Manila to Hong Kong on $1 (2 of 2)

After many hours of restlessly shifting around on my row of 4 plastic chairs and watching plane after plane load up and people leave, things began to quiet down. Night had fallen, and everyone seemed to accept that nothing was going to happen for a while. The airline counters were closing for the night, the flight boards registered nothing, and the marble floor exuded an even cleaner, colder aura than before.

I rolled out my black foam mat that I kept with me. I parked it at the side of the huge airport lobby in full view of everyone, but not worried as other folks had started to find ways to get horizontal.

I didn’t really sleep, as much as I toyed with the idea of having a dream. The fluorescent lights gave no clue to the angle of the moon, so I could only guess at how many hours were left before I had to be up for the challenge of getting my ass on that plane.

Waking with a déjà vu-like view of NAIA’s ceiling, I noticed a cleaner who was polishing the already spotless floor and was amazed that I had fallen asleep. This was a surreal environment, an empty airport in an Asian city. I wondered about the lives of the people who came here in the middle of the night to clean it, to polish every inch of it with motorized mops, and then disappear for another 24 hours into the depths of Manila .

Over the next couple of hours activity slowly increased. I knew the flight was around 7.30am, but that was still a couple of hours away.

Finally I could sense some activity near the Gulf Air counter. It hadn’t opened yet but was sure to soon. Nobody was lining up, so I casually strolled to the bathroom to relieve myself and brush my teeth. Upon my return 3 minutes laterÂ… HORROR!!! There were about 100 people lined up in front of counter. Since my departure for the bathroom, the counter had opened and the whole world had descended. I was so mad at myself: wait for 17 hours, only to get jumped at the last 5 minutes, “Oh Nick, you are an idiot!” I thought.

Talk about pressure now! If I don’t get on this plane, it’s 4 days till the next one – and I’ve got all a whole dollar in my pocket. I didn’t even want to think what was considered “collateral” on the mean streets of Manila!

As I neared the counter I was sure the attendant would quickly inform me the flight was fully booked and that I was too late to be on the stand-by list. To my surprise she checked my ticket and kindly invited me to proceed to the waiting area. “Oh boy! Was it really this easy?” I asked myself, thinking I had just gotten away with something. This was living on the edge, where minute-to-minute actions made crucial differences. What a buzz!

I sat in the departure lounge, nervously grinning to myself and trying to act like I belonged there. Of course I didn’t, as I wasn’t booked on the flight; I just hoped to hell the wretched thing took off before anyone realised. Finally the signal was given for us to stand and board the plane. I felt like a jackpot winner about to take the stage and collect his prize, my grin impossible to hide.

As the Gulf Air DC 10 sped down the runway and gently lifted off, my worries evaporated into the pressurized cabin air. I had made it from Mindoro and onto this plane with a gnat’s wing to spare.

Ninety minutes later I touched down at Kai Tak International in Hong Kong. A remarkable and beautiful feeling came over me, one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had as a traveller. Even though I had just $1 in my pocket, I knew this place like the back of my hand. I had a bank account with cash in it, I had a job to go to, a friend’s apartment to crash in and many friends: I was safe. I was home, from home.

Hong KongÂ… The place I had landed in a year ago as a stranger was now home turf. Strapping on my backpack I made my way from the airport to Nathan Road, 15 minutes away. From there I strolled down to the harbor, checking out the morning rush hour people on their way to work. They were going about their daily routine, but I had already had my adventure for the day. The sun was shining and I had a supreme feeling of confidence about me; everything was going like clockwork.

Once I reached the Star Ferry terminal in Kowloon I remembered to go to the lower deck (75 cents rather than a buck). The 10-minute ride to Hong Kong island became just a mere part of the commuter miracle.

Arriving in Central I had a simple plan, one that came to mind in the Manila airport during that long wait. I would go to McDonald’s on D’Aguilar Street and order a coffee. I would wait until 10am, when the chefs from Beirut (a Lebanese restaurant where I used to work) opened. As I sat there drinking my coffee I couldn’t believe that I was actually part of a plan that was actually happening. Right on time Najib and Salim opened the restaurant, and I went over. After sharing a coffee and some conversation with them, they lent me a couple of dollars to get back to Discovery Bay, where my friend Steve had an apartment.

Riding the ferry to Discovery Bay I felt the world had smiled on me. I had enjoyed a great adventure, had been fortunate and had learned a lesson about cutting it close. And now I even had more than a dollar in my pocket.

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