Trip to Punta Cana

Pictures from our trip to Punta Cana, for Bogdi & Renee’s wedding.

NY ComicCon 2011

NY ComicCon 2011

Things I learned from my trip to the Philippines

There is traffic and bad traffic. And then there’s Manila traffic.

I thought I knew what bad traffic was from my days of driving in rush-hour Bucharest. Then I moved to New York and reevaluated the definition after seeing what a little bit of rain – or an accident – does to Grand Central Parkway or the Queensboro Bridge.

Then I visited Manila.

“Bad” doesn’t even begin to describe the horrendous cacophony that is Manila traffic. It’s like talking about a hurricane and calling it “wet”.

To begin with, all traffic rules are nonexistent. I mean, really. During the ten or so days that I drove (mostly as a passenger) in the city I haven’t seen any semblance of order, right of way, yielding, or even signaling. The lanes on the streets are there purely for artistic reasons, because no one ever adheres to them. I am firmly convinced that in order to get your driver’s license in Manila you don’t need any rule book, just show you have balls. That’s the only thing that seems to drive things here – everybody goes about their own business, ignoring the cars around them, blindly cutting everyone else. A textbook “safe driver” wouldn’t even be able to pass one intersection in this city, since he’d be waiting forever for his turn.

The lack of rules combined with a significant overpopulation – at least in terms of cars in the city – generate the mother of all traffic, no matter what day or hour. We were stuck in traffic in Manila on every hour of the day, weekend or not, it did not matter – hundreds of cars trying to make their way on the tiny streets. For rush hours, multiply by 10.

Manila traffic

They use quotes for emphasis

As seen on several taxis: “How’s my driving?” or on a food truck: “Fresh food”. Their quotes, not mine.

"Keep Distance"

The Filipino retail workers are the most polite people I’ve ever met

In every store you go in you are greeted (you’re either a  sirmam or mamsir) and people are always jumping to help. The resort, even more so – but there you kinda expect it. Still, an interesting experience. That must be how movie stars feel all the time.

In Manila, there are malls everywhere

And I do mean *everywhere*. In Manila malls are almost like Starbuckses in NY – one on every corner. And before you ask, yes, they have Starbuckses in them.

Market! Market!

They take security seriously

Every public place – mall, restaurant, hotel – has a metal detector and guards to check your bags. Even small shops have at least one guard – a tiny college campus Starbucks had one. They open the door for you and I guess they check you out if you look suspicious. I wasn’t.

Hotels and parkings have guards that check all cars coming in – the bottom and the trunk. Our (pretty posh) hotel for the last night in Manila even had a canine team in the front.

I haven’t seen this level of security since I visited Israel a few years ago (although there people were even holding automated weapons while on the street).

Never forget the Pepto-Bismol

For when food poisoning strikes at 3 AM, it’s your only friend. I’m not going into more details than that.

Android let me down. Big time.

I liked Android. I think an open, easy to tinker with platform is a better solution than any closed system and with Google’s power behind it, sky’s the limit. The development – while not as integrated as iOS’s – is easy to get into and pretty fun. Which is why I wanted – and got for my birthday – a Nexus S, the flagship “Google phone”. Great hardware, no custom UI, the best you can hope for.

And then I went abroad with it.

You see, once Verizon got the iPhone 4 (in Feb this year), I immediately jumped ship from the steaming pile of crap that is AT&T. I finally had a smartphone that could make calls! Sadly, in doing so I had to sacrifice the travelling-friendly GSM for Verizon’s CDMA.

Since I wasn’t sure the Philippines has a CDMA network – and even if it did, I wasn’t going to spend a fortune in roaming charges, I decided to take the Nexus S with me, buy a sim in Manila and use it for calls and data during our vacation.

At least that was the plan. The problem is, the phone performed execrably in the field.

Where to begin? Crappy network coverage – even in central, densely populated areas. Bad data rates – enabling the 3G took forever and even after the phone showed full signal it was still unconnectable. Really bad WiFi signal strength – in several occasions I was able to get 2-3 bars on my iPad and barely one on the Nexus. And if you think the former has an edge due to its size, know that Cindy’s iPhone managed to pick up good WiFi strength as well. Basically all these things meant that every time I wanted to use the phone for any data activity – like checking in at a landmark for example – I had to struggle for several minutes to get it working, after – most of the times – giving up and doing it on my iPad (if free WiFi was available). So I had a state of the art smartphone that was mostly unusable for anything else other than calls and text messages. F that.

Not to mention the fact that I really felt Android’s lack of apps. To be fair, I have a significant collection of iPhone apps and I didn’t have much time to download enough Android ones before leaving NY, but still, I found myself many times trying to do something and realizing that… there isn’t an app for that. And while we’re on the subject of missing apps, this OS ships without a note-taking app??? What am I supposed to use to quickly write something down when I’m far from WiFi or 3G connections? Google Docs? Calendar? What?

To conclude, I don’t think I’ll repeat the experience again. My shiny Android phone might be blazing fast and usable in New York, but in the not-so-developed world it was a disaster. Too many times I have wasted time just trying to get the damn thing to work. And while as a developer – and geek – I can admire its customization, as a phone user I find the stress of use to be  unacceptable. I’ll keep it as a dev phone (which was the reason I got it in the first place) and that’s it.

Splurging on the vacation resort is a good idea

Because we booked the hotel in Boracay through their own website, we had a free upgrade to VIP (or semi-VIP) status. Which meant a whole lot of freebies, including a free huge breakfast buffet, beach butler and complimentary foot massage upon arrival.

We also got free desserts every day, waiting in our room when we came back from outside.

The room waiting for us

Massages hurt. Couples’ massages hurt double.

I think the idea behind massages is that you will get poked and prodded for some time and then when it’s over you will feel so relieved you’ll actually be thankful for it. Hence the “feeling great” feeling after.

During our stay in Boracay I got – willingly and sometimes unwillingly – dragged into trying different types of massages. And I stand by my previous statement.

If you’re white, fishies bite

During our reef walking we had the opportunity to feed the fish that were swimming nearby. The guides provided us with some food – some white stuff condensed in a ball the size of a walnut. And the fishies sure loved it – so much that they even tried out my not-so-waterproof sun screen (which turned into white powder). So yeah, ticklish.

Feeding the fishies

Japanese tourists are truly everywhere

During our few days in Boracay I made this discovery: I don’t think the Japanese soldiers left the Philippines after World War II.

I think they stayed behind disguised as tourists.

Seriously now, on a tiny 7-by-4km island there were more Japanese tourists than I’ve seen in New York. I think at any given time the island population was half Filipino and half Japanese (although I may bundle with them a bunch of Koreans and Taiwanese that seem to find the island a great vacation destination as well).

One of Manila’s must-see places: the slums

During our last day in Manila we had to go to Cindy’s grandmother’s place to pick up some childhood photographs. Which happens to be in the city’s slums. The area is so bad that we even had to bribe (significantly) a taxi driver to take us there.

But rest assured – even in huts that barely had electricity and running water – people had WiFi! Can’t say they haven’t gotten their priorities straight.


and last but not least:

I’ve had the best bubble tea of my life in Manila

It’s called Tokyo Bubble Tea and it’s heavenly. Please come to New York. I’ll single-handendly keep you in business if you do, I promise.

Until then, I have another thing to look forward coming back to.

The drink of the gods