Luck came to me early this year when I was invited to be among the panel speakers in the “Pacific Rim Conference” sponsored by 6 free market groups: Americans for Tax Reforms (ATR, US), State Policy Network (SPN, US), Grassroot Institute Hawaii (GIH), International Policy Network (IPN, London), Lion Rock Institute (LRI, HK), and Asia Forum Japan (AFJ, Tokyo). This will be my first visit to Hawaii, so I was very excited. The event was held in Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, in Honolulu, Hawaii, last May 23-24, 2007.
There’s a direct flight from Manila to Honolulu. The Philippine Airlines (PAL) flies there 3x a week, I don’t know the other airlines flying Manila-Honolulu either via Saipan or direct. Direct flight takes between 10 to 10 ½ hours. But take note of the time difference: Manila is +8 hours over GMT and Honolulu is -10 hours. So, Honolulu’s time is -18 hours from Manila’s time! So when my plane left Manila Tuesday 4pm, after about 10 hours, it reached Honolulu Tuesday 8am! I got out of the plane still groggy for I barely slept, and it was only 12 midnight of Tuesday in Manila.
I forgot to check the website of SPN how to proceed from the airport to the hotel. Well, this problem is not difficult to solve, especially if you’re a Filipino. I resolved to take the cheapest way possible to reach my destination, and I’ll ask brown and Malay-looking people to achieve this. The person who gave me the info was a Filipino (but US citizen already) working at the airport as traffic officer by day, and working at my destination hotel by eveningI His name was Mang Cesar and he’s from Ilocos Norte, a province in the northern part of the Philippines.
He said a city bus can take me close to Sheraton Waikiki and the fare is only $2. Regular shuttle buses can take you to your hotel at $9. My problem is that I didn’t have $2, only $50, and the bus driver does not give change. So I have to walk around the airport to look for a money changer, or perhaps some guys who can change my $50. At the departure check-in area, there was a group of 6 women who are airport employees and who look like my countrymen. I was 100% correct – they were indeed Filipinos; 5 from Ilocos or Metro Manila, 1 from Mindanao in southern Philippines. After a brief chat how they’re doing in Hawaii, they pitched in several coins that totaled $2. I said, “Wow, thank you, I already got one free ride!” And one of them, her name was Manang Pacing, in her late 50s I think, brought me to the waiting area for city buses that will take me near my hotel. She also offered to possibly host me for a night or 2 should I need it, and gave me her cell phone number. I said “thank you todo-todo” to her after bidding goodbye.
Though still groggy and sleepy, I stayed awake in the bus to see Honolulu’s streets, buildings and landscape. I was impressed, of course, of the wide and clean roads and streets. Downtown Honolulu is busy, though not as busy and fast-paced as those in Chicago, Washington DC and New York that I’ve seen when I was there 3 years ago.
After a little past an hour, it’s Waikiki area. The tall buildings and hotels are plenty, and the ocean is not far away. A few more blocks and the bus driver announced that Sheraton Waikiki is near, so I got off. I always travel light, so I really don’t mind walking a few blocks from the bus stop to my hotel.
A few minutes walk, then Sheraton Waikiki Hotel was in front of me – a huge building facing the ocean on one side, and the glittering malls on the other side. The reception area is very wide, and people just come in and go in shorts, t-shirts, slippers or sandals, some holding surf boards -- except those checking in and obviously just arrived from the airport, of course.
It was past 10am local time, and the lady in the reception said that check-in time is 3pm. I did not mention that I was sleepy and tired, and badly needed a place to rest. Maybe it showed in my face, and the lady busied herself checking some papers, and told me that she’s trying to make me check-in that time. You can just imagine the brightness in my face when she finally gave me my electronic key to my room, maybe about 5 minutes after she told me that “check-in time is 3pm”. I hurriedly said “thank you” and went to the elevator and forgot to get her name.
My room was on the 14th floor, it’s beautiful. My bed is wide and really comfy-looking, and there’s a wide flat screen TV (LG brand) on the wall facing my bed. My Japanese friend commented that about 20 years ago, almost all tv and appliances in Hawaii’s hotels were Japanese. Now they’re being edged out by Korean products. Outside my room is a veranda, facing an equally plush hotel. The ocean is partly blocked by said hotel building, but I could still see it. The view was refreshing and my tiredness was slightly assuaged. After a few minutes, a voice in my vocal chords perhaps emitted sounds like “Ngoorrkk…. Zzzzzz….
I woke up about 4pm hungry, so I slam-dunked into my mouth and belly the crackers, sandwich and softdrink I brought from Manila. By 5pm, I strolled down the beach and my eyes feasted on those barely-clothed skins and bodies either on sand and water, or walking and strolling around. By 6pm, I strolled around the malls. There are so many Japanese on the streets, much plentier than the white men and women.
The following day, day 1 of the conference started. It was nice to see again friends from other countries, and meet new faces and friends. Food from breakfast to lunch was buffet, and my belly feasted on an unlimited supply of delicious food.
In the evening, there were cocktails at 6pm at the hotel’s open space beside the swimming pool. Beer, wine, juices, other drinks were unlimited. By 7pm, we transferred to another open area with a stage in front opposite the beach, for a buffet dinner. Hawaiian food was great!
Then we had a guest speaker after dinner. John Rutledge spoke about globalization and physics, China and the US, entrepreneurs and governments, etc. John is a wonderful and very talented person. After his talk, a show began: a real Hawaiian music and dance performance! Three men on musical instruments, a male host, 4 pairs of lady and male dancers, and one legendary female singer took turns entertaining us for about 45 minutes. Hawaiian dance is gentle; at times, if the music is fast, the gyration of shapely female dancers is also fast and quick. The male dancers are stocky, they look more like warriors than dancers. But then again, you can have warrior-dancer guys
I really enjoyed the show. Including that part where the 8 men and women dancers also invited 8 people from the audience to dance with them on stage. The fire night dancer, one of the 4 men dancers, was fantastic! He could play a big stick of wood with fires on both ends with ease. Later on he got 2 said sticks, or 4 ends with fire, and he just toss, turn, jump above or do other acrobatic performance with those 2 sticks on fire! The male host said that male dancer is one of the top 9 fire night dancers in the whole world.
Day 2 of the conference, my panel on privatization is the 3rd and last topic for the day. Before I presented my paper, I shared some info about the Philippines -- that we now have the world’s 12th largest population, growing at around 1.8 million/year net of death (we are creating an equivalent of 1 Singapore every 2 years and 3 months, or 1 HK every 4 years), that we have plenty of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The audience liked it .
After a meeting with some friends in the afternoon, we have about 2 hours free before the last cocktails and dinner. Here I had a chance to dip in Hawaii’s waters! It’s clean, and a bit cold. The sand is white though not as fine as those in Boracay, the Philippines’ pride in beach resorts.
Right beside our hotel is the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, aka the “Pink Palace”. It’s one of the oldest and grandest hotels in Waikiki. It has a beautiful and wide beachfront bar-restaurant that seems to be full of people always. The hotel reception is not as busy as that in Sheraton Waikiki. From the beachfront bar, you walk past the reception area, you’re headed to the hotel flower garden and open area in the center of the quadrangle structure – very colorful, peaceful, well manicured, well maintained. I assume a number of romantic and expensive weddings may have been held there.
Our farewell dinner was held at one of the big halls of the Pink Palace. As usual, before dinner, it’s picture-taking left and right for old and new friends; because the following day, many of us will be flying to our respective continents. Dinner speaker was Dr. Jose Pinera, former Minister of Chile and he talked about the philosophy and methodologies of privatizing state pension system. He’s a very articulate and intelligent man, capable of talking non-stop for 3 hours or more if given the chance.
Below are some of my observations in my brief stay there.
1. Honolulu International Airport
The airport is quite big, I think about 5x that of Manila’s NAIA terminals 1 and 2 combined. But the former is serving Hawaii’s only 1 million people, residents and visitors alike, while the latter airport is the main gateway (there are about 6 other smaller international airports in the provinces) for some 88 million Filipinos and some 2.5 million foreign tourists that come annually.
The US immigration line is short, and processing of incoming foreigners is quite fast. The immigration officer just asked me what’s my purpose in going to Honolulu, for how many days. After checking my US visa, reading the invitation letter to me by the conference organizers and my e-ticket for my return flight (5 days after my arrival), he stamped my passport and gave me a 1 month stay.
2. Pearl Harbour
I stayed for 1 day to see other places outside our hotel premises. I woke up late the following day after gulping several glasses of beer and red wine in the after-dinner mixer. I followed my Indian and Chinese friends, Barun and Xingyang, respectively, at the Pearl Harbour. Again, I took the city bus. The place is further ahead from the international airport, so the bus took nearly 1 ½ hours to reach it, crawling its way around downtown area, among others.
Entrance is free to see various photos, documentaries, samples of some WW2 bombs, missiles and torpedoes, particularly those related to the bombings of Pearl Harbour in December 1939. There’s also a free boat ride to the MS Arizona memorial where the battle ship is sunken until now. That ship experienced the heaviest casualties, with more than 1,000 soldiers onboard dead. The ship was sunk nearly 70 years ago, but there’s still small amount of oil leaking from it until now.
There are entrance fees though to see the submarine USS Bowfin, and the battleship MS Missouri, about $5 and $16 respectively, I think. I didn’t see Bowfin, but Barun, Xengyang and myself entered Missouri. From the ticket office near Bowfin, a modern air-con bus will take you to Missouri, and back. The entrance fee already includes this bus ride. Missouri is a very big battleship (big for the Philippine Navy but maybe small for the US navy nowadays), very historical too, because it’s on this ship where Japanese military leaders signed Japan’s official surrender to the US, was signed in 1945. Thus, the boats Arizona and Missouri represented the beginning and end of Japanese aggression in WW2.
3. The City Bus
The city bus is clean, wide, air-conditioned and comfortable to ride. It is owned and operated by the city government. When we left Pearl Harbour to go back to our hotel, there was a problem. There wre few city buses; we waited for around 25 minutes, while the volume of other passengers was getting bigger. We took the first bus that came, and it was already full. I pondered that while the City Bus was clean and comfortable, nonetheless it’s still a monopoly government-owned enterprise. It’s schedule is rigidly arranged, and no other competitor bus companies.
In the Philippines, many air-con buses from private bus companies are not as modern and spacious as the Hawaii buses, but there are many buses competing for passengers, thus you will not wait long to ride one. And since there are many of them, you can choose which bus to take. Also, while there are no more city buses after 10pm in some routes, and they start plying by 5 or 6am, buses in the Philippines run 24 hours in most routes. And another difference is that while Hawaii’s (and many other US states’) city bus charge a flat rate of $2 for adults (and $1 for children) regardless of distance covered, Philippine buses (and in many other countries) charge on per kilometer after the minimum fare for the first 4 kilometers.
Inside the Bus, you can get a free pamphlet -- map of Honolulu and city bus routes. There are 3 foreign language translations to the description about the City Bus – Japanese, local Hawaii(?), and Filipino!
Downtown Honolulu’s traffic is bad. I wondered when the State or the City will start digging and building a rail-based public transportation.
4. Honolulu’s expensive prices
Blame it on the Japanese! Wherever a big number of Japanese would visit, expect prices to be very high. High for other people perhaps, but still cheap by Japanese standards. The good side is that people who work in places where the Japanese and other rich people frequent, will also experience wage inflation, or higher wages compared to the places or countries they came from. For instance, one afternoon, I checked out at the shops near my hotel to find an internet café. I found one – it’s $2 for 10 minutes, and $10 per hour! Oh my, I can find the same facility at comparable location in Manila for only about $1.2 per hour or less. I hurriedly left that shop and never bothered to check my email.
5. Filipinos in Hawaii
You bet it, there are many Filipinos in this American state in the Pacific Ocean. The female hotel staff who set up our breakfast and lunch food in the hotel were mostly Filipinos. One of them told me that in Sheraton Waikiki Hotel alone, there are around 500 Filipino employees! Some local hotel staff who were born and grew up in Hawaii trace their Filipino blood – either 1 or both of their parents, are Filipinos too!
I would advice some of my friends that whenever they go abroad to places where there are plenty of Filipinos, they should take advantage of it. Talk to some of them, and chances are they can give you some unsolicited information that you may not realize will be useful to you later on.
6. University of Hawaii
I have a number of friends here in Manila who graduated from UH for their Masters or PhD degrees. Many of them came from the East-West Center (EWC). So I was curious how the university looks like. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit this place as it was already late when we got back from Pearl Harbour. But luck came once more when the shuttle van that my Indian friend, Barun Mitra, and I took to Honolulu Airport, has to pass by UH to pick up 1 Thai passenger. UH is wide and spacious, buildings are far from each other. The EWC is one of those more prominent buildings because it’s rather big and wide (3 or 4 storeys high).
If another opportunity would come and I can visit Hawaii again, I’ll try to explore and see more places. Meanwhile, I am very grateful to the various free market institutes who organized that conference and paid for my trip and hotel accommodation.