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The East Indian woman turned to face the Caucasian man in the seat behind hers. “Did you fix the thing with your visa?”

“Yeah, I just had to give them some money.”

The woman was appalled. “How much?!”

His response was inaudible to me. There was an aisle between our seats. “It’s fine. I’ll just complain at the embassy when we land.”

“What did they say was the matter?”

“They said I overstayed because I’ve been here for over six months. But my visa’s valid for a year. I don’t get it.”

“Good thing you didn’t get into any trouble.”

“I paid them.”

I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. The plane was still boarding; the headsets hadn’t been given out yet. I learned that the woman has a Caucasian father and an Indian mother. She’s on her way home to Vancouver, after her vacation in Manila. The man has kids in Alberta, and that’s where he was headed. His second wife lives in the Visayas, I think. Her Canadian visa has not yet been approved.

The woman told of how tuition fees in Vancouver have tripled in the last four years. I think she’s on her way to a second graduate degree. She jokingly calls herself a professional student. “I can’t believe how cheap it is to get a degree here! You can get by on 300! That’s nothing! That’s just a book to me! I’m paying 4,000 per semester!” Canadian dollars, I assumed. She said it’s stupid for Canadian universities to accept international students who were just gonna go back to their home countries to practice their professions. She said it’s even more stupid for the international students who do that, when it’s dirt cheap to get a degree in their home countries.

“Even food is cheap! We had a lavish dinner, complete with wine and everything, and we only spent 10,000 pesos [pay-sus]! The same meal would’ve cost 600 in Canada!” (The exchange rate is about 43 pesos per Canadian dollar.)

“Yeah, and they say that that’s expensive. I say, ‘you have no idea what’s expensive!’”

The woman’s brother was on the same flight, but in first class. The flight was overbooked, and one of them had to settle for economy. They stayed in an upscale hotel in Makati, at $350 a night. They were so upset about seeing callgirls all over the hotel. “I’m not paying 350 US [dollars] for that view! They were flaunting themselves at the lobby!”

“What did you do?”

“I went over to the receptionist and complained. It was upsetting! There was one Arab guy who checked in with four girls, all under the age of 20! And then my brother — he was getting a massage. The masseuse whispers, ‘for a couple more dollars, I can give you much more than a massage,’ and he was naked in the massage! How uncomfortable is that?!”

“You gotta respect, though, that it’s tolerated and accepted here.”

“Well, yeah, must be some culture thing.”

I wanted them to stop talking. I didn’t want any second-hand assessments of the country I grew up in, the country I was being forced to leave. (Seriously, don’t get me started.) I was relieved when the plane took off. The chit-chat stopped.

It resumed about an hour before touchdown.

“I heard that it rains a lot in the Philippines,” she said as she turned to face him again. “I guess we came at the best time.” It was mid-summer. “And you know one thing about the people? They’re all so nice. Generally, you know. If you ask for directions, they’ll give you the right directions. In Vancouver, if you ask for directions, they’ll send you to the other side of the city!”

“Yeah, and they all know how to speak English here.”

“Yeah. And the plumbing’s great, too. Do you have good plumbing where your wife lives?”

“There’s a well. It’s okay.”

“That’s good. Do you call your kids everyday? I talked to my mom on the phone for about an hour everyday. It’s so cheap to make a long-distance call from the Philippines, too!”

“Yeah, it is. But I mostly emailed my kids instead. There are a lot of internet cafes around.”

“Yeah. Well, I can’t wait to get home. You still have a connecting flight to Alberta, right? How long is your layover?”

“Four hours.”

“Wow. I live about half an hour from the airport. I can’t wait.”

It was my turn to see what their country was like. And it isn’t going to be a vacation. I’ll remember not to ask for directions.

May 5, 2007

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