Friday, August 22, 2003

Most Popular Guy at the ATO

So I'm taking flying lessons in a Cessna 150, a little two-seater plane that looks like a budget coupe with wings. Since I'm getting my license here, that means I have to get a medical clearance and apply for the license from the Philippines Air Transportation Office. And this, like everything else here, was not normal.

I took the day off on Thursday to do this. I went with Joseph, who works at my flight school, to the ATO. The organization was pretty typical Filipino: A maximum number of offices, minimum efficiency so you go to each one many different times, and no one's in a particular hurry to do anything. First I went to the main office, where the lady gave me a little piece of paper so I could go to the cashier across the hall and pay for the process. So I paid, and brought the Official Receipt (like the freakin' Holy Grail in this country. Everyone speaks of the Official Receipt with such reverence. You must get your Official Receipt!) back to the woman in the main office. (Later, I paid the Main Office Lady for the doctor's fee, and some other unexplained fee. Perhaps it just went into her purse. It's hard to argue with the entire cash outlay for the day was less than US$8.) She then sent me to the optometrist.
Before we walked in, Joseph said, "Be careful of the depth perception test. It took me 7 tries." Great.
Perhaps this woman was an optometrist. Or maybe the older guy who hovered around was an optometrist. She didn't say enough for me to know. I sat in a chair and she covered my left eye and said, "Read those," referring, I could only assume, to four letters on the opposite wall, even though she was looking at the floor. I read the letters without trouble, then she did the left eye. And I noticed how much my eyesight has degraded in that eye... I need to go to a real optometrist.
Then the woman pushed me into a dark closet, and I braced myself for an elaborate kidnapping scheme designed to trap middle-class U.S. diplomats interesting in flying. Then turned on one of those lighted eye test machines, and said, "You have a pen? Here is a paper. Write down on each line which is floating." "Huh?," I replied, as I stood alone in the dark.
I had a little blank slip of paper, I noticed as my eyes adjusted to the dark. I looked into the machine, and saw the numbers 1 2 3 4 on the top. None seemed to be doing anything. Then there was a grid with the letters A through H vertically on the left, followed by the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 on the rows. Still, none seemed to float. So there I sat in a darkened, overheated closet, with a pen and little slip of paper, looking at nothing that floats, overhearing the staff talk in Tagalog about the latest allegations that the First Gentleman, Mike Arroyo, hid a bunch of his wife's campaign contributions. (I can understand that much Tagalog, just enough to make sure they're not talking about me.)
Eventually I figured that in each row, a number would float. But still none floated. So I wiggled my head around, and tried other little tricks. Staring at them didn't help -- eventually they _all_ seemed to float! I wrote down my "answers" and gave them to the woman. All wrong. Great. I gave her some excuse that I didn't understand _ which I didn't _ and tried again. After more headaches and straining, some did seem to float. Sort of.
I know I really do have depth perception. It's not like I walk into walls ... my kids do, but I don't.
I got more right than wrong. Which seemed to be Good Enough. Then she took me back into the closet to determine to stick a device in my ear to see if I could hear.
After that, it was urine (involving a cup and a corner. Which in the Third World, is the definition of a clean bathroom.) and dental. Surely you don't need teeth to fly, do you? Turns out the only boxes on that form are "OK to Fly" and "Extraction Needed." So the test was to make sure I don't need a root canal at 2,000 feet.
During these jaunts, the secret has gotten out. I'm a Diplomat. Worse, I'm a U.S. Diplomat. The dentist asks me for "help" with getting a visa. I'm eager to "help" all I can, by giving advice.
By the time the doctor has checked all the tests and declared me fit to fly, I had a little party in the main office. The Main Office Lady, the Dentist, and the Pretty Urine Girl. The MOL has a sister in the States, and I have to tell her that it will take about 22 years to get an immigrant visa, assuming her sister petitions for her now. MOL also has a son who is not pleased with me after MOL remarks that I'm younger than he is, and look what I'm doing. The dentist brags to the rest how I said that she has a good case for a tourist visa. Then she asks how she can immigrate. She has no immediate relatives in the States, so... I suggest Canada. It's a beautiful country. They get the little joke. All of them ask for my business card, and I hand them over, wincing in advance about what calls I might get. Pretty Urine Girl just sits there, smiling at me. Perhaps she is thinking about getting in via the Fiancee visa, and hasn't noticed my ring.
It would never work. I just handed her a cup of warm pee.

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