Penman No. 251: A Gift from Down Under

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Penman for Monday, May 15, 2017

 

 

WE HAD some very distinguished visitors over at UP from James Cook University in Australia last week, and while most of them came from the sciences, I was happy to join the team that greeted and met with them, led by our very capable Vice President for Academic Affairs, the sociologist Cynch Bautista. These growing partnerships are part of UP’s continuing effort to assume a more international outlook—to imbibe the best of what leading universities around the world have to offer while projecting and sharing our strongest academic and intellectual resources as well.

While most of our international academic exchanges have traditionally been conducted with universities in the West, especially the United States, we have increasingly and consciously broadened our reach to embrace more universities within the region—Taiwan has been a very active partner of late—and Australia should be a logical focus for more of these exchanges.

I myself have had the pleasure of visiting Australia several times—as a visiting writer with the Australia Defence Forces Academy in Canberra, as a guest writer at the Sydney Writers Festival, and as a speaker at literary conferences in Perth and Melbourne. What has always impressed me about Australia is not only the sheer vastness of the land, but also the openness and friendliness of the people I’ve met there, and their refreshing informality.

Though not that old—it was established in 1970—JCU has risen quickly to become one of the world’s top universities focused on the tropics, with cutting-edge research in such diverse but important areas as rainforest monitoring, natural disasters, reef management, and vaccine development. Aside from campuses in Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, it also has a campus in Singapore offering courses in business, education, and health sciences.

Our leading UP scientists and administrators had much to share with their JCU counterparts, with UP Los Baños touting its research in nanobiotechnology and biofuels, UP Manila studying ways of dealing with dengue and hookworm, and the Marine Science Institute promoting conservation of genetic diversity and fishery sustainability.

But aside from these concerns, what I personally found fascinating was a discovery I made while looking up the background of our historical relations with Australia. On academia.edu (a treasure trove of academic papers), I ran into an essay written by the noted Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto and published in 1993 by—coincidence?—James Cook University. The essay covers Philippine-Australian interactions in the late 1800s, and makes an early point about Australia being the second largest market for Philippine coffee and the largest one for sugar in the mid-19th century.

But the essay goes far beyond economic statistics to relate the remarkable stories of two Australians in the Philippines and one Filipino immigrant in Australia. It wasn’t the most diplomatic thing to bring up at our meeting, so I kept my amusement to myself over what Dr. Ileto found:

“The first Australian revealed to us by the Spanish records was an illegal entrant—a nameless and unwelcome woman…. This Sydney woman, [the British consul] pointed out, was definitely not the sort of person the governor-general would allow to stay. And true enough, the latter decreed that she was to be transported without any more delay to Sydney … ‘without permission ever to return to these islands.’

You can guess what this plucky if unlucky lady’s profession was. She would be followed in the annals by one Charles Wilridge Robinson, who first appears in 1880 and “for nearly every year” for at least 17 years “was brought to court for some offence or other,” typically involving a heightened state of intoxication and acts “of a piratical nature,” including “borrowing” a boat for six weeks and sailing down to Palawan.

But my interest peaked and my heart swelled when I came to Ileto’s account of a Filipino who became a successful businessman in Queensland and also a revolutionary patriot. Heriberto Zarcal was a jeweler in Santa Cruz, Manila who moved to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait (facing Papua New Guinea) in May 1892, and soon offered his services as a “Lapidary and Optician, Goldsmith, Watchmaker, and Pearl Cleaner.” Filipino sailors—then known worldwide as “Manilamen”—had become pearl divers in the area since the 1870s. Zarcal grew rich, “mentioned as one of only five men on the Island licensed to deal in pearls… [who] had just acquired his own fleet of pearling vessels.” So successful was he that a European competitor complained by asking “Shall we suffer the men who ought to be our servants to become our masters?”

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What was unique about Zarcal was how—even as he had assumed British citizenship to be able to run a business—he flaunted his sympathies for the revolutionists back home, to the point of displaying a big sign saying “NOLI ME TANGERE” on top of his establishment. I’ll let Rey Ileto tell rest of the story in his own words:

“Zarcal, a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, must have been among the many expatriate nationalists who consulted with Aguinaldo. An issue of the Hong Kong journal Overland China Mail which appeared in late March 1898 reported that Zarcal had commissioned the construction of three pearling schooners and named them the Aguinaldo, the Llanera, and the Natividad—in honour of three Filipino generals who had won victories against Spanish forces.” (He would give his other boats names like Sikatuna, Magdalo, Kalayaan, Justicia, and so on.)

“After 1905 Zarcal maintained only a handful of boats for pearling. In semi-retirement, he concentrated on his Thursday Island business as pearl-buyer and jeweller, augmenting his local stock of pearls with purchases from Port Darwin and the Dutch East Indies. Characteristically, perhaps, the final episode in his life was an extended journey to Europe begun in 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Zarcal are said to have paid homage to their monarch, the Queen of England, presenting her with a huge pearl. Prevented from returning home by the outbreak of the Great War, the Zarcals waited it out in Europe, finally renting a flat in Paris in early 1916. There, on 9 February 1917, Zarcal succumbed to a stomach ulcer. At his deathbed were his wife Esther and ‘an old friend from Thursday Island,’ the Rev. Father Ferdinand Hartzer.”

So ends this amazing story, a gift from Down Under which I would never have heard of if I hadn’t been told that we were going to play host to some colleagues from James Cook University—which, to complete the circle, now runs a school on Thursday Island.

Penman No. 250: Literature in the Time of Tokhang (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 8, 2017

 

IT’S BECOME almost a cliché in itself to say that a writer’s first responsibility is to the truth. This is no truer than today, in this age of fake news, post-truths, and alternative facts. Someone has to figure out what really happened, who’s lying, and why.

The fact that we respond to the news today mostly with consternation and skepticism only shows how difficult that task is, and how successful and how good the professional purveyors of lies, half-truths, and nuanced positions are at their job. Call them trolls, call them spin doctors—and yes, call them spokespersons—but whatever their motives are, whether they may be mercenaries or true believers, they have raised the bar for their white-hat counterparts.

The easiest and perhaps the most attractive role to take as an antagonist is that of a propagandist, especially online—to respond tweet for tweet, post for post, insult for insult, meme for meme.

But the harder and therefore the more important task is to see beyond the moment and to engage the reader on a deeper and more thoughtful level.

Clearly we need investigative journalists with the courage, integrity, and tenacity to uncover the facts. Clearly we need scholars and critics who can sift through the facts and data to make sense of this cleverly contrived and well-implemented confusion. For these writers, their mission is much more obvious.

But what can the rest of us who know nothing but to write stories, poems, plays, and essays do?

Propagandists employ the broad strokes of caricature, and there’s a time and place for that. But beyond propaganda, beyond memes and hugot lines, I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do as we have always done, which is to go beyond the simple and the obvious to get at the truth of life—the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows into the withering light.

And by this I don’t mean just establishing the facts, although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans, against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by affixing labels of convenience on their bloodied chests.

This we know as writers: life is complex; people are complex. The most trustworthy-looking person can tell a lie; the most damnable crook can tell the truth.

Our poems and stories return to this premise over and over again: things are never what they seem. Fiction is all about character revelation and transformation. Poetry dissects one moment into many. What others accept as conclusions, we take as beginnings. Our lodestar is our natural curiosity and skepticism, without which we merely echo what others have already said, and blindly accept the official narrative. The two most important words in our verbal armory are not even “truth” or “justice”—it’s “What if?”

And this is how we must respond to the stereotyping, the homogenization, and the dehumanization of people that takes place in a time of terror—to rescue and preserve the individuality and humanity not only of the victims but also of their killers, because even evil must have a recognizable face.

Fight the cliché. Resist the simple story. Refuse to be idiotized.

In the American Literature class I taught this semester, we took up three classic short stories that we could all learn from. (Not incidentally, whenever I teach American literature, I always make a point of reminding my students that we are studying the subject not to become Americans, but to become better Filipinos by replacing our awe of that country with critical understanding.)

These three stories are “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which a whole town gets together in an act of communal murder; “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor, in which a Bible salesman is revealed to be a perverted cynic; and “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin, in which a Sunday picnic turns out to be the backdrop for the gruesome lynching of a black man.

These stories suggest to me that in the not too distant future, our own great stories, novels, and films will emerge out of this dark and turbulent period. We need a “Lottery” and a “Good Country People” and a “Going to Meet the Man” for our time and place. And when they get written, the story will no longer be just that of the rogue police going after innocent citizens, but also that of our collective complicity in it, in our people’s acceptance of EJKs as the norm. The biggest casualties of this present war have been justice and conscience.

I will not argue that the war on drugs is a popular war, and that much of that popularity derives from the fact that drugs have destroyed many lives while enriching others. But as writers, we have to remind our people and our government that there are things far worse than drugs, and that the most powerful narcotic of all is the lust for power.

Not all of us can be investigative journalists or soul-searching novelists. But I will consider that even the conscious assertion of life and beauty against a backdrop of death and terror can be an act of political resistance.

During the Second World War, when Leningrad was under siege by the German army and the Russians had resorted to eating leather belts, cats and dogs, and even flesh from corpses, a group of starving musicians came together to premiere Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. They played it on the radio, and even the Germans could not believe what they were hearing. The records say that “After the war, captured German officers admitted that it was when they heard The Leningrad, as the Seventh Symphony became known, that they knew they could never defeat the city.”

So our art, my friends, is what keeps us alive, and what keeps us human. Our art is our faith, the faith that will sustain us through our doubts and fears.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us, “God sees the truth, but waits.” Only God knows when to impose justice upon the deserving. Meanwhile, we writers can serve as his eyes, his witnesses, keeping our faith in him, in our art, and in each other, praying for truth and justice to ultimately prevail.

(Image from ibtimes.com)

 

 

Penman No. 248: Ring in the Old

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Penman for Monday, April 24, 2017

 

 

IN A GENERATION preoccupied with newness, it’s a refreshing surprise to find young people engrossed with things far older than themselves, and that’s exactly what Beng and I stumbled upon a few Saturdays ago when we entered Warehouse Eight on Chino Roces Ave. in Makati. There was absolutely no hint of it from the outside, but going up a flight of stairs, we stepped into a large room filled to the brim with antiques—typewriters, watches, cameras, bicycles, turntables, vinyl records, books, eyeglasses, and, yes, pens!

This was the Istorya Vintage Appreciation Fair, an event organized by entrepreneur and collector Lennie Dionisio (whom I’d never met before, so had the temerity to ask “What’s your day job?”). I’d come to show some of my vintage pens, of course, but I made a beeline for a tableful of Lennie’s fabulous vintage typewriter collection—a passion she shares with another friend of mine, George Mamonluk. I proudly showed off a picture of my 1922 Corona 3 which I’d found in San Francisco and hand-carried home—if you get a high from inhaling typewriter lubricant, you’d be my kind of person. But the piece de resistance of Lennie’s spread wasn’t even a typewriter but a lovely Adana letterpress machine of the kind that I’d been dreaming of, for hand-printing pages of poetry on paper you could run your fingers over and feel every word.

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It was that kind of vanished romance that tingled in my bones as I looked over the exhibits (most items in which were for sale), elated by the discovery that they had been brought over not by doddering seniors like me but by a new crop of millennials who actually knew how to use a Rolleiflex TLR or a Sheaffer Snorkel. Quite a few even came over to the booth we operated for the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, asking to see how flexible nibs and lever fillers worked. There’s hope for this generation yet!

For about a decade, Beng and I used to indulge our mania for the old stuff on our October sorties to New York and its fabulous flea markets and thrift shops (that’s right, I’d save up the thousands for the plane fare so we could poke around looking for $5 bargains in dusty piles of bric-a-brac). Those fun times may be over as our knees themselves turn vintage and as our budgets dry up, but with local shows like Istorya popping up, who needs Manhattan? I can’t wait to see the next edition of Istorya and to step back into the land of the lost.

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THERE’S ANOTHER way of bringing the past into the present, and that’s by remanufacturing old classics into new and modernized versions that exude vintage charm but perform with almost digital precision.

I was reminded of this last month when our friend Celia, who shared our footloose ways with her late husband Rene, introduced me to a very interesting pair of locally-made grandfather clocks. I have a small trove of vintage wristwatches, mostly from the 1950s, that I manually wind up every few months or so—and I have to admit to a clock fetish in that I’ll likely have at least two clocks in one room so I can see the time wherever I look—but I have yet to acquire my first grandfather clock.

I’ve seen quite a few of these in homes and museums abroad, and what’s fascinating about them is their imposing size and that deep, sonorous chime they produce to announce the hours.

Apparently, according to Celia, there’s a company out here somewhere that makes several models of grandfather clocks, following the tradition of furniture artisan Simplicio Adriano, a Pampanga native who started his craft in 1911. The company is called SAFM, and it’s now managed by Simplicio’s great-grandsons Alfred and Francis.

I’ve yet to visit the factory, but Celia tells me that a seven-foot model they call the RAGA 70 has a chain-driven, Westminster chime movement that strikes every quarter and every hour. The movement is made by Hermle of Germany, considered the leading clock and clock movement manufacturer in the world. The cabinet is made of Philippine hardwood and comes in mahogany, dark walnut or light walnut finishes.

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If tall clocks and loud chimes float your boat, text or call the manufacturer at 0905-2765288 or email adriano.grandfather.clocks@gmail.com.

 

A FEW years ago, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the Iligan National Writers Workshop at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) in Iligan City, and I’m happy to see that despite all the odds it’s had to face, the workshop is moving along just fine and will be holding its 24th session from May 29 to June 2 under the stewardship of stalwarts Christine Godinez-Ortega and Steven Patrick Fernandez. Co-sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA), Iligan is an important hub in the national network of workshops designed to encourage new young writers in all languages and genres.

Eighteen writing fellows from all over the country have been selected for Iligan. From Luzon come: Poetry (English) Bernard Kean Mappala Capinpin; (Filipino) Joey Alcones Tabula and Vanessa Anne Joice Tanada Haro; Fiction (Filipino) Lenin Carlos Macaraig Mirasol; and Drama (English/Filipino): Fatrick Romo Tabada;

From the Visayas: Creative Non-Fiction (English) Eric Gerard de la Cruz Ruiz; Poetry (English) Andrea de Guzman Lim and Gay Josephine Valles;  (Sebuano) Hannah Marie Ramirez Aranas; and Fiction (English): Nino Augustine Masa Loyola; and

From Mindanao: Poetry (Filipino): Delfin Hingco Mundala; Loi Vincent Caparos Dériada; (Sebuano) Mildred Eran Garcia; Creative Non-fiction(English): Silvana Erika Nasser Navaja; and Drama (English/Filipino) Kwesi Ian Jay Miguel Junsan.

This year’s Boy Abunda Writing Fellow is Waray poet Reynel Mahilum Ignacio; the Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen Writing Fellow is Sebuano poet Kim Ashley B. Escalona; and the Manuel E. Buenafe Writing Fellow is Maranao poet Alican Mendez Pandapatan.

I haven’t read these young writers’ works, but the mere idea of, for example, someone continuing to write Maranao poetry in this global century is heartwarming. That probably won’t happen in Diliman, which is another good reason why a homegrown workshop in Mindanao is absolutely necessary for the enrichment and preservation of our national culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 247: On the Wings of Women

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Penman for Monday, April 16, 2017

 

IN MY line of work, I get to edit a wide range of books, from institutional histories and biographies to annual reports and technical manuals. They’re all important to my clients, of course, and I accord them all the same seriousness and diligence they should expect from a professional editor.

But now and then a project comes along that’s not only significant but truly interesting, and one of them was the book I recently edited for Philippine Airlines—Stories from the Heart: Buong Pusong Alaga (PAL, 2017)—that the company launched to celebrate its 76th anniversary. The book is a collection of vignettes about PAL’s people, from the ground crews to the pilots and flight attendants to the president and CEO himself, and tells all kinds of stories from delivering babies in mid-flight to having the Pope as a passenger.

But some of the stories I found most fascinating had to do with PAL’s women—especially those who keep the planes up in the air. As a belated salute to National Women’s Month, let me share a few of those stories:

Since Capt. Aimee Carandang-Gloria became the first female to take the helm of a PAL plane in 1993, the number of lady pilots in the airline has continued to grow in recent years—from 20 in late 2012 to 54 (39 from PAL and 15 from PAL Express) in 2016.

“Yes, we’re still a minority, but a growing one. We just recently added a provision in our Operations Manual regarding female pilots. It’s a giant step for us,” says A320 pilot Capt. Emi Inciong-Ragasa.

A lady pilot on the flight deck is not something passengers see every day. But when they do, a magical moment always happens, attended by much curiosity and awe. “I remember a few times when some parents, upon seeing me, would exclaim, ‘Look, she’s a lady pilot!’ and would ask if I could have my picture taken with their daughter,” says A320 pilot Kelloggs Tioseco.

Aside from the occasional picture-taking on the side, these ladies get no special treatment—and they don’t expect it. They go through the same training, read the same manuals, and soar and slog through the same skies as the men.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to be a pilot. I remember being in awe of this big machine that graced the blue skies,” says Capt. Ragasa. Emi comes from a family of pilots. Her husband is B777 First Officer Terrence Ragasa, and her father-in-law is former Air Force General Ramon Ragasa.

Having been with PAL for 11 years, she aspires to be a hands-on mother while enjoying her flying career. She doesn’t mind being on long layovers but she makes sure that she regularly sees her two-year old son. “I have only one chance to raise my son well. I arrange my schedule to spend more time with him,” she says.

AVP for Pilot Affairs and A320 pilot Lilybeth Tan Ng says that taking red-eye flights were much easier to handle than waking up in the wee hours of the morning to attend to her motherly duties. “Flying a plane is easier than being a mother. Flying comes with a manual while motherhood doesn’t. So you had to learn by instinct as the answers were not always easy to find.”

A330 pilot Cherryl Flores crossed over from military to commercial flying. She had been a registered nurse in a military hospital in Zamboanga City before joining the Philippine Air Force, where she served as an instructor pilot for four years. Cherryl was a bemedaled UH-IH helicopter combat utility pilot in the PAF. She was also the first and only female PAF pilot to be certified as Pilot-in-Command of UH-IH in Night Vision Goggles by the US Air Force.

Cherryl’s husband, a ship crew member, gave up his job to take care of their first-born. “When I was pregnant with my first-born, we decided that one of us had to stop working to attend to our child. My husband selflessly gave way to me so I could chase my dream of flying planes.”

That same tenacity can be found in the seven female mechanics checking cables and wirings, overhauling systems, and replacing parts among the platoons of men working at PAL Express’ maintenance and engineering.

Avionics mechanic Maridel David wanted to work in an airline since her youth. “In Bicol, whenever we saw a helicopter flying overhead, we ran and followed it as far as we could,” she recalls. When she entered college, she chose to study BS Aviation Electronics Technology at the Philippine State College of Aeronautics.

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Before becoming an avionics or aircraft mechanic, one has to undergo a one-year Maintenance Training Program (MTP), which comprises six months of classroom training and six months’ field exposure. In school, the proportion of male to female students has always been high. “There have always been very few females in aviation and I find it a privilege to become one of them,” says another avionics mechanic, Mercedes Sabordo.

“My motto in life has always been, if they can do it, I can do it. We’re all equal when it comes to the job, because this is what I studied for. So whatever they can do, I can do as well,” says Elaine Saldivar, an aircraft engineer in PALEx for two years now.

More than the physical tasks, the job of an aircraft and avionics mechanic requires critical decision-making that can only be learned through time and experience.

“You have to be really smart if you enter the field of aviation. You have to be ready to go head to head with the men if you want to learn. It’s a long process of continuous learning, like getting a doctorate so you can really be an expert at what you do,” attests Engr. Rhona Abrera, an avionics mechanic. Rhona herself has overhauled and then rebuilt an airplane. From one task card to another, she finished the job after several attempts. “It’s most fulfilling when you can troubleshoot the problem right away. It’s ‘mission accomplished’ when you can watch the plane fly.”

Maridel adds that she treats a plane like her “baby” and would always talk to them. “At morning dispatch, I talk to the plane and say, ‘Baby, safe flight,” she quips.

So, go girls, and many thanks and congratulations to PAL’s Pinky Balagtas and Paeng Evangelista for piloting this project and for letting me use these excerpts!

 

 

Penman No. 246: Beauty and Sadness on Calle Bautista

 

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Penman for Monday, April 10, 2017

 

WITH WORK piling up at the office, I’ve increasingly been looking forward to weekends, especially Saturdays, for some fun and leisure. Weeks ahead, I start scouting the cultural horizon for interesting things to do or shows to attend. A few Saturdays ago, for example, Beng and I drove out to Makati to explore the Istorya Vintage Fair at Warehouse Eight—a totally engrossing event that merits its own write-up, which I’ll do in a forthcoming column—before rushing back to Diliman to catch the Ihudyat! marching band competition at the UP Amphitheater.

It was the following Saturday that I’ll write about first, afraid that I might forget some important detail if I wait too long. Indeed, “forget” is the operative word here, because it describes what most people did to our destination: the Boix House (also known as the Teotico-Crespo House) on Ariston Bautista Street in Quiapo, Manila. I tagged along with a posse of UP Fine Arts alumni that included Romy Carlos, Boysie Villavicencio, Ernie Canlas, and Beng—a group that had heard about the house and were interested in seeing if and how they could help in its restoration, perhaps through a benefit art exhibit. (I was delighted to learn later that an old friend, the art dealer and patron Jack Teotico, is a direct descendant of the original house owner and will be pitching in.)

Located in what has become Quiapo’s Muslim quarter, the Boix House is so named because it was acquired by the Boix-Tarradellas family from the Crespos, who got it in turn from the Teoticos. Don Marciano Teotico had the Neo-Renaissance house built in 1895 on what was then Calle Barbosa, and it soon attracted student boarders like the young Manuel Luis Quezon, who reputedly went out partying next door. There, two decades after Don Marciano built his brood a home, would rise the better known and more fortunate Nakpil-Bautista House.

We don’t know what happened next, but at some point, the ownership of the house reportedly passed on to the Society of Jesus, and we lose track of the Boix connection except through the house and what’s been put on the Internet about it—if any reader knows any more, please do share. (I’ve also been wondering about how exactly “Boix” is pronounced; I initially defaulted to the French bwah, but online sources suggest a Spanish or Catalan origin, in which case it would be boish—but then again, what do I know?)

The sad part of this story is how decrepit the Boix House has become, despite the noble efforts of well-meaning organizations such as the Kapitbahayan sa Kalye Bautista to save the house through crowdfunding. Even the World Monuments Fund has taken note of and extended some assistance to the Boix House project (https://www.wmf.org/project/boix-house).

If you pay it a visit like we did, you’ll see why it could use all the help it can get. Just getting across the threshold to the stairs takes—almost literally—a leap of faith: two old doors now serve as creaky planks over which you cross a puddle of water. The wooden stairs and floor are thickly coated with dust and grime; a rat’s carcass molders away in a corner like a forgotten lab specimen. Framed panels provide a history of the house, and tattered flags and ribbons offer proof of some earlier appeals to patriotic fervor. Overall, one’s impression is a commingling of beauty and sadness, the passage not only of time but of care.

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One thing you couldn’t avoid noticing was the fact that while the second floor seemed eerily vacant, it was an entirely different story belowdecks, with the visual evidence of many families crammed into every habitable inch. The undisturbed dust and the odd debris upstairs suggested that the people left that space alone, most of the time, despite the absence of any kind of barrier or restriction. Why? Ghosts? A deep-seated respect of the departed?

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What’s clear is that no restoration project will succeed without taking the house’s present occupants—and indeed the whole neighborhood—into account. Even if you manage to raise the many millions required to return the house to its old glory, its antique opulence will stand in ironic contrast to the very present and very real poverty blighting its surroundings.

The well-preserved Nakpil-Bautista House next door might yield some clues—but not all—to what to do eventually. This ancestral home had seen generations of such notables as the composer Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus, Andres Bonifacio’s widow. Still maintained by the family and open to public viewing, the house has also served as a home and studio for the past 38 years for master carver Ner Manlaqui, whose religious statues crowd the basement. Priests, churches, and other patrons keep Mang Ner busy, as the half-finished saints and virgins being worked on by his assistants attest to, employing trunks of pale yellow baticulin sourced from faraway Quezon.

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So preserving or reviving the past might necessitate providing for the present, and the cultural activists behind the Boix House project will do well to temper their admirable passion with some dry-eyed pragmatism. Houses are always more than wood and stone, and bringing old ones back to life should also mean ensuring a sustainable future for the people who live in and around them.

I couldn’t have imagined a richer Saturday morning but yet also a more poignant one, spent in the crumbling heart of the city.

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Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

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Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

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My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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Penman No. 233: A Ray of Filmic Sunshine

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Penman for Monday, January 9, 2017

AS SOMEONE who wrote about 25 full-length screenplays for various film projects and directors in another life between the late 1970s and early 2000s, I really should be more interested in the remarkable developments that have taken place since in local cinema, especially on the indie scene.

But I have to confess, with some guilt and shame, that I haven’t kept up with what our younger, post-Brocka and post-Bernal directors have produced, except for the occasional viewing of a Brillante Mendoza or a Lav Diaz film, or outstanding documentaries such as last year’s Curiosity, Adventure and Love and An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines. There are some personal reasons for this estrangement (not worth getting into at this time), but I do realize that I’ve missed out on a lot of good material while bingeing unpatriotically on Hollywood and Netflix.

I must say that the Metro Manila Film Festival and its seemingly bottomless decline from its glory days ages ago to the inevitable iteration of Enteng Kabisote contributed to my dismay. This most recent MMFF, however, seemed open to letting a ray of filmic sunshine through, with new criteria and a new selection process that put a premium on quality over commercialism. When I saw the list of the people involved and when I noted that their final selections were fresh titles by new directors, my expectations rose and I told Beng, after Christmas, “Let’s go see a movie!”

We’ve managed to see only two MMFF films as of this writing, but in both instances, our hopes were well rewarded.

Sunday Beauty Queen, which eventually won the Best Picture Award, documents the labors of Hong Kong’s OFW community in putting together a beauty pageant to ease the pangs of loneliness and the drudgery of their work. Directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, the film tracks pageant organizer Leo Selomenio—herself a longtime domestic helper—and the lives and stories of several key participants, all of them hardworking DHs. These girls, clearly, are no Gemma Cruzes or Pia Wurtzbachs, but even those of us who may scoff at the predictable inanities of beauty pageants will appreciate how the idea of “beauty” itself has been turned inward by this film, whose insistent positivity prompted me to tweet, as I stepped out of a cinema, that it was a “beautiful film about truly beautiful people.”

It wasn’t lost on me that I myself had written a novel, Soledad’s Sister, about OFWs, set briefly in Hong Kong, and had more than once observed our compatriots’ festive Sunday gatherings in Statue Square. Novels like mine tend to be morose reflections on human suffering, but there’s nothing like a well-crafted and even-handed documentary to bring out the verve and the tenacity that must accompany and cushion all that sorrow, and Sunday Beauty Queen draws on Pinay resilience in spades. The ultimate crown its subjects wear—and they are all winners—is that of dignity. Bravo, brava!

The other movie we chose to see was Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, with the irrepressible and hugely talented Eugene Domingo reprising her title role. We hadn’t seen the original movie from 2011 (and are now sorry we didn’t), but had no trouble wading into the premises of this sequel, which has Eugene playing herself as a comebacking star and tormenting her director (Kean Cipriano) with her “suggestions” for “improving” the script. It’s a riotously satirical project through and through, well-acted by its ensemble and well-scripted by the unfailingly sharp Chris Martinez, intelligent without being pretentious.

I may have chuckled more appreciatively than others in the audience, having gone through many of the absurd situations and propositions Eugene’s character raises in the film with her director-scriptwriter. I know I said at the start of this piece that I didn’t want to talk too much about how and why I got fed up with working in the film industry, but I feel like I should share at least one incident, from around 20 years ago, that’ll help explain why I moved from writing film scripts to writing novels and biographies.

Let’s set our scene in the offices of a big film studio, somewhere in Quezon City. I’ve been called to an urgent meeting by the producer because the movie we’re shooting (yes, we’re actually in the shooting stage) needs a new ending. Why? Because the studio’s Big Boss, who keeps track of the bottom line, doesn’t want our hero to die, like we’d originally planned; dead heroes bomb at the box office. So now we have to figure out a new extro, and the producers’ friends and alalays are all generously available and willing to help us think the ending through.

“So Gabby doesn’t die at sea when his banca is run over by a big ship,” one of them suggests, “but of course Sharon doesn’t know that, and in despair, she accepts Eric’s offer of marriage. But on the way to the wedding, she asks the car to stop by the beach, where she and Gabby used to promenade. She’s in her wedding gown, and she walks on the beach thinking about Gabby, until she reaches the tree they used to stand under. So she does some muni-muni, remembering their happy days….” At this point, another alalay interjects: “Ay, you know what, it will be so kilig if she looks up at the tree, and she’ll see the face of Gabby shimmering on every leaf!” I take a huge gulp of water to drown the welling acid in my gut.

“She makes a speech and tells the absent Gabby how much she truly loves him,” the original contributor ventures breathlessly, “and then she walks away… to her marriage and her life with Eric…. But it doesn’t end there! Because… because when she drives away, we see that there’s movement from behind the tree—it’s Gabby! He’s alive!”

There’s clapping and cheering all around the table, until somebody has the temerity to ask, “But why doesn’t he show himself to her?” It’s a question met with profound disdain. “Because—don’t you see?—Gabby is now in crutches, he lost one of his legs in the boating accident, and he loves Sharon too much to make her share her life with a cripple! So, nobly, he lets her go, as the theme song plays to the closing credits…..”

Appreciative sighs greet the revelation, as some of my water sputters onto the table.

Thankfully my director and I found a way to weasel out of that inspired conclusion, and the movie was shot and finished. I collected my paycheck, and resolved to do my best to write just stories, novels, nonfiction, and columns from that moment on.

Penman No. 232: The Other Leni

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Penman for Monday, January 2, 2017

 

PROMPTED BY the rumors swirling around Vice President Leni Robredo and her possible replacement in that post by Sen. Bongbong Marcos in a January judicial coup, my ruminations drifted over Christmas to the Marcos legacy, and how differently Filipinos see it, and why. At my usual poker table, for example—where I face millennials more than fellow seniors—a question I often hear whenever the Marcoses come up in conversation is, “Why, were they really that bad?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from a 30-something, but it’ll typically come from someone my age or older, who lived through the same period—or did they?

Those of us who worry about the historical revisionism or amnesia that seems to have overtaken us may be forgetting something else—that, just like in Hitler’s Germany, the dictatorship wouldn’t have lasted that long without some significant degree of popular acceptance or complicity. One of my pet theories about our martial law experience is that those of us who fought it were in a distinct minority, still are, and will be again. Most Filipinos never had the Metrocom or the ISAFP breaking down their doors; most Filipinos never had a son or a daughter shot or raped or imprisoned because of their beliefs; most Filipinos were already too poor to feel they had been stolen from. Many seniors—with understandable appreciativeness, especially at this point of their dialyzed and hypertensive lives—will remember only the medical complexes that Mrs. Marcos built.

If the present administration felt confident enough that it could get away with the Marcos burial, it can only be because it thought this way as well, and gambled on it. It understood that for far too long—and in the increasingly rare instances when it was even brought up in school—martial law, Philippine-style, had been depicted as a war between President Marcos and the communists, not as a systematic campaign of oppression and plunder waged by a dictator against his own people. Now that the CPP-NDF was having coffee in the Palace, what was the problem?

If we’re talking about educating Filipinos—and not just millennials—about martial law, the case will have to be made that it was an economic, political, and moral disaster for all Filipinos—not just for the Left, not just for some businessmen, and not just for some rival factions of the same elite. We were all materially impoverished and morally compromised by it—and continue to be, despite EDSA’s flickering promise. (And if you still don’t know or can’t remember exactly what the Marcoses did, here’s a report from The Guardian to refresh your memory.)

I’ll let that contention simmer for now, because what actually led me to write this column, my very first of the new year, was an essay on another Leni that I was reading online, titled “Fascinating Fascism,” written by the late Susan Sontag and published in February 1975 in the New York Review of Books.

It must have been the image of some black-shirted (but surely well-intentioned?) young men giving clenched-fist salutes in front of the Rizal monument that led me to revisit the Hitler Youth and Nazi iconography—less to condemn it (let’s give the trolls a rest) than to see why it was so effective and appealing. There’s a scene from 1972’s hit movie Cabaret that might suggest why fascism, as Sontag says, can be so fascinating even and especially to ordinary folk, and you can watch that clip on YouTube here. It’s that of an angelic boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—at least it starts that way—and it’s masterful moviemaking, showing within minutes how something so bright can be so chilling.

And speaking of moviemaking, this brings me to the other Leni—the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who directed the seminal Nazi propaganda films Triumph of the Will, about the party’s mammoth Nuremberg rally in 1934, and Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Her work would be hailed as technically brilliant and she herself as “an artist of unparalleled gifts” even by American critics—given especially that she was a woman trying to succeed in a male universe—and after the war, conveniently “de-Nazified,” she became something of a media darling, claiming that she had been politically naïve and knew nothing about the Nazis’ war crimes; she even joined Greenpeace and released a dreamy underwater movie on her 100th birthday.

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(Photo from kinoimages.com)

But in her powerful essay on fascist aesthetics, Sontag cuts Riefenstahl no slack, painstakingly proving that contrary to Riefenstahl’s later assertion, she was a willing and willful collaborator of Hitler and Goebbels. The essay is a marvel both of scholarship and insight, something many writers today—who wrap themselves up in opaque critic-speak but yet fear or disdain to take a clear moral stance—can learn from. The full text can be found here.

This next leads me to a confession I’ve made before: that as a young screenwriter, I too was complicit in the making of a monumental film which would have been Marcos’ answer to Riefenstahl’s myth-making epics. It must have been around 1978 when I got word from Lino Brocka, with whom I had just begun to work, asking me to accompany him to a meeting called by Mrs. Marcos. It was the peak of martial law, and no one could say no, unless you were prepared to go to the hills or to march in the streets, as we obviously weren’t—not yet.

As it turned out, Imelda had summoned seven other leading film directors and their writers as well, and we were assembled at the Goldenberg mansion in Arlegui near Malacañang. Our marching orders—as Imelda would explain to us over the next many hours alongside her aesthetics of cinema (“No shots of squatter shanties!”)—were to produce an eight-part filmic history of the Philippines from Magellan to Marcos. Lino and I drew the Gomburza episode. We ended past midnight, after a personally guided tour of the premises and their precious artifacts, and were sent home with curfew passes.

The film was shot in pieces and later stitched together by the National Media Production Center—there’s a reference online to a “Kasaysayan ng Lahi” film being entered by the Philippines to an international film festival in Tashkent—but I never saw it and had no idea where the reels were kept until a friend told me a couple of years ago that they were stored somewhere in the offices of the Philippine Information Agency in Quezon City. In a sense I was glad that for some reason the film never hit Manila’s screens (at least not that I know of), as it would only have added to the perpetuation of a fable.

But then again, with a restoration underway (and I’m not referring to crumbling celluloid), it might yet play in your friendly neighborhood theater—and worse, in the blinding daylight. Like I texted a friend, somehow 2017 feels like 1971, all over again.

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(Photo from wsj.com; photo of Hitler and Riefenstahl above from documentary.org)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 231: A Sortie to Siem Reap

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Penman for Monday, December 26, 2016

 

HAVING MADE a pact to see as much of the world together for as long as our knees could carry us, Beng and I headed out to Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia just before Christmas. It was another booking we’d typically made months in advance (we’d booked our November trip to Guangzhou in February) to avail ourselves of budget fares, and a four-day sortie in mid-December sounded just about right, taking the weather and the crowds (or the lack of them) into account. A few years ago, we’d taken separate December trips to Beijing and Shanghai and had shivered in the snow, but were rewarded with spectacularly desolate views of and from the Great Wall.

At an age when people start talking about bucket lists, we just had to see Angkor Wat and its outlying complex of temples, but as it turned out, Siem Reap was much more than just a location or a jump-off point for Angkor Wat. It had ample charms of its own, and while it would be criminal to go there without visiting the temples, it offered much room for more solitary pursuits. We were there for four full days, spending two days on the road and two just lazing around about town, and it felt just right at our seniors’ pace.

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It takes just under three hours to fly to Siem Reap from Manila; our flight landed close to 10 pm, and we were met by a tuktuk sent by our boutique hotel as a free service, a welcome touch. There’s a long row of big hotels along the national highway but we chose a small one closer to the center of town, about a 20-minute ride away. I exchanged a couple of hundred dollars at the airport, but it turned out to be almost totally unnecessary—in Siem Reap, the US dollar is king, with dollar prices posted or quoted on everything from SIM cards and T-shirts to mango shakes and massages. (Do bring lots of small bills—I’ve never seen so many 2-dollar bills moving around, not even in the US, although curiously signs say that Cambodian banks won’t accept them.) Speaking of SIM cards, a $5 Cellcard SIM gets you 1.5 gigs of data, good for one week.

Aside from dollar bills, the other constant in Siem Reap is the tuktuk, larger and more spacious than its Thai counterpart, with two facing seats in the back and the motorcycle all by itself out front. Ours was driven by an unfailingly pleasant and efficient fellow called Thou (whose name kept me looking for a loaf of bread and a jug of wine); the only drawback to this design is that the driver sits too far ahead of you for any conversation beyond the yelled “Stop!” at points of interest, so I sadly never got to really chat with Thou, even if his English was surprisingly good.

Indeed I was frankly astonished by the facility with which nearly every Cambodian I met—whether driver, waitress, masseuse, or vendor—spoke English. Of course Siem Reap is the country’s tourist capital, and English is now taught in Cambodian schools, but we didn’t see that kind of proficiency in Thailand or Vietnam. Quaint vestiges of French remain—a police outpost still called itself a “gendarmery” (with a Y). I remember last using my pidgin French some years ago with an old silk seller in Hanoi who didn’t speak English, but I never had that problem in Siem Reap. Our foot-massage suki said that she had learned English just by listening to her guests, while our guide at the war museum said that he had been taught the language by an NGO.

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As you can guess, foot massages (widely available for $5 each) were on our daily schedule, mandatory especially after the 10K treks you’ll be making, but Siem Reap is silk-scarf, cotton-shirt, and silver-bangle heaven as well for the casual shopper. Great food—with dishes familiar to the Pinoy palate—can be found all over, and you can easily enjoy a meal for two, including drinks, for $10. Wherever we were, even in the humblest market stall (our kind of fine dining), the rice was consistently good, neither stony nor mushy but with that bounce to the bite that we Visayans call makid-ol. You could even have your massage or your meal with a free daily ladyboys show. If you abhor cheap stuff (I can’t say we do) and want the very best items at corresponding prices, the Artisans Angkor workshop and showroom is in a class all by itself; mid-range, there’s the “Made in Cambodia” market, which also features a free show of traditional Cambodian dance in the early evening.

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Any list of Siem Reap’s attractions will begin with the 12th-century Angkor Wat, and if I don’t say much about it here it’s only because you truly have to be there to appreciate its majesty, along with the smaller but no less wondrous Bayon and Ta Phrom temples. This complex is but a 30-minute drive away from downtown, but what a difference a half-hour makes—seemingly into the jungle, but actually into the heart of civilization itself.

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We had been warned by the guidebooks about the insufferable heat in Siem Reap, especially on the temple tours, but it was cloudy and drizzly—even cool and nippy—for most of the time we were there. Riding our tuktuk around the countryside was thoroughly instructive. Depending on your perspective, it was either reassuring or disconcerting to see so many orphanages and pharmacies along the road. Cambodian People’s Party signs were ubiquitous as well, and a visit to the War Museum proved indispensable in contextualizing the easy comforts of today’s Cambodia.

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Our museum guide Prem was born in nearby Battambang, close to the Thai border, and remembered witnessing battles with the Khmer Rouge as a boy; his parents survived the genocide by feeding on insects. (Angkor Wat is replete with reliefs of battle scenes, a reminder of how often and how strangely beauty and gore come together.) Democracy, Prem said, was a work in progress in his country, and I could only agree and advert to our own situation, although the horrors of the Pol Pot period—with 3 million, half the Cambodian population, killed in just four years—made us, with our mere thousands of largely faceless losses over a few months, appear absurdly civilized by comparison.

We motored to the edge of Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and another major tourist attraction—but decided against taking the $20, two-hour cruise, having read on half a dozen websites about how commercialized the package had become. I’m sure we would have enjoyed it anyway, as writers and artists should find something noteworthy in the most trodden of paths, but it felt enough to contemplate the vastness of the lake from where we stood onshore. A pretty sight on the way to the lake was the carpet of flowering lotuses being farmed by the villagers.

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Just like its pinkish earth, which it seems any seed you throw into will explode in greenery, Siem Reap is a testament to the insistence of life itself, to the indomitability of the human spirit against all manner of despotism and despair. We flew home much refreshed, from our brows to our toes.

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