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Northern Philippines • Changes

As my plane begins to land on the Ninoy Aquino International Airport I can only look outside through the window and marvel at how many lights are suddenly blinking and moving below. It’s an exciting view, not just because it’s massive, but because it’s also new.

I’m now officially in Southeast Asia. And I am scared and excited.

We hit the ground and the entry process is surprisingly not that different from how we do things back home. For instance, in spite of being a big airport, the gate I went through was quite small. The man at the entry checkpoint took a few minutes to look up my country and I could tell he hadn’t seen a Panamanian passport before.

After a few minutes he asked me if I needed a visa to get in. I knew I didn’t, but for some reason I felt another one of those country-block plot twists coming, so I just said I didn’t know. He stared grimly into my eyes and said “You don’t. You can stay for 30 days” when suddenly a deafening CLACK! followed a swift motion of his arm. He handed me back the newly stamped passport like a jaded machine and dismissed me with another motion of his arm.

I grab my bags and now I’m out in the lobby of the airport, where a bunch of taxi cab drivers await, their gazes passing at me like a pack of hungry cats waiting at the base of a tree for a baby bird to fall over.

Little did they know, I didn’t have a single Filipino peso on me.

No Money, Mo Problems

Right there appeared the second problem I would need to struggle with all throughout my journey. I was carrying a Visa debit card, a Visa credit card and another local debit card on me, but none of them could pull money out of any of the three ATMs by the airport exit. I needed to get money, but if I kept attempting to pull cash out, I could get blocked by my bank’s security department for too many failed attempts.

Northern Philippines • Changes
Out of five ATMs at the airport, only three would take my cards and none would allow me to get money!

Thank the based wi-fi gods that I was able to get free internet at the airport to text my mom on Whatsapp and ask her about my problem. After all, she works at Banco General, the very same bank who gave me all these cards.

I can understand how my logic to solve the problem could be seen as the cry of a spoiled child to have his parents take care of things, but the truth of the matter is that I’ve seen people with legit reasons to complain at Banco General get nothing for their trouble even after hours or days of arguing with their customer service reps about how ass-backwards some of their policies are. Had my family not worked in Banco General, I might have needed to ask for a lift to the hostel or worse.

Luckily, my logic worked. Being a full 12 hours ahead of Panama time meant that at 9 p.m. in Philippines I could still contact anyone back home and ask for assistance. My cards had apparently been blocked by the fraud protection department when they saw a withdrawal attempt from an ATM in Manila. Understandably, nobody in the bank seemed to know I was traveling and assumed some guy in Manila had miraculously gotten all my cards and also knew all my PIN numbers.

The block was lifted and now I was on my way to the 1 River Central hostel in Makati, one of the busiest districts in Metro Manila.

Northern Philippines • Changes
I’M RICH, BEOTCH! (Well, not really 100 PHP = ~2.26 USD) but I was shaking from happiness all the same.

JP Rizal Street

The taxi cab driver was in the mood to talk, but I just kept looking out the window and following on the conversation with a slight share of my attention. At first glance, it looked like someone blew up El Chorrillo to massive scale and added bigger highways, tram lines and sent everyone to bed early.

I arrive at the hostel around 20 minutes later to find an empty reception desk. There’s a piece of string right by the entrance door and a sign that says “pull”. At first I thought it was an improvised door bell, but then realized that the bell was actually on the rooftop of the building.

The sound of the bell causes a bunch of faces to peer from the rooftop to see who pulled the string. A few minutes later, a girl comes down to open the door and ask for my booking information. She says her name is Juan, but doesn’t spell it, so I think it’s just a name in tagalog, the national Filipino language.

I notice she’s completely flat chested to the point where she doesn’t seem to be wearing a bra at all. As peculiar as it seems, I just stick to answer her questions and then follow her to the dorms. She says there’s people in the roof having drinks and that I’m welcome to join when I’m done putting my stuff down.

Up in the roof I find a few other people who are staying at the hostel along with other members of the staff. They’re all drinking and chilling, but there’s no music or anything else going on. Among them was a Korean kid whose name I can’t remember, celebrating his 22nd birthday. He said he’d been in Manila for the past month and was returning to South Korea the next morning.

Northern Philippines • Changes
Here I was introduced to Lambanóg, a coconut wine that’s sweet, but potent.

After a drink of Lambanóg, he asked me and another guy at the table if we would go party with him since he was about to leave the day after. I didn’t plan to go out that soon after my tiring trip, but figured what the hell and said yes. We went to Gramercy 71 and suddenly things started to snowball.

The Club in the Sky

Gramercy 71 owes its name to being the highest club in Manila. It’s located in the 71st floor of a luxurious residential building that looks completely out of place surrounded by the houses and low buildings in the rest of the area.

I can’t recall ever being in a club that high up in the sky, so the first thing I did was go out to the terrace just to see that view.

Philippines • Changes
The view from the terrace at 71 Gramercy. Photo source.

From above I felt like the whole town was screaming “Welcome to Manila” with all its lights, and even though I was tired and considerably underdressed for the proceedings, I made an effort to try and have a good time.

Along the way I got separated from the people I came to the club with. The Korean guy was nowhere to be found and everyone just seemed to get lost inside the club. I didn’t realized this until very late in the night, but by then I had managed to secure a lift back to the hostel from a girl I was dancing with. She was carpooling with her friends and helped me get back around 4 a.m.

I’m here…

At the time, it all seemed like a lucky circumstance, but looking back on it I realize that this was one of only two times that I actually went out to see Manila’s nightlife. It was also the most fun because the second outing was pretty intense in almost all the bad ways.

The next morning when the staff invited me and other guests to the swimming pool, I would get to see the real Makati.


Welcome to The Big Journey. Where a Panamanian roams the Earth in search for purpose, adventure and answers. Part of the Pateando Calle series, find the archive here. Thank you for tagging along.