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Action in Stockholm March 29, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
2 comments

fuzzy-TV-thumb-500x343-7074One fine Sunday afternoon, Matt walked into the house with a spring in his step and announced “We are going to Stockholm!”. I was surprised. A couple of weeks earlier I had broached the subject of going to Stockholm or Oslo during the forthcoming long weekend and had gotten a lukewarm response. Later that week I had tried to kindle his interest with “Stockholm is supposed to be really beautiful this time of the year, with wonderful rivers and bridges”, and again with “The art museums are world class, you know”. Matt had not responded one way or another. Then suddenly it appeared that my hard-selling had worked after all.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I agreed readily. Then hoping he would thank me for the idea, I asked, “So what made you change your mind?”. Apparently it had nothing to do with my suggestions. He had called his mother over the phone on his way back from Church and she had told him that their Parish priest had asked Matt to visit his nephew Steve who was in Stockholm currently. Steve being a fellow parishioner and a childhood friend, Matt was very keen on meeting him again after a long time.

“Glad that you agreed”, gushed Matt, as though it was all his idea in the first place. “Steve is a great guy, you will like him and we can stay with him at his house”, he continued. Not too keen on imposing myself on a stranger, I expressed my discomfiture. However, Matt was quite sure Steve would be happy to accommodate me and asked me not to worry. Finally, after some back and forth, we decided that Matt would call Steve and explicitly ask if we could stay there before we took any further action. A couple of days later, I asked Matt if he had spoken to Steve but Matt was a little evasive, just saying “Don’t worry, I know Steve. I am sure it won’t be a problem”. I felt that something was amiss, but not wanting to probe deeper, I quietly booked a room in Stockholm, just in case. It proved to be a wise decision, as you will see.

Subsequently, we booked our tickets, by train and ferry from Copenhagen to Stockholm and set off that weekend. We boarded the train in the late afternoon and took our seats. The train went up north to Helsingør, the famous setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There, we had to cross the sea to reach Helsingborg on the Swedish side. We had assumed that we would have to disembark, get on to the ferry, get off at the other end and catch another train. However, it turned out that we did not have to move an inch. At Helsingør, to our great astonishment, the train got divvied up and loaded onto a ferry, with us and all the other passengers still inside. The ferry then crossed the Øresund, the strait separating Sjælland and Skåne, a distance of about 4 Kms in about 20 minutes. At the other end, the train assembled itself again and we continued onward towards Stockholm.

Though the sea journey was only 20 minutes, all the dis-assembly and assembly meant that the actual time taken for the crossing was closer to about 4 hours. So, by the time we were on the Swedish side, it had become late evening. We had something to eat and retired to our berths for the night. For someone used to the narrow Indian no-frills berths, the ones on the Swedish train appeared luxurious. Each cubicle had four berths and an attached toilet. Built for Danes and Swedes, the berths were easily 7ft in length and a good two-and-half to three feet wide. They had soft beds with deep blue upholstery, fluffy white pillows and even softer blankets. The train was practically empty so I had one entire cubicle all to myself. Matt, likewise, had a cubicle all to himself.

I closed the curtains and lay down thinking how wonderful and peaceful travelling by train was turning out to be in that part of the world. I wistfully thought how it would have been even nicer to have had my girlfriend with me there. Which got me wondering about how many Danes may have made love on these very berths while travelling from one country to another. Which of course led me to worry about body fluids and hygiene. Which got me bolting out of the berth. I jumped down, switched on the light and minutely examined the berth, the pillows and the blankets. Thankfully, there were no telltale blotches or stains and everything appeared to be every bit as clean as I had initially assumed. Banishing all thoughts of sex, involving me or anyone else, I climbed back into the berth and slept peacefully through the rest of the journey.

Early next morning, I woke up as the train entered Stockholm station. Matt was already near the door with his bags, all excited and raring to go. We got off the train and caught a bus to Steve’s house. On our way, the usually reticent Matt was uncharacteristically loquacious and gave me some background on Steve.

Apparently, Steve and Matt had been neighbours in Chennai and thick friends since their early childhood. They had gone to the same school and the same church and were both members of their church choir. They had been practically inseparable till their college days. Both families were devout Christians, with Steve’s extended family having a number of priests amongst them. Steve’s uncle was their parish priest and everyone, including Steve, believed that Steve would follow his uncle into priesthood. Many in the parish also secretly believed that Matt would also become a priest along with his friend one day. If at all there was a blemish in their friendship,it was that Steve’s family had the unfortunate habit of comparing Steve unfavourably to Matt on occasion. Steve, Matt felt, resented this a little, though apparently he understood that it was no fault of Matt’s.

As things turned out, Matt’s family was not keen on him becoming a priest, and shockingly Steve also had other ideas. Steve met a girl, fell in love with her, and promptly dropped out of his priesthood training despite strong opposition from family. Matt, the sensible link between Steve and the rest of his almost estranged family, was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing Steve back on track. The subsequent attempts by Matt had only resulted in putting a strain on their friendship and this had resulted in Steve moving away from Matt as well. Finally, Steve, unable to take on the mounting pressure, quietly gathered a few other friends as witnesses and got married to Marie at the local registrar’s office.

Steve’s family, having no other choice, had quickly accepted the situation and embraced Steve and his new wife Marie back into the family fold. Steve’s uncle, not wanting Steve’s association with the church to discontinue, had found him gainful employment within the church itself. This was how Steve now found himself in Sweden on Church business.

As for the friendship between Steve and Matt, it had not recovered fully from that episode, though they had continued to stay in touch sporadically. Matt was hoping that this trip could be that opportunity to rectify the situation that he had been longing for.

Needless to say, I worried about how their reunion might turn out and hoped that our reception would not be a cold one. I needn’t have worried. Steve turned out to be a friendly chap and his welcome was spontaneous and effusive. He hugged Matt tightly and wouldn’t let him go. Matt, not used to such overt expressions of affection, reciprocated hesitantly, but I could see that he was also greatly relieved and extremely happy with the profuse welcome. After a while, Steve noticed me, apologised for his lapse in hospitality, introduced himself as Matt’s best friend and invited me into his house.

He introduced me to his wife Marie, and then to his six months old daughter. Marie said “hi” to the both of us and went back to the kitchen. From the smells wafting from the kitchen, it appeared that she was cooking up a feast in honour of Matt’s visit. I made myself comfortable on their Sofa while Steve was bringing Matt up to speed on all that had happened since they last met. Matt was listening to him with rapt attention and one could see that everything was getting back to as it should be between two childhood friends.

While they were catching up, I took my time to give the place a once over. The house we were in was a study in contrast. It was one of a row of single storey, single bedroom tenements that had seen better days. The furniture in the hall consisted of a faux-leather sofa set with cracks in the upholstery, a small cane tea table with some nails sticking out, a wooden dining table with a tattered plastic table cover and four mismatched chairs. In the bedroom, I could see from where I was sitting, two mattresses on the floor and no other furniture. It was as though somebody had pieced together everything at a garage sale. However, there was also an extremely large, and clearly new television set connected to a dish antenna. In addition, a large bowl of fruits dominated the dining table, and the fridge, I noticed when Marie opened it to take something out, was well stocked with lots of meat and other good stuff. On the tea table were a lot of magazines including the latest editions of Time and Newsweek.

From overhearing some of the conversation between Steve and Matt, I gleaned that the church was paying for all this and it looked like, though the church didn’t care too much for appearances, it was making sure Steve and his family had all the creature comforts that they desired.

After a while, the little baby started crying and Steve went into the bedroom to make her sleep. Subsequently, excusing himself, Steve joined his wife in the kitchen, leaving us to amuse ourselves. I started browsing through the magazines while Matt grabbed the remote to see what was on TV. The remote was a battered piece of metal, probably having received rough treatment in the hands of the baby. Its battery cover was missing and the batteries were practically dead. It would work once or twice and then stop working. Matt would then slap it repeatedly and twirl the batteries to give it an additional two clicks of life. While we were thus engaged, Steve, being the good host, would peek out of the kitchen every now and then and try and engage Matt is some conversation.

All that unaccustomed talking must have tired out Matt. Soon he was lolling on the sofa with the usual glazed look on his face while he continued mindlessly changing channels. I watched him for a few seconds, happy that normal services had resumed and went back to my magazine. A few minutes later, my attention was rudely drawn by some moaning sounds from the TV. I looked up to see on TV two voluptuous women soaping each other under the shower. I quickly turned to Matt, who was as usual in some other world and hissed “Matt! Change the channel quickly!”. Startled thus, Matt jumped up like a jack in the box. He frantically pressed the buttons on the remote but nothing happened. Exasperated, he then gave it a hard slap. Too hard, unfortunately, for remote jerked out of his hand and crashed to the floor. The case flew to one side while the batteries ejected and rolled under the Sofa. Matt stood there transfixed in the middle of the room, with his mouth agape, looking alternately at me and towards the kitchen, while the moaning and soaping continued unabated. For once, I had my wits about me and I quickly jumped and pulled the TV plug out of the socket. Thankfully, Steve and Marie seemed not to have noticed anything and we let out a collective sigh of relief.

A few minutes later Marie announced that lunch was ready. Steve set the table and brought out a veritable feast, including rice, chicken curry, beef pepper fry, sambar, rasam and the works. I thoroughly enjoyed myself though Matt appeared a little preoccupied, probably still thinking about the near disaster. After lunch, while Steve and Marie were clearing the table, Matt thanked me profusely for my quick reaction. I brushed aside his compliments, saying it was nothing and that anyway we were all adults and Steve looked like a grounded guy and would not have made a big deal of it. Besides, I pointed out with a laugh, I had only switched off the TV and in all probability when they switched it on again, the same channel would be playing, and they would find out anyway. I thought he would see the funny side of it, but Matt’s face turned ashen. When I gently admonished him for making a big issue of nothing, he said that I didn’t know Steve and that he might tell the people in their parish back home that Matt watched such programs and tarnish his spotless reputation.

Though not entirely convinced, I tried looking for the power switch of the dish antenna to solve the problem once and for all, but couldn’t spot it. Matt in the meanwhile I noticed was getting increasingly agitated. So in order pacify him I half-jokingly offered, “Don’t worry. If he does go back and tell everyone, just tell them it was me doing the watching and not you”. Matt shook his head vehemently and stated categorically that he couldn’t possibly do such an awful thing as to put the blame on me.

Before we could contemplate the next line of action, Steve and Marie joined us in the hall having completed their kitchen work. “I hope you are staying with us”, said Steve. Now that I had met Steve, I was actually quite comfortable with this idea and was about to nod my head in the affirmative when much to my surprise Matt abruptly announced that we had already booked a room closer to the centre of Stockholm as that would help us see more of the city within the short span of our stay. Though disappointed, Steve was gracious and agreed that was also a good idea. After a few more minutes, Matt suggested that we leave and so we bid farewell to the Steves and left their place.

Once we left their house, not wanting him to get worked up again, I confessed to Matt that I had already booked a room in the heart of the city, just in case, and we could go there. He seemed relieved. As the evening progressed, Matt seemed to become more and more relaxed and he was back to his normal self by the end of the day. The rest of the trip turned out great and we returned to Copenhagen with wonderful memories.

A few years later, Matt got married. I attended his wedding reception and got introduced to his pretty wife. I asked if Steve was around, wanting to say “hello”. Matt informed me that Steve wasn’t there as he had not been invited. He further told me that they were no longer on speaking terms. “Just as I predicted,…”, he started, when his mother joined us. He stopped whatever he was saying in mid-sentence and introduced me as his close friend and ex-colleague. She hugged me affectionately and said it was good to meet one of Matt’s few close friends and asked me for my name. When I mentioned it, she turned to Matt and asked, “Is he the one who went to Denmark and Stockholm with you?”. Matt started saying “Yes…” and then looked guiltily at me. Having got her answer, his mother then glared at me and turned away as though someone else had caught her attention. Not wanting the embarrass Matt on his wedding day, I pretended as though I had not noticed anything amiss. I congratulated Matt once again on his marriage, wished the newlyweds all the very best and left.

But I knew that he knew that I knew that he had, after all, acted on my suggestion offered half-jokingly so many years ago.

Day 3 – To Mt. Bulusan and back March 21, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
3 comments

Part III.  You can read Part I and Part II here.

The vegetarians in the group definitely knew that getting food without meat and fish in the Philippines was going to be a challenge. But the fact that the Filipinos ate rice, upto 4 times a day, somehow seemed to lull them into a false sense of security. “After all”, they seemed to think, “if steamed rice is available, how difficult would it be to find some Sambar, Rasam or an equivalent vegetarian curry?”. The truthful answer is “Not easy, my friend, not easy at all”.

breakfastThe food problem came to the fore the day we woke up in Villa Amada. There was a brief knock on our door at six in the morning. Still half asleep I went and opened the door to find a pretty young thing sporting a dazzling smile with our breakfast. Two plates, each with a serving of rice, a fried egg sunny side up and two small sausages presented neatly. A typical Filipino breakfast served in the room because Villa Amada did not have a separate dining area. I quietly accepted the plates, thanked her and then placed the plates on the one tiny table in the room. Despite being a meat eater, I could not bring myself to eat rice and sausages so early in the morning. My wife, being vegetarian, refused to even look at the plate. The plates remained where I had left them, untouched till we checked out, at which point in time, having spied a train of ants converging on the plates, I moved them into the corridor.

In our defense, we had ordered only one breakfast and when they described it as eggs, sausages and orange juice, I had assumed that it would come with toast, butter and preservatives.

Filipinos do eat rice for practically every meal. Most often with some dry meat or fish by the side. And unlike us Indians,  they don’t need any curry or gravy to go with it. Once in a while, as a concession, they may have a few drops of soy sauce or adobo sauce to go with the rice. Not bad at all once you get used to it, but definitely not what an Indian rice eater would want.

Anyway, we made do with some peanut butter sandwiches that morning while we waited for a couple of more of our family members to join us in Legaspi (they flew in a day later, from Manila).

June, at the wheels of our van, arrived at 8:00 AM sharp as planned. We then went to the airport, picked up the new arrivals and drove on to Sorsogon City. We had not booked any rooms in Sorsogon city either, though we had checked the net and found 3-4 options. Not finding too many useful reviews on TripAdvisor, we hadn’t been sure about the quality of the accommodations available in Sorsogon and hence had decided to wing it.

fernandosThe one and half hour drive was pleasant and the gentle banter between the occupants of the UrVan ensured that we reached the outskirts of Sorsogon before long. Our first stop was a place called Fernandos. It was a budget hotel with decent reviews. We went in, found the place to our liking, and more importantly  found rooms available and checked in immediately. The rooms were clean and neat, the rates eminently affordable and the service, as usual, excellent. The hotel had a spacious sitting area with an adjoining garden abuzz with bees and birds which added a lot of character to it.

There was a nice pizzeria across the road and we hoped to grab a quick bite before heading towards Mt. Bulusan. The food turned out to be great, but the service a little slow so by the time we came out, more than half the day was gone. Nevertheless, we charted a circuit around Mt. Bulusan, the volcano that had erupted only recently, and set out immediately. We were told that we may not be able to go too close to the volcano due to safety regulations, but since we weren’t planning to, we were not too worried. We had two destinations in mind for the day, the Mateo hot springs and the Bulusan lake which was home to several birds including kingfishers, fruit doves, trogons, and hornbills.

mateo

Half-naked, and happy in the hot springs

We took the south bound AH26 called the Pan-Philippine highway and traveled counter-clockwise down to the Mateo Hot and Cold Spring Resort first. We paid a nominal entrance fee, hired a hut, asked for the senior citizen discount for the two senior citizens in our group, which we didn’t get as senior citizen discount were only for Filipinos, and got ready for the dip. There were 4 pools, one marked hot, another marked lukewarm and the rest without too much water in them. The one marked hot turned out to be very pleasant and the clean water was a pleasure to swim in. Even though the water was coming from somewhere under Mt. Bulusan, there was no smell of sulfur, typical of such hot water springs. It was with great reluctance that we came out of the water an hour later as otherwise we would not have been able to reach lake Bulusan before it got dark.

lake bulusanA half-hour drive from there took us to the beautiful lake Bulusan. The large lake is surrounded by dense jungle and is home to several colourful birds. Unfortunately, we had only about an hour of sunlight left, and much to our disappointment, could only manage to rush headlong around the short trail, with the diminutive guide setting a terrific pace, bent on ensuring that we went to the end of the trail and back before sundown. We heard a few bird calls, posed for photos on the yet-to-be completed canopy walk, and spotted one heron at a distance before it got dark and we had to move on, secretly promising ourselves that we would be back again soon.

We drove along the coastline, through Bulusan, Barcelona, Rizal beach, and Gubat back to Sorsogon city. Along the way we caught glimpses of beautiful churches but could not halt as it was already dark. We thought of stopping along the way at some restaurant for some fresh seafood, but were told that eating in strange places in the province would turn us into vampires. As it turned out, we did not notice any restaurants along the way, leaving the vampire story untested. We had also planned to visit the Panguriran beach and island resort, the photos of which had looked inviting, but due to the paucity of time we couldn’t. “Next time, then”, became the catch-phrase of the day.

porkchopsAt Sorsogon city, we found a nice restaurant that served Bicol express, another local specialty that we had wanted to try, while the vegetarians found some salads and veg curries to their liking. It was nice watching the vegetarians worm their way into the hearts of the hospitable chefs and get dishes to their liking.

The rest of us, a few San Miguels down, and after having demolished some succulent pork ribs, some squid and lots of adobo, were left wondering why there were no Filipino restaurants around the world!

Day 2 – To Legazpi March 18, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines, Uncategorized.
6 comments

Part II.  Read part I here.

legaspi_airport_panorama

Legazpi Airport.  Photo: Bhaskar Dattatri.

Philippines, surprisingly, is not on the tourist map. After having been there and back, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why.

When we first told friends that we were going to the Philippines, it was like playing a word association game. One set of friends raised their eyebrows quizzically when they heard about our plans as though to ask “what’s there in the Philippines that is not there in Phuket or Pattaya?”. The ones that regularly traveled on business scrunched up their noses and said “Traffic Jams”. The tourist-y kind nodded knowingly and enquired rhetorically “Boracay uh?”, as though that was the only option. Was that all there was to the Philippines, we wondered.

When we searched the net, again there were only 3 destinations that cropped up regularly – the terraced rice fields at Banaue, the beaches at Boracay and the island of Palawan, apart from Manila, of course. We dug a little deeper and found Donsol where one could swim with the whale sharks. The rest of the Philippines, if we were to believe what was, or was not, on the net, might as have been unexplored territory! So we rolled up our sleeves and went where no one ever goes – beyond page 10 of the google search results. That’s when we discovered Bicol.

Bicol had everything we wanted, from smaller cities, villages, lakes, forests and bird sanctuaries to beaches, scuba diving and whale shark watching. And volcanoes. Not one, but two. Not dormant, but active. Not just active, but gurgling and spewing. Mt. Bulusan, in the heart of Bicol region had last erupted on 23rd of Feb 2016, just about 10 days before our trip. Its gentle cough had sent up a plume of smoke and ash to a height of over 500 meters! A Filipino blogger called Bicol a hidden gem, and we were smitten.

The early morning CebuPacific flight from Manila to Legaspi city was uneventful. The flight, which was the second for the day in that sector, was full and we were among the few foreigners. No food was served, but the air hostesses sported genuine smiles. They also had a nice trick up their sleeve. Instead of informing us about all the sectors CebuPacific covered (as part of their marketing spiel), they conducted a short quiz with prizes for passengers who could name 4 foreign destinations of CebuPacific or 3 local destinations, etc. I thought it was a considerate and engaging way of disseminating marketing information.

Legaspi airport turned out to be scenic, tiny, bright and airy, and well maintained with an unhindered view of Mt. Mayon. Our 12-seater Nissan UrVan  was there waiting for us, with June at the wheels. We piled in and drove around looking for a hotel to stay in. After a couple of false stops we finally found a decent place with clean rooms in the heart of the city. The hotel, Villa Amada, was right above the 1st Colonial Grill famous for its Sili ice cream. Unfortunately, we missed having it. Very silly of us, I must admit.

legaspi_porkIt was past noon by then so we checked in and immediately went to a mall for lunch. Some of us went to a Chinese restaurant while the rest raided a pizza joint looking for vegetarian fare. The pork and broccoli dish was delectable. In the spirit of adventure and experimentation, I had a San Miguel apple flavoured beer for the first and last time.

legaspi_cagsawaAfter lunch we went to the Cagsawa ruins, the remnants of an 18th century Fanciscan church surrounded by paddy fields with Mt. Mayon as a backdrop. Mt Mayon, like most volcanoes, loomed over an otherwise flat landscape with just its tip hidden behind a tiny wisp of clouds. Very scenic and peaceful despite a number of fellow tourists, mostly Filipinos, milling around. We had buko juice (coconut water), bought and ate honey coated pilinuts, a local delicacy (melted in our mouth) and waited as the ladies browsed through each of the 20-odd almost identical shops with identical merchandise.  While waiting, a large group of friendly Filipinos wanted me to take some photos of them using 4-5 of their phones.  I obliged and answered their questions on where I was from.  One of them, a sailor, was thrilled to hear that I was from Chennai, India.  Apparently he had a lot of colleagues from Chennai.  He taught the others to greet me in Tamil and they all shouted “Vanakkam” in unison before departing.

From there we went to Ligñon hill which afforded a wonderful view of the city of Legaspi on one side and Mt. Mayon on the other. From the viewpoint we noticed a small airfield and wondered why such a small city had an airport and an airfield before we realized that the tiny airfield was the airport we had landed on earlier in the day. We also spotted a few birds including what we thought was a Philippine Bulbul, which sent our Filipina relatives into fits of uncontrollable giggling. Apparently, bulbul was Tagalog slang for a female body part. There was just so much to learn.

It got dark pretty early, by around 5:30 PM, and so the rest of the evening we spent walking around Legaspi city. We bought some fruits at the open market, ogled at the colourful jeepnies and scouted around for a place to have dinner. We were again surprised to note that we were among the few foreigners in the city that day. There were quite a number of money changers in the city which we initially thought was suggestive of sizable tourist traffic. However, we noticed that most of those transacting there were locals, so we guessed that these exchanges were mostly catering to locals to help them convert the foreign exchange coming from their expat relatives.

This was another observation that brought home the fact that Filipinos were unfailingly cheerful, courteous and kind not because the tourism trade demanded it, but because that is their true nature. That’s just the way they are.

How can one not fall in love with people like that?!

First impressions of Philippines March 17, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
19 comments

Part I of a series.

traffic_manilaI had had no plans for a holiday, definitely not one to the Philippines. But destiny had other ideas and there I was flying into the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on a bright Wednesday morning.

As I leaned over my wife and peered through the aircraft window, I saw the Pasig river and the much blacker San Juan river winding their way through Metro Manila. What appeared to be tin-roofed tenements on both banks reminded me of the slums near the Cooum. The houses were tightly packed interspersed with patches of greenery. I could not help but think that Manila could very well be a twin of Chennai.

The airport turned out to be not much bigger, but cleaner and brighter. More like the Hyderabad airport than Chennai’s, though definitely not like Changi or Heathrow. The airport officials like their counterparts around the world were grim faced and unsmiling. Just like in Chennai, the signs and directions at the airport left a lot to be desired and the airport security guards though better dressed, appeared just as surly and unhelpful as their Indian brethren. Consequently it was a good while before we could spot family members who had come to pick us up.

Having been ensconced in air-conditioning for over 12 hours, the heat hit us as we exited the airport. The temperature and humidity levels were almost identical to what we are used to in Chennai, though maybe the sky was marginally bluer and the sun a wee bit sharper. Luckily, we were back in air-conditioned comfort once we boarded the Toyota Innova that has come to take us to our accommodations.

The initial part of the drive from the airport reinforced the impression that Manila was just like Chennai. Construction of flyovers and subways appeared to be in full swing and there were mounds of construction debris piled alongside the roads. Thick and ugly strands of wires and cables hung between electrical post like last year’s forgotten festoons. The traffic was horrendous and progress slow. Pedestrians dodged traffic in their quest to reach the other side of the road. The same models of vehicles that we find in India, the Hyundai i10s, Innovas and Fortuners were vying for space on 2- and 4-lane roads. It was only the American style Pickup trucks, the colourful jeepnies and the auto-rickshaw-like tricycles that reminded us that this was not Chennai.

A while later we passed through the central business district, Makati. By then, we had begun to notice some significant differences.

Despite the heavy traffic, there was no honking. Our driver appeared unflustered and patient and stuck to his lane. When he did switch lanes, the other drivers gave way gracefully. Nobody swore or showed the middle finger. A few motorbikes weaved their way in and out of traffic, but otherwise everyone appeared disciplined in their driving and considerate to other road users.

As for the trash on the roads, apart from the construction debris, not much else was there to be seen. No pieces of paper or plastic bags flying around, no overflowing bins, and definitely no stray dogs running around tearing Styrofoam cartons apart. Manila appeared clean. Not clean like Singapore is, where there is always someone sweeping and swabbing right behind you all the time, but clean in a “people are naturally clean and don’t litter” kind of way. The heart of Metro Manila’s Makati region, where most of the larger banks and offices are located, had wide green spaces, neat tall buildings and looked almost as shiny and new as parts of Singapore.

Within an hour of landing in Manila, we realized that any resemblance between Chennai and Manila was merely illusory. Manila may be just as crowded as Indian metros, but it was leagues ahead of our cities in terms of cleanliness and civility.

The more we saw of Manila and the rest of the Luzon island over the next few days, the more visible these fundamental differences became. I tried to placate myself by thinking that India’s population pressures were the reason for the stark differences. However, a cursory search on population and demographics quickly blew this theory away. Though Philippines has one-tenth of India’s population, it’s land mass is also considerably smaller. so, in terms of population density, India and the Philippines are not far apart, India ranking 31st with 376 people per square kilometer while the Philippines comes in at no.34 with 359 people per square kilometer. So definitely, population was not the reason for the differences.

So what makes Manila cleaner and kinder? It could be the GDP and literacy levels. There is a yawning gap between the two countries with Philippines way ahead of us. Their GDP is nearly double ours and their literacy levels are well above 94% while we are still languishing in the mid-60s. Maybe the homogeneity of the population – culturally, ethnically and economically – helps. May be the government is more efficient.

Or, it could just be the attitude of people.