Onboard the air hostess made her way down the aisle. “I’ll have a vodka and…” I paused, checking her embarrassment, reminded myself that the cheapest flight I could find was a dry Arabic one with a stopover in the desert somewhere. “Make that an orange juice,” I corrected myself.
We’re going back more than a decade now to my first trip to Asia. At uni, there was a charity with the catchy acronym H.E.L.P. that posted people on the summer hols all over the world to do good, worthy things. It was always oversubscribed and it was potluck where you were assigned.
I got the call sometime in February. “Congratulations, you’re going to the Philippines!” Wow, fantastic. Elated, I put the phone down and only then wondered where the hell the Philippines was! A soggy four and half day bike ride from London to Edinburgh a couple of months later stumped up the cash for the alcohol lite flight. That summer I headed out.
I’ll always remember the huge round of applause plus many crossings of hearts as the flight landed in Asia’s only Catholic country, and one of the more superstitious places I have ever been.
That first night in Manila was intensely raucous (and distinctly non-religious); a pair of Australians saying we just had to go to the dodgiest bars imaginable down on Roxas Boulevard. The exuberance would wear off in the devout, basic surroundings of the mentally handicapped camp we were sent to build various things like greenhouses and ditches. Rice and rain were two constants that month. Before long mutiny broke out in our camp …