Penman No. 444: A San Diego Sojourn

Penman for Sunday, November 6, 2022

A FEW weeks ago, for the first time since the pandemic, my wife Beng and I took a plane out of the country, and I can’t tell you how liberating that felt after three years of being landbound. I’d had few complaints about the long lockdowns, because I’m used to working and writing in isolation, and have become much less sociable as I age. But I did miss the travel, the foreign air, the view from the other side of the ocean. 

Just before the pandemic hit, Beng and I had spent my first year in retirement (and a good chunk of my retirement kitty) gallivanting around seven countries, against the advice of family and friends who thought that we were overdoing it; perhaps we were, but now we know that the world we saw then will never be the same again, and that we ourselves—in or approaching our seventies—will never be able to do that again. And so it was with a huge sigh of relief that we boarded our flight to San Diego, where our daughter Demi has been living with her husband Jerry for the past 15 years. We’d visited San Diego often before, but probably not with this much anticipation, having been away for years. 

Sitting on the Mexican border, San Diego isn’t the first place most Filipinos would choose when they think of visiting America, unless, like us, they have personal reasons to go there. Los Angeles and San Francisco seem to be more exciting places, have large Fil-Am communities, and have long been the ports of entry for Pinoys landing on the West Coast. (Our Japan Airlines flight was that rare straight flight via Tokyo to San Diego.) But San Diego has its own charm and its own attractions, most notably Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and Comic-Con, that annual extravaganza of pop culture that draws about 150,000 fans from around the galaxy. (Much to my young students’ chagrin, I’ve been to Comic-Con twice, happily ignorant of much of what I was looking at.) 

And whether you’ve lived there for decades or are just passing through, San Diego will always give you a taste of home, with dozens of Pinoy foods stores and restaurants, especially in National City and Chula Vista where you can shop at Seafood City for daing na bangus and Chocnut and at Goldilocks for your party cake while dropping packages off at LBC—or you can run to Mira Mesa for your Jollibee fix. (For me, an American sojourn would be incomplete without a trip to Arby’s and Red Lobster.)

Inevitably San Diego also has its own spotted history of East-West relations, in which Filipinos have figured; the better part of that history was celebrated last month as Filipino-American Heritage Month in the city. The worst part remains in the archives, in the memories of early immigrants such as Emeterio Reyes, who recalls that “I asked the driver if he could take me to a Catholic church. As soon as we got there, I told him to wait for me because I had a funny feeling I might not be welcome at this church. As I entered the door, a priest approached me and told me that the church was only for white people. That moment, I wanted to cry and die!” 

When Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into what he would name San Diego Bay on November 10, 1602, he found that he had “arrived at a port which must be the best to be found in all the South Sea, for, besides being protected on all sides and having good anchorage, it is in latitude 33½o. It has very good wood and water, many fish of all kinds, many of which we caught with seine and hooks. On the land there is much game, such as rabbits, hares, deer, very large quail, royal ducks, thrushes, and many other birds. On the 12th of the said month, which was the day of the glorious San Diego, the general, admiral, religious, captains, ensigns, and almost all the men went ashore. A hut was built and mass was said in celebration of the feast of Señor San Diego.”

As a major port facing the Pacific, San Diego has long been home to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, its base harboring over 50 ships. The naval presence defines much of San Diego’s character, and provides a good part of the reason why about 200,000 Filipino-Americans live there today. Since early in the American occupation, Filipinos have signed up with the US Navy as their passport to what they hoped would be a better life and to a bit of adventure. 

I just learned, for example, that the first Filipino to have joined the US Navy, back in 1903, was a seminarian in Manila named Potenciano Parel who snuck out of his vows to be a sailor, but not having the right papers, he used those of a friend and assumed his identity, Tomas Dolopo; the Dolopos continue to be San Diegans. Demi’s late father-in-law, Ric Ricario, joined in 1957; his eldest son, Ray, followed him into the Navy; Ray’s brother Jerry met and married Demi. And so we find ourselves now tied by blood to that long tradition, as did many thousands of others before us.

Despite having visited San Diego many times before, and having enjoyed its more popular attractions, we felt more acutely aware of history this time around. We finally stepped into the city’s Maritime Museum, a complex of many ships from various centuries that allows visitors a hands-on experience at traveling the world on water. The ships on display range from a full-size and fully functional replica of a Spanish galleon ca. 1542, the San Salvador, to the world’s oldest sailing ship, the grand, mid-1800s Star of India, to a ca. 1970s submarine that still holds the record for the deepest dive, the USS Dolphin. For just $15 for seniors and just slightly more for others, you can hop from one ship to another, and imagine what it was like to cross a tempestuous ocean with only the stars to light the way and nothing to eat but stale bread and salted pork. 

We enjoyed history of another kind by having dinner with our in-laws in a National City dive that our son-in-law Jerry chose for its unique ambience, which you can either call seedy or loaded with character. (There was a famous sailor’s bar in the area called the Trophy Lounge, Jerry told us, that used to be run by ladies from Olongapo…. But that’s another story, and San Diego has books of them, yet to be told.) La Maze is the kind of leatherbound ‘50s restaurant that the Rat Pack and other Hollywood celebrities frequented when in San Diego, and you can still order the same great steaks they had. A local band played dance music, and to the tune of “Solamente Una Vez,” I took the pretty silver-haired fox next to me to the floor and slow-dragged the night away. 

Hindsight No. 17: The True Winner

Hindsight for Monday, May 9, 2022

(Photo from lumina.com.ph)

I HAD another column all lined up for today—Monday, the 9th of May, arguably the most important Monday of this year if not the next six years. But I’d forgotten that the ban on electioneering, which started yesterday, won’t end until midnight tonight, so I’ll shelve that piece for another time—with major revisions likely, depending on the outcome of today’s vote.

Maybe it’s just as well that that happened. It forced me to pause and simmer down for a while, just when emotions and tempers were rising to a boiling point and nothing else seemed to matter but politics and the colors of our T-shirts.

I’m sure I’ll be speaking for many of us—and even across the political divide—when I recall that just a year ago, we all led what seemed to be normal lives, or at least as normal as lives could get under a crippling pandemic. We were in deathly fear of a virus we couldn’t see, of getting infected by some pasaway neighbor or relative, and of dying by our lonesome in a strange hospital ward with a tube stuck down our throat. Our chief concern was survival—as individuals, as families, as communities. We walked around like inter-galactic travelers in face shields and face masks, soaked in 70-percent alcohol, hands raw from constant washing. We felt lucky to be alive, never mind that the cinemas were closed, restaurant food was takeout-only, and we all became talking heads in little Zoom boxes. Today we can afford to chuckle a bit at the memory of those days, even if we know—or have to be reminded—that those days are far from over. 

But just as the influx of vaccines brought a steep drop in Covid rates, another contagion appeared on the horizon—election fever. Its symptoms included not only indifference to other diseases like Covid, manifest in the sudden and universal disregard for “social distancing.” They also showed in an increased propensity for loudness and even bellicosity in public discourse—especially online, where sticks and stones came free by the ton. The emergence of candidates and choices meant the emergence, as well, of our long-cherished biases and preferences. 

Our candidate defined who we were, and because of that, we took everything personally, responding to every swipe and gibe as though not only civilization itself were under attack, but also our gut, the precious and tender core of our very being. We felt hot under the collar every time our champion was maligned, and often returned the gesture with equal vehemence, thankfully with a dash of Pinoy humor. Whichever side we were on, we believed that nothing less than the nation’s survival was at stake, something larger than ourselves. We could survive Covid, but the loss of one’s candidate seemed like an even graver existential threat. 

Many years from now, the drama of this election will be remembered for its intensity and divisiveness, for the rancorous fervor with which many partisans fought for their beliefs, or for their scripted spiels. Some operators showed us just how low and how nasty a campaign could go, with the leanest of morals and the fattest of budgets. Never has so much been spent on promoting falsehood and obscuring the truth. Never was the public’s intelligence valued less by candidates expecting to coast to victory without having to be asked difficult questions and to account for their liabilities. Never did surveys, scientific and otherwise, seem so opaque and perplexing, like hazy oracles supposed to convey some prophetic message. 

But it will also be remembered for its creativity, its outbursts of spicy wit, its spontaneity of generosity and the communal spirit. Never have we witnessed a campaign so heavily reliant on the kindness of strangers, who ceased to be strangers in an instant of mutual recognition. Never have we seen crowds so huge—wait, yes, we have seen multitudes mourning a martyr’s death, or forming a human tidal wave to sweep a dictatorship away—but not hundreds of thousands massed for the sheer joy of congregating for the good. Never have rallies—once gatherings devoted singularly to the expression of popular anger and dismay—been so uplifting and flush with hope, like a cathedral without a roof raising its prayers to the sky.

And whatever happens today and in the weeks and months to follow, those rival strains will remain in the air—the noxious fumes of the devil’s workshop and the cool and cleansing breezes coming down summits too high for us to see. I think we will realize and understand that this election, as titanic a clash of values as it was, is but another episode in the larger and longer story of our continuing quest for nationhood, another tentative answer to the question of who and what it is we want to be. That story and the conflict at its heart will go on for generations more, and every six years our people will have a chance to choose between right and wrong, between redemption and damnation, between wisdom and ignorance.

Those of us who feel that they chose rightly today have no cause to regret their action, regardless of the outcome. You voted not just for your candidate, but for the best Filipino in you, which can never be a loss; you have passed the test of faith in the good and just. It may take longer for others to reach that point of peace with oneself. The results might suggest that there are more of them right now than you—which only means that there is more patient work to do, and also more time to do it, beyond the frenzied crush of the past few weeks.

On a personal note, today my mother Emy turns 94. She is eager to cast her vote, knowing that it could be the last time she will choose a president to lead our people. She cares about who will win, for our sake. More importantly, she cares about choosing wisely, for the sake of her soul. She knows something many of us have forgotten in the flood of surveys and fake news: that the only true winner in these elections is the one who can show God his or her ballot with honest pride and joy.

Penman No. 434: Wanderlust in Quarantine

Penman for Sunday, January 30, 2022

(Image from the Philippine STAR)

YOU KNOW that the pandemic has gone into triple overtime when you realize that it’s been two years since you got on a plane and did something more exciting than checking your temperature and waiting for Season 9 of The Blacklist on Netflix. For a guy who splurged on visiting nine countries right after he retired in 2019—something I will forever be happy to have done when I could—this long period of immobility should feel like prison. 

In some ways, it seems like it. I’ve worn nothing but a pair of Crocs flip-flops all these months. I’ve been to Makati no more than four, five times, and to Los Baños once for a wedding. My leather shoes have gone moldy, and my blazers musty. I have a couple of shirts I put on for Zoom meetings and replace on their hangers afterwards, and I wear long pants maybe once or twice a week.

To be honest, however, I’ve found the long lockdown more than bearable. The misery and depredations of the pandemic aside (and I acknowledge my uncommon position of privilege as a retiree), I’ve been able to use the time and enforced confinement to catch up with long-standing deadlines and get some new writing done. I know how lucky I am to be alive and functioning at all, and I can’t see any fun or relief in traveling under this regime of nose swabs and quarantines.

But that hardly means that my wanderlust—and that of my fellow footloose—is gone. Where the feet can’t go, the mind travels, imagining vistas yet unseen, horizons uncrossed, gateways opening to new adventures. Before the pandemic, Beng and I had been planning on visiting St. Petersburg, which was then offering free eight-day visas online, to see its famous Hermitage; that will have to wait for kinder times. But we can always revisit the past and take consolation in happy memory of journeys completed and challenges survived.

So I went on a daydreaming binge last week, going over my digital albums, posing a question that each of us will have a different answer to: “What’s the most beautiful place in the world you’ve ever been to?” Curious as to what other people had in mind in this respect, I put out an informal survey among my FB friends, and gathered an interesting and colorful list of places that might as well be a bucket list for others seeking their post-pandemic Shangri-la.

For National Artist for Music Ramon Santos, it had to be Petra, Jordan, “where we listened to a live symphony concert at the steps of the temple facade.”

For UK-based travel writer Wendy Daw, it was remote Tetiaroa in French Polynesia, where she stayed at The Brando, described as “the world’s most luxurious eco-resort.”   (Prices begin at $3,500/night for a standard room—I think I’ll have to stay on the beach, or the canoe.)

For children’s advocate Naida Pasion, Old Bagan in Myanmar exuded “an otherworldly beauty” she couldn’t forget.

For writer Alma Miclat, following in the footsteps of Jose Rizal to Litomerice in the Czech Republic in 2019 was bittersweet, as it would be the last trip abroad she would take with her husband Mario, before the pandemic set in and before Mario passed away shortly after.

For calligrapher Lorraine Nepomuceno, Carcassonne in southern France, with its medieval citadel overlooking the countryside, was the pinnacle of her many travels. 

For writer and professor Gerry Los Baños, Florence gave off a certain frisson, an electricity in the ubiquity of its art. (I know the feeling—you hardly know where to look—having had just a day to spend in Florence with Beng, after also just a day in Venice.)

The view of Lake Como from Villa Serbelloni.

For poet Joel Toledo, Oxfam regional director Lan Mercado, and—yes!—myself, it was Bellagio in northern Italy, where I woke up every morning for a month to a breathtaking view of Lake Como, silvered by the overhanging mist. (I was on a Rockefeller writing fellowship at the Villa Serbelloni as was Joel, after Krip Yuson, the late FSJ, and many other Filipino writers, but to tell the truth I got much less writing done than I would have in our humble abode in Diliman. Beauty can overpower the senses and I spent much of my time just enjoying the scenery—but for writers and artists, that qualifies as work.)

Of course, many others preferred settings much closer to home, if not home itself. For musician and Kontra-Gapi founder Edru Abraham, nothing can take the place of the Callao Caves in his home province of Cagayan; for writer Bebang Siy, Ermita’s sunset will never lose its charm; UP professor Roli Talampas met sublimity at the summit of Mt. Pulag at daybreak.

The number and range of responses I got suggested that I had released a wave of longing from friends who understood, as I did, that the world we knew had changed forever, and that the magic we felt in those encounters with ethereal places would have to last us for the rest of our lives. 

There will be other opportunities, for sure, after the pandemic, especially for the young. But we’re happy and fortunate to have seen the past, such as it was. Every life deserves a brush with beauty—whether under a shower of cherry blossoms in Tokyo or under the stars in Antipolo—and we had ours.

Villa Balbianello, across Lake Como.