My first trip abroad was an advance graduation gift from my parents in 1990. My cousin, Edlyn and I were sent to enjoy Hong Kong and Bangkok with her Abaya cousins and Tita Azon as official chaperone.
Besides learning about passports and traveler’s cheques, I became acquainted with immigration and customs procedures as well as basic airline etiquette. Mama accompanied me to DFA at Roxas Blvd. to apply for my first passport and then to Cocobank to get some traveler’s cheques. But she wasn’t there anymore as I learned how to operate the airline foldable table for meals, or the aircraft lavatory’s sliding door. The seatbelt was easy enough because it wasn’t my first time on a plane after all, having flown to Bacolod before with Ate Marie to meet her future in-laws. When the stewardess handed us some earphones, I also figured out where to plug it for some music. On the other hand, Edlyn complained that her earphones didn’t work, until I saw that they weren’t plugged in yet.
Immigration and customs are always such a hassle. You need to bring out your passport to check if the data you’re putting are correct. The same goes for your flight details – airline and flight number, country of origin and airport of destination. You have to be so careful with the information you put in, or risk further hassle at the immigration counter.
This became evident when after a day trip to Macau, Schenzen and Guangzhou, Edlyn and I were stopped at the Hong Kong immigration counter and detained for some intensive interviews. There was possibly two reasons for this: one, because this was right after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Chinese authorities were on a look-out for students who were all trying to escape to HK; and two, because the beginnings of human trafficking of Filipinas was fast gaining ground. Although I doubt it that doting, conservative Tita Azon would ever be mistaken for a Mama-San.
To prove my point, once we got to Bangkok, that city known for its skin trade, Tita Azon promptly complained about the location of our hotel as being in the red light district. Heck, we were on a budget tour, you can’t really complain much about accommodations, but complain she did. She even asked her only son in Manila to badger the family travel agent to move us to different lodgings. Not getting what she wanted, she would proceed to rant and rave about our “unacceptable” lodgings.
After our dinner at the hotel, the waiter politely asked if we liked our meal. She blurted out, “No, it wasn’t good. I cannot eat it.” Embarrassed, the waiter asked again, “Was it too spicy for you?” But she was already walking away and shaking her head, clearly a discontented customer. When we got to the elevators, we found that one of them was under repair, and only one was functioning. Looking down at the dark and dangerous shaft, she expressed panic again, saying “Ano ba naman ito, papatayin tayo dito!”
But that wasn’t all I remembered about that trip. South East Asian tours are generally associated with shopping sprees, and shop we did. While bargaining for a lower price is allowed, once you touch the item and bargain for it, be sure you will buy it or the vendor will get very mad at you. In Macau, the sales clerk was so incensed with Tita Azon’s “negotiations”. Our Chinese-Portuguese tour guide intervened and said, “These are Filipinos, you HAVE to let them bargain…” In Hong Kong’s Mongkok district, I made the mistake of bargaining for an early edition Walkman and then changed my mind about purchasing it. The Chinese guy was so mad at me for wasting his time and blurted out a bunch of Cantonese words which I presume would be foul and blasphemous on my account.
One other thing I learned about traveling abroad is one begins to appreciate what she takes for granted in her own homeland. My first concern is always about food and knowing where to eat. In HK, the real Chinese restaurants were so expensive and the menus were all in Chinese you can’t decipher them. So we ended up eating at all the possible McDonald’s branches in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island for our meals. In Bangkok, we were also at a lost half the time at the incomprehensible offerings in the menu, but at least they had pictures so we just pointed at what we wanted to eat.
That’s another thing – language. In Hong Kong, the non-English speaking Chinese were so rude up to the point of shooing us out of their stores so they won’t have to deal with us. In Thailand, while more often than not the Thai people we encountered didn’t speak a word of English, they simply smile when we come to a communication impasse. So that’s something to remember: just because we Filipinos speak perfect, American-twanged English, it doesn’t mean we’ll be understood everywhere else in the world. Better get over that Americanized-ego of yours and learn some basic terms for your country of destination.
Finally, we forgot that something as culturally-imbedded as the exercise of religion could be so complicated once you’re abroad. To Tita Azon’s chagrin, Catholic churches are not at every block or street corner in Hong Kong unlike in the Philippines. We had to ask around whether there was a parish somewhere in either HK Island, Kowloon or Aberdeen where we could hear Sunday mass. We did find one; a very small Catholic chapel where most of the church-goers were also Filipinos, mostly overseas workers.
All in all, I had fun with that first trip abroad. In HK, we got to go to Victoria’s Peak, rubbed that Buddha’s tummy, saw the Ocean Park aquarium and rode the Crazy Galleon and ‘The Dragon” roller coaster. In Macau, we saw the contrast and combination of Chinese and Portuguese culture and bought jade for luck. Guangzhou and Schenzen were just like any rustic Asian countryside, even with the real 12-course Chinese meal and authentic Chinese beer we had at its popular tourist restaurant. While Bangkok is best remembered for its shopping opportunities, I liked our tour of the Rose Garden where the orchid exhibits and the elephant show were the highlights of the visit. (I found some of their native dances appeared too similar to our own Philippine “tinikling”). Thus, from that time on, every trip abroad is simply a reminder of what I miss about the Philippines – because there really is no place like home.