Molotov Cocktail: Shaken and Stirred

Trip Start Feb 12, 2006
Trip End Mar 02, 2007

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Flag of Philippines  ,
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

We had been told that Manila on New Years Eve was like being in Beirut, circa 1985. We thought this was an over exaggeration, but NYE came on with the deafening roar of a war zone and the stench of sulfur exploding in the air as the locals warmed up for a night of high jinx.
We had all taken to our beds for an afternoon nap to reserve our strength for the night ahead. The sounds I woke up to were as confusing as a bad acid trip: I could hear an angelic chorus from the beautiful stucco church across the road, mixed with the grating sound of Gloria Gaynor being murdered by a talent-less ditz in the karaoke bar next door, all iced off with the incessant rat-tat-tat of millions of fire crackers going off across the city.
Still feeling the weight of exhaustion pressing down on my forehead I got up, washed my face and went off to find Erin and Veronica - who were still out cold and unable to be roused, even with the promise of a night of boozing and dancing ahead. Resigning myself to at least a few more hours of loneliness I dragged my leaden limbs back to my room and settled down in front of the TV to watch A Little Princess which, sadly enough, I found incredibly entertaining and I was loathe to pull myself away when the other girls finally came knocking.
So, inevitably we dolled ourselves up for the evening in whatever clean clothes we could find in each others bags and crammed ourselves back into the terrifying coffin elevator to the ground floor.
The party in the pub downstairs was in full swing and the staff enthusiastically tried to drag us in, but we had made other plans. I called Cora who was already out and partying. "Catch a cab - tell him Havana - Greenfield."
Hmmm Havana... that's where we spent our first night in Manila! Excellent. We knew where we were going.
It was T minus one and a half hours, the kind giant at the front door of our hostel kindly flagged down a cab, which was a real spot of luck. All the taxi drivers had evacuated from the centre of the city where we were staying. No one really told us why they were so terrified, but we found out soon enough.
On all our previous journeys through the streets of Manila we had been impressed by the sheer force and population of the traffic. Children with death wishes seemed to zig-zag across the roads heedless of oncoming trucks or cars and streets were as clogged and congested as Pavarotti's arteries.
The roads on NYE however, were eerily devoid of all traffic. Our taxi was a bit of a fix-her-upper, the right passenger door was barely hanging on with a piece of rope and it looked like someone had desperately devoured the stuffing from the seat in a fit of starvation. The driver seemed nervous at the prospect of driving at all. We could see why.
What initially looked like benign crowds of celebrators turned out to be gangs of psychos on the loose, as they set up great wooden barriers across the roads, drenched them in petrol and set then on fire. Young kids threw fire-crackers under the taxi as we sped by, and the scene became increasingly like the sort of thing my brother used to get up to on Grand Theft Auto on his Play station.
We rounded a corner that looked vaguely familiar. There it was. Havana!
Unfortunately, the place where Cora said she would meet us was unequivocally, unmistakably, no-buts-about-it, closed. In fact, most of the restaurants and bars seemed to be closed. The streets had been taken over by the malignant masses that were hooting with exhilaration as they threw flaming bottles off the verandahs and roofs, tossed firecrackers at each other and kicked flaming oil drums down the street.
The taxi driver was pretty loathe to let us out, I think he didn't want to be responsible for the deaths of three beautiful foreign girls. After some quick deliberation we decided the best course of action was to call Cora. "Mr. Taxi Driver, do you have a phone?"
"Me? No. I'm only a poor man."
Ok, rethink, let's go find a phone. We drove to a few of those tiny money lender stalls that seem to be imbedded in the street walls. Mr. Taxi said they usually had phones people could use for a small fee. We tried two stalls.
No phone.
We found another one.
Phone broken.
We found some police.
"Excuse me Sirs, we can't find our friend and we can't find a phone to call her, and it's almost midnight and this place is a little disconcerting... do you have a phone we can use?"
They all looked at each other, none of them wanting to be the gentleman to volunteer, until one stepped forward.
"Miss, what phone network does your friend use?"
"...? I dunno!"
"This phone can only call one network. And can only text. I'll try. What's your friend's number?"
Tick tock tick tock...
No luck I'm afraid. Cora was shelling out to the wrong phone company.
Another hero stepped up to the plate.
"I have a phone, but there is no credit on it. If you can pay for some credit, I'll try." Mr Hero and I set off up the road. Glancing back over my shoulder at Erin and Veronica looking incredibly nervous, I ventured off into the night with a complete stranger who was not an actual cop, but a citizen volunteer policeman.
We found another vendor, who looked none to happy to have a foreigner and a policeman approaching. Just our luck: they didn't sell phone credit.
Because it was such a special night, and the midnight hour was drawing ever closer, there weren't exactly hoards of people hanging about just waiting to sell phone credit to randomers such as ourselves. The policeman shrugged apology, "Sorry miss, I tried."
My despondency was only held in check by the rising panic. What the hell were we going to do? Lost in a city full of destructive maniacs bent on starting a riot just for fun, with Cora gone AWOL and no idea how to find her?
Mr. Taxi took us back to our hotel. The front door giant was surprised to see us back so soon. We explained our predicament and he let us call Cora again.
"Cora! Where are you?"
"I'm near Havana. Where are you?"
"We were just there but we couldn't see you, so... (the sob story followed)
"Ok, go back there and I'll wait out the front. I will be there in five minutes!"
Mr. Taxi rolled his eyes. The poor fella, rushing around a trio of retarded girls who didn't know their arses from their elbows. He took us back to our original destination, once again braving the crazies and pyromaniacs bent on destruction. This time he had less qualms about letting us out by ourselves, I think he was quite relieved to see the back of us. I shoved him a hefty tip and profuse thanks for his help before he sped off to safer suburbs. We sat on the darkened steps of Havana, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. Our watches ticked along, irregardless of our attempts to slow time, praying that we wouldn't spend the countdown slumped despondently on the steps of a closed bar in the dark streets of Malate surrounded by burning oil drums and Molotov cocktails.
A man approached. "Are you Kat, Veronica and Erin?"
We leapt upon him. "Yes! Yes we are!"
"Ah. I found you. My friend Cora called me. She said you are in the wrong place. There are two bars called Havana. This one, and another in a... much nicer part of the city. I manage the bar on the corner there (he pointed to a building that hadn't been set on fire yet,) and she called and asked me to find you."
Oh praise the Lord. We have been redeemed. He went on to explain that Cora had ordered a taxi and asked him to stay with us until it arrived.
Feeling much safer with a rescuer, we stood on the side of the road with things exploding all around us and people peering curiously, eyeing off our handbags. I realised I had adjusted pretty well to our environment when a Molotov cocktail went sailing by our heads and exploded behind us, extinguishing itself in the gutter and my reaction was just to casually step aside.
So that's where we were, rigid on the side of a burning street with a stranger for companionship, when we heard the distant muffle of the new year countdown and saw fireworks exuberantly reaching for the sky on the other side of the city.
"Happy New Year guys. Happy New Year... sir."
While it was disappointing to not be in the midst of an enormous party, with a San Miguel in hand when zero hour arrived, it quickly dawned on us that our NYE was probably the most unique one we would ever experience. More than likely, it would be a much more interesting story to tell than anyone else's. No drunken spew-a-thon for us - we braved a riot for our NYE!
The fireworks were still going when the taxi arrived - a real one with doors and seats and air-conditioning and our friendly new driver zipped us through the deserted streets to a much safer, more affluent part of town.
The kind guard/valets opened the doors for us and smiled happily, complimenting us on our choice of venue and giving us a fine welcome.
We had finally arrived at our destination. Cora pounced on us with excited hugs, wondering what took us so long, plunked some glittery top hats on our heads and dragged us off to her party - an eclectic mix of Aussies, Filipinas and Kiwis.
San Miguel, happy faces, incredible friends and Aussie accents; my new year was complete.
When the clock struck one, we decided to celebrate the New Year with Seoul after all, doing our own lone countdown and screaming and hugging amongst ourselves.
Elvis called Cora's phone to wish me a happy birthday (New Year 's Day, for those not in the know) and we all got satisfactorily inebriated.
While it wasn't the kind of NYE we had planned or hoped for, we ended up having an incredibly real experience which has been indelibly stamped in our memories for years to come. I don't know if next year will hold the same lustre, panic and adventure as NYE 2007, but I can only hope I will spend it with amazing friends like Erin, Veronica and Cora. Far be it from us to take on a boring holiday; Erin and I seem to attract danger no matter what country we're in, but we are proud to have tales to regale our friends with when we get home.
What's a holiday without a few near death experiences after all?
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