From Madras to Manila

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Overstaying in Philippines

Someone Sandi knows discovered last week that he had inadvertently overstayed his visa. While such an occurrence may be difficult to imagine in many other countries, it is as easy as falling off a log here in Philippines.

[Just to clarify, I meant that overstaying is easy in Philippines. Falling off a log is, of course, easy everywhere.]

The reason of course is that the visa is a fairly innocuous looking document that, at first glance, benevolently bestows on the bearer a three month validity. This illusion holds even at the second, third and fourth glances until you discover otherwise on some sunny day when, faced with a lack of reading material, you feel the urge to read every inch of the visa page. There, winking at you in plain view in the bottom 1/8 inch of the page, is the following ephithet:

authorized stay not to exceed 21 days

This clear, legible message is further highlighted by means of a signature directly over the number 21. Who could miss it?

The Men In Black Phenomenon

Of course, the chances of ones visa page being elevated to the status of 'reading material' are usually remote and hence such urges usually occur only in designated spots around the world. Such spots are called 'airports' for ease of identification and the urge is usually at its highest when you are second in line at the immigration counter.

[After extensive study of this 'last-minute' phenomenon, scientists have concluded that this is a modern manifestation of primeal survival instincts, which kick in just in time for you to avoid having the same happen to your private parts]

Having been thus unceremoniously transformed from an innocent and welcome 'tourist' to a dreaded and fearsome 'illegal alien' like some sort of a minor character in MIB, you flee from the airport, leaving your baggage to be removed from the airplane by Anti-Bomb squads while 300 fellow passengers thank God for a narrow escape.

[Three of them, resolving never to take a flight again, will set off for home, undergoing a treacherous and painful land journey during which they will be beset by thieves, chased by wild dogs and nearly run over by speeding vehicles while remaining in the constant misery of having a full bladder and nowhere to relieve themselves. And all this even before they leave Pasay City!]

At this point, you might feel unloved and unwanted but you could not be more mistaken. While the former might be true, the latter is certainly not. You are most certainly wanted by at least eight different authorities in Philippines alone, not to mention several international oganizations.

But Don't Be Afraid

There is a solution. And it is one part nitric acid mixed with three parts hydrochloric acid, a combination that is rumoured to dissolve gold. Nobody really knows the practical value of this discovery though, especially when related to visas.

The practical solution in this case is to have your visa extended, something you should have ideally done before overstaying but you can still make amends by paying a fine.

The procedure is simple - apply for an extension and pay the required fees and voila! In one to seven days (depending on your nationality and on whether you opt for express processing) you will have an extension of 30 days on your visa, starting the date it expired.

The fees are as below:
- Monthly Extension Application Fee: P 300
- Monthly Extension Fee: P 500
- Motion for Reconsideration: P 500
- Penalty for Overstaying: P 500 (this is applicable only in case you've overstayed)
- Legal Research Fee: P 30
- Express Processing: P 500 (in case you want your extension processed faster than normal)

In practice, it is also better to have someone familiar with the office go along with you in order to expedite the process. You could even get an immigration lawyer to handle the whole process for you and you need not even be present in person.

Once the visa is regularised, you are in the clear and need not worry any further. You are no longer persona non grata and are off the wanted lists, unless of course you have some other criminal activity to your credit.

But in that case, a visa extension is the least of your problems, I guess.

We're Famous!

Folks, thanks to your generous support, this blog is gaining in popularity. Not only do we have an estimated *gasp* ten visitors a day (yes, you read it right - that's 1 followed by the Big-O), we're also making waves in the blogosphere.

We're among the 20,600 Google search results dedicated to 'public urinating manila', an interesting statistic I gleaned from reviewing our blog's website stats. Someone actually took the trouble of finding us this way, indicating wide-spread interest in such information and setting the tone for future posts on this blog. The public will get what it wants.

Among other interesting items, we feature in a list of funny blogs on Bloggerforum. The referral was, however, made anonymously. Wonder who it could be...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Close Shave

According to an extensive, ‘no-holds-barred’ survey conducted among non-resident Indians from my family, one of the enduring issues faced by the majority of global travelers worldwide is the complete inability to find, afford or trust a barber other than the good ol’ Selvaraj (or Joe, Yoshihara, Chen, Mbangwa or Abdul depending on your nationality). The above-mentioned has been cutting our hair for the past two years, narrowly missing the ears twenty-three times in that period, for which we are grateful.

[We are not so grateful for the twenty-fourth attempt, which was successful, but that is another story.]

For years global citizens like me have got around this issue by the mere expedient of having a haircut immediately before traveling anywhere and then resolutely refusing to have another until we returned once again to our loving arms of our barbers.

[And wives! Wives! Ow! Ow! I said ‘wives’ didn’t I?]

Of course, this approach has its downsides, such as the time I was in Munich for two months in winter and my dangling locks combined with a bad cold and mellifluous intonations of broken German that would make people swoon when they’d see me in dark alleys and subway stations. The results were especially spectacular when I materialized out of the darkness to ask people the time. A typical dialogue would go like this:

Me (materializing out of darkness): Wie spat ist es?
Innocent Bystander: THUD
Me: Oh, all right then

There were several yeti sightings reported that year.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (and shampoo, condition and straighten it) the ‘cut before you leave’ option works for travel up to and including two months if you refrain from catching a cold.

But Now What? Two Years Without a Haircut?

Fearing the consequences of not having a haircut for two years - among other things ‘missing link’ and ‘Steve Tyler’ sprang to mind - I mustered up the courage to pay 220 pesos to go to a salon at the Astoria hotel in Ortigas.

The hairdresser was this rather short, effeminate man who bounced his way across the room towards where I sat.

‘Would you like a trim?’ he asked encouragingly while looking deep into my eyes.
‘No, a medium cut please’, I said, avoiding his gaze and thereby sealing the fate of my scalp.

A devout adherent of the post-modernist school of hairdressing automation, he had a passionate aversion to doing anything with scissors, as I was to soon observe. Blessed with an almost carnal knowledge of the automatic trimmer, that buzzing Device From Hell, he proceeded to lop off large swathes of my hair, brandishing and weaving the little instrument in a sort of airy, faraway manner like he was merely diverting himself while awaiting the call of the mother ship.

Before I could say ‘Jack Robinson’ – which wouldn’t really have helped because that wasn’t his name – most of my cuticles were on the floor and I was well on my way to becoming a member of the Hitler Youth (and feeling uncomfortably cold on the top of my head).

After he was done shearing, he announced it was time for him to ‘shave the edges’, and ferreted out a shiny new blade, which I found rather reassuring until I discovered that he intended to use it without a razor!

[This paragraph has been deleted in order to retain this blog’s PG rating]

“All right, we’re done now”, said the little man, stepping back to survey the carnage, “That will be 220 pesos.”

“Heil”, I said weakly.

Friday, October 14, 2005

One Thousand Words About Traffic in Makati

This is an average day in Makati. It takes over an hour to travel the 8-10 km to Quezon City during rush hour.

[Arial view courtesy an obliging friend who stays in a 29th-floor apartment. Complaints regading picture quality may be referred to Nokia]

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Why is Manila Like Mumbai?

After reading my first post, a friend wrote to me to ask why I felt Manila resembles Mumbai, thereby getting into my good books forever as an Interested Reader of my blog. Or maybe he’s just concerned that there’ll be nothing new to see here in case he does land up for a holiday and hence would rather contribute his tourist dollars to some other country’s GDP.

Be that as it may, I actually meant to follow up the first post with an explanatory note but got sidetracked by the Beach Boys. Just shows that one should clearly think one’s marketing campaign through rather than publishing a teaser post only to forget the follow-up!

Thanks to this little mix-up you now have post 2 following post 6. I urge you all to re-read the posts in the intended order – 1, 7, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 (to be written) - in order to get a full and complete picture of our experiences. It will not matter one whit in terms of your appreciation of Manila but it will mean that I double my hits in a day, thereby doubling my chances (currently zero) of getting that lucrative publishing contract.

[The mathematically-oriented (read ‘nerds’) among you, might quibble about whether doubling zero chances actually makes any difference, but hey, who are we to argue with an entire publishing community?]

Anyhow, getting back to the Concerned Mumbaikar’s issue, I must say that there are points of similarity that I’ve noticed based on:

(a) hundreds of Bollywood movies shot in exotic foreign locations purporting to be in Mumbai

(b) thousands of TV ad spots shot in front of the ICICI building in the Bandra Kurla Complex and purporting to be in exotic foreign locations

(c) my ‘artists impression’ of how Mumbai is, which is a detailed picture developed over approximately zero visits there over the past two decades

Manila – Mumbai: Separated at Birth?

Gathering CloudsRain: It is almost eternally raining here. The only time when the sun does make a guest appearance is when you’ve remembered to carry your umbrella. My colleagues here tell me that the rainy season lasts till September, except when it stretches till December (there is no trace of irony when they make that statement). The only difference between Mumbai and here is that the drainage system is much better and chances of disappearing down a manhole are remote. I am told that Manila proper has an area where, if you get caught in traffic during the rain, it is advisable to get out of your car in an orderly fashion and make for high ground. Your car will almost certainly disappear under ten feet of water.

Traffic: According to, traffic is defined as “The passage of people or vehicles along routes of transportation”. Hah! The only ‘passage’ on the ‘routes of transportation’ here is that of time. The vehicles themselves stand still, sometimes for days on end. In fact, there are several people who bought cars in the nineties and have been trying to get out of the dealership ever since. Some have even been able to trade in their used cars for newer models while they wait.

This is possible because of the unique configuration of traffic lights here, which are programmed to detect the slightest movement of your vehicle and immediately allow the other line to pass. Each traffic light is loaded with a bank of dual-processor microprocessors that allow them to track hundreds of vehicles in parallel, making them inch back and forth in an endless synchronized dance. This has the advantage of keeping drivers occupied, as they might otherwise have engaged in non-essential activities such as eating, sleeping or expelling body waste.

JolligeeRoadside Food Joints: There are little food joints called Jolly Jeeps all over the place selling cheap but filling meals. Among other things, you get vada-pao. (I really hope you didn’t fall for that!)

Little Children Selling Things: Children selling flowers, matchboxes and suchlike at traffic lights are a common sight. Their task is made much easier thanks to the traffic.

Long, Grey Flyovers: The less said about these ugly constructions the better.

Public Urination: I’ve seen a few people urinating under flyovers, though not as many as in India.

[No, there’s no picture of that, you pervert!]

Friday, October 07, 2005

Ignorance is NOT Bliss

[Disclaimer: The following material contains information and ideas potentially unsuitable for those with a weak head. Please switch off your monitors and lie down in case you get a headache, become purple in violent disagreement, feel the need to compulsively scratch your head or rush off to eat Thai food. In case the subject matter is otherwise distasteful to you in some form please feel free to post a scathing comment so I can carefully consider your opinions before I delete it and remove you from my birthday list]

We Indians are overly proud of their general knowledge and awareness about world events, methinks. Haven’t you often participated with glee in conversations putting down those Americans / Europeans, who think Indians still roam the jungles on elephants’ backs during the day and watch snake-charmers as prime-time entertainment?

I have. Several times. Usually as the initiator.

But Now…

I’m ashamed of myself.

Because I know nothing about Philippines, whereas most of my colleagues here know tons about India – major cities, the saree, Indian food, customs, vegetarianism, religions… In fact, Indian history actually forms part of the curriculum in Filipino schools.

Imagine that! Indian history barely made it to the Indian school curriculum! How many of us can name more than a handful of figures in Indian history? Or the period during which they lived, however approximate? Or even what they did / are famous for?

See what I mean?

And It Doesn’t Stop There.

Filipinos, being part of Asia proper, are decently informed about their neighbouring countries and are quite capable of having meaningful conversations on important events in the region (except those related to finance, which is a subject usually met with blank incomprehension).

We Indians have no clue on Asian events – at least I don’t and I’m quite certain many others are in the same boat. I mean, to most of us, Indonesia is probably 'earthquake-country'. A nation of 250 million people written off, just like that.

Even on the subject of our immediate neighbours we have, at best, a limited understanding – and what knowledge we have is usually related to some form of violence or disaster (insurgency in Sri Lanka / Bangladesh, killing of the Royal family in Nepal, typhoons in Bangladesh, the tsunami in Sri Lanka...)

Do we have a clue about tourist spots in Pakistan? Or the quality of life in Bhutan? Or how about commerce and industry in Bangladesh?

Doesn’t ring a bell, does it? I didn’t think so.

An Interesting Question

If Filipinos can study about India and China, what’s stopping us from learning at least something about the various Asian countries in school? I’m sure we can remove the bits about Henry I to Henry MXCVIII and move directly on to Prince Charles and Diana / Camilla Parker-Bowles, thereby making room for the Ming dynasty.

We might even understand and appreciate the Eastern cultures better than we do now.

[Yes, cultural appreciation extends beyond gorging on Chinese and Thai food]
[No, adding Filipino food to the list above does not absolve you of the need to learn more]

My apologies to those of you who speak six Asian languages, are invited as a speaker to ASEAN conferences or otherwise demonstrate more than a passing knowledge of Asian events.

For the rest of us - there’s a whole world out close to home. Let’s learn something about it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005



[No, not that way. It’s pronounced tagai-tai, with the ‘t’ having a soft accent and ‘ai’ rhyming with ‘tie’ … nope, still not right. I really must learn some of that phonetic spelling with the inverted ‘e’ symbol]

Let’s start over.

Tagaytay, however you pronounce it, is a lovely place that’s between one to three hours from Manila, depending on the traffic. For the finicky among you, that’s about 60 km.

[Traffic will be the subject of a later post. I need time to do justice to all the emotions – none of them being of the softer kind – that well up inside when dealing with this topic]

Anyhow, Tagaytay, to cut a long story short, is a lovely place in the neighbourhood of Manila. It’s where you go to see the Taal volcano that’s set in the midst of a wonderfully misty lake that brings to mind the one in Nainital, which is identical to this in every respect except that it’s not in Philippines and does not have an active volcano in its midst.

Yes, Tagaytay has an active volcano – one that, on its day, is capable of belching forth fire and brimstone and making the earth shake to its very foundations. I must state for the record though, that this one is not quite over-active, if you know what I mean. Its last belch was recorded around the early 20th century and it has not misbehaved since, except for the occasional burp.

It’s not really among the big boys either, so far as volcanoes go – in fact it is reputed to be the smallest volcano in the world. But what the heck - I’ve seen a volcano, which is more than you can say!

A Day in Tagaytay

[No, the ‘Day’ is not pronounced like the ‘tay’. I wouldn’t have been here to write this piece then, would I?]

Thanks to the hospitality of Sandi’s boss (name withheld on request), we were going on our first excursion outside Manila. She and her husband (name withheld on account of weak memory) whisked us off in their super-sized SUV type vehicle one Sunday morning for a day of fun and frolic at Josephine’s, a restaurant conveniently situated on the fringes of the Taal lake.

It was simply wonderful. The weather was cool, with the occasional drizzle to make it seem just like a hill station back in India. The volcano itself rose out of the water, a large, rocky mass, majestic in purple and I was simply captivated till I was gently taken by the shoulder and pointed in the direction of the actual volcano, which was only a little dimple on the shoulder of the mountainous mass I’d been contemplating.

I didn’t let this little incident get me down, though, and took 63 pictures of the little depression with my trusty camera phone, stopping only when Sandi asked me whether I was expecting it to make any sudden moves that I wanted to capture on film because, if not, we might have taken enough.

Having satisfied my trigger-happy self, I joined the others inside and gorged myself on Halo-Halo and Puto Bumbong while watching an open air wedding that was taking place next door.

It was a fairy-tale wedding, with a gentle breeze, a beautiful backdrop and a radiant bride in a pristine white gown, and I was idly wondering whether it would rain before the service ended, when it did and the service ended.

On the way back, we bought some fruits and veggies to keep Sandi happy and also some Buko Pie, which is like a sponge cake with shredded coconut topping. Or perhaps I’m thinking of something else.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to SM Mega Mall

Realising that 6 hrs of unadulterated (pun unintended) Desperate Housewives was beginning to make its impact felt in the form of rigor mortis in our eyeballs, Sandi and I decided to take our Desperate Limbs out for some exercise and fresh air in the climate-controlled environment of a nearby SM mall.

Shopaholics Delight

The SM Mega Mall is one kilometre of concentrated shopping mania that currently holds the record for being the largest mall in the Philippines and the third largest in the world. I say ‘currently’ because rumour has it that the Mall of Asia, under construction, is tipped to be about three times the size of this one!

That these malls, each about the size of a medium-sized asteroid, happen to be in this country is no accident. They are tribute to the average Filipino’s insatiable thirst to acquire anything and everything that is not actually bolted down and they are willing to pay in cash, by card or through direct debit to have the privilege of doing so.

Most Filipinos seem to have several cards, each with a truly mind-boggling credit limit, and are maxed out on all but one of them. The remaining one is to tide their family over till next payday - which is about 29 days away - when they will pay the minimum dues and promptly rush off to try on new clothes and mortgage a few family members.

[Note: Any Filipino will tell you that a revolver is a bad thing, but then they’re thinking about guns, not their credit line.]

The SM Mega Mall

The Mega Mall is an infinite expanse of ever expanding masses of gaseous matter where distances are measured in light years and time and space combine into a single four-dimensional continuum that… oh, sorry, that’s the universe.

But the Mega Mall is no different. It consists of five floors of shops, department stores, food chains, movie halls and entertainment venues with an ice-skating rink thrown in for good measure.

You can spend the day walking about its many bylanes and alleyways and still not find the appliances shop you were looking for, though you will come across Dairy Queen at least four times, of which it will be the same one at least twice even though you’re sure you are on a different floor. You can also spend many happy hours staring at a little ‘You Are Here’ arrow on the floor maps that seems to be in a different place each time even though you have returned to the same map.

And, depending on their marketing arrangements with SM, some of the shops pick themselves up and follow you from place to place, popping out when you least expect them till you buy something, anything, just to make them go away.

The SM Mega Mall is also an anti-gravity environment, in the sense that it seems to be against the idea of gravity and does not understand its effects on the average muscular system trying to cope with 22 kg of packages. There isn’t a bench, chair, stool, bump, raised mound or even an anthill in all the miles and miles of shiny corridor space they’ve provided. Even if there were, you’d probably be trampled to death by the crazed, lost, tottering, teeming masses milling around in the area. So perhaps the lack of seating isn’t such a bad thing, after all.

Still you soldier on in the hope that the promised appliances shop is just around the next corner till, dazed and exhausted, you drag yourself to the Food Court, staggering under the weight of all the useless merchandise you’ve purchased to exorcise the spectral stores.

And then, the circle is complete. Before you know it, the Food Court has taken over your mind and you’ve chewed, munched and sipped your way through a burger, fries, two Cokes, a Blizzard (large) and fudge cake and are reaching for popcorn till you are brought up short by the realization that

(a) you have no money left

(b) your wife is threatening to leave you if you stay any longer because the $%&@# appliances shop will probably never be found and she is #%$&^ if she is going to look at another $#%&@ map to try and locate it

Next time I’m bringing the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide!