About 6 hours into my South Korean sojourn and I want nothing more than to be back in Manila. In Eastwood city, specifically, on my box bed surrounded by pillows and my generous duvet. We're somewhere over the ocean, somewhere. The overhead panels are marking our progress on a colorful map of east Asia, but I've taken my contacts out and can see only blotches from this distance. I believe the white blinking blotch is our plane. I can't make out anything else.
Three hours ago I was sitting in the Sampaguita Lounge, in NAIA Terminal One. To get to the Sampaguita Lounge, one takes a dimly-lit elevator in a ramshackle, construction-barrier-lined section of the airport. It's exactly one floor up, but there are no stairs. The elevator opens up to a corridor, blocked on one end with a bunch of potted plants, and darkness beyond. The other end is the lounge, and there's usually a greeter there waiting for you. At least, there was, 2 years ago. Now there's an electric fan ventilating an empty reception area. It's just before 10 in the evening when I get there, and the handful of staff are sleeping in the armchairs. I take care to pound my feet against the floor as I walk, in the hopes that my approach will wake them and save me from having to clear my throat or something equally tiresome. As the floor is carpeted, this strategy proves difficult to implement. Thankfully, one of them stirs before I'm within throat-clearing distance. She looks at me like they've never had a customer before, and then I suppose, she wakes up.
The Sampaguita was created a few years back as an "airport lounge for the economy class," i.e., the vast majority of flyers who are not quite privileged enough to qualify for the Mabuhay club, or any of the other premier airport hangouts. When I first tried it, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There was a modest buffet of small sandwiches and drinks, and a decent wireless connection. The plush chairs were loads better than the steel benches in the waiting areas outside. The population density was much lower too, and because there was an entrance fee (PhP450/pax), you rarely saw screaming children here.
All of these things were generally still true of Sampaguita Lounge circa 2009, but it felt worn and used-up, like a promising starlet who has turned to pornography. The low, ambient light was uneven; some bulbs had burned out and had never been replaced. The chairs were beginning to sag, and many needed to be reupholstered. The background music sounded like it was coming straight out of a Magic Sing. Not all the electric sockets worked, so when I asked to charge my gear, they wheeled out an industrial-strength power strip that you would normally use with washing machines or airconditioners.
The restroom was the real discovery: huge drifts of moist, crumpled toilet paper on the floor and sink. The cubicle doors, left ajar, revealed their sordid, unflushed interiors. There were small puddles on the black tile floor and I tell myself that it's just water. Well, technically, all bodily fluids are at least part water, so I'm not being completely delusory. I zip up and get out of there as fast as I can.
As I leave the restroom and its midnight horrors, one of the attendants reminds me that my flight is leaving in half an hour. When I get to my gate, I remember why the Sampaguita is a good choice even in its current miserable state: the rest of the airport is like a marketplace. In NAIA, five departure gates open onto the same huge room, and there are hundreds of people vying for space on the perforated steel slabs. It occurs to me that the only difference between NAIA's waiting areas and Ondoy evacuation centers is that Ondoy victims can queue up for showers. This thought fills me with a great sadness, and I find myself sprinting to the ramp to escape the sounds of the unwashed multitude.