Getting Directions in a Foreign Language by Antonio Graceffo

I entered the Philippines on a tourist visa which was about to expire and I am now a student, taking the course to be qualified as an Emergency Medic Technician, so I went to Joan, my teacher, for directions to the Immigration Department. There is a famous poster of an incredibly messy desk and the caption says something like, “if your desk looks like this, the inside of your brain must look the same.” If the way she gave directions was an indication of what was going on inside her head, Joan must be under a lot of stress. She started talking and, other than the occasional word I recognized such as street, road, left, right, luncheon meat, or parachute, I really had no idea what she was talking about.


“Do you know the MRT?” she began.
“No, I don’t know anything.”
“OK, take the MRT to Cazero and change to the LRT.”
”I don’t know where the MRT is? What is an LRT?”
”It’s right there.” She said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the restroom.
“It’s in the toilet?”
“No, the LRT.”
“What is an LRT?”
”Yes, then you will walk on Adriatico.”
“Is that near the LRT?”
“No, you have to take a jeep.”
“What jeep, where, who?”


Seeing that I was completely lost, Joan took paper and pen. “I will draw you a map,” she said. She began talking again, at the same rate and with the same level of confusion as before. The only difference was now she was also drawing. The images on the paper seemed to represent crossings and turns, but none of them were labeled. Worse, they weren’t connected. She didn’t start with the front door of the school, tracing a continuous line to the front door of the Immigration Department. Instead, she drew separate, disjointed, pictures, of whatever she happened to be talking about at the moment.
“Then you turn right on Rodriguez Street.”
“Wait! You mean from San Fernando Road?”
“No, you take the train?”
“What train?”
“Yes, and a bus.”
“Where do I catch the bus?”
“Diego Avenue.”
“I catch the bus at Diego Avenue?”
“Wilfred what?”
“No, that’s where you take a right.”
“Onto Rodriguez?”
“Across the plaza.”
“The Plaza is on Wilfred?”
“NOOOOO that’s for the train, before the bus…inside the Immigration there will be many desks, go to the one in the far corner.”


She was already telling me what do when I arrived, and I still didn’t know if I should go left or right when I walked out of our door. “Is the Immigration Department on Rodriguez?” “No, Intramuros.”


She was making this stuff up. She had to be. She already had me standing in line at Immigration and hadn’t mentioned Intramuros. Now, she was claiming that’s where it was located. In my life, I had done a lot of bad things, and now they were coming back to haunt me. I had no one to blame but myself.


“Is anything on Rodriguez? That name came up a few times, and you didn’t really go back to it.”
“Go past the big vegetable market.”
“In Intramuros?”
No, on the train.”
“Ah yes.”


I know money is tight in Manila, but no one ever wants to take a taxi. Often when people give directions there are multiple taxis, buses, trains and donkey carts involved in what seems like the most complicated and time consuming way of traveling five kilometers ever conceived. When you ask someone how far away something is, a typical answer is “Very close, just three rides.” They don’t count distance or time. They count the number of transfers it takes to arrive. In the end, even if each of those changes only costs around ten pesos, it would often be cheaper, let alone faster and more convenient, to take a taxi, but no one wants to do it.
“It should only take twenty minutes.” Said Joan.
“To get there?” This was looking promising. Maybe it was difficult to describe where the place was but it was actually close by and I could get there easily by taxi.
“No, to do your visa.”
“How long to get there?”
“About two hours.”
Two hours! This was one of the other issues with Manila. Traffic was so horrible you had to allow about two hours to go anywhere.
“Does the train stop at Intramuros?”
“No, you walk there from the hospital.”
Hospital? There’s a hospital? This was the first I had heard of a hospital. Next, she was saying something about the monkey king and answering the ancient riddle. This just seemed to complicated for me. The paper was now nearly black, covered from top to bottom in black ink, with images of streets and traffic lights, and the crown of the monkey king. Not a single word was written on the paper.
In the end I took a cab.


My school warned me that because of corruption, getting a student visa would be too difficult. Instead, I was told to tell immigration that I am in the Philippines looking for business opportunities, and ask for a 90 day visa. I was really worried that someone at Immigration would try and rope me into selling Amway or Herbalife, or some other some network marketing scam. He would be like “If you are starting a business you need to buy $1,000 worth of merchandise to show you are serious.” By the time he finished with me I would wind up wishing he had sold me on network marketing.
When I turned in my form asking for 90 days, I thought the immigration guy was kidding when he said. “I can only give you 68 days?” In my life of living internationally, I had never heard of a 68 day visa. Why 68 days? I don’t know. Maybe because they are Catholic instead of Buddhist. That is the usual answer for why things are strange in the Philippines. The standard Philippine visa is 21 days. So, 68 is not even a function of 21…in other countries it is 30 days and 90 days. But what do other countries know? Anyway, the fee for the wonderful privilege of remaining in smelly dangerous Manila for an additional 68 days is $200 USD!


In Thailand a sixty day visa is $35 USD and we all complain. Not only was this visa crazy expensive but they told me to come back at 1:00 to pick it up. Having nothing to do, I wandered around Manila for a few hours. Normally, I would be afraid about getting mugged, but luckily the Immigration Department had already cleaned me out. Anyone approaching me with a gun would be wasting his time.


And best of all, to do the entire paramedic program I need to remain here for about six months. That means two more sixty-eight day visas. But I think I read that your second sixty-eight day visa is actually seventy-two days and your third sixty-eight day visa is considered your fourth, is naturally only good for sixty-four days. It was all quite complicated, so I took a copy of the visa schedule with me. It was nearly as thick as a New York City phone book, so I stuffed it into my shirt, hoping it would stop a bullet.


Wandering around Manila’s aromatic riverfront, I thought about the reasons why I came to study here. I am doing this paramedic deal because of the adventure and because I have always wanted to do this. It is a dream. And, believe it or not, one part of the dream is to work, even for six months, as a paramedic in New York City. I think no paramedic can claim to know about medical trauma till he has worked a twenty-four hour shift in the Bronx. And no human being knows real trauma till he has tried to hack out a living in the toughest, biggest, busiest, loneliest, most wonderful city in the world. This is one of the few adventures that I thought of that could be done in America. New York paramedic would be a hell of a ride.


While I was waiting for my visa I wandered around China town, where I spoke Mandarin with a shop owner. He said that his normal dialect was Hokien. He told me “the children forget their language. We have a Chinese school for them, but if they don’t read Mandarin everyday they will lose it.”
This is the curse of many of the world’s Chinese communities, who have given up their language and are now regretting it because of the business opportunities that speak Chinese. I still haven’t figured out how to make money off of my knowledge of Chinese, but it seems better to know it than not.


At the Internet café the kids were speaking Chinese dialect to each other while they played online role playing games. That was actually pretty cool. It is good that they can speak dialect, but these dialects are often so old or so regional that anywhere outside of their neighborhood the dialect is useless.


Near the Spanish ruin of Intramuros, I met Jay, another American at Starbucks. “Are you here waiting for a visa?” I asked. He laughed. “I think all foreigners at this Starbucks are waiting for a visa.” It was like Rick’s Café with everyone waiting for their visa to get out of Casa Blanca. I told him about my walk about the old part of Manila. “This city would be nice,” I said, realizing I had never said that about a city before. Normally cities are either nice or not. But Manila would have so much to offer if they could get a handle on poverty, crime, corruption, and garbage. “They have a river, old Spanish ruins, ancient churches…they have a potentially romantic promenade along the river, it could be really special…”


“But it isn’t.” concluded Jay reading my mind. We decided this was the unique charm that is the smelly and dangerous city of Manila.