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Return of the Prodigal Daughter

Greetings from Whitfield! Yes, I'm back in the grey and the gloom with nothing to gloat about - boo, hiss!

In my last month I managed to do 30 dives (and I can tell you that it really hurt having to pay that bill!), and take shed-loads of pictures, none of which are on pbase yet. One noteworthy dive was a night dive I did with my friends Niki and Sabine. On surfacing we sent our dive gear back on the boat, and swam over to the floating bar that sits in Sabang bay for a drink or several.

When I wasn't diving I was mostly drinking, and I managed to fit in some fun nights out along the way. I did manage to do some exercise one day, when I got talked into doing a Hash run (as in Hash House Harriers - a widespread ex-pat thing). Somebody sets a trail - or actually two, a walking one and a running one . . . no prizes for guessing which I was on. Even so, it nearly killed me - I was expecting a relaxed stroll, but it was more like a forced march up and down over tricky terrain. It's all out in the middle of nowhere, so there's a real incentive to keep up - if you don't you could find yourself alone in the middle of the jungle somewhere in the Philippines. The whole event ended up with some free beer, and a collection of stupid songs that would make a rugby player proud. Oh well, at least I can say I did one!

I had a bit of a drama when I went to reconfirm my flight, as I was told that I would now be flying the next day. That's all very well, but it clearly stated on my ticket that it was non-transferable, and valid only until the 2nd November, and I worried about getting to the airport and being told that I'd missed my flight and would have to buy another ticket. In the end I paid a woman from the little travel agents in Sabang to go to Manila and get it revalidated.

The plus side to the date change was that I would now be able to go to the Halloween celebrations at The Point bar and have a full day for recovery before heading for Manila and my flight home. Halloween was a fun affair, although I peaked a bit early due to minesweeping shots - the owner kept buying shots for the whole bar, and of course not everybody drank theirs, so I snuck an extra couple each time.

The next day was spent packing and saying my goodbyes. Sabang's a funny old place, but it does have a certain something about it, underneath the seediness. Most of all though it would be the friends I had made that I would miss, along with the cheap beer, warm sunshine and of course diving. It's also the sort of place that people always go back to, and the chances are I'll be one of them.

I had decided to treat myself to a little bit of luxury in Manila, and booked into City Garden Hotel for a night and a half - which would allow me to check out at 1800 - my flight was at 2230. I headed straight to one of the huge malls that the capital boasts, and wandered around for several hours. Clothes are cheap in the Philippines, and although I am not a big girlie-shopper, I did want to get a couple of things; I even bought a suit - at under £20 it was a real quality one, obviously, but I thought I may be able to wangle an upgrade if I was wearing it . . . worth a try.

The hotel was well swanky - good value for £25 a night - and even had a swimming pool on the roof. I mostly hung out in my swish suite watching the American election and feeling dismayed that the country had voted that evil warmonger back in (sorry, my Yank friends, but WHAT THE F*CK WERE Y'ALL THINKING?!!). Heaven help the world now.

At an appropriate time I headed for the airport and queued up to have my bags weighed. I'm used to having this done at the check-in desk, but here the bags get weighed first, then you queue again for check-in. I was aware, of course, that I was over the standard 20 Kg weight allowance, but felt safe in the knowledge that I was entitled to an extra 15 Kg as I had signed up for the frequent flyer program (The Flying Dutchman, as KLM's is known). This still put me over a bit, but only by 5 Kg or so, and I hoped they'd let me off that.

It was with horror, then, that I received the news that I would have to pay US$500 in excess baggage charges! A lengthy exchange took place between me, the weighing boy and his supervisor, where I found out that at the level of frequent flyer I was (i.e. entry level) I was not entitled to any extra baggage allowance. After an age the supervisor actually heard me say the words "dive gear", and conceded that he could charge me at a lower rate, bringing the fee down to around $130.

In the middle of this exchange he interjected that whatever I'd pay, it was unlikely that I'd be flying tonight anyway, as an eruption in Europe meant that the flight would probably be cancelled - what??!! I thought I was hearing things at first, but gradually the news filtered through that yes indeed the flight was cancelled. Half the passengers by now had their baggage on the plane, and were sitting in the departure lounge.

This extreme action was due to the eruption in Iceland ("but we're not flying to Iceland"), and the paranoid measures seem to have been limited to KLM. Of course "force majeur" was quoted, so we were not put up or compensated in any way. We were told to 'phone between three and five the next afternoon to find out whether or not we would be flying the next day, as this was not certain at that stage, and no guarantee could be given that they'd be able to rebook our onward flights from Amsterdam. The thing is, when I had been trying to sort out my reconfirmation the previous week, the travel agents spent three hours trying to get through to KLM before they answered the 'phone.

I had spent all my Philippine money, and had only enough credit for one text message, which I sent to my parents, who were at the time in the car heading up the motorway to a hotel near Heathrow where they had planned to spend the night. I considered spending 24 hours at the airport, then had a good look around and realised that there were no facilities, and abandoned that idea. I adopted a lost Filipina, who was flying on to Rio, where she has lived for the past 30 years, and agreed to share a hotel room with her to cut down on cost. "I don't come from here [Manila]" she kept telling me - "nor do I," I would answer.

We got the name of a cheapish hotel not far from the airport, and secure a twin room for £18 for 24 hours. I have undoubtedly stayed in much worse places, but it was all a bit much for the Philippine lady. The next afternoon - after trying to get through to KLM all day and failing - we went to the airport, and to KLM's offices there, finding out that we would indeed be flying that night. The woman in the office was surprised we had to ask, as she said that KLM had known that it would only be a 24 hour delay the night before.

Even with this knowledge, we set off for the airport many hours before the flight, and were amongst the first in line for the check-in to open. I had to pay $140 excess for my bags (despite ditching a load of stuff including my dirty laundry!), and could not even manage to get an upgrade (the woman said that they do them at the end of check-in, not the beginning - I always thought you were meant to turn up early!), although she did give me seats with loads of legroom, so that was something.

Once through to the departure area I managed to find a swanky lounge that anyone can use for the price of £3, with free internet access (frustratingly slow, but still), comfy chairs, free snacks and drinks and even little beds if you fancy a lie down - I didn't risk this, just in case I fell asleep and missed the flight.

Around 16 hours later I landed safely at Heathrow, and was reunited with my parents. I was knackered, having had little sleep in the previous 48 hours, but otherwise well, and the cold didn't get to me that much either, although I'm feeling it now.

My number one priority now is to try and get my book published - after all I've gone to all the effort of writing it, I may as well give it a good old go. I've sent a few letters off direct to publishers already, but think I'm going to have to go down the agent road to be in with a real chance. All I've read has prepared me for a wait of several months before I hear anything further, so don't expect any news on that score for a while.

Well I guess it's time to stop waffling, so I'll leave this here, with wishes that everyone is well and happy, and looking forward to the onset of winter as much as I am. Deep joy!


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