Penman No. 102: The Cream of the Crop

2014FulbrightPenman for Monday, June 23, 2014


A FEW weeks ago, I was happy to attend a pre-departure orientation seminar for this year’s US-bound batch of Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey scholars. I’ve been to quite a few of these PDOs over the past decade or so, and normally I’d be there up front, giving one of the orientation talks.

I’m usually the closer at these seminars, my task being to remind our scholars to enjoy their stay in America and to learn all they can—and then to come home and serve their people. “Love America all you please,” goes my spiel, “but never forget where your home is, which is here—not even here in 21st century Makati, but in those parts of our country which languish in the 20th and even the 19th century. We go to the great schools of America not just to improve our lives but theirs—those Filipinos who cannot even read, or are too hungry and tired from work to read.”

Last month, I sat in the audience on the listening end, having been privileged with a Fulbright grant—again, after my first one nearly 30 years ago, when I left for the US to do my master’s at Michigan and my PhD at Wisconsin before returning in 1991. This September, if all goes well, I’ll be leaving for Washington, DC to do advanced research in connection with my ongoing book project on the First Quarter Storm, specifically to seek out American perceptions of and experiences with martial law in the Philippines, and also to interview Filipino-American activists from that period.

The Philippine-American Educational Foundation, headed by the very capable and amiable Dr. Esmeralda “EC” Cunanan, actually administers or acts as a conduit for several distinct scholarship programs that fall loosely under the “Fulbright” rubric, named after the late Sen. William J. Fulbright, who saw educational exchanges as the best way to promote international cooperation and understanding between America and the rest of the world. (The Fulbright program also sends out American scholars for studies abroad.) Indeed, as I often tell my American friends, one Fulbright scholarship will probably cost a hundredth of and produce a thousand times more enduring goodwill than one bomb. For us Filipinos, this is the pensionado concept brought over into a new century, with the important difference that our learning is no longer meant to serve American ends, but ours.

A scan of this year’s batch of outgoing scholars offers great hope for the future. Chosen from many hundreds if not thousands of applicants after rigorous evaluations and interviews, they represent truly the cream of the crop, and I felt honored to be in their company.

The so-called “classic” Fulbright scholars—those going for their master’s and PhD degrees—include the likes of Lisa Decenteceo of UP Diliman, who’s going for her PhD in Musicology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (yay, go Blue!); Neil Andrew Mijares of the University of San Carlos, who’s doing an MA in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa; and Ramjie Odin of Mindanao State University-Maguindanao, who’s entering the PhD program in Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture at Auburn University.

Among my three fellow “senior” postgraduate scholars, despite the fact that she looks young enough to pass for an undergrad, is Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan, who’ll be going to the University of Oklahoma to undertake advanced research in “Species Diversity and Survival in a Changing Environment: Developing a New Center for Biodiversity Conservation.”

For many years now, there’s also been a special Fulbright program focused on agriculture, the Philippine Agriculture Scholarship Program for Advanced Research, which was set up at the initiative of then Agriculture Secretary Edgardo J. Angara to improve our agricultural expertise. This year’s nine grantees include Ma-Ann Camarin of MSU-Marawi who’s going to another MSU, Mississippi State University, to do doctoral dissertation research on (hold your breath) “Disease Surveillance and Study on the Bacterial Flora of Freshwater Prawn (Machrobrachium rosenbergii) as Biological Control Against Pathogenic Bacteria.” Meanwhile, Shirley Villanueva of the University of Southeastern Philippines in Tagum is going to the University of California-Davis to conduct research on the “Genetic Diversity of Native Chicken Groups in the Davao Region.”

Among the two US-ASEAN Visiting Scholars will be Jay Batongbacal of UP, one of our foremost legal experts on maritime law, who’ll be studying issues related to current disputes in the South China Sea. The three Hubert Humphrey fellows—all accomplished professionals in mid-career—include a PNP major and former Pasay City precinct commander, Kimberly M. Gonzales, who’ll be looking into public policy and administration concerns at the University of Minnesota.

To help Americans—especially Fil-Ams—learn Filipino, the Fulbright program is sending out three Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who include Edward Nubla from the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod; he’ll be on his way to Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Lastly, four Filipino undergraduates will soon be spending a year on a US campus, thanks to the Fulbright program. They include Michiko Bito-on of Silliman University in Dumaguete, who’s taking up Mass Communications.

It’s heartening to see the diversity not only in these scholars’ expertise and concerns but also in their representation of all corners of the archipelago, ensuring that the Fulbright experience is shared not only by the usual suspects like me from Manila’s academia, but by bright young minds from north, south, and center.


SPEAKING OF the Filipino presence overseas, a big cultural event will take place in Hong Kong over this weekend, thanks to the efforts of the poet and scholar Armida M. Azada, who’s been based there for many years now.

On Friday, June 27, 5:30-7:00 pm, Mida will sit in conversation with visiting Filipino writers Joel Toledo, Charms Tianzon, and Daryll Delgado in a symposium on new Philippine writing titled “Our Words, Other Worlds,” at the Amenities Building, Lingnan University. The next day, at noon, Mida’s new book of poems, Catalclysmal: Seventy Wasted Poems will be launched at the 7th Floor of Hong Kong City Hall in Central. Earlier that morning, from 10:30 to 12 noon in the same venue, a free writing workshop will be held for Pinoy helpers and HK-Pinoy youth. On Sunday the 29th, from 6 to 7:30 pm, a poetry reading by Filipino writers and their friends will be held on the first floor of DB Plaza Terrace near Dymocks in Discovery Bay.

This is a wonderful thing that Mida Azada—a gifted poet who was a colleague at the UP Department of English before she moved to Hong Kong and the UK—is doing not just for herself but for her fellow Filipinos in the diaspora. As prizewinning poet Joel Toledo puts it in his endorsement of Mida’s new collection, “Cataclysmal is a collection of haunts and visitations. The poems here flit in and out of the Philippine archipelago, travelling to London, Hong Kong, and New York without losing touch of a Filipino rootedness. The poet’s concerns stray and meander from the personal and cathartic to the phenomenal and ultimately global. But Azada’s voice is keen and focused, filtered on the page by a careful attention to language. One may argue that this is the poetics of the expatriate ruminating on both the post-modern and post-colonial. Yet at the heart of this collection is fierce integrity, a resonant ‘I’ persona that won’t flinch. Here are poems that both strain to capture the fleeting and restrain from exoticizing the past. The poet Fanny Howe once wrote, “Double the beautiful/because they are so little.” While phenomena can sometimes be indeed cataclysmal, the hurtful is never wasted—so long as poems remember and reconstruct and, in time, recollect the sorrows, parse them into bliss.”

Mida, Joel, Charms, Daryll, and the other fine, memorable voices of their generation—they too are the cream of the crop.

Penman No. 101: The Digital Tourist (2)

photo 2Penman for Monday, June 16, 2014


LAST WEEK I wrote about some websites that you could check out if you’re planning to go on a trip, especially to some place you’ve never been before. Practically everything today can be planned online, from choosing destinations to booking flights and hotels and buying travel insurance. But what about when you’re already on the road?

This is where travel apps come in—“apps” being those small programs or applets (little applications) that come with your tablet or smartphone, or that can be downloaded to them. These apps can be lifesavers—literally, when you’re lost close to midnight in the bowels of a subway station in a strange city, without the foggiest idea how to get back to your hotel. Some will require an Internet connection, but many won’t, after their initial installation—and that’s when you’ll be happy and relieved that you had the foresight to install them when you could, before you even left for the airport. Whatever I’ll list here won’t be your only options—in many cases, there may even be other, better apps other will know about—but these are the ones I’ve roadtested myself, over many years of traipsing around the planet, with PDA (remember those?) or smartphone in hand. (Do note that I use an iPhone, but many of these apps gave their Android counterparts. For IOS devices, go to the App Store.)

Trip planning. If you travel often, you’ll need an all-around planner to organize your trips—remind you of your itinerary, make your bookings, check your flight status, provide weather forecasts, convert currencies, and such. Your datebook can take care of some of these things, but not all. For many years now, my reliable sidekick in this department has been an app called WorldMate, which can do all of the above, and more (it can also calculate tips).

WorldMate’s strongest feature is its flight planner and notifier, which comes in really handy when you have a string of flights to take in a mad dash from one airport, one terminal, and one gate to another. Let’s say you’re flying Delta to Detroit via Tokyo Narita, or Cathay to London via Hong Kong. As soon as you make your booking and receive it in your email, all you do is forward your confirmation email or e-ticket to WorldMate will automatically digest that email and reflect your itinerary on the app on your phone or tablet—and, if you’ve configured WorldMate to sync with your datebook, it’ll show up on your calendar as well. If your flight gets delayed, WorldMate will advise you of it. It will give you your terminal on arrival and departure. (WorldMate has a free basic version and a paid Gold version with more features.)

Flight tracking. You’re dashing to the airport in a cab, late for your flight, and you don’t even know which terminal or gate it will be leaving from (and if you’re really unlucky, you’ll be in Madrid, where Terminal 4 is several kilometers away from Terminal 2, and Terminal 4S takes another 20 minutes to get to); you’re praying like mad that your flight’s delayed. At this point, your friend is an app called FlightBoard, which tracks scheduled flights—arrivals and departures—at airports all over the world in real time. A similar app called FlightAware allows you to track all the flights between two airports for a given day, and to zero in on a particular one; if it’s up in the air somewhere over Siberia, it will show exactly where it’s supposed to be on a global map, much like you’d see on those onboard monitors. Both FlightBoard and FlightAware are free. (These apps are also good for when you’re meeting someone in Arrivals.)

photo 3

Getting around. Once you’ve reached your destination, there are two things you’ll almost certainly need to get around: a city map, and a local transport (subway and bus) guide. Many airports will give you free city maps on arrival, and they’re fun to spread out on the table over breakfast to plan the day, but they’re a hassle to unfold at streetcorners and in the middle of the plaza to locate where you are and where you’re going (and at that instant, you might as well wear a T-shirt saying, “I’m a lost tourist—please, victimize me!”).

A good map stored in your digital device—without needing to go online, as you would with Google Maps—can save you a lot of anxiety, if not a lot of footsteps. On our recent sortie around Europe, I was glad to be guided by one invaluable resource: Ulmon maps of Barcelona, Venice, Florence, and Paris. All of these maps were free, and could be blown up to the level of individual streets and even alleys; if you feel lost, you could input the name of the nearest street, and it will locate your neighborhood in relation to popular landmarks. Clicking on the name of a hotel will give you rates; public transport stops are also indicated.

Speaking of public transport, nearly all the major cities of the world have some kind of subway or metro rail line, and this gives me an opportunity to introduce my favorite travel app of all time—and I mean that almost literally, because I’ve been using it in its various incarnations since 1999, or 15 years, an eternity in digital time. It’s called Metro, and it’ a guide to the world’s subways, metros, and bus lines. I first used Metro on my Palm Pilot when I was navigating around London, and the app—though regularly updated—has remained essentially the same. You choose a city (say Paris), and decide that, from your hotel on Avenue Foch, you want to go to the weekend flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt. You input “Avenue Foch” and “Clignancourt” and tap an icon, and Metro will yield the information that the shortest subway route will take 16 stops involving one change (at Barbes-Roucheouart—thankfully, you don’t need to know how to pronounce these names), for approximately 33 minutes total. Each subway stop is identified, as well as the direction of the train you should be taking. The best thing about Metro? It’s absolutely free, and works offline.

photo 1

This list of apps could go on, but as travel is complicated enough, let’s keep it simple: for as long as you have these apps (WorldMate, FlightBoard, Ulmon Maps, and Metro), your next trip will be much less of a headache, and you can enjoy the view out the window rather than wonder and worry over where your train is going.

(Let me just add, before I forget: these apps will be totally useless if your phone or tablet is dead; I always travel with a universal adaptor, an extension cord, and a power bank for extra juice. If you blow air into my pants, I could go on a spacewalk.)

Penman No. 100: The Digital Tourist (1)

L1090980Penman for Monday, June 9, 2014


SOME FRIENDS who perhaps still miss the days when you dressed up for plane flights (even if it was only to Hong Kong) and carried your paper ticket in a cardboard sleeve asked me upon our recent return from Europe to draw up a digital roadmap for tourists. In other words, what kind of digital resources can tourists and travelers avail themselves of to ensure better, cheaper, and safer travel? By “digital resources,” we mean things that you can find online on the Internet, like hotels and their rates, or carry around with you on your mobile phone or laptop, like travel apps that can record and remind you of your bookings.

It used to be that all you needed in your carry-on was an alarm clock, the kind with two brass bells that roused you like your mother from your jetlagged slumber (if you remembered to set the alarm the night before). But now we travel with smartphones, laptops, tablets, and a raft of batteries, chargers, and adapters, the better to maintain that indispensable virtue, connectivity, also known as your digital tether to home, office, and social network. (All this should make us want to ask why we even left home and what a vacation is supposed to mean, but as everyone knows all too well these days, leaving home means bringing as much of it with you.)

So herewith, some of my favorite digital-travel tips and tricks:

Where to go. While our destinations are often chosen for us (a conference here, a wedding there), sometimes we actually have that rare and precious option of deciding where to go, budgets and schedules permitting. Everyone will have his or her own bucket list—I’d still like to visit South America, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe someday—but Beng and I prefer to go around Asia for quick, cheap holidays, and are always on the lookout for special deals from regional airlines. Sign up with Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, among others, for regular advisories on their packages. This way, we’ve visited Beijing, Kota Kinabalu, Hanoi, Shanghai and many other places nearby at giveaway fares (about P5,000 round-trip, all-in, for two of us to Beijing). Be open and adventurous, and be ready to book a trip months in advance to get the lowest fares. That also allows you to reconfigure your calendar around those trips.

How to get there. Again, check out airline offers, as well as travel agency packages. Make sure to factor in taxes and surcharges, which can bloat the final bill. What you want to get is the “all-in” price. Factor in baggage allowance; some airlines will charge you even for your first checked bag, especially on local flights. Budget airlines can offer aggressively low fares, especially off-season (that’s why we went to Beijing in December—freezing, but fewer fellow tourists to nudge you around), but it won’t hurt to check as many rates as you can. There are many online guides where you can check prices and book flights—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, etc.—but I use SkyScanner ( a lot; it gives you the price in pesos, and immediately identifies the lowest price, with many other options. Sometimes it’s also good to check directly with the airline; recently, I found that Air France, on its own website, was offering a flight from Paris to Madrid that was lower than anyone else’s. Also, sometimes, cheapest may not always be the best for you. Cebu Pacific has great regional fares, but they often mean arriving in your destination around midnight, costing you a day and some anxiety in a strange airport. Adding a little more could also mean extras like a better plane and a better layover (we chose to fly BA to Madrid and back via Heathrow, to try out the new A380 and even marginally revisit London, one of our favorite cities). For local travel, don’t forget to explore your train and bus options—ground travel may be slower and not always cheaper, but you’ll see a lot more of the country.

Where to stay. Beng and I are lucky to get special rates from the Starwood chain (Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, etc.) because our daughter works there, but when we have to find other hotels, then TripAdvisor and are our best friends. As a rule, I never book a hotel (even a Starwood one) without checking the TripAdvisor reviews, which can reveal problems like “great hotel, but terrible location” or uncover pluses like “free, strong wi-fi, two minutes’ walk from the Metro.” TripAdvisor can rank hotels according to your budget and other preferences, assigning one to five stars. Once, on a lark, Beng and I decided to go slumming in Hong Kong and stay in the cheapest dive we could find, so I reversed TripAdvisor’s rankings and found a one-star place on Nathan Road. It was cheap—and fun; we survived! is another great guide to hotels and bed-and-breakfast places; they allow you to book often without any downpayment, cancellable without penalty within 24 hours of your stay. I booked our Venice hotel in Mestre and our Madrid airport hotel on this site. (A tip about Venice and Mestre—hotels in prime tourist spots like Venice can cost a fortune, but staying in places like Mestre, a very short train ride from Venice, can save you precious euros better spent on food and sightseeing.)

What to do. Every destination will have scores of travel guides online, but again, TripAdvisor’s thousands of reviews will give you a good sense of what’s worth visiting and what you can forego, especially on a tight budget and schedule (we passed up going to Halong Bay in Vietnam—pretty pictures, but a very pricey day trip). Like I wrote in a recent column, this is where we often let Serendipity take us by the hand and just let one streetcorner lead to another. Unlike many others, travel for us isn’t racking up a series of posed shots before famous landmarks; it’s about seeing what most other people will miss, or doing what most other tourists won’t. I don’t necessarily mean “going native,” which no one can honestly do on a three-day parachute tour, but finding or straying into unusual places, like that dusty, forgotten museum in Shanghai filled with dinosaurs and ancient, mummified Aryans, or that bookshop in Hanoi selling bright purple ink for 20 pesos a bottle.

Before I forget, and even before you begin your digital tour, scan, save, and upload (to one of your own email accounts) copies of your passport, visas, and travel insurance. (Yes, you can and should book travel insurance online—it’s one of those things you’ll be happy to never need.)

Next time, I’ll list and discuss specific apps—WorldMate, Metro, and FlightBoard, among others—and other tools (maps, photos, currency exchange) to help make that next trip of yours a more pleasant and fulfilling experience—as long as you don’t lose your tablet or smartphone.

Penman No. 99: The Bromance of Fred and Wash

FredWashPenman for Monday, June 2, 2014


IT WAS with great sadness that I read last week about the passing, at age 92, of Alfredo M. Velayo—an outstanding accountant, teacher, citizen, and philanthropist. Fred Velayo was best known as the “V” in SGV or Sycip Gorres Velayo & Co., the pioneering accounting firm that he co-founded with Washington SyCip and Ramon Gorres after the Second World War.

I had the great privilege and opportunity of writing Wash SyCip’s biography some years ago, and among the delights of that assignment was meeting and interviewing Fred Velayo—who, like Wash, was already well advanced in years but still sprightly and brimming with boyish mischief. Tall, handsome, genial, and an irrepressible joker, Fred was the perfect foil for the more private and more formal Wash.

Fred and Wash had one of the most memorable friendships (today they call these unusually durable male bondings “bromances”) I’ve ever come across—certainly one of the longest ones, starting in the 1920s at the tender age of five, when both boys attended Padre Burgos Elementary School in Sampaloc, Manila. Their first meeting, on the first day of school, wasn’t too auspicious. The children started crying when their mothers and yayas had to leave—except Wash’s mother, who was a good friend of the principal’s, and was allowed to stay. So Wash sat there unperturbed, and Fred would remember with a chuckle that “Right that first day, of course, we all hated him. Naturally. He was looking at us, saying ‘Why the hell are you little kids crying?’”

With his brilliant mind and work ethic—qualities that Fred himself displayed—Wash would never again have to lean back on privilege to get ahead. But a little luck never hurt. Bright as they were, both boys got accelerated in grade school—not once, but twice. In Wash’s case, it didn’t occur just twice, but thrice. Fred always wondered how that happened when he was just as smart as Wash—and Wash didn’t tell him the real reason until they were in their mid-70s in 1996, when Wash let slip that there had been room in the upper class for just one more boy, and the teacher chose him—alphabetically.

Fred and Wash caught up with each other in V. Mapa High; they both lived in Sta. Mesa and walked to school together. The friendship—and the rivalry—continued over high school, then went on to college at the University of Sto. Tomas, from which both graduated summa cum laude. As I would note in my book, “To no one’s great surprise, Wash finished his four-year course in two-and-a-half years, graduating a full year ahead of Fred, and ending up being Fred’s teacher in one subject at the ripe old age of 17. Amazingly, Fred would close the gap a bit by also getting to teach in his junior year, also at 17.”

Wash went to Columbia in New York for his PhD and was caught by the War there, and joined the US Army as a codebreaker in India; Fred stayed behind and married the girl who would become his wife of over seven decades, Harriet. After the War, their paths crossed again—Wash came home, and Fred went to the States with Harriet and joined the Army.

But when Wash had to go back to the US to fulfill a residency requirement (he had to take US citizenship to be able to work as a codebreaker), he needed someone to mind the small accounting business he had started in Manila, and there was no other person who could fit that bill but his old pal Fred Velayo. He wrote Fred a letter that would become part of SGV lore. He told Fred, on December 16, 1946: “Dear Fred, Received your letter from Alaska the day after I mailed my last letter—but hasten to write you this note. You should try to return as soon as possible as the top opportunities here are excellent—the earlier you start the better. Master’s degree doesn’t mean much—ninety percent of the FEU accounting faculty do not have anything more than a bachelor’s degree—including some of the highest paid ones. But now is the time to get started as I believe that the more you put it off, the greater will be the competition when you get settled. There’s a lot of accounting work—and you can combine this with teaching and importing (with Miller-Gates)—the returns are much larger here than in the States and the competition for a capable person is much less. So cabron, get the hell on that boat and come out here. The various bills before Congress will undoubtedly increase the work of CPAs—but you have to get in on the ground floor… some come over fast. You can also try your hand at insurance—good and profitable line. Cost of living has been going down during the past month in spite of strikes in the States. Housing isn’t worse than in the States—so make up your mind—be your own boss—and come to virgin territory! See you soon. Wash.”

At first, Fred said no—he and Harriet had just begun to settle down in the US—but in January 1947, Fred changed his mind and took a plane home. The rest, as they say, is accounting history. Fred had a funny story about what supposedly happened next:

“One day, years later, Wash came back. He was still earning a little more than me. And so he came to my room. (WS) Fred, this has got to stop. (AMV) What are you talking about? (WS) The fact that I’m earning more from the firm than you. From now on everything will be equal. Our monthly drawings, even perks, club membership, everything, the same. It’s not fair to you that I’m getting a little more. (AMV) SOB, how come it took you so long? (WS) Never mind, from now on we’ll be equal partners. As he walked out of my room, he started laughing. (WS) Anyway, you’ll always be my junior partner. (AMV) After you said we’re equal from now on? (WS) I can’t help it. I’m 57 days older than you. He even counted!”

When we interviewed Fred for Wash’s book (Fred already had his own biography published before Wash), he told us a hoary joke, often recounted at SGV reunions, about dying ahead of Wash and getting to heaven sooner. I guess he knew something Wash didn’t. Bon voyage, Fred Velayo.