold tradition. Of course, we took a photo with Aunty Joanie and her friend.

The bus ride over was fairly "quick" and we actually made it into Laoag, the capital of Illocos Norte in 10.5 hours. It wasn't an easy ride though. Most of the way, the roads passed through small towns only two lane traffic (one lane in each direction). There was a lot of overtaking with headlights beaming head on. These Filipino drivers really know how to maneuver on the roads though and even though there were several times that I considered 'close calls,' he got us safely to Laoag.

Arriving in at 6:30AM, I consulted my guidebook to find a place to stay. Decided on Texaco Hotel which offers rooms without bath at P250 a night or $5.48 USD; now that's what I'm talking about. Of course, it's not the greatest but I've stayed a worse. The only thing I regret is that in my haste of trying to tie loose ends with my Hawaii life, I forgot to prepare my travel sleeping sheet. Whenever I travel to developing counties, I always have my mom sew for me a bed sheet to make me a sleeping bag. This time though I don't have one so I have to sleep directly on their sheets! Definitely NOT my preference. I even forgot my Lysol disinfecting spray. Oh well at least I got my immunizations (though in my haste, forgot my malaria pills!)

The best thing about my home here in Laoag is yep, you guessed it, FREE wi-fi! :)

It's a nice change to be up here; the air is much cleaner (though not saying much, they still have jeepneys that blow out dirty smoke)and it's a small town, country feel. The other amazing thing is that there is such an awareness of Hawaii here! During my week in Manila, my favorite game with the taxi driver is to ask them where they think I am from. First guess is always 'Thailand?' followed by Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan...usually in that order. When I come here, most people would guess that I am from Hawaii! It's so cool to see a small town being so heavily influenced by our little island state. I see people here wearing Hawaii branded shirts, all courtesy of their family in Hawaii who send balikbayan (boxes/remittance) back to the motherland. Almost 80% of the people who I've met today have family in Hawaii. It's really amazing.

I'm hoping to run into someone here as I usually do***. I actually passed an older gentleman this afternoon that didn't look Filipino...he actually looked like my customer but I didn't have the courage to stop him mainly because I thought, really what are the chances? It's always tricky with customers because I know them but I don't know them...

Anyway, spent most of my day at a resort today which was awesome! I'll write more about it later since this entry is sooo long and I need to get home so I can wake up early in hopes that I'll be able to take a ride in a hot air balloon! 6AM wake-up call!

Thanks for continuing to follow me and I hope that you guys find some entertainment value in this! Leave me comments so I know you are reading!

*** In my various trips around the world, I have run into people that I know and it's not just coincidence, it actually happens to me quite often. In Tokyo, I ran into two people I knew from high school; once in the subway and once in a classroom. In Hong Kong, I ran into my friend Tina (whom I met while studying in Japan) on the streets of Lan Kwai Fung. In Kathmandu I ran into a kid from my university, two years my junior, at a house party...I was already working in Japan and he was a senior. In Hawaii, I spotted Natasha, a girl I used to work with in Japan, at the local Wal-Mart.  It was quite strange because without thinking I called out her name as if it wasn't strange that this Aussie who I worked with in Japan over 5 years ago was in the Mililani Wal-Mart while I should have been at work!  It's crazy how small of a world I live in...

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