Hitting the Asian Trail One More Time
It was a cold and rainy run to the airport with a Pakistani driver, made worse by a long detour to a city I didn’t know to pick up a Chinese woman with three huge suitcases. In the van I sat next to a chatty squat Indian with a face
the shape of a serving tray and two missing teeth on one side of his mouth. He has a three year-old daughter and is in the U.S. on an IT assignment with one of the country’s ten thousand companies claiming to be producing novel software.
He’s from Mumbai and wants to return home after his assignment, because of family there. Both the Indian and the Pakistani were keen to let me know that they are both in arranged marriages, and in equal measure that life—life in
all of its amazing complexity and mystery–fundamentally is about family, that vague word that speaks as much to needy and mooching relatives of every imaginable color as it does to that abstraction that is free of implicit and draining one-way
As the rain came down in unusual amounts, their take on family lingered in the air like a coastal fog that wouldn’t go away. Do arranged marriages really work? I didn’t have to ask because I was going to be informed whether
or not I wanted to know, and what I must know is that in Pakistan the divorce rate is a mere eight percent. This is truly impressive, if true. Damn impressive in fact, and particularly compared to the fifty percent rate that one finds in the U.S.
But then I wasn’t in a position to do some quick Googling for a fact check, my skeptical mind never at rest. And I was too polite and cold to ask whether the figure the cocky bearded driver gave me took into account all those young Pakistani
women recently married who mysteriously go missing, or are accidently set on fire, or come through the door one day a year and some months into an arranged marriage and get a glass full of acid in the face because they’re not yet showing
evidence that they’ll produce a child. Nor did I let loose with my quite reasonable prejudice that Pakistanis like Indians have a way of having the first and the last word on everything and yet invariably are full of shit ninety percent
of the time. It did occur to me before we reached the airport that it would’ve been fun to ask the Pakistani driver if he was like most of his countrymen, a lying and scheming and ungrateful bastard always begging for our foreign aid money
and then before the checks have been cashed publicly kicking us in the balls. Which got me to the further thought that Ron Paul deserves every thinking person’s vote if only because of his positions on foreign aid and wars that do little
more than spend scarce tax dollars best expended elsewhere, money that does little more on the war front that bring home young and robust Americans in aluminum caskets.
I thought that perhaps the TSA boys and girls would give me a cookie’s worth of shit about my Angel’s black sailor cap, if only because I’m also sporting a beard for the very first time in decades. But there was no pat
down, and no questions about anything in my bags. As I collected what little I had and began to retrieve my wallet and other small incidentals, the jolly and smiling TSA pat-down man in white gloves who must get lascivious dreams from all the
groping he does on an average night, seemed to be enjoying himself with a barefoot soul in extra-short chinos and a faded cotton print shirt that should have been sent to Goodwill years ago. His thoroughness made me think that the willing suspect
must be full of metal: in a left knee, the machinery that matters in a heart gizmo, and no doubt half a dozen rolls of rare Las Vegas silver dollars lodged among all the flabby timber that hung over his belly like a lumber mill refuge heap. Since
I’m on the skinny side, and dropped a good fifteen pounds for this trip, I was eager to embrace the small conceit that this was yet another way in which watching what you eat and drink has unforeseen payoffs. Ah, the conceits that make
all of us feel good!
The loaded Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300 spent a full hour stuttering and growling with jumps and false starts on the runway for one very long hour before taking off, no explanation given before, during or after as to why. Maybe one of the
air control pilots got stuck in traffic or had a nasty little snit with his wife about spending too much time watching another March Madness upset? Or maybe none of these guys has a clue how to line up flights leaving at midnight when the airport
begins to resemble a vacated auditorium after a boring lecture. When we finally rumbled and swayed down the runway for the fourteen and a half hour, 7,250 mile flight to Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but try to imagine how stewardesses who
make these unbearably long claustrophic flights all the time manage to decompress into a semi-normal life once they have their first kid or two and have to arrange their lives around short hurry-hurry domestic flights in between grocery shopping
and keeping the old man in his easy chair happy.
The seats were narrow and not suited to anyone much over 200 lbs, and they reclined all of a couple of inches, which drives home just how different and comfy it is to make this kind of a flight in first-class, all loudly proclaimed as everyone
enters in search of the numbered seat and passes the exclusive arena where those first on board are stretched out with their shoes off and reading glasses on and already sipping champagne. By way of compensation for the herded masses, there was
a good selection of recent movies, including an embarrassingly narcissistic fiasco about Conan O’Brien, a multi-millionaire comic only in his own mind. A further bonus was the excellent food that I’d forgotten about on these interminable
Cathy Pacific flights, far superior to the barely edible slop that one always gets on Philippine Airlines, a fare that more or less mirrors what one finds all over the island nation. How often in economy class does one get a salmon salad and tasty
sweet and sour chicken and a tub of vanilla ice cream and all you want to drink of just about anything that comes to mind? And then too juices and nuts and hot pork noodle soups any old time of the night flight if you’re looking for food
to fill the time.
I’m not the only one who walks the aisles in between nine catnaps to deal with the sleep I can’t get on these cramped flights, and I always find something that catches my attention. The best treat on this particular set of aisle
walks was the spectacle of a fat—no, that’s wrong–four-tub twosome warehouse of swaying lard that stood for a long ten minutes outside the tail toilets hugging and exchanging sweet nothings and forming an impenetrable barrier for
anyone who had to take an urgent piss. On the other hand, I’d bet anything that the two passengers who had to sit next to these stellar examples of obese America gone amok were more than grateful for the brief respite, momentarily released
from the suffocating spillover that one must experience in sitting next to such people in seats designed for average Asians, always on the small side alongside Anglos and hefty Mexicans no matter how imagined. And even thin if tall me with a BMI
I was one of the very last passengers to get in line to board the hour and a half Cathay Pacific flight to Manila from Hong Kong, and it gave me plenty of time to imagine where all these home-bound Filipinos were coming from: Dubai, the U.A.R.,
Tokyo, Jakarta, Rome (I sat next to a young Filipina who has worked in Rome as a house maid for five years), and of course Hong Kong. Hong Kong most of all. I forget the exact figures, but if memory serves roughly ten percent of the entire Filipino
population works abroad, to be able to send money home to families, some fifteen to eighteen billion a year. Without such repatriations, the Philippines would be a model member of the Fourth World rather than simply a decent example of third world
poverty swimming in a huge sea of corruption.
When I finally got to my seat at the very rear of the plane, I asked the stewardess how many were on board. Three to four hundred was her answer (380 was the exact answer); there was not a seat remaining that I could see. How I would have
loved to take a survey of where they were all coming from, and how long it had been since they were last home, and how much they had sent home via Western Union and other money senders to support all those dirt-and-rice poor brothers and sisters
and aunts and uncles and first and second cousins all over the Philippines. Especially young women, or those up to about thirty-five or so. And all the young guys; Christ knows what they do—construction work, cooks, drivers and dirt diggers
and…well, anything that pays anything that be called a wage and resembles a job, which is harder to find in the Philippines than seeing a Filipino who doesn’t eat rice at least once a day.
The big advantage in all this is that when you get to Manila and the lines for immigration, most of the passengers file off to the right and head for immigration authorities that cater only to those with Filipino passports, which makes it
nice indeed for someone like me who hangs back and still winds up in a short line with plenty of time to get to the luggage carousel before the bags arrive.
Wealth is all about productivity, and productivity, among other things, is about efficiency. And efficiency is about time, getting the most output per unit of time. Simple thoughts brought to mind as I found myself in a line with Filipinos
to get a bus ticket. I’ve taken all kinds of local Filipino buses, or those designed for Filipinos. No problem, usually. You just get on a bus, it starts moving, and before long a boy with tickets and a hole puncher in one hand and a stack
of peso bills in the other hand comes up to you, asks where you’re going, makes a dozen punches in a white ticket, you give him money and that’s the end of the matter. On a long trip, he might ask to see your ticket again, but not
often; he may not be able to read a newspaper or discuss the simplest of ideas, but a good memory he surely has.
But this time around I asked a driver about a bus going in the direction I wanted to go and he told me to get in a line he pointed to and get a ticket. There were seven or eight young Filipinas ahead of me. It should have been five minutes
or so to the window and I’d have my ticket. I was there for nearly twenty minutes, and there were still three people ahead of me checking their cell phones every two minutes. I had no fxxxing idea what was going on. There were no I.D. or
passport issues, no need for DNA or police checks, no terrorists from Mindanao running about that were obvious to my eye. It was or should have been about nothing more than handing over a couple of hundred pesos or less and you should have had
your ticket. What was going on? During this time, the bus I was to take had arrived, and little had happened other than a few middle-aged women who had boarded and found seats, with or without tickets I had no idea. Then suddenly out of nowhere
appeared a clot of young chattering people who looked like students and they began jamming their way onto the bus. At which point the driver who had earlier told me to get a ticket at the window now came over to me to tell me to get on and find
a seat. He said not a word about getting a ticket. I of course knew exactly what would happen, and sure enough it did. Lesson here; there are no magic ways needed to define why a country is deep in the development shithole and can’t find
its way out. Just wander around a bit in a country like the Philippines, and take a bus and get involved in getting a ticket beforehand, and you’ve got one example of a hundred easily collected, all of them small windows on why some countries
are forever slipping further and further back in the pack while others are inexorably moving forward.
Very nice start!