I’m in Manila this week, somewhere between 3 and 15 hours out of sync. This part of the city is concrete jungle, Starbucks across from the hotel and McDonald’s down the block. On first glance, it could be any large American city: neon billboards for American brands, road signs and taxi markings in English.
The similarity stops at the surface. It is hot here, humid. Gulf coast humid. Like walking into a wet towel humid. Despite this, the sidewalks are clogged with pedestrian traffic, especially at shift change. Traffic on the streets is worse, a never ending tangle of beeping horns and weaving lane changes. It’s perpetually rush hour here. People ride three to a motorcycle or pack so tightly into Jeepneys that they hang off the back and cling to the roof. Women wear polo shirts or t-shirts – the only people I’ve seen in tank tops are tourists – and men and women alike use umbrellas to shade from the sun.
I’m here because Manila is one of the call center capitals of the world. It also happens to be in the time zone exactly opposite New York. The call centers run 24 hours, but their busiest shift is 9 pm to 5 am. The breakfast buffet at my hotel offers everything from bacon and eggs to salad to sliced meats and cheese to soup to chafing dish dinner entrees. I thought at first Philippine culture didn’t do breakfast; I realized later it was to accommodate the night shift.
I am 15 hours ahead of California, working New York hours. The call center is like any other office building: florescent lights, over eager air conditioning, constant hum of conversion in the background. It is a shock each time I pass a window – shades drawn – and see night sky though the crack between shade and glass. I am upside down, with no idea when I should be asleep or awake, half convinced that the top is still spinning.