In preparation for our upcoming trip to Beijing, Arthur and I decide to do two things differently from our previous trips there: Go on a tour group, and get the Chinese visa ourselves.
(Photo courtesy of thegeminigeek.com)
I'll let you know how the tour group experience turns out after the trip. We normally "wing it" - meaning we do everything ourselves in arranging for the trips we take: book our own flight, reserve our own hotel, read up on a lot of books and resources about the must see sights of the country where we're going as well as information on the "it's-our-secret-foreigners-out" places and things to do while there. There is a trade-off: Safety can be compromised and the chances for being conned are great, but the exhiliration of finding things out by yourself, and especially discoveries made off the beaten track, make up for some inconveniences of doing it ourselves. (Nothing makes a more indelible imprint than discovering things on your own. Much of the trip's hilarity comes from mistakes.)
This time, we have the convenience of being chauffered around for the whole trip, as well as having set meals so we don't worry about the "essentials". (Of course, I like going to the street stalls and sidewalk eateries in other countries, regarded by travelers as real local food, instead of the restaurants being propped up by tourism agencies.) I'm not liking the fact that the itinerary is not in our control, but we'll see how it goes.
Now, on to the visa application.
On our two previous trips there (one to Guangzhou, the next one to Shanghai), we asked a travel agency to facilitate the processing of our visa applications to China. The normal visa application costs PhP 1,400 (Philippine Pesos), and having an agency do it for you will add another PhP 1,000 or more, depending on how fast you need the visa.
We decide to reverse what we usually do, and we "winged" it, meaning we went to the embassy ourselves to line up for a visa.
Here's what the Alien (AKA me, as I am considered "so not Filipino" by many, and I outline this in a previous blogpost: http://theguywithablog.blogspot.com/2011/07/alien-in-garden-of-filipino-cultural.html) discovered along the way.
1. We can be early if we want to.
Granted, we arrived later than the opening of the embassy, as we had to juggle our schedules, and arrived there at 10AM. But there was a line waiting for us just to enter the embassy. A long line. A long, snaking line. A long, snaking line that extended from the second floor of the building (where the embassy is) to the first floor. And when we got our "queue numbers" we were 348 and 349.
Obviously, these people came here way ahead of the opening time, if by 10AM, they were merely serving 300 people - and by serving I mean just giving numbers. If it's something that we have to do, Filipinos make the effort and wake up and line up on time, and don't add to the popular notion of being "fashionably late" (I heard someone call it "late sa arrive").
It may have everything to do with the fact that the embassy accepts visa applications only until 10:45AM, and then you have to come back the following day if you don't make it by then.
2. Knowing a "pare" (friend) gives you license to cut in line.
While we were lining up on the stairs, the person right behind me starts hollering to the person in front of Arthur, saying "Pare, kumusta na?" ("How are you, friend?"), and they start talking over us, which is annoying as it is, but when Arthur went to the john, he starts inching closer to me -as if I was some obstacle - and physically overtakes me by resting his hand on the shoulder of his "friend" while talking. He proceeds to start pushing me with the other side of his body - albeit on the sly, so that no one can accuse him of "cutting" - but I was having none of it, and refused to budge. Only when he saw that I wasn't having any of his "I'm his friend" crap did he go back to his proper space in line.
3. Bring a book. A novel. Your DVD player. Your yoyo. Anything, everything.
You'll need it to stave off your boredom, your frustration and your angst at having to wait. And wait some more. Just to give you an idea of how "fast" we were going, we arrived at 10AM and were assigned 348 and 349; when we got in, we saw that the counter for visa applications was already serving 115 or thereabouts. I thought to myself, great, they've served 100 people already one hour after opening, this will be fast.
By 4PM, they were only serving number 280. I had to leave by then because I had a class to conduct. Arthur cancelled his appointments for the day. We were both spent just waiting for our turn at the line. I had to write a letter of authorization so that Arthur could give my visa requirements without question. And when our numbers were called (which he says was around 6PM), it took him less than a minute to finish transacting.
4. A funny thing happened in the bank. The supermarket. And now the embassy.
Lining up in the bank can be frustrating. The tellers aren't working as fast as they can, but aside from that, the line is deceptive. You could arrive in line and see three people ahead of you and think that you will be out of the bank in 15 minutes, 20 tops.
You didn't factor in one tiny thing: that mousy man in front of you is holding 25 passbooks, because everyone in the office asked him to update their bank data. And in the supermarket, in the "express lane", where it specifically states that only baskets or carts with 10 items or less can be served, a customer who orders 30 bags of rice will go to that same line, under the "supposed" premise that it is "just" one item -just a bag of rice, only in bulk.
Remember when I mentioned that we used to have an agency do the "work" for us in getting a visa? There were many "liaison officers" from these agencies, all holding bulks of passports. The one guy we saw transacting (when we started observing why it was taking so long) had at least 50 passports with him to transact at the counter. That was one person. Multiply that to at least 20 of these officers and you can see why the number you were assigned does not necessarily mean you will be served "at the appointed time".
5. As always, for Pinoys, rules are there to be broken.
Clearly posted on the walls were these words: "Keep Quiet. The Embassy has the right to refuse entry to disruptive/impolite applicants. You will not be served and will have to come back the next day."
Also posted were pictures of a cellular phone with a cross in front of it, much like traffic signs, that there are no cellular phones allowed, by ordinance, because it was an embassy.
And what did the Alien witness?
A group of people huddled sharing the latest gossip about their friend who got pregnant. Liaison officers converging and discussing how much backlog they would be enduring because of the slow process. People talking loudly on their cellular phones because Ms. Supsup was "crowned" third runner-up in the Ms. Universe pageant.
I felt sorry for the embassy guard - who was Pinoy, by the way - for doing his job. He repeatedly had to go around and go "Sssssssh!" (we counted at least 10 times that he had to round up the naughty children), and say things like "Malinaw naman ang mga nakapaskil, diba? Di ba kayo nakakabasa o nakakaintindi? Sabi diyan, Keep Quiet. At bawal gumamit ng cellphone." ("The signs are clearly posted, right? Can't you read nor understand? It says "Keep Quiet". And no using of cellular phones.") At least three times, he had to go to certain people just to embarrass them. They would stop making noise/using their cellphones, and when the guard leaves them, they would mutter how yabang (arrogant) the guard was for berating them in public. And then proceed to make the same noise or make the call once again.
Wherever we go, Filipinos must show foreigners our particular brand of "hospitality" and "cultural identity".
Mabuhay ka, Pilipino! (Long live the Filipino!)