Flying with AI and My Introduction to Cemetery Noodles

Flying with AI and My Introduction to Cemetery Noodles
Mural on an exterior wall of Manila South Cemetery

"Allen Ih-VER-son! "Allen Ih-VER-son!" calls the man in the white ghutrah at the end of the jet bridge. I look at the sign he's holding and notice the name is spelled the same as the former NBA star. His improper pronunciation tells you all you need to know about how popular basketball is with Emiratis.

I once saw AI, along with Carmelo Anthony, on Beale Street in Memphis, so I find it pretty wild that I might run into him again by chance. What are the odds of randomly crossing paths with the same celebrity twice?

I'm tempted to wait around to see if it's really him, but I'm tired from the 13 1/2-hour flight from Chicago and I want to get ahead of the crowd as much as possible. My sense of urgency proves to be totally unnecessary because the Abu Dhabi airport is a well-oiled machine. I cruise through immigration in a matter of minutes.

Instead of being thrifty and catching the public bus to the city center as I'd planned, I splurge on a taxi to save nearly an hour since my plane arrived late and my AirBnb host—the unnervingly named "Killu"—is expecting me.

I catch a glimpse of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque as we drive into the city center. I am a little disappointed that I won't have time to visit it before my flight leaves the following morning, but seeing it from afar helps. I tell myself it just looks like a less impressive Taj Mahal anyway, although it's supposedly stunning on the inside.

The extent of my sightseeing in Abu Dhabi

There isn't much about Abu Dhabi that interests me. It's a modern city lacking character. Hardly anyone lived there a century ago and much of the development has occurred in the past 30 years after it became the capital. It doesn't appear to have much of a culture of its own. Most restaurants advertise food from other countries and chain establishments are plentiful. I'm sure it's hidden there somewhere, but not easily discovered on a short layover. Still, it's clean and safe and everyone seems polite. It serves its purpose on this trip of helping to break up my journey and making the long-haul flights slightly more bearable.

Although I'm exhausted, the time difference turns my days and nights upside down and keeps me from sleeping more than about four hours. It turns out I would have been woken up by the call to prayer shortly thereafter anyway.

Late night at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The line I am in terminates on the other side of the wall in the distance.

After another long flight, I finally arrive in Manila. Ninoy Aquino is the polar opposite of Abu Dhabi, an unorganized mess that is unlike anything I've ever seen. I forgot to fill out my online health declaration form before arriving, and this proves costly. I complete it in under 10 minutes with the help of an airport employee, but during that time, hundreds of others passengers get in line ahead of me.

The queue not only goes outside the roped area but spills over into the next lobby for travelers with Philippine passports and then snakes back around all the way into the area for foreigners trying to enter the country. Foreigners and locals stand in line together before the Filipinos eventually split off on their own. I'm very near the end of a line that obviously includes several different flights that landed in a very short time span. I estimate that there are over a thousand people waiting at its longest point.

After about an hour of waiting, another flight arrives and a member of the airport staff lets the foreigners from it join the line for Filipinos, which by then has dwindled down to almost nothing, meaning that they need to wait only a few minutes. I want to explain to the guy that the people who had already been waiting for a long time should have been given priority, but I remember seeing a sign warning of "sanctions" for people who verbally confront airport workers. I know from experience in this part of the world that it would likely fall on deaf ears anyway. I try to focus on the positive. At least the people here willingly stand in line without needing to be shepherded, unlike in some other nearby countries.

I finally break free of immigration after midnight. At this point, I've slept no more than about 10 hours total in the past 3 days and I'm running on empty. After finding an ATM and getting a SIM card set up, I order a ride on Grab and make it to my destination around 1 AM. The building is dark, so I hit the buzzer and see a man, who had been sleeping on a bench in the lobby, leap up in surprise.

The night watchman heaves my biggest backpack onto his shoulder. He's a small man, probably over 50, and I figure my bag must weigh almost as much as him. The building has no elevator and I'm staying on the fourth floor.

There's a huge cockroach waiting just outside my room in the hallway. I try to crush it in order to prevent it from inevitably paying me a visit later, but the lugs on my trail running shoes are too big and it squirms away. The watchman opens the room and of course, the roach runs in. I fail on my second assassination attempt as well and it darts into the bathroom.

After he drops my bag on the bed, the man grabs a flip-flop, heads into the bathroom, and does the dirty work for me. He then picks up the intruder by its antennae and tosses it outside over the hallway balcony. I don't know how much money it would take me to be willing to pick up a cockroach with my bare hands, but it's surely many times more than this guy makes in a night. In my sleep-deprived state, I don't even think about tipping him.

After being sure to wash the severed cockroach legs down the drain first, I shower and crash hard around 2 am, but my body still hasn't adjusted and I wake up bright and early at 6 o'clock. It takes a while, but I finally drag myself out of the room and hail a ride to the Salcedo Saturday Market, supposedly one of the best weekend markets in the city. I'm famished from subsisting on airline food for the past two days. Even though I'm trying to eat less pork these days, I can't resist the bagnet (crispy pork belly). It seems like eating anything else for my first meal here would be blasphemous.

I don't really have any plans or know where to go, so I take a look at Maps. I spot a massive green area nearby that turns out to be a cemetery and start heading that way. I walk almost all the way around the exterior wall before finding the main gate of Manila South Cemetery. It's late morning now and I can feel the sun burning the back of my neck.

Just inside, there are several stands of people selling flowers and drinks. I notice that some of the mausoleums are so big, they actually look like small houses. As I walk further, I realize that they are actually homes and that people really live here among the dead.

Mausoleum McMansions

Dogs, cats, chickens, and ducks roam the streets. That's right, there are actually proper streets between the rows of graves, assigned names from A-Z. This little tomb town even has a Main Street.

There are hammocks with people taking graveside siestas. There's a basketball goal at the end of one street. I wish Allen Iverson was here. Filipinos are basketball-obsessed and would probably recognize him instantly and ensure that he got a hero's welcome at Ninoy Aquino. No man-with-a-sign necessary.

Where's Allen Iverson when you really need him?

Since it is a neighborhood, there are naturally a few places to eat. The first one I come across is a fried noodle stand. I just can't bring myself to eat in a cemetery, and I haven't had time to work up an appetite again anyway. I resist the urge to take a picture because I can't help but feel like it's dehumanizing to the owner, even though I desperately want to document the first dining establishment I've ever witnessed that is surrounded by human corpses.

I don't spot any coffee shops, but I imagine if one opened here, it would quickly become a trendy spot for wannabe social media influencers ready to reenact the Grant Gustin Next To Oliver Queen's Grave meme.

A not-so-busy intersection and future home of Starbucks?

The people who live here are friendly and don't seem to mind my presence. The kids playing in the streets say hello. Some give me a high five or a fist bump. A few even offer a "Hey, bro" or "What's up?"

The oldest monument I see is from 1946, but most seem to be much more recent. Although it's primarily a Catholic cemetery, there's a small section for Muslims in the back corner that has been closed off from the rest of the property. There are even some pets buried here.

July of '22 was a tough month.

I see one area at the very back where the grass is overgrown and litter has been dumped all around. A few locals are even burning things nearby. Just over the wall are the high-rises and shopping malls of upscale Makati.

Neglected graves with smoke rising in the background
Insert Easy Rider joke here

As I walk through the rows of columbaria, three little kids follow me and ask me my name, trying in vain to repeat after me. They start sticking out their hands and saying something in Tagalog. I realize what's happening, so I say goodbye and quickly turn to leave. One of them finally remembers the magic word. "Money!" They all start repeating it. I head down Main Street for the gate as the oldest boy shouts "WHAT'S YOUR MONEY?" I try to convince myself I'm doing the right thing by not giving them any.

Main Street

I ask for a ride from the several tricycle taxi guys parked at the front, but they encourage me to take a cab instead. I am perplexed by this. In other countries, the tuk-tuk or motorbike taxi guys would be all over me. It has gotten cloudy, giving the back of my neck some relief from the sun, so I decide to walk back to my room instead.

It turns out to be a stroke of good fortune because I happen to wander along a dirty canal lined with what I first believe are off-duty jeepneys. I assume the operators live in the ramshackle homes on that particular street. I pass a few men tinkering under the hoods of their jeepneys.

One of many jeepneys parked along the canal

I observe a sign on one of the vehicles that reads "STOP THE JEEPNEY PHASE OUT." Later, I learn the government has announced plans to gradually replace the old diesel-powered jeeps with more eco-friendly models. While pollution in Manila is undoubtedly a major problem, the action pays little regard for the poor folks who will be most affected by such a policy, as green initiatives often seem to do. The vibrantly-decorated war remnants are iconic here, and many operators simply can't afford to buy new ones or retrofit their current vehicles, although the government has promised to provide financial aid for the transition. The announcement has led to strikes and protests. I wonder if the drivers of the jeepneys I walked past were simply off-duty or out somewhere fighting to sustain their livelihood.

God provides, and the government takes away.

I pass by a cockfighting pit that is packed despite it being early afternoon. By the time I climb the four flights of stairs to my room, I'm soaked in sweat. I have to resist taking a nap, knowing it will only prolong my inability to sleep through the whole night.

The working-class district of Pasay

After further thought, I feel like it probably wasn't the famous Allen Iverson on my flight. Surely he would have been flying first-class and would have deplaned before me.

The long walk home helped me work off the fried pork I had a few hours earlier. I suddenly regret passing on the cemetery noodles.

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