*Short Tales from the Road is a collection of my travel stories on the road while walking the world. It’s about the good, the bad, the funny and the unexpected situations that I’ve encountered on my travels.*
MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES
It was one of the first self-funded travel trips I’ve ever been on. I was a young traveler; and together with 2 other friends, Abby and Zi Ying, had spent the week exploring the north of Luzon, and then flying off to the island of Boracay. Manila was our last stop in the Philippines, and we were set to fly home the next day.
After spending most of the evening chilling out at the popular Rizal Park, we were standing along the busy Roxas Boulevard when we were approached by an old Filipino man. He was skinny and scrawny, with rotten teeth and a bent back. He pointed to his horse carriage that was a couple of meters away from us.
“Horse? Ride?” he asked. It was obvious he didn’t speak much English.
We politely declined and got back to our ongoing conversation.
“I must eat the balut before we leave the Philippines,” I told the girls.
Abby replied, “We’ve been searching for it since we got to Manila and have yet to find it. You should have just gone and done it when we were in Boracay.”
“I didn’t have the courage then.”
“So where do we get it now?” Zi Ying wondered.
“Maybe he’ll know,” Abby said, looking towards the old man.
The old man was still standing next to us, listening in to our conversation, and still hoping that we’d consider going on his ride. He gave us a toothy grin when all our attention suddenly turned to him.
“Do you know where we can find the balut?” Abby asked him.
He looked confused.
“Balut. Duck. Egg. Balut,” I tried making shapes with my fingers, hoping that it’d help him understand.
His face suddenly lighted up, and he nodded enthusiastically. He made a few grunting noises that we assumed meant that he knew what we were talking about. He pointed again to his horse carriage and gestured us to follow him. We did.
“You can take us there?”
“Is it far?”
“It’s the balut, okay? We’re looking for the balut.”
He continued nodding to our questions until he got to his carriage. He then lowered the steel stairs, signalling us to get on the ride. We stopped short.
“How much is the ride?” I asked.
He looked at us, confused for a moment. I repeated myself again.
He used his hands to show us a ‘one’ and two ‘zeros’.
“100?” I asked. He nodded. I did the calculations in my head and it came up to MYR9 in my local currency, about US$2. I turned to the girls, “100 pesos. That’s pretty alright. We can enjoy the carriage ride and get the balut. Sounds like a good deal to me.”
They agreed and we got onto the carriage.
The first part of the ride was pretty uneventful. We passed by some of the sights we’ve already visited the last 2 days we were in the city. About 20 minutes into the ride, he brought us into Manila’s Chinatown.
I leaned over towards him from my seat, ” Don’t forget we have to look for the balut. We can get it here?”
He casually nodded. I wasn’t convinced.
“Where are we going?”
He nodded again. At this point I was irritated, and starting to get a little suspicious. The girls were also getting worried.
“Does he even know where he’s going, or what we want?” Zi Ying asked.
“He’s definitely taking us for a ride.”
For the next 15 minutes, I was constantly badgering him to tell me where he was headed, and whether I was still going to get my balut! He didn’t say a word and only nodded to every question I asked, until I finally gave up.
“We’re not getting anything. He’s taking us for a city tour that we don’t want. I guess we’ll just get off when he stops.”
Feeling defeated and slightly cheated, the three of us sat in silence for the rest of the ride. After a 45-minute ride around the city, our carriage made a turn into a secluded alley and came to a stop. We looked around confused, as fear started to creep in.
“Why did you stop….”
Before I could finish my question, our carriage was approached by a young, well-built Filipino man. He didn’t look threatening, but his sudden presence took us by surprise.
“You get off here,” he began, “and you have to pay before you get off.”
I had already prepared a 100 pesos note beforehand, so I took it out from my pocket and handed it to him.
“No!” he said, “Not 100 pesos. It’s 100 USD.”
I was gobsmacked.
“Wha… what?” I stammered, looking at my friends in utter confusion, “He told me it was 100 pesos.”
“No. It’s 100 USD. He doesn’t speak English. You have to pay before you get off.”
My confusion turned to anger. I instantly went off on an enraged rant, backed up by my two companions.
“What are you talking about?”
“He told us it was a 100 pesos.”
“So what if his English is bad.”
“100 USD is too much.”
“You’re trying to cheat us?”
The man clearly didn’t want to hear any of it. He was adamant, and just continued repeating what he had said earlier; and blocking our exit from the carriage.
I was absolutely furious, but also completely helpless. All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. What’s going to happen to us? Will he kill us? We can’t pay that 100 USD. It’s our last day in the Philippines and we don’t have enough. What do I do? Obviously, getting angry wasn’t working.
At that tensed moment, I did the only other thing I thought might work.
I started crying.
A few years of high-school acting, and many years of getting my way with daddy helped in that situation. “Please work,” I thought to myself, “Or I’m going to start crying for real.”
The man’s demeanor immediately changed.
“Why are you crying?” he asked. He was worried and concerned as he looked around the alley. He probably hasn’t done this for very long.
“Because you’re trying to cheat me,” I told him in between sobs, “It’s my last day in this country. I don’t have any more money.” I sobbed harder.
The loud sobs made him even more fidgety.
“Okay okay,” he finally said, “How much can you give me?”
“1000 pesos,” he countered.
“No. 100 pesos because that’s what he promised,” I pointed accusingly at our carriage driver. “I have no money.” I put in a couple more sobs for added drama.
“Okay fine,” he finally said, “100 pesos.” He moved away from the carriage exit as I passed him the 100 pesos I had in my hand. At that moment, he probably wanted to get rid of the annoying crying girl as soon as possible.
We got down from the carriage and walked down the alley as fast as we possibly could. As soon as we reached the main road among crowds of people, a wave of relief washed over me. I couldn’t believe we got ourselves into such a situation, and was extremely grateful and thankful that we got out of it without getting into further trouble. We were just lucky that the man we encountered had a little conscience. I turned to my friends.
“When I started crying, why didn’t you guys do something? Like help me out?”
“Cause we thought we’d let you do your thing.” They know me too well.
From that day on, I always, ALWAYS confirm prices by stating the currency. The dodgy rides? I sometimes recklessly still take them.
And no, I didn’t get my balut.