Penman No. 356: Loverly London (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 3, 2019

 

TO PUT it one way, the United Kingdom is the kind of place where the money looks too pretty to spend, especially the duotone one-pound and two-pound coins. But you better have a lot of it, and be prepared to let go—unless, like Beng and me, you thrive on the low end of things, which can come for next to nothing, if not for free.

As I’ve often mentioned here, Beng and I are inveterate flea market fanatics, and one reason we travel so much isn’t to pose beside the landmarks as nearly everyone else does, but to scour the flea markets, thrift shops, and garage sales of the world for the glorious stuff others see as junk—or maybe don’t see at all. From New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein, and Barcelona’s Encants to Paris’ Clignancourt, Singapore’s Sungei, and Beijing’s Panjiayuan, we’ve been there and done that.

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As it happens, we’ve yet to find a city as full of flea markets as London. On the weekends, you can easily find a dozen of them hawking everything from vintage Gladstone bags and Victorian silverware to paisley shirts from the ‘60s and ancient Roman coins. Beng usually looks for little silver baubles and I, of course, look for pens, old books, and anything to do with writing.

London is also charity and thrift-shop heaven, and every square mile you’d be guaranteed to find at least one Oxfam, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research, Norwood, Barnardo’s, or British Red Cross shop, often right next to another. Being fairly large for a Pinoy, I don’t mind saying that nearly everything I wear on top comes from some ukay-ukay or resale shop, so London’s flea markets and thrift shops are always a chance to pick up well-cut shirts and blazers for a tenth or less of what they would go for on the High Street.

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And true enough, London delivered in spades. Portobello Road is every tourist’s idea of a weekend bargain paradise (thanks to the Notting Hill movie—Hugh Grant’s bookshop at #142 is now a shoe shop), but the fact is that even more interesting and affordable markets can be found at Deptford, Brick Lane, and Islington, among others.

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I did have a good chat with an antiques dealer named Nicholas on Portobello Road. He came over to me when he saw me craning my neck at the awesome pile of vintage typewriters he kept in one of his stalls. Even if I had to tell him that I couldn’t possibly drag one of those beauties home in my luggage, he seemed happy to meet someone—a Filipino at that—who understood how lovely and valuable his Erikas and Bar-Lets were.

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Of course I couldn’t leave London without buying a pen or two. A tip from Nicholas led me to the Jubilee Antiques Market which happens at Covent Garden every Monday. The dealers set up as early as 5 am, and we were there at 7, me scouting the stalls for tubular objects, Beng interviewing a licensed mudlark (someone who pokes around the banks of the Thames) about his finds. I came away with a prize for £25, haggled down from £30—a rare brass prototype of the iconic Parker 75.

But more than markets, London is mecca for museum rats, which Beng and I also are, and while we’ve been there before and seen literally the same old things, we took in and reveled at the Sutton Hoo masks and the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum all over again, before hopping over to the Tate Modern at the South Bank for a mind-blowing exhibition of paintings from the Weimar Republic and highly inventive political art from the present. What impressed us even more were the guided tours for children at the Tate, their early exposure to the complexity of the modern mind. (Most London museums are free and open all week.)

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We reserved our last stop in London for a treat I had been anticipating for ages: a return to the British Library and to its exhibit of its treasures, ranging from old Bibles, the Magna Carta, and pre-modern maps to a special section on the Beatles. I was struck by how neat, orderly, and indeed unfailingly precise the ancient manuscripts were, as you might have expected of sacred texts, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, its every word hand-inscribed in the 4thcentury but looking as sharp and as fresh as this morning’s paper. Contrast that to the vigorous scrawls, scribbles, and cross-outs of modern writers—including the Beatles, who wrote letters and lyrics with a schoolboyish disregard for form and order: the draft of “Michelle” on the front of an envelope, that of “A Hard Day’s Night” on a greeting card. Elsewhere, Sylvia Plath sends a poem to a publisher in long hand.

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Words, decades, and centuries come alive in London—not just in the library or museum but on the street, which makes yet another visit worth yearning for.

Penman No. 355: Loverly London (1)

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Penman for Monday, May 27, 2019

 

I FIRST visited London 25 years ago, on my way to Scotland to take up residence at Hawthornden Castle on the fellowship that led to Penmanship and Other Stories. Since then I’ve been back a few times—very often in 1999-2000, when again I was a writing fellow at Norwich. It’s easily my favorite city in the world to visit, given its cultural vitality and the accessibility of the things that matter most to me—museums, galleries, and flea markets—and for the past two decades, Beng and I had been dreaming of returning to London to step back into our old haunts.

That finally came true on the heels of our recent Scotland trip with our daughter Demi and her husband Jerry; they flew back to home and work in California, so Beng and I had a full week to ourselves, and wisely we decided to just spend almost all of that time in London, except for an overnighter in nearby Chelmsford and Norwich. As with 20 years ago, we did everything by train and by Oyster card (“contactless” is a new English word you’ll learn quickly just out of Heathrow). There’s nothing like a train ride into the English countryside and its undulating greens awakened now and then by brilliant yellow swathes of rapeseed to make one understand Wordsworth and Romanticism, in the same way that Glasgow’s sooty masonry and steel sinews recall a darker, Dickensian industrial past.

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Speaking of Dickens, and like many Pinoys my age, my first impression of London was shaped by Broadway’s and Hollywood’s renditions of its Victorian upside and downside, in such confections as “Oliver Twist” and “Mary Poppins” (from which the screech of my schoolboy crush, Julie Andrews, still resonates, appealing for “a room somewhere, far a-wigh from the cold night air…. Awww, wouldn’t it be loverly?”).

Well, thanks to Booking.com, Beng and I found ourselves a loverly, affordable room in a large house in the northwestern London suburb of Golders Green—a neat and quiet, multicultural neighborhood on the Tube’s Northern Line, historically Jewish but with many Turkish, Iranian, and Japanese restaurants and groceries lining the streets. And, of course, there were Filipinos everywhere, not tourists like us (you’ll find them at Harrods) but off-duty caregivers and housekeepers enjoying time together at the local KFC.

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That’s where we met someone we’ll call Thelma, who has worked for the same Jewish employer for the past ten years. It just so happened that she and Beng had some mutual friends from Iloilo, where Thelma went to college. “I’m treated very well here,” Thelma said. “Every year I get a paid vacation to go home.” We spotted another unmistakably Pinay girl at the streetcorner selling suman, which we had for our next breakfast. And at the end of a long Sunday walk down Portobello Road, in a cluster of street-food stalls offering everything from vegan paella to Jamaican patties, we found Eva Caparanga’s Pinoy Grill UK, which instantly answered the question we had been asking all day, “What are we having for dinner tonight?” As she heaped our chicken adobo into a large takeout cup, Eva told us that she had been in the UK for more than 30 years, and was still working in health care, but that for the past three years she had used her days off to run her stall at the far end of the popular Portobello Market. “People ask me why I do this, and I tell them it’s so I can help family back home in Bicol. And again they ask me why I do that, and I say, well, that’s just how we Filipinos are!”

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The story of Filipinos in the UK and London is a long and colorful one, and I can’t count the many times they came to my succor during my tenure at Norwich and my weekend sorties to London years ago. When my feet acquired a horrible infection in Norwich, I ran to the National Health Service, only to find it staffed by kindly Pinoy nurses who got me back to walking in no time. In London, my host was the late, beloved Ed Maranan, who had ushered at the National Theatre and could sneak me into plays for free; in return, I made sure to wash the dishes at his flat on Goldhawk Road. The writer Jun Terra also brought me around once to marvel at the late Dr. Teyet Pascual’s art pieces in his Chelsea apartment.

This time, Beng and I were resolved to stay close to ground level, having neither the budget nor the inclination to splurge on the timelesss luxury that puts British-made things—whether they be suits, shoes, bags, or fountain pens—in a class all by themselves. This time, we said, we would go straight for the two things that we enjoy most in our sorties to foreign cities: flea markets and museums.

More on these next week.

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Penman No. 354: A Scottish Sortie

IMG_0415.jpegPenman for Monday, May 20, 2019

 

AS UNLIKELY as it may seem, many Filipino writers have a special affinity for Scotland, that northern country (yes, it is one) bound up into the United Kingdom with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. That’s not only because of our passing familiarity with the likes of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, but because, over the past three decades, more than a dozen Filipino writers—among them Krip Yuson, Eric Gamalinda, Ricky de Ungria, Marj Evasco, Rofel Brion, Danton Remoto, Mia Gonzalez, and myself—have been fellows at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, about half an hour by bus in Midlothian, just outside of Edinburgh.

That was where, in 1994, I wrote much of what became Penmanship and Other Stories, including the title story, which came out of a serendipitous purchase of a 1938 Parker Vacumatic at the Thistle Pen Shop in Edinburgh. Indeed, two literary anthologies have emerged from the Pinoy-Scottish connection: Luna Caledonia, a poetry collection edited by Ricky de Ungria and published in 1992, and Latitude, a fiction collection co-edited by Sarge Lacuesta and Toni Davidson and published in 2005.

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I returned to Scotland in 2000 with my wife Beng and daughter Demi in tow; I was a writing fellow then at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and Demi was visiting us from Manila. As it happened, a local radio station was offering free train tickets to Scotland to whoever could dial in and answer some simple questions at 5 am, so for three consecutive mornings, I woke up early and did just that, and soon we three were rolling away to Glasgow, taking the scenic route along the western coast (and being feted on the train by a kindly Pinoy attendant).

That was 20 years ago, and since then Beng and I have expressed a more than idle longing to revisit Scotland—especially Beng, an unabashed fan of Braveheart and Outlander. In the meantime, Demi got married to bright young fellow from California named Jerry, and in 2014 Demi and Jerry treated us, on our 40thwedding anniversary, to a tour of Spain, following Rizal’s footsteps in Madrid and Barcelona, and Anthony Bourdain’s in San Sebastian.

We wanted to repeat that this year to mark our 45th, so it was no huge surprise that we settled on Scotland where Jerry—who likes his single malts—had never been. After meeting up in London, we took a train to Edinburgh and lodged in the shadow of its imposing castle, to which we paid the obligatory visit. I treated our small party next to a day tour of Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond, Deanston Distillery, and Doune Castle, before moving on the next day to Glasgow and its more down-to-earth, industrial vibe.

I wanted to record this not to bore you with the details of another family sortie, but to remark on what impressed us most, outside of the often desolate beauty of the Scottish highlands and our comic encounters with the “hairy coos” (the Highland cattle probably fattened by tourist feedings).

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For me, a retired professor who can’t help being interested in a country’s educational and cultural infrastructure, the question was, how could the Scots have done so much with seemingly so little?

Pop stars like Sean Connery, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, JK Rowling, and Annie Lennox aside, Scotland has produced engineer James Watt, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming, social philosopher Adam Smith, and explorer David Livingstone. A book by the historian Arthur Herman titled How the Scots Invented the Modern World asks: “Who formed the first literate society? Who invented our modern ideas of democracy and free market capitalism? The Scots…. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland made crucial contributions to science, philosophy, literature, education, medicine, commerce, and politics—contributions that have formed and nurtured the modern West ever since…. John Knox and the Church of Scotland laid the foundation for our modern idea of democracy; the Scottish Enlightenment helped to inspire both the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution; and thousands of Scottish immigrants left their homes to create the American frontier, the Australian outback, and the British Empire in India and Hong Kong.”

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This from a country of less than 6 million people (that’s right, six), whose influence extends far beyond their shores. While wives and widows everywhere may bemoan the loss of their husbands to golf and whisky, both industries annually contribute £1 billion and £6 billion, respectively—about P500 billion combined—to the Scottish economy, which is also driven by oil and gas, a £12-billion industry. (To put things in perspective, you can add up those three for a total contribution of £19 billion or about US$25 billion, which is what Philippine BPOs generate, as well as OFWs—but with a much smaller denominator.)

What was most telling to me was how Scotland, despite its plethora of warriors, politicians, engineers, and industrialists, valued its writers, who in turn valued Scottish national pride. The 200-foot statue of Walter Scott in Edinburgh is the largest in the world of any writer’s, and in Glasgow, Scott’s monument also towers over those of others in George Square.

Of course we can argue that we venerate Jose Rizal—only to elect his intellectual and moral opposites. As the Scots might put it, “A nod’s as guid as a wink tae a blind horse.”

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Penman No. 349: Pen Hunting in Japan

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Penman for Monday, April 15, 2019

 

MOST TOURISTS visit Japan, sensibly enough, for the sushi, the sakura, and the swords. I like all of the above, and chased after all of them during our recent trip to Tokyo (a highlight was seeing a 13th-c. Masamune katana at the Tokyo National Museum). But I had one more item on my personal agenda that I couldn’t possibly leave Japan without—or at least, without looking for it.

That desideratum, of course, was the fountain pen, and there’s a very good reason why fountain pens should be on the discriminating tourist’s Japanese shopping list. Just as they’ve excelled in practically all the arts and crafts, the Japanese have made some of the world’s best fountain pens, many with uniquely Japanese materials and production processes, and some very special nibs.

With fountain pens undergoing a global resurgence in both the corporate and personal spheres as instruments of individuation—a means by which you can literally leave your own signature on a stack of digitized documents, and set yourself apart from the ballpoint-clicking herd—many Filipinos now know familiar American brands like Parker, Sheaffer, and Waterman. Lawyers and doctors typically want German-made Montblancs, and might even try Pelikans, Lamys, and Faber-Castells. But a growing number of mostly young professionals have discovered the Japanese Big Three—Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum—as well as newer brands like the Taiwanese TWSBI. They’ve been helped along by the emergence of local fountain pen, ink, and stationery specialists like Scribe Writing Essentials, Everything Calligraphy, Noteworthy, and PenGrafik.

The Japanese pens I was looking for in Tokyo exist in a whole other realm of connoisseurship. These are artisanal masterpieces, the culmination of centuries of fine workmanship. I’ve often said that pens fascinate me as the perfect fusion of art and engineering, and nothing exemplifies that more than the best Japanese pens. You’d think that the Japanese would be more inclined toward brushes—and they still may be—but a fine pen is considered a personal treasure, as distinct as the swords carried by the samurai of old.

In 2002, Pilot Pen Company—one of Japan’s pen pioneers—opened a pen museum at its headquarters in Kyobashi. Beng and I made a beeline for it, walking the couple of kilometers from the Tsukiji Fish Market, only to discover to our dismay that it had closed a few years earlier. But Tokyo’s fabled pen shops are in themselves museums, and more, so armed with a 72-hour subway pass, we made the rounds of the usual suspects. (Earlier, at the Tokyo City Flea Market in Shinagawa, I had treated myself to a defective but repairable Pelikan M805, a Pilot Custom 74, and a prewar Pilot with a flexible shiro steel nib.)

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A fountain pen tourist’s first stop in Tokyo should be Itoya in Ginza. Japan’s oldest stationery store, Itoya has a whole floor devoted just to fountain pens, and not just your everyday Sheaffer either but the very finest examples of Japanese penmaking. The Japanese pride themselves in the art of maki-e (literally, “sprinkled picture”), which involves creating intricate designs with gold dust and hand painting on ebonite or hard-rubber barrels and caps, on which many layers of hard urushi lacquer are applied. In the 1920s, Pilot—then known as Namiki—partnered with Dunhill to create exquisite examples of urushi/maki-e pens, which have since sold for over $250,000. These urushi and maki-e pens—now also produced by such makers as Nakaya, Danitrio, and Hakase, aside from the Big Three—are hand-made by master craftsmen in small shops, and are typically ordered months ahead. Or you can go to Itoya (or online, to www.nibs.com or www.penchalet.com, among others) to find yours.

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A couple of blocks away from Itoya is Eurobox, a small room on the fourth floor of an old building stocked full of vintage pens, mainly Western, very well chosen and sold at competitive prices. Another must-see is Maruzen’s large pen section at the basement of its Nihonbashi store. And no Tokyo pen visit would be complete without stepping into Kingdom Note in Shinjuku, which specializes in used but top-tier pens, both Japanese and Western. One pen store that takes and ships orders for Pilot urushi pens with special nibs like the so-called Waverley and Falcon nibs is Tokyo Pen Shop Quill in Kugahara, which unfortunately we missed because we took an express instead of a local train on our last full day in Tokyo.

That diversion turned out to be serendipitous, because Beng and I got off on a whim at Sengakuji Station, only to realize that we were within walking distance of the graves of the famous 47 ronin who had attacked and beheaded a despotic ruler in 1702, paying for their deed with their own lives. As we paid our respects to these noble warriors under the cherry blossoms, I seemed to hear voices urging me to “Buy a big Japanese pen to fight evil overlords!”

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So off we went to our last pen stop, Komehyo Ginza. Komehyo is a resale chain that sells mostly high-end used goods but also some new items, including fountain pens, and this was where I found my “grail” pen, by which I was going to remember Japan this time around—a large, new, and thankfully affordable urushi Platinum Izumo pen, its deep red undertone sheening through the rich lacquer. As with many things Japanese, it’s simplicity itself, but breathtakingly elegant. Unlike some places we know, Japanese stores accord their customers extraordinarily solicitous service—you can hold and try out any pen you want for as long as you want without any dagger looks from the staff—and even Komehyo lived up to that standard, processing my 8 percent tourist rebate without any fuss (a few stores ignore it, or require you to collect it at the airport).

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As we flew home with the Izumo sitting smartly in my pocket, I munched on my 100-yen rice crackers from Daiso, and dreamed about whipping out my pen and slashing a few bile-filled throats in the name of truth, beauty, and justice.

(Top pen images from http://www.nibs.com)

 

Penman No. 348: Transience in Tokyo

 

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Penman for Monday, April 8, 2019

 

MY WIFE Beng and I have been to Japan—on our own and together—a few times, but not until last week did we go there just to immerse ourselves for seven days in one place, not trying too hard to see or do or buy too many things. The place was Tokyo, which Beng and I last visited as a couple almost 20 years ago, a depressingly downscale sortie from which Beng can only remember living off the nearby 7-11 and slurping rice gruel with construction workers beneath a bridge. With my retirement then looming, I booked this trip last year, well in advance of the 2019 cherry-blossom season, which Beng had expressed a longing to catch. I thought it was a chance to make up for that sorry first outing and for making new memories.

Wherever we travel, Beng and I always have two sure targets in mind: museums and flea markets. The museums provide an intimate feel of the history of the place, and the flea markets—well, they a have a bit of the museum in them, bits you can actually buy and bring home. (Indeed, we often remember cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beijing, Seoul—less for their landmarks than for their flea markets.) For this Tokyo trip, we also resolved to enjoy the cherry blossoms and to look into as many fountain-pen shops as we could.

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The Japanese fascination with cherry blossoms—that perennial signal and reminder of the transience of beauty and of life itself—is well known. As our friend Julie Hill puts it in her book Privileged Witness, “Cherry blossoms are a punctual miracle, a well-rehearsed event in the annual Japanese calendar. They first appear in the southern part of the archipelago, around the subtropical islands of Okinawa. As the weather gets warmer, cherry trees flower in central Japan; and in two weeks, depending on the weather, they will make their presence in Tokyo, achieving their full glory in the parks—Ueno park is a famous spot—and the gardens bordering the Imperial Palace.

“For weeks preparations have been underway in Kyoto; paper blossoms have been fluttering off lampposts and major downtown stores; newspapers and television channels have run elaborate charts of the sakura zensen—the cherry blossom—as part of the daily weather forecast. There are many varieties of trees, some occurring in the wilds of Japan, featured in gardens and parks as a cultivated tree. Others are bred as flowering trees with over-large, over-pink and over-endowed petals. The most popular are those with small pink flowers held in compact clusters.”

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The sakura bloomed early this year—the weather in Tokyo was nippy to almost chilly—but we caught showers of them in pink and white around the Imperial Palace, along the Meguro River, and in Ueno Park. Most fortunately, we stumbled into a bank of them in Chidorigafuchi Park just as it darkened, and suddenly the trees were lit up, lending ethereal magic to the scene. The only downer with these hanami or flower-viewing walks is that you’re doing them with several hundred other people looking for exactly the same thing—that perfect pose or shot under the same trees.

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A quieter time can be had exploring the sakura in context, such as you might do at the Tokyo National Museum on the far edge of Ueno Park, fittingly at the end of a long walk under the flowering cherry trees. There the blossoms figure in everything from Hiroshige’s Edo Road prints to exquisite kimono and lacquered boxes and bowls—indeed, a recurring theme that can only resonate more poignantly in these times of fleeting joys and affections.

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Speaking of fleeting joys, we had our fill of them at the Tokyo City Flea Market beside the Ohi Racecourse in Shinagawa, where we spent most of our Sunday morning. Beng and I are Japan surplus-shop regulars, and this was the mother of all of them, hawking everything from used clothes and vintage electronics to ceramics and scientific instruments. We walked away with a handsome thermometer/hygrometer, which Beng needs for her art restoration studio, for 100 yen (50 pesos) and a big leather bag to carry our stuff for 300 yen. My big find—adrift in a sea of bags and blouses—was a newish Pilot Custom 74 fountain pen, which normally retails for between $100 and $150, for less than P2,000.

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That was before I ran into the mother lode of vintage pens at one stall, where the owner had kept them in translucent plastic boxes, not thinking that anyone would be interested in them, and not thinking that a persistent Pinoy with X-ray vision would spot Montblanc stars in a galaxy of caps. It was a real treasure trove that I would have gladly sold a car for were I a younger and hungrier collector, but after much dickering, I picked out just two prize pens, about which you’ll hear more in another report on pen hunting in Tokyo.

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This time around, we had chosen a better hotel, well located near the Imperial Palace, small and rather expensive but impeccably clean as Japanese hotels go. We still found ourselves subsisting on the prepackaged rice-and-fish dinners at 7-11 (actually, they’re good and cheap!), so Beng and I celebrated the day (and yes, the transience of money) with a grand dinner at a steakhouse in our neighborhood in Chiyoda. A good time was had by all.

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Penman No. 342: Have Beng, Will Travel

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Penman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

MOST MILLENNIALS will probably miss the title’s reference to that 1960s TV show “Have Gun, Will Travel” starring Richard Boone as the soft-hearted gun-for-hire Paladin, but I’m happily appropriating it for this week’s piece on travel, given that summer is practically here and many of us are packing our bags for the year’s big sortie to parts unknown.

Global travel has become such a big part of the Filipino lifestyle that it’s changed our culture in all kinds of ways, from our food and fashion preferences to our outlook and attitudes. Of course we can’t forget that most Pinoys still travel for work—for back-breaking jobs far away from home and family—rather than for leisure.

Indeed my wife Beng and I were too poor when we got married 45 years ago to go anywhere farther than Baguio, and come to think of it I can’t even remember when we sat side by side on a plane for the first time to see a bit of the world together—it certainly wasn’t on our honeymoon, because we never had one. But we’ve since made up for lost time by traveling up a storm, especially since I made a vow a decade ago to bring Beng to every place I’d ever been, having had more opportunities to get around as a writer and academic. Except for Myanmar and Brunei, we’ve now been all over Southeast Asia, parts of Europe, Australia, and of course the US.

I was filling up our visa application forms for the UK a week ago—I love the UK, where Beng and I lived for almost a year in 1990-2000 when I was a writing fellow at Norwich, but Christ Almighty, their forms are a pain to fill up, being 12 pages long and asking for your travel history for the past 10 years. That’s when I realized that I’d traveled more than 50 times since 2009—most often in 2012, when I took nine trips, mainly to conferences.

I know people will ask, how could we afford all this on a professor’s salary? Well, more than half the time, it’s someone else paying when I’m invited to conferences (I pay Beng’s way, of course, when she tags along). Also, we’ve been empty nesters for the past ten years since our daughter Demi got married in California (another good reason to save up for a US visit every year). We never had much by way of savings, except for emergencies, because Beng and I decided long ago that money was better spent on having fun together now.

And when we travel on our own, it’s strictly on a budget—meaning boutique hotels, 7-11s, and local buses and subways all the way. I plan out our flights months in advance on Skyscanner.com.ph, and find our hotels on Booking.com. No room service, no Michelin restaurants, no High Street shopping, just museums, flea markets, and hawker stalls. That’s why I love traveling with Beng, because she’s easy, and between the two of us, I’m the picky one, in an odd way—she’s adventurous and will try anything, but I’m a creature of habit and insist on having my noodles and canned sardines, even in the middle of Europe.

Beng’s going to be a septuagenarian soon (though she doesn’t look 60, but for the white hair), but she still clambers up scaffoldings to restore huge murals (most recently a 36-foot-long one by Manansala owned by a big bank). I’m beginning to feel the aches of age and have to stop and even take short naps on our museum tours. But the fact that we’re seniors, and that we could be on canes and wheelchairs not too long from now, only intensifies our desire to go see places together while our knees and feet can take it.

Some young people going out on their first trips recently asked for travel tips on a forum, and this was what I shared with them from all those years of gallivanting. I may be an old guy, but I’ve been a big fan of digital travel since the world went online.

  • I take pictures of all important documents—passports, visas, prescriptions—and store them on my phone. I take pics as well of hotel addresses and vicinity maps, just in case I can’t make a live online connection.
  • I always carry a spare unlocked phone and buy a local SIM at the airport.
  • Since 1999, I’ve been using a free app called Metro (regularly updated) for using the subway or metro in any city I visit. Mastering the local transport system saves on Uber, Grab, and taxis.
  • I usually just withdraw cash from the local ATM and forget about money changers—there’s a surcharge, of course, but it’s safer, more convenient, and easier to track. At the end of a trip, I don’t convert foreign currency back to dollars or pesos, but keep it for my next trip. It’s always good to land with taxi fare in local money, and small bills for hotel staff. I always check Google about local tipping practices.
  •  I always take out travel insurance (online) for long trips. I’ve thankfully never had to use it, but you never know.
  • Like I mentioned earlier, I always look for cheap or good flights on Skyscanner.com.ph and book my hotels on Booking.com. Remember that in booking flights or hotels, cheapest doesn’t always mean the best bargain. Times and locations matter. That said, happy trails and safe travels!

Penman No. 339: Dinner in Penang

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Penman for Monday, February 4, 2019

 

A FEW days after I retired last month, Beng and I hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on our way to Penang. I’d booked the trip many months ago, as a form of insurance against changing my mind about staying on at my job for another year or two, a very tempting option. Thankfully Malaysia Airlines had a sale on its flights, and that sealed the deal.

Why Penang? Because, about ten years ago, I made a vow to bring Beng to every city I’d ever been, and Penang was one of the few left on the list that was close and affordable, with the promise of a pleasant and relaxed vacation. (In your 20s, you look for bars and ziplining; in your 60s, a soft bed and a nice view of the sunset sounds just about right.) Malaysia also happens to be a personal favorite of ours—I’d taken Beng to KL, Melaka, and Kota Kinabalu before, with happy outcomes in all of those places.

The first and only time I’d been to Penang was in December 1992, when I and a few other Filipinos attended the Asean Writers Conference/Workshop being held there for writers below 40. It’s hard to imagine now that I was only 38 then, with a full shock of jet-black hair and a certain cockiness about the strength of Philippine writing in our part of the world; I’d just returned with a PhD from the US and had confirmed to myself that we could write as well as anyone else. That seemed to be upheld when the conference elected us president—an honor usually reserved for the host country—but our esteem took a few licks at dinnertime, when our Indonesian poet-friend, a man who had made a fortune reading poetry to thousands of paying listeners, dined up in the revolving restaurant, while my roommate Fidel Rillo and I snuck out to the hawker stalls, our precious ringgit jangling in our pockets.

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There was, I must say, a sufficiency of ringgit to accompany Beng and me this time around, but we still chose to take the low road, as it’s very often more fun, foregoing the swanky beachside hotels in Batu Feringhi for more modest digs in central George Town, the island’s capital. We stayed at the aptly named 1926 Heritage Hotel, a long building that still displayed the grace and robust masonry of its colonial past. While highrises are beginning to crowd the Penang cityscape, its colonial architecture is the island’s true attraction, the old mansions set back by wide swaths of greenery and bougainvillea.

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Not being beach types, Beng and I made a beeline on our first morning for the Penang State Museum (entrance fee, 1 ringgit), which had small but artful and informative exhibits on Penang’s mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. We always make it a point to master the local bus or metro system wherever we go to save on taxis, and armed with seven-day bus passes for 30 (about P400) ringgit each, we just rode buses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the view and riding back.

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The must-sees for anyone touring Penang are Penang Hill, which offers spectacular views of the city from about 800 meters up via funicular train, and the Blue Mansion, the magnificently restored 130-year-old home of one of China’s richest men, now also a hotel and a restaurant, but open to guided tours (tip: Wife #7 will haunt you). We took it slow, enjoying just one major destination for every one of our four days there, but George Town is full of interesting turns—among them, the old Protestant Cemetery with graves from the 1700s that Beng and I strayed into while walking to the Blue Mansion.

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Most of all, Penang is about hawker food (so Fidel and I were on the right track back in 1992), with brand-new Mercedes-Benzes lined up for parking beside stalls hawking Hainanese Chicken Rice for 5 ringgit a plate. Being a creature of habit, I was quite happy to try chicken rice at various stalls, while Beng had her choice of possibilities from congee to char kway teow.

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The trip reminded me of a short poem I wrote after my first visit there nearly 27 years ago, and here it is (Elangovan is a prominent Singaporean playwright).

DINNER IN PENANG

 For the second time in as many days

I come to her, and have the same

Two-ringgit dish of hawker’s prawn

Steamed in fragrant both, and its succulence

Competes in joyfulness with the garlic sauce.

 

The next morning, Elangovan says to me:

Those prawns were fatted on the city’s slime—

Look here, it’s in the papers,

“Waterborne diseases on the rise!”—

And while my reason grapples

With the sordid possibilities,

My stomach’s heart has no regrets,

Having loved, without need of asking,

Having departed more complete, in trusting.

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Penman No. 332: Southern Surprises

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Penman for Monday, December 17, 2018

 

MY RECENT forays to southern Taiwan—the first to Tainan, and the second to Kaohsiung—reminded me that while we Pinoys love to chuckle and even snicker at how the Chinese (among others) mangle English, the economic and technological leaps they’ve made (using their own language, let’s not forget) are no laughing matter, unless you’re a Chinese entrepreneur or engineer on his or her way to the bank.

This occurred to me as I was flipping through the local travel and leisure magazines in my hotel room in Tainan between sessions of the academic conference I was attending. Typical of the prose was this advertisement for a resort on the island: “Join the exclusive equestrian sports of the aristocrats, so that parents can easily experience the price of the people, the wonderful and rich itinerary, you can easily lick the children without going far! Let you play and don’t want to go home anymore.”

I could imagine some snooty Filipinos, more English than the English, rolling on the floor and thinking that people who write that way can’t possibly go anywhere, but I would’ve liked to bring those people to the exhibits downstairs showcasing Taiwan’s state-of-the-art research in biomedical engineering, solar power, and materials science, including an interesting project aimed at improving your basketball skills through “a virtual reality basketball tactic training system.”

I don’t know how close that project will bring Taiwan to a world basketball championship, but I could see, from the presentations I was listening to, that they were going all out to become world-class champions in research and development. Our host, the National Cheng Kung University, had almost US$145 million to spend on R&D in 2017, mostly from the government. (That’s about half of the University of the Philippines’ budget for everything.)

Thankfully, we did have a break from all the S&T reports on the last day of our Tainan conference, and we were given a choice of tours between visiting a museum or an aquaculture farm. Now, I love fish as much as you do—it’s often the first thing I eat in the morning—but I wanted to have a closer look at Taiwan’s culture and history, so I hopped on the museum bus. What we saw was, well, anything but Taiwanese—unless you take the act of presenting the thing itself as an expression of Taiwan’s place in the world today.

Our destination was the Chimei Museum, named after the company that’s now the world’s largest maker of ABS resin, which goes into the making of popular plastics such as computer keyboards, auto body parts, and bicycle helmets.

The Chimei Museum is an imposing if rather odd homage to Western art and artisanship. Located on the outskirts of Tainan, it was built in 1992 by the billionaire industrialist Shi Wen-long. Now 90, Shi never got a college degree. But he’s also a passionate amateur violinist who’s played with Yo-yo Ma. That, plus his personal fortune, has allowed him to put together a stunning collection of vintage musical instruments—including priceless violins by Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati—that are now on display at the museum, in an exhibition that recreates the workshop of a master luthier or violin maker.

The Chimei’s other showstopper—aside from the Rodin gallery and some masterpieces of French realism—is its exhibit of ancient arms and armor, from the time of the Greek hoplites and medieval knights to the Japanese samurai and English crossbowmen. I have to admit to a boy’s fascination with weaponry, and having visited many of the world’s best museums, I’d have to say that the Chimei’s collection was comprehensively fearsome. These were the real things, folks, not cheap or 3-D printed replicas.

Indeed, there’s hardly anything Chinese in the design of the Chimei or in its exhibits. The large, neoclassical, Corinthian-columned museum—set off from the street by a long walkway flanked by tall statues of the Greek gods and goddesses—could have stood anywhere in Europe or the US, and comes off as a statement, as if to say, “We could have given you the chinoiserie you expect, but we chose to acquire and to present the best of the West.”

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And I can’t let this column end without mentioning the other surprise I came across in southern Taiwan, in the port city of Kaohsiung, where I also attended a conference on distance education. Our host, Dr. Eing-Ming Wu, made use of a free afternoon to introduce us to the city in a most unconventional way—by giving us tickets to take the I-Ride, Kaohsiung’s so-called “flying theater”—kind of like a rollercoaster in an Imax—powered by the homegrown Brogent Group’s 3D technology, which it has exported to Hollywood and other amusement capitals worldwide. If I needed to be impressed by Taiwan’s engineers, this was the best way to do it, screaming my head off, feet dangling in the air, as we swooped over a Buddhist temple then plunged into the ocean.

While travel to Taiwan remains visa-free for Pinoys, I’m definitely returning as a tourist to Kaohsiung with my wife Beng, if only to have her  experience the exhilaration of the I-Ride and maybe take her on a cruise on the Love River, feasting on the sweet giant atisuntil our eyes bulge. As they say, in Taiwan, “you can easily lick the children without going far”—whatever that means, it sounds like fun!

 

 

 

Penman No. 331: Opening up to Taiwan

 

IMG_8621.jpegPenman for Monday, December 10, 2018

 

AS IT happened, I was in Taiwan twice last month to represent the University of the Philippines in two conferences that underscored the vitality of our academic partnerships with our Taiwanese counterparts—and the importance they accord to improving relations with Philippine universities.

Over the past decade, the Philippines has been sending scores of graduate students to various universities in Taiwan for their masteral and doctoral degrees, mainly in the sciences, where Taiwan has a lot to offer the world, given its cutting-edge technologies and laboratories. This also plays into one of the island’s growing predicaments—a demographic dip that has encouraged its policymakers to draw students for its universities from around the region, embodied in its so-called “New Southbound Policy” of promoting relations with South and Southeast Asia and Australasia.

Southern Taiwan has been especially aggressive in opening and developing academic relations with Philippine universities, banking on its geographical and cultural proximity to us. (It always amazes me how closely their aboriginal costumes and folkways resemble ours.)

The first conference I attended was the Presidents’ Forum of the South and Southeast Asian and Taiwan Universities (SATU), a consortium organized 15 years ago and since led by the National Cheng Kung University based in Tainan. This year’s meeting was devoted to strengthening linkages between universities and industries, with experts from Thailand (medical sciences) and India (engineering) supporting their Taiwanese counterparts in providing models for cooperation. SATU universities match experts who then work collaboratively on projects ranging from robotics and wind tunnels to dengue and stem cell research.

The second and larger conference was held in the port city of Kaohsiung, even farther south (both Tainan and Kaohsiung are easily reachable from Taipei by high-speed train). This was the 3rdInternational Conference on Open and Distance e-Learning (ICODeL) with the theme “Technology-Enhanced and Inclusive Education in the Digital Age,” and while it took place in Taiwan, it was actually organized and run by the UP Open University (UPOU), with support from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), the National University of Kaohsiung, the Open University of Kaohsiung, the Southern Taiwan Universities Alliance, and Taiwan’s Edu-Connect Southeast Asia network, among others.

This is as good a time as any to highlight the work of UPOU, one of UP’s eight constituent universities—one that happens to have the smallest physical footprint (it occupies a small lot in Los Baños, Laguna) but the largest global reach, because of its online presence. Founded almost 25 years ago to democratize access to quality higher education through distance education, UPOU came fully online in 2007, with 25% of its enrollees spread out over 70 countries. It offers three undergraduate, about 30 graduate diploma and masteral, and three doctoral degree programs, from which it has produced close to 3,000 graduates, mostly from its Multimedia Studies and Education programs.

All of this happened, former UPOU Chancellor Grace “Gigi” Javier Alfonso told me, without compromising UP’s high educational standards. “Applicants to our undergraduate degree programs still have to pass the UPCAT,” she said.

There’s a persistent impression out there that open universities and distance education offer cheaper but also lower-quality education and easier-to-pass courses, but UPOU has been working hard to prove this stigmatization wrong. “We offer the same quality of education as any other UP CU,” said current Chancellor Melinda Bandelaria, who also presides over the Asian Association of Open Universities (AAOU). “What open universities like UPOU provide is a chance for working professionals, housewives, entertainers, and OFWs to acquire a college or graduate education at their own pace, wherever they may be in the world. It’s not a replacement for, but an alternative to, traditional residential colleges.”

Many of UPOU’s students are OFWs working on their degrees, which will boost their skills and employability where they are and when they come home. One of the highlights of ICODeL was the inauguration of a Philippines Learning Commons in Kaohsiung where UPOU students could access their materials online. Much of the instruction of UPOU and other open universities is done through Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, which have become increasingly popular in the global academic landscape. UPOU now has more than 70 MOOcs on its roster, with 3 MOOCs typically covering a 3-unit course. It typically takes three years to finish a master’s degree with UPOU.

Mandated by RA 10650 or the Open Distance Learning Act to assist CHED and TESDA, UPOU had engaged industry experts help it in designing Open Educational Resources  or OERs which are free to use by teachers and students; UPOU then develops MOOCs using these OERs. “When industries work with universities, they create a powerful engine for economic growth and innovation,” said Dr. Bandelaria.

The point of bringing ICODeL to Kaohsiung was also to match UPOU and the many Philippine SUC officials who attended the conference with their Taiwanese counterparts. The chief matchmaker was Edu-Connect’s indefatigable Executive Director, Dr. Eing-Ming Wu, a political scientist and Chair Professor at Shu-Te University who has been one of the most energetic promoters of the Philippines abroad that I’ve ever met.

With these connections in place, Philippine educators may not have to look much farther than our closest northern neighbor for vital help in raising their educational standards.

Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

TO FOLLOW through on my initial report last week on the 2ndAsian Literature Festival in Gwangju, South Korea from November 6 to 9, it was an exhilarating and enlightening experience to be among fellow Asian writers getting together to wield literature as a weapon of peace.

I’ve been to many international literary festivals and conferences, but inevitably these gatherings—even those held in Asia—have tended to focus on Western writers and their concerns. For a while back there, the Man Asian Literary Awards, which culminated in a gala ceremony in Hong Kong, drew some special attention to contemporary Asian writing, but that fledgling effort folded up too soon. The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which will be holding its annual conference in Australia a few weeks from now, is arguably the region’s largest and most active literary network, but with so many topics on offer and so many attendees, it’s hard to keep your eyes and minds on one thing at any one time.

The Gwangju meeting felt just right, bringing together 11 writers from outside Korea to meet and interact with about the same number of their Korean counterparts. I was privileged to be the first Filipino to be invited to this young festival, which was headlined last year by 1986 Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. This year, the prolific and immensely talented Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, led the delegates, who also included the Mongolian poet Damdinsuren Uriankhai, the first winner of the Asian Literature Award, which is given out at the festival.

Why Korea? Because—even as it globally exports kimchi, Koreanovelas, cellphones, and K-Pop—Korea (at least the southern part of it) is seeking to strengthen its cultural connections to the world at large, by exposing its people to cultural and literary movements from the outside, especially from beyond the Eurocentric zone. Among the key agents of this pivot is the publisher and editor Kim Jae-yong, a professor of modern Korean literature and world literature at Wonkwang University in Iksan, supported by the likes of Prof. Sohn Sukjoo from Dong-a University in Busan. Last year, it was also Prof. Kim and Prof. Sohn who brought another group of writers, including myself, to Jeju to discuss how our literatures were emerging out of the Western shadow.

The Gwangju event was less a conference than an intense but still festive sharing of experiences and responses to the many threats to peace, freedom, and justice around the world today, especially in Asia. As the festival chair Prof. Paik Nak-chung put it, “Particularly, 2018 is a special year when the journey towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula began as the leaders of the two Koreas met in Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The festival urges Asian writers to carry on the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula to sublimate Asia’s wounds through literature.”

Writers, of course, are neither politicians nor diplomats (despite Shelley’s generous attribution of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Much of what we write inevitably has political content and intent, but governments don’t listen to writers (and would, in fact, shut down the teaching of language and literature as superfluities, like our magistrates did last week). We agreed, therefore, that our approach has to be direct to our peoples and audiences, to resensitize them to their humanity; freedom and justice are prerequisites to any kind of real and lasting peace, and these in turn are premised on the worth of the individual, which literature can help establish.

It was a great honor to share the company of the likes of Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist who had fought the Americans during the war and had once found just himself and a comrade left alive in their platoon after a bloody encounter. His novel Sorrows of War is a poignant reflection on the fruitlessness of war, and the man’s quiet but fervent advocacy persuaded us (with me as one of the jurors) to award him the Asian Literature Award for this year. Another writer I got along very well with was the Taiwanese novelist Syaman Rapongan, a champion of his Tao tribe from Taiwan’s Orchid Island, who gave up a professorship in anthropology to pursue his true passions, writing and seafaring; “The ocean is a poem we cannot recite to the end,” one of his works memorably begins. The bestselling Korean novelist Sim Yungkyung, a molecular biologist by training, also became a good friend, and with our very capable guide Ms. Kim Hye Ji, my wife Beng and I saw the best of Korean culture and hospitality that week.

Not incidentally, the Asian Literature Festival was organized and sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s impressive Asian Culture Center (ACC), which should be a model for other countries to emulate. But the best service of festivals like this is to remind writers—especially writers of conscience—that as solitary and sometimes as disheartening as their work can be, they are not alone, and are appreciated.