Country number two on our round the world voyage is the Philippines, and the contrasts with Japan are striking. I’ve been to plenty of “developing” nations before, but not immediately after being in some of the world’s most efficient and clean cities. Of all the differences between the two nations, the one that’s striking me the most is the pace. Both are island nations, but only one seems to exist on “island time”.
Where Japanese trains run frequently, quickly, and on time (or even a minute early), Filipino transportation does basically none of those things. It actually does run frequently, with never-ending strings of buses, jeepneys, tricycles, taxis and even planes. But those never-ending strings lead to such atrocious traffic that no one is ever going to get anywhere quickly or “on time”.
I was prepared for atrocious traffic on the streets of Manila after reading my guidebook, but certainly didn’t expect it to extend air traffic! Our flight on Cebu Pacific was delayed an hour, with us sitting on the plane, engines going, due to “all of the traffic coming in and out of Manila airport.” Maybe our flight was an exception, or maybe they made us wait because we were on a domestic, budget airline, but I got the distinct impression that this was a regular occurrence.
Arriving on the small island of Busuanga, we were the only plane in sight and a fleet of minivans was waiting to shuttle all of the passengers to their hotels and the town of Coron. The road from town to the airport is in pretty good shape, and there were no cars going the other direction, which would lead you to believe that we would actually make good time on this leg. And then you’d hit the cows. Hopefully your driver doesn’t actually hit the cows, just the traffic jams caused by the few dozen cows that have decided that standing in the road is preferable to grazing in the field. Why did the cow cross the road? It didn’t. It just stood and there stared at us like we had invaded it it’s home.
Surely, boats will be better in a nation made up of over 7,000 islands? Wrong again. If your boat leaves on time, which it won’t, and you encounter no weather issues, which you will, Filipino boats are not known for their speed. In fact our first boat wasn’t really even a fan of starting at all. Leaving the pier, our bangka, the Arizona, did fine. But once we had made out first stop, she was not so interested in starting again, ever. Thankfully our crew of “the Incredible Hulk” (because he throws and pulls up the anchor at each stop), “Captain America” (because he’s the captain of the boat), and “Spider-Man” (because why not call yourself that) were able to wrap a rope around some part of the engine and after a few coordinated yanks, start our boat like a lawnmower each time.
Perhaps buses will fare better and be faster outside of Manila? Nope. While we did enjoy air conditioning and slow wi-fi, speed was not to be found here either. It wasn’t the traffic between Manila and Tagaytay, and the bus was certainly capable of going quickly (the driver reached insanely fast speeds for the size of the vehicle), this time it was the stops. A bus will list it’s final destination but will stop anywhere between the start and finish to let people off and let other people on. This makes perfect logical sense, but means that “stops” are anywhere and everywhere, and a “time table” is a laughable concept. Even with good roads, little traffic, and apparently a Nascar driver at the wheel, our bus journey still took more than twice as along as it would have if it had been a direct bus from point A to point B.
Don’t take any of this as complaining, because I don’t mind “island time” (although I do loathe city traffic with every fiber of my being). This is just a fact of life in the Philippines. You’ll need to leave twice as early as you’d think to arrive at your destination, and then be prepared to wait for cows, or storms, or broken boats, or something I haven’t even encountered yet.
Try to focus on the positive as you slowly make your way through this beautiful country. Slow transport lets you take in the scenery. Lack of a metro means you’re never stuck underground. Broken things will let you see the creativity and ingenuity of the Filipino people. Long waits and rides allow for naps, reading, and writing. And you may even make a new friend or two, like the lovely couple from Spain we met on our breaking bangka, or the chicken I’m currently hanging out with for the next 6 to 8 hours (hopefully) on a boat from Coron to El Nido. She likes cheese flavored potato chips but not eating out of my hand, and seems just as interested in me as I am in her. (I just remembered that this all day boat ride comes with lunch. I really hope my new friend isn’t my lunch!)