Monday, March 16, 2009

Traveling to Asia: First Impressions

An aerial view of the Philippines.

On the morning of March 1, I left my van in the long-term lot at Port Columbus Airport and boarded a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit. Later that afternoon I was scheduled to be on a flight flying west over Canada and the Pacific Ocean, to Manila in the Philippines, via Nagoya Japan. Trouble was, my Detroit to Nagoya flight was delayed for nearly 9 hours, so I whiled away the time in the NWA FatCats' lounge (after paying the non-fatcat entrance fee) trying to get some writing done, and taking breaks to try my skills at begging for a legroom seat or an upgrade for the 19 hours of flying ahead of me.

I did eventually get an exit row seat, thank heavens. But not before I was treated to encounters with a bakers' dozen of surly employees of NWA, one at a time. I KNOW it's hard dealing with cranky customers but I try never to be cranky (having held a number of customer-service-oriented jobs in my day) and I think non-cranky customers deserve to be treated better than I was. And don't get me started on the whole frequent-flyer miles rant I'm can earn them, but using them for anything?—fergit it, bro.

Back to the trip....

Before my beard way fully grown in, it was time to fly to Asia. Before we left the airspace over North America, it was already March 2. By the time we crossed the International Dateline, it was March 3—my birthday. No one on the airplane knew this. Still, the meal was one of my birthday meal traditions: barbecued meat. And it wasn't half bad.

My birthday supper was enjoyed somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

Adding to my comfort on the long flight to Nagoya were the following things, in order:
1. My neck-support pillow.
2. My noise-cancelling headphones.
3. My new copy of A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines (special thanks to Lauren at Oxford University Press!).
4. All in-flight films were 100% free of Matthew McConaughey (a first for me).
5. Advil PM.
6. Red wine.
7. New music on my iPhone.

Soon enough, and before I had ANOTHER birthday, we were landing in Nagoya, Japan. Glancing outside the plane windows I was dismayed to see that it was dark as pitch outside. It was something like 3 am there. So my list of bird sightings for Japan would remain at zero species.

All passengers had to disembark so the plane could be cleaned and re-supplied with peanuts and air-sickness bags. While passing through security, I spotted my first bird in Asia. It was a cormorant. And it was not countable.
First "bird" seen in Asia.

It was part of an advertisement for the fishing cormorants of GIFU City. I was observed taking pictures of the ad by the airport security people, who seemed puzzled by my behavior. I thought to ask them what GIFU stood for. Was it an acronym, perhaps?

On further reflection and wanting to avoid an international incident, I kept my mouth shut and dodged into the Men's restroom to shave. My beard was taking on ZZ Top-like style and dimension at this point. I cut my neck badly and re-boarded the plane with a stylish piece of Japanese toilet paper stuck on the cut to staunch the bleeding.

The trip was off to a really great start.

I will say this about the Nagoya airport. I'd be happy to eat right off the floor there. I've never seen such a clean and tidy airport. I've been in hospitals that were not this clean. And the NWA staffers there were charming, helpful, and dare I say, happy.

Waiting to re-board in Nagoya.

A mere 4.5 hours later we were touching down in Manila. Shuffling out of the immigration and customs lines with my heavy suitcase, I spotted a sign with my name on it—an airport first for me. It was Vic from the ground-agent's office, sent to pick me up. Stepping out into the street I was greeted by heat, humidity, and the smells of a busy city waking up. I changed in a nearby waiting room, got my binocs out and headed to a small van where Vic and a driver waited. We headed north, driving a few hours to Candaba Swamp to catch up with the rest of the group.

Most obvious on the streets of Manila were the jeepneys: homemade buses originally created from left-behind U.S. Army jeeps after World War II. Today's jeepneys are made in Asia especially for the Philippines transport market. The jeepney owners then customize their vehicles, name them, and drive certain routes through the city or between towns. Each passenger pays for the length of their ride, starting at 8 pesos (about US$.17).

I took a lot of photos of jeepneys and will probably devote an entire post to them here soon.
A Manila jeepney in action.

When we arrived in the area of Candaba Swamp, we began seeing birds: cattle egrets, great egrets, barn swallows. But it wasn't until I saw a water buffalo in a roadside ditch that I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
Water buffalo, the tractor of rural farmers. Filipinos call the water buffalo a carabao.

I met the tour organizers at a farmhouse, gobbled down a bit of breakfast, and headed back out to find the rest of my fellow travelers on this familiarization trip. I caught up to them, greeted my old pals, greeted those new faces among the group, and then it was time to drive back to Manila to our lodging for the night. I joined the group on a mini-bus and we spent the afternoon talking.
Welcome sign at Candaba Swamp.

The trip was made up of a mix of bird tour company leaders, magazine editors, photographers, and a sound recordist—all British. And me, the lone American.

Steve and Duncan, two of the more chatty and vociferous of the Brits in our party, immediately began razzing me about being an American. I gave it right back with enough zing that we all remained on good terms for the next fortnight (that's two weeks in Britspeak).
I caught up with the group at Candaba Swamp.

I'd made it all the way around to the opposite side of the world and I was itching to do some birding. We spotted a few birds before we left Candaba Swamp: Philippine duck, common kingfisher, and white-breasted waterhen, but we had to leave before I could see much more. And we needed to make a stop in the nearby town to meet the mayor and see a short presentation. So the birding would have to wait...

Tomorrow: Tiny Dancers.

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At 6:28 PM, Blogger NCmountainwoman said...

What a wonderful post! I'll have to come back again since I got so tired while reading about the trip over. There is a reason they call it "Northworst Airlines."

Looking forward to more posts. I especially liked the water buffalo. My newest favorite cheese is Buffalo Mozzarella. Wonderful on pizza.

Happy (belated) birthday!!!

At 7:03 PM, Blogger Erik said...

I'm so happy my current employer has their employees fly business class when going overseas. NWA has to be among the worst. Delta wasn't much better. Sort of like picking between chicken pox and measles. Their merger makes sense. If you have to go to Asia again, try to get on Singapore Airlines.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

How will anyone EVER take birders seriously if birding blogs are THIS funny...?!

At 9:36 AM, Blogger dguzman said...

You sure know how to tell a tale, Mr. Thompson. Can't wait to read more.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous the traveler said...

Sorry to read how "wonderful" your trip over was. Hope you get in some good birding.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Rondeau Ric said...

Surley you saw the Japanese black steath owl flying over the airport.
I don't know how you could miss it.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

We are very happy to have our Big Stuff back.


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