My friend Stephanie and I decided that for our post-PC trip, we would spend a month in China.
Well, it's only $6 a night, how bad could it be...
Most sought-out locations for newly released volunteers (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bali) bear an identical tropical heat to the Philippines, making preparations where packing is concerned relatively simple. These are logical travel destinations, being both cheap and nearby, and the vast majority of our batch will be traipsing around SE Asia come November. Yet, as much as other volunteers are like family, and I am friends with most, I would really rather lick a water buffalo than run into anyone from PC during post-PC travels.
Plus, part of the draw of China is not sweating, not hiking rice paddies, and not dealing with gigantic tropical bugs, mosquitoes, and all of the other uncomfortable frustrations associated with a lot of these countries.
So, Stephanie and I would have to come up with a backpack-full of long sleeves, coats, hats, gloves, and other items that would get us from chilly Beijing to frigid Tibet to a more temperate Yangshuo. And, I was in need of a good pack as well.
The solution: a weekend trip to the northern mountains of Luzon, to Baguio City, where pine trees, crisp breezes, and most importantly, thrift stores (ukay-ukays) prevail.
We didn’t make detailed plans for our trip to Baguio. We’ve become fairly laissez-faire with these types of weekend trips. Just get up and go- I picked the first cheap, decent-looking hostel from one of about eight Philippine Travel Guides that were left in the PC offices, and a seven hour night-bus later, Stef and I stepped into a pleasantly cool Baguio morning to flag down one of the mountain city’s characteristic white 4×4 cabs.
It took the driver some time to figure out that we wanted to get to the Diamond Inn by Session Road, and not a diner.
Stef: Diamond. DIE- MUND INN.
Stef: DIIIEE-MMUUUNNDD Inn.
Driver: Ohhh. No DIIEE-nuh? You are not hungry? What DIE-UH-mun?
Stef: Not die-nuh or di-uh-mun. Die-mund Inn. DIAMOND Inn.
Driver: DIE-UUUHHHH-mun? Diiieenn-er-mund?
Stef: Goddamnit, DIAMOND!!!!!
<repeat the above exchange twice more>
Driver: Oh. DIE-UH-mun Inn.
Stef: It’s pronounced DIE-MUND, walang (no) UUUH.
Driver: Haha, you say wrong, its DIE-UUH-MUN.
Stef: It’s an English word!!!
We finally pulled up to the Diamond Inn, or we took the driver’s word for it, because there was no sign and it looked like we were just parked on a random side-street of grimy hovels and open-air barber shops. He pointed down a narrow alley, almost too narrow to walk without your shoulders brushing the brick.
This was the first sign of bad things to come.
We went down the alley, and to the left a staircase appeared, leading to a dimly-lit reception area. An initial, brief visual inspection returned a satisfactory result: a bit dark, a little hodge-podge, but probably not dangerous or grubby enough for us to seek other lodging. We just needed a place to sleep for two nights and would be out most of the time anyway.
We saw the room, which in hindsight was the second sign of bad things to come. It was a small closet of a room squeezed below the staircase, giving it an irregular, sloping ceiling, and it stank of mothballs and stagnant air. It contained a rudimentary steel bunk-bed frame, a small plastic hanging mirror, and not much else.
Being tough Peace Corps volunteers, this was still not enough to dissuade us from its prime location near the ukays and its cheap price ($6.80 a night). We paid for two nights.
Only then did it dawn on us to ask where the CR (bathroom) is. We were led down a short, narrow passage to a tiny area with only two flickering fluorescent lights, enough to illuminate the huge dead cockroach in one sink, another cracked sink, and stained and broken tiles. The light in the shower room was busted, and more dead bugs and mysterious dark stains greeted our eyes as they acclimated to the light pooling in from above the sink. The toilets were… I’ll save your stomach the description.
This may have been a deterring factor. However, I think we both felt as if we had cultivated a superior tolerance for grossness over the past two years. And we had already paid. I silently thanked my short hair; anything that would lessen the amount of time spent in the CR was a precious gift.
We walked around the reception area. In the faint light, we had missed the myriad cages that dotted the space. A snake hovered in the air towards the warm, glowing bulb in its cage. Two parrots, an African Grey and a generic green parrot, bopped their heads at us in another cage, ambivalent towards the handful of enormous Pleistocene-era cockroaches scuttling about in the crick of the wall behind them. Yet another snake sat coiled tightly around itself on its perch, unmoving. Two large goldfish looked out of their tank, bored. Three large, white, translucent fish in another tank swam around each other.
The receptionist told us there is another parrot in the kitchen. We went down some rickety steps into another area plagued by the same lack of light. To our right sat a huge Cockatoo, perched on a stick inside a dungeon of a kitchen. It talked. HERROW! HERROW! HehHehHeehhh….
After we sucked just about all of the entertainment we could get from Diamond’s eccentric menagerie of animals, we headed out in search of coffee for a long day of hard bargaining at the ukay shops.
At the ukays, I found a black, thin, incredibly soft long-sleeved Calvin Klein shirt for 35P. A reporter from a prominent news network interviewed me about ukay shopping, obviously surprised that I responded in Tagalog. That was fun.
We tried on fake (at least I think they are fake? hard to tell) North Face backpacks, bought comfy plaid shirts, fleeces, etc. I got incredibly lucky and found a stylish black TopShop jacket for $12.
But the vast majority of our purchases made us look like we had pillaged an L.L. Bean outlet store. Functionality was the most important consideration, next to being “not hideous.” We would be donating most of these items after our trip anyways.
Later that afternoon, I was exhausted. A good exhaustion, but exhausted nonetheless. All I really wanted to do was sit in a movie theatre and veg out. We walked up to the mall, and nothing too great was playing- the owl movie, your run-of-the-mill Tagalog rom-com, and something I had never heard of- Splice.
What was this Splice movie? We studied the movie poster. Adrien Brody! We love Adrien Brody. The Pianist? The Darjeeling Limited? We had found our movie.
Well, after an hour and a half enduring a film that should have gone straight to the 1am slot of the SciFi network, Stef and I walked out of the movie theatre, not speaking, wondering what the hell that was all about.
Annoying Scientist Girlfriend mixes her DNA with multiple animals to create ugly, freakish, violent rabbit-headed giant orb-eyed humanoid with nasty chicken legs that she decides to raise as her own because of wishy-washy allusions to a messed-up childhood, and Placating Scientist Boyfriend (that’s YOU, Mr. Brody) first tries to drown it and then ends up having sex with it?!?! And then they bury it alive but it changes GENDERS and emerges only to kill everyone with its spike tail? Adrien Brody is officially on my shitlist. Also, Canada.
Adrien Brody, you are an OSCAR winner, just how could you? It’s like if Meryl Streep started appearing on Jersey Shore or something.
The movie was so perplexedly disturbing (in an I-want-to-curl-up-in-fetal-position-with-my-childhood-stuffed-animal, not in an artsy-noir way) that we had to go stare at the Owl Movie poster for almost ten minutes, seeking solace in the cute owl’s large, animated eyes.
That not being enough, we paid 100P to a mall vendor for a bracelet of cheap jade, pink sparkly baubles, red beads, a Buddha and our astronomical sign, who blessed it in a tin bowl, thinking this would somehow lessen our current freaked-out state. The movie was HORRENDOUS.
As it was dinnertime, we decided a good meal amongst bustling Session Road would probably render our spirits back to some semblance of normal. We shared vegetable wontons, grilled eggplant and one of the most delicious burgers I have had in this country and washed it down with a couple of beers, our good karma bracelets clinking against the glass. We felt a bit better.
We were not looking forward to going back to the Diamond Inn, although we were incredibly sleepy. The Diamond Inn, not being the homiest of establishments, was probably not the best place to go after watching Splice, but we were tired and had no choice.
We shuffled through the alley with our ukay finds, and climbed the stairs past the reception area and animals. The cages of bird, reptile and fish that had earlier been benignly quirky, now seemed sinister. We continued to our hole of a room, where an ancient foam-green fan had been placed to help with the musty odor. Our beds were now draped with thin Disney blankets, Winnie the Pooh and Disney Princesses.
I braved the CR only to quickly wash my face and brush my teeth, and even that was difficult, the dead cockroach crept into my peripheral vision. I felt dirtier coming out than I had going in.
Back in the room, I looked at the bed, images of cockroaches and crawly things scrambling about in my mind. I decided to sleep fully-clothed on top of the blanket, curled up as tight as possible. This bed is the perfect receptacle for bedbugs or scabies, I thought. Just two nights! Just two nights!
We shut off the lone light, both mildly uncomfortable but resigned to it. That is, until the noise began.
I had just drifted into a shallow sleep when I was brought to full consciousness by huge thuds against our wall.
BAM! BAAAM!!! BAM BAM BAM!!!!!!!!
Silence. My eyes were fixed to the ceiling (maybe it was the freaky thing from Splice!)
BAM BAM BAMM BAAM!!!!!!!!
I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, but it went on for HOURS. Every now and then I would here irate yelling in foreign languages. Then, between floor-rattling thuds, drunk men seemed to descend upon the space and proceed to scream at each other. This was bad. Very, very, bad I thought as I clung to my knees, sideways on top of my Disney princess blanket. Oh Jasmine, the Raj’s palace this is not.
I fell into a haggard sleep probably sometime around 3am. Stephanie had gotten up and attempted to sleep on the floor, thinking the banging noises were coming from the ceiling.
I heard her rustling, and sat up.
We discussed the situation for three minutes, and in another five had packed up our things and were securing our money back for the second night.
In other words, we fled. It was 4:30am.
Dawn on Sunday found us bleary eyed, wandering around Burnham Park in search of a hostel I had thought I had seen the day before. We were operating on mere fumes, since the night before our traumatic Diamond experienc we had been on a night bus and had probably gotten only a few hours of weird bus-induced sleep.
Nevertheless, we were in high spirits, just thankful to be rid of the Diamond Inn and all of its dirty strangeness.
The exterior was nice at the first place we found, but the inside was only a few short steps above the Diamond. We moved on.
The second place was really nice, but too nice. Expensive nice. Sigh.
The third place, the Paladin Hotel, was just right. Not a hostel, but a hotel. At this point, I was prepared to throw down some money just for a clean bathroom. It was already 5:45am.
After walking up a wide wooden staircase flanked by mirrored, hunter green walls, we leaned over the reception desk. $15 a night each, with private bathroom and cable tv. Sold.
The receptionist then informed us that we would be charged an early check-in fee since it was before 7:00am.
We stared at her slack-jawed, disheveled, defeated.
“Uum, I will waive the fee. Wait just a moment for your key.”
The room was perfect. Real beds, real sheets, real blankets, real TV, clean bathroom with hot showers, even two clean towels.
We finished our ukay shopping later that day. I bought a big North Face backpack, a sturdy daypack, and a huge, fluffy be-hooded winter coat suitable for Tibet. We went to the silver market and on the way back bought strawberries to eat with my leftover pancakes from our earlier breakfast. By 1:30pm we were splayed out on our beds, watching A Knight’s Tale and Entertainment Tonight and Glee, all courtesy of our beloved cable television in our nice clean hotel room. Later we would venture out to have one of the best Mongolian BBQ dinners ever.
Despite Splice and the Diamond Inn, the trip was very successful.
When friends travel together, it’s hard not to wonder whether they will still be friends after the trip is over. You always hear horror stories of long established, strong friendships devolving into icy acquaintances due to one lousy vacation.
The best thing that came out of our Baguio excursion was the discovery that we are very compatible travel buddies, working together when things go awry. Could come in handy during our month in China- maybe even more so than my $8 poofy Tibet monstrosity of a coat (which I can’t wait to wear somewhere other than my sweltering apartment.)