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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Reverse Culture Shock

So I came “home” to a new family house as my parents moved from West Sussex to Banbury a few months ago. I spent the first week hiding from the cold and laughing at my Filipino friends who thought it was cold in Manila (I checked google and it was 28 degrees!) Bizarrely the quietness in my parent’s new dwelling felt almost painful to my ears as I had grown accustomed to the 24/7 noisiness in my apartment in Cubao.

On braving the cold and venturing out, I took a trip to see my sister near Leamington Spa and to meet yet another nephew for the first time. It was great to see them (all) and catch up, but as usual I felt overwhelmed by the whirlwind of activity and wondered for the 65thousandth time how on earth my sister copes so well with 4 kids under the age of 5 and keeps a virtually spotless house. I thought again how different our lives are and also not for the first time was relieved it was she and not me dealing with the resulting chaos. Favourite moment; watching toddler Toby high on life running in a shrieking circle before rebounding dizzily off the nearest item of furniture then getting up for an unsteady repeat performance :)

It felt strange being back in England after nearly a year abroad and I noticed how much things seemed to have advanced even in that short time period; food is more expensive, gadgets more complicated and contactless technology is everywhere, making me afraid that I might inadvertently purchase something! In fact the busyness of life felt immediately stressful compared to the relaxed pace in Manila.  Upon visiting Manila as a foreigner you may not “feel” the difference as there are also large crowds and a lot of activity but the pace is slower, people are less demanding and the cost of living can be reduced probably by a factor of 4! Now I stood patiently at various service counters anticipating long waits but was unprepared, disconcerted and at times speechless when immediately attended to. My family commented on the “traffic jam” which was approximately five vehicles long, as my mind wandered to the miles of stationary traffic in Manila at all times of the day and night.

I have spent more time in the Philippines over the last five years than in England (I was already fed up with materialism here before I left in 2011 so you can imagine how I feel now.) It’s one of the reasons I would find it very hard to live in the UK permanently again. It’s just not fair to be silently judging others for their standard of living and life choices when they haven’t experienced living amongst those suffering the daily strain of poverty and deprivation. To be unconsciously or at times consciously comparing each purchase with its equivalent food or clothing item in the Philippines or even the equivalent cost of life saving medical treatment for the many out there in need.

I heard a phrase today on TV; “oriented towards a culture other than one’s own” and wondered if that described me, although I think they were talking about buildings. I pondered whether I had always been a misfit for Western living and concluded that it probably started when I came to faith in 2005, so many of the things that I had been seeking happiness in became worthless at that moment, including most material things. Rather than them creeping back into my life over time, I found less and less satisfaction in them to the point that I now detest shopping malls and don’t want to buy anything or spend any money on myself EVER! I do have a tendency to lean to extremes as one friend commented last time I was home “For goodness sake Natalie, just buy a burger.” :)

My return to England feels a little like walking around in a dream world without a resting place. I am aware of everyday activities and conversations happening around me but I’m not really sure if I’m taking part or just observing. It seems that so many of the things going on are unimportant. I am told that “it’s important to keep busy” and that I need to find things to occupy myself… but I wonder why. I guess this is reverse culture shock...

I travel around the country visiting various family members and friends and the time spent catching up feels worthwhile. I am encouraged by the consistency of Christian friends and also by some relatively new believers persevering in the Christian battle, one who comments dejectedly “Nat, the Christian life is hard!” A Christian who is finding life easy is usually doing something wrong. Also by some who remind me of things I have said to them in the past but which I have been forgetting to apply to my own life struggles and difficulties. How easy it is to forget and repeat past mistakes only to be forced to learn the same lessons again and again. God is so very patient with me!

Reflecting, I realised that the frenetic busyness and never-ending lists of tasks that "must" be done can act as a permanent distraction for some people and can stop them thinking about and spending time on/with the important things in life; people, relationships, faith… There are no doubt things that do need to be done, and sitting around pondering life is not a luxury granted to everyone and if carried out for extended periods probably leads to poor mental and physical health. But I was again reminded that;

 “The more things we accumulate, the more cluttered our lives become, and the more stressed we feel as we are compelled to think about them. Life is about people not about things.”

“For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul.” Mark 8 vs 36

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father, is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” 1 John 2 vs 15-17

Please pray for me as I travel to the USA for 3 months next week! :)

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

How to Lose £2500 in a Week...

Things were getting pretty stressful in Manila, so I was very happy when my best friend from the UK suggested I join her in Bali, Indonesia for a week in January. It was planned to be a relaxing break and my first non-ministry holiday for a very long time. I’ve never been one for travelling around for the sake of it and don’t really enjoy touristy things/sight-seeing/spending lots of money but I was looking forward to catching up with my friend and getting some time out. I had trouble booking my flights as my card kept declining for no apparent reason, I even joked with my friend that maybe God didn’t want me to join her! Despite this I finally managed to book an indirect flight with Air Asia on 18th January for around £100 due to arrive at 9pm in Bali and a direct return with Cebu Pacific early on 23rd January for £120.
Having been in Manila for more than 6 months but less than a year I was aware that I needed to gain Immigration Exit Clearance before leaving the country. However, I read updated guidance online which suggested that I could obtain such clearance at the airport provided I had a current I-Card (I had.) A missionary friend also confirmed that she had done this so I prepared the 2880 pesos (£40) fee for the airport and didn’t think much more about it… first big mistake!

On the morning of 18th, I took a taxi to Terminal 2 in Manila as per my online booking. On arrival, after waiting in heavy traffic, I saw that all of the sign boards were for Philippine Airlines. I therefore asked a guard to check whether I was at the correct terminal. This seemed to cause a great deal of confusion as various members of staff tried to assist with my relatively simple question. It took at least 15 minutes to kind-of confirm that my flight was not due to depart from that terminal but the guard was unwilling to clearly clarify which terminal I was meant to be at  only telling me that Air Asia flights usually departed from Terminal 3 and 4 (in completely different locations.) We were already running late due to the traffic so I took a gamble and directed the by-now-pretty-irritated taxi driver to Terminal 3 arriving a bit flustered but otherwise okay.

I rushed to find the Air Asia flights and was relieved to see my flight on the board and the queue of people waiting to check-in. I checked in after changing some currency then headed straight for immigration. The immigration official asked if I had clearance to leave the country and I explained that the updated guidance on the Immigration website stated that I could pay the fee at the airport. I gave him my I-Card. He called his supervisor and then various other people began to join them as they discussed the situation. I still thought things would be fine and was waiting for them to come back, take the fee and wave me through. But the official came back in the end and told me that he needed something called an SSCN number which I did not have. I asked where I should get this and he said the Main Immigration office!

At this point I began to worry as having been in the Philippines for some years I know that bureaucratic procedures are not easily maneuvered even if they don’t make any sense. I asked to speak to a supervisor and was pointed in the direction of two female supervisors. Neither was particularly helpful and they refused to check online for the updated guidance that I had read. They didn’t really listen to what I was saying but just kept pointing to the note in my passport which said that I needed to get Exit Clearance.  After about 30 minutes of this they agreed to phone the Main Immigration to get clarification, but this just made things worse as apparently now in addition to the SSCN number I also needed to have a WHITE I-Card, mine was YELLOW and I would have to go to the Main office to get things sorted out. There was no mention of this in the guidance, it just said a current I-CARD. I asked the supervisors where people usually paid the exit fee and was informed that there was no facility to do this at the airport. I was getting pretty frustrated by this point as I knew this was wrong as my friend had paid the fee at the airport. After practically begging to be allowed to fly the official informed me that they had already off-loaded me from the flight. I would not be flying to Bali.

Dejected and frustrated I returned to the Air Asia Check In and told a seemingly helpful male staff member what had happened. I asked if it was possible to re-book my flight for later in the day and asked how much it would cost. He said that if I could get to Immigration Main Office and back before 4pm (it was now 1230pm) I could take the 440pm flight to KL and then on onward night flight to Bali arriving the following day in the early hours. The re-booking cost would be 4000 (£60,) he informed me that he had added me as an additional passenger to the already full flight and that he had also done this for the following days flight in case I didn’t get back in time. I decided this was better than nothing and that I just needed to get to Bali so I rushed out of the airport to try and get a taxi to immigration.

After sitting in traffic for a while I arrived at Immigration at around 130pm and made a big fuss about the information on their website not being clear. This seemed to get things moving as I managed to skip the queue. They informed me that my YELLOW I-Card was sufficient and that I could in fact get Exit Clearance at the airport. They attached the guidance to present to the officials at the airport and issued me with the curious SSDN number. I didn’t ask why people were being required to get this number from the Main Office if the reason for allowing Exit Clearance to be obtained at the airport was to try and reduce the traffic flow at the main office……

I grabbed another taxi back to the airport thinking that losing £60 wasn’t the end of the world and looking forward to my holiday.  I arrived breathlessly at the Air Asia Check-in at around 3pm to find that the helpful male staff member had gone home. I explained the situation to a female staff member who didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about. She told me the flight was already full and that the earliest available flight to Bali was for the following day. I was not booked as an additional passenger on either flight. I showed her the quote I had received from the male staff member and in the end she phoned him to clarify what had happened. She then gave me an updated quote of 11,700 pesos (£179) with the first part of the flight being at 440pm to KL and the onward flight to Bali for the following day. I asked about the night flight that had previously been promised me and was told there was no night flight to Bali! 

At this point I became determined to get to Bali that evening. I went round all of the airline desks asking for flights to Bali with only Cebu Pacific able to offer me a direct flight at 4am….for 40000 pesos (£600!) I declined this offer and decided to go and find an internet café to see if I could get the same flight cheaper online. There were no internet cafes or connection in the airport terminal and I don’t have a gadget with WIFI.  I walked out of the terminal and could see some shops down below the ramp where I was standing. I looked around for steps down from the level I was on but couldn’t see any. I wandered around for a while and eventually asked someone how to get down to the shops. He told me I would have to take a taxi as there were no steps. I couldn’t believe this but was too exhausted to argue so got into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to an internet café/shopping area nearby. The driver was old and didn’t understand what an internet café was, he also said he didn’t know where there were any shops. He was getting stressed by my directions so I got out of the taxi in the middle of nowhere and asked for directions to an internet café.  I contacted my friend in Bali and told her what had happened. She cancelled the pre-booked taxi from the airport in Bali to our hotel and also cancelled the second hotel we had planned to transfer to. 

I searched online using Skyscanner and found the Cebu Pacific flight at 4am for 15,700 (£227) via Bravofly. Although this was painfully expensive, I decided to book it as I could see my holiday plans rapidly fading into obscurity. I received an email with a booking reference but no confirmation. I waited several hours but still no confirmation. I asked my parents in the UK and my friend in Bali to phone the various phone numbers for Bravofly to try and get the confirmation of my flight which was due to leave after a few hours. With no success I eventually returned to the airport in another taxi to get confirmation directly from the airline. I joined a queue and when I was finally seen I was told that my flight was not confirmed due to an issue with my debit card and that Bravofly had rejected my order and my money had already been refunded. Cebu Pacific told me to re-book directly with them. I braced myself for the 40000 (£600) demand but this time the price was 14000 (£202.) It seems there had been a miscommunication before….I bought this ticket and prepared myself for the wait for my night flight at 4am.

This time I had no problems at Immigration and the official even waived some of the Exit Clearance fee charging me only 500 pesos (£7) instead of the usual 2880 as he couldn’t believe what I had already gone through.  Arriving at the airport in Bali on the morning of 19th Jan I avoided being ripped off by the many taxi drivers. I arrived safely at the hotel in Bali an hour or so later and met my friend. After sleeping for a few hours we had dinner at the hotel. The next day (20th) we headed into town but I wasn’t feeling quite myself so we returned early. I spent the next two days in bed with food/water poisoning…..

On the morning of 22nd feeling better, I ventured out and had a good day and a nice meal in the evening. Then I had to get up at 4am on 23rd for my journey back to the airport….I had to pay double the normal taxi fare (£30) due to a mis-arrangement but by this point I really didn’t care. Arriving at the Cebu Pacific Check-In desk I was informed that I could not return to Manila without an onward ticket for travel back out of Manila. I showed my I-card and explained that I lived and worked in Manila and was not planning to leave. I explained that Immigration were aware of my status and showed them the Exit Clearance I had obtained. They made me wait until all of the other passengers had gone through and then once again other staff members appeared to discuss my case. They phoned Immigration at Manila who stated that I did need an onward ticket. I was forced to buy the cheapest onward ticket that I knew I would not use at the airport in Indonesia. It cost $100 and the flight was not until March, which is outside the 30 day Visa on arrival period for Manila so would not have qualified as a valid onward ticket in any event….

I arrived back in Manila, passed straight through immigration with NO request for an onward ticket and joined the very long queue for taxis to get home …..arriving home in Cubao I found an email from Bravofly sent AFTER my flight had already departed confirming my flight and that they had charged my card for the full amount of £227 (I had now paid 3 times for the first one way flight to Bali)……A few days later I lost £1700 in an online identity scam trying to help someone that I thought I knew after being convicted by my Bible reading that day about Sowing Generously…

The moral of the story? I have no idea…