Monday, January 27, 2014

Exit wounds

Our 'relaxing holiday' got off to a great start when we made it as far as the airport's immigration counter before our immaculate timetable was shattered and our immediate future cast into doubt. What did I expect?

This time it wasn't my girlfriend's stunting nationality that derailed the first part of our trip so we missed our flight and had to race around Cebu picking up the documents needed to jump on another flight before our legal right to be in the country expired. This time the problem was with the dumb white guy, who always does what he's told but can't be expected to do things no one told him about and that don't make any sense.

So instead of getting to spend our anniversary exploring the wilderness, beaches and corals of Borneo, we got to endure an extended stay in my third least favourite Philippine city. Because of course there would be a problem. It's more frustrating in the Philippines!

I've criticised disgruntled expats who moan about visas and other mild immigration requirements in this country, when it's nothing compared to the hurdles Filipinos have to leap when going anywhere at all. I've also criticised blogging trolls who don't have anything better to do in their free time than condemn the country they've chosen to live in. But that doesn't mean I've given up my right to be similarly loud and whiny when shit inevitably happens every time I try to do anything in this place, even when I try to leave.

What could possibly go wrong?

After eight months of living in the same city (in varying levels of comfort), I experienced something I hadn't felt in years: I was genuinely excited to get on the plane. They're great aren't they? In the last couple of years I flew too many times to appreciate it, but it's pretty amazing.

It was such a short flight - the necessary jaunt from our provincial city to one of the international hubs - that I didn't even mind having to take another one in the morning, especially because that one would take us to a completely different country. Admittedly, a country that isn't that much different when you get down to it, and that we'd both been to before, but at least it wasn't the Philippines.

But as we boarded our flight from Davao to Cebu I started to think I'd done this country a disservice after all. Maybe it's because we were flying with the less annoying Air Asia than the scheming, pestering, runway-nosediving Cebu Pacific this time, but our experiences before, during and after the flight were remarkably tranquil. No one pushed and even the babies kept their mouths shut.

Our overnight hotel in Cebu was like a home away from home, down to the identical no-cred brands of air conditioner, shower and refrigerator (good ol' Kolin). The place promised Wi-Fi and they actually had it! The airport taxis charged us a fair fare! No one was yelling at a prostitute in the next room! It was almost a shame to leave. Almost but not in the slightest.

We were already airport-wise from the first time we flew abroad together last year and almost missed our flight, having to dash around buying return tickets and filling in patronising guardianship forms because Filipinos are no country's favourite people (not even theirs). This time we had our return tickets ready (I didn't even forge them) and I didn't fuss over the extortionate terminal fee or the ridiculous 'travel tax' that penalises Jackie for having the nerve to leave her homeland for a bit.

The lady with the passport stamps checked through my immaculate passport to make sure everything was in order and asked to see my exit clearance.

Third world first world problems

I am totally fine. Why do you ask?

"I don't know what that is," I calmly stated. At least my voice is quietly confident and unquivering in my memory.

"You should have been given..."

"Oh, is it this?" I snappily retrieved a photo ID card from my bag, which I'd been told I needed the second time I extended my visa and duly paid for, despite it not seeming to serve any practical purpose beyond being compulsory. Maybe this is what it was for after all.

"No sir," she calmly stated, and explained that, while staying longer than six months is perfectly fine as long as you've arranged the proper extensions (I had), I should have been informed that I needed an exit clearance document when leaving after this time. Another piece of mandatory paperwork that seemed to serve no function beyond being a thing you need to pay for because you do. The visa agency hadn't informed me, they'd just taken my pesos and got my passport stamped as usual. I blamed them.

I always try to arrive early at airports, but time was running out after we waited 20 minutes for the workshy supervisor to turn up and try to help us. She never did show up in the end - well, it was only two days until the weekend, give her a break! One of her subordinates eventually advised us to get a taxi to the immigration office where they'd sort it out for us, and she seemed confident that we could travel there and back in Philippine traffic, wait in line, complete the form, get it notarised, checked and processed and dash back through immigration to board our flight before the gate closed all in the space of 25 minutes.

I wasted precious seconds double checking that this really seemed possible, or if we should be practical and book a replacement flight now for the next available date so we didn't need to make a pointless trip back to the airport later and waste even more time and money, but she remained adamant. She was either choosing to be unhelpfully positive or just had no concept of maths.

The immigration office wasn't even located on the same island. We didn't make it, just in case you were in suspense, but I did obtain the exit clearance required to escape this country (that shouldn't even have such a hold over a non-resident) in exchange for 500 pesos, three passport photos and my fingerprints. The last part was especially dehumanising, as an officer - presumably tired of politely informing foreigners what to do with their thumbs - roughly forced my thumbs into the ink and smudged them onto the form before commanding me back to my seat without so much as a paper towel.

Next time I'll just print this

I felt like a criminal, but as the exit clearance came through a while later following a background check, I guess I'm in the clear. That's assuming they actually did carry out some kind of check after extracting my individuality, which seems unlikely. I can't really see how the costs involved in these services add up to 500 pesos either, considering they revolve around technology from the 19th century, but when has voicing criticism and making a stand ever changed anything?

Even though we'd missed our flight by now (obviously), we headed back to the airport to reclaim our terminal fees and travel tax (took ages) and book the next available flight to our destination on Saturday, just before my visa would expire. We missed out on the promo fare that pushed me towards the Borneo and Bali route in the first place, but I'd needed some pushing anyway, or I would have ended up lazily extending my visa again and postponing the exit clearance fiasco for another time.

Cebu later

With our documents being preliminarily okayed by the airport staff, restoring my nagging doubts that something will go wrong next time back to their normal level, we made the most of our spontaneous Cebu break by not doing anything of particular interest. Jackie worked on her graphics; I found a used book shop and got a canker sore and diarrhoea. I don't know whether to blame those on the stressful day or the spicy milkfish pizza, either way these things are best avoided in the future. We arrive back here in March (assuming we ever leave in the first place), so maybe we'll bother more next time when our stay isn't enforced.

Things could have been worse. At least the flight we missed was the cheapest of the lot (about £9 each total), and it was only after the ordeal that I realised I hadn't told the FastPass office in Davao about my travel plans, since I didn't have any plans the last time I extended my visa in November, so they probably hadn't seen a reason to inform me about the need for exit clearance. Still, they could have brought it up in the event I did happen to go away before we saw each other again two months down the line, since I'd already crossed the threshold where I needed it - right? I can't be expected to do all my own research, can I?

I guess the whole thing was my fault after all, and I should take back what I said about life in the Philippines being unreasonably difficult before I turn into one of those zealous haters like Alfred. There are just a lot of intrusive forms and a lot of miscommunication. But I made such a scene of being a victim in front of my girlfriend and the airport staff, so let's keep this between us. And even during the most stressful and depressing moments of that black Thursday I had the consolation, like I always do, that at least there was a blog in it.

This is what you like, isn't it?

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