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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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not Getting to Guate

It's a drag not being able to go on a trip you've been looking forward to for months and months.
Our recent trip to Guatemala was nearly snatched away for me by circumstances beyond my feeble control.

My passport went AWOL.

It turns out you CAN replace a lost of stolen passport in very short order, if you are willing to pay an "I'll-never-be-this-careless-again" fee and can afford to hire the entire cast of The Bourne Ultimatum to walk your application through the U.S. State Department.

It also turns out that you should NEVER under any circumstances cancel a flight and then try to rebook it a few days later. Doing so immediately puts you on Darwin's Least Fit List as well as guaranteeing that your security screenings in every airport you visit will be alarmingly personal.

Here's what happened. I booked Julie and myself and three other friends into Las Tarrales, the tropical lodge/finca of our Guatemalan friends, Andy and Monica Burge. We were to head down to Guatemala a few days prior to the Fourth Annual Birdwatching Encounter to relax, unwind, and generally shake off the frost and icicles of this horrible winter.

The day before our departure, I was ready to go and only needed to get my passport, which I always keep in a certain place. It wasn't there. I looked everywhere. Nothing.

I reported it lost. Gave up the trip in despair, sent Julie on her way and wrestled with a Matterhorn of disappointment at missing the trip and at myself for being so careless. For my entire life I've never been someone who has lost things. In fact, I'm the one in my family that gets asked to find things others have lost.

So, no tropical vacation. And no seeing my Guatemalan pals. No celebrating my birthday in Guate. No raising my binocs to fill them with aracaris.

Of course, the kids were thrilled that I was going to be home for a few more days. Julie and I were to have left Guatemala before the Encounter was over, on March 6, to attend a birding festival in Kearney, Nebraska. The plan now was for me to meet Julie in Columbus upon her return from Guatemala, in time to fly to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Rumination. No passport, no tropical vacation. To top it of I was in the middle of a horrible chest cold. Probably best just to stay home and heal up and slow down and accept my fate like a big boy.

Then again, I love a logistical challenge.

So, I decided to see if I could go. Could I get a replacement passport in time to meet Julie and everyone for the start of the Encounter? Yes.

Everything quickly fell into place--or so I thought. Canceling the plane ticket and then re-booking it seemed easy. The woman at the airline's 800 number made it seem like no big deal to re-book. It wasn't. The airline (which shall remain unnamed pending the settlement of my refund request) ended up canceling the Nebraska leg of my trip arbitrarily. This resulted in twin sets of hassled begging at the ticket counters in Columbus and Lincoln. One was successful, one failed and in order to return home to Ohio on time this past Sunday, I had to buy another ticket. One way. Last minute. As they say in Guatemala: ¡Muy expensivo!

But that's a story for another day. Back to (not) Getting to Guatemala.

It was the chance to surprise Julie and my friends in Guatemala City that got me psyched. So I did everything necessary to fly south. Ordered my passport, re-booked ticket, hotel reservation in Columbus, got a ride to the airport from my dad.

The last thing I did before leaving home was e-mail Julie:

The kids are in at my folks' house. It's snowing again here. It's going to be a quiet night at home. Hope you're having fun!

The stage was set. Now I needed the passport delivery gods, the airline gods, the weather gods and the lords of logistics to smooth my path in order to spring the surprise.

Tomorrow: putting actual hands on actual passport.

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