Jumbo carriers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 July, 2004, 12:00am

When the dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled the country on a transport plane overloaded with goods, he was just following a cherished national tradition that when you travel, you should try to take as much of your home with you as possible.

That is why it is always easy to spot Filipinos at airports. They are the Asians toting loads that seem incredibly out of proportion with their physique. Leaving the country, a Filipino stuffs his bags with such indispensable items as instant noodles, fish sauce, jars of shrimp paste and boxes of chicken broth cubes. When he flies home, he is staggering under the weight of presents for his numerous friends and relatives.

I was once queuing to check in for a flight from Singapore to Manila when I was approached by a Filipina who asked if my luggage was below the weight allowance. She wanted to know if I could perhaps check in something for her, and she pointed to a large stand-up electric fan. I declined as politely as I could. For my own part, I once successfully brought out sticks of cooked barbecued pork, but I am not saying anything more than that.

Overpacking seems to be a national compulsion. I get the impression that we Filipinos feel it is a waste if we board an aircraft with one of our shoulders free of a load. If somebody found a way to strap luggage to legs, he would find a market in the Philippines.

The challenge is that most Filipinos want to carry as much as possible - without paying any penalties. This pits them against the cold, unfriendly eyes of airline gate agents, as well as customs inspectors. One favourite technique is to carry a lot of the load by hand, often distributed in several bags. Filipino travellers apparently do this so often that at least one airline has resigned itself to the practice: it just stations an agent close to the boarding area with a thick sheaf of luggage stickers on his arm. He stops each overloaded passenger, making them check in the bags. The passengers do not mind as they do not have to pay excess-baggage fees.

Another trick is to pack a small piece of hand luggage so tightly that it weighs as much as if it were full of superdense matter. The Filipino then affects a nonchalant stance, as if he were just carrying a light bag.

This probably accounts for the apocryphal story of a group of Filipinos waiting to check in at a foreign terminal when a local thief sprints past and tries to snatch one of their bags. The sheer weight stops him cold, nearly yanking off his arm. But the pain of that is as nothing compared to the beating he gets from the outraged - and very strong - Filipinos who are used to carrying such overweight bags.