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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Penman No. 204: Sojourn in Seoul (1)

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Penman for Monday, June 13, 2016

 

 

AS MY regular readers well know by now, I have a habit of taking off to parts unknown with my wife Beng at the slightest excuse, and one such occasion came up three weeks ago when Beng marked her birthday (her 36th, it seemed to me—as it seemed to me last year as well, and the year before). Of course I’d known for months ahead that her birthday was coming up, so as early as January, I booked us a flight to and a hotel in Seoul, for the first week of June. (That’s how Beng and I get our kicks—we jump on early-bird budget fares and commit ourselves to travel months in advance, the better to plot the year ahead.)

Why Seoul? Simply because Beng had never been to Korea, except for stopovers in Incheon, and I’d pledged years ago to take her everywhere I’d ever been. I visited Korea in 2007 on assignment for the STAR, to cover Hyundai’s shipbuilding and carmaking operations, and we stayed for a day or two in Seoul before moving on to Busan and Jeju, but I could hardly remember anything of Seoul except for the stately palaces and the enormous beef-barbecue dinners. I could do with another and more relaxed visit, on my own time and schedule, and Beng’s birthday in early June seemed perfectly timed, with our semester in UP just having ended.

I also suspected that a sojourn in Seoul would satisfy Beng’s yearnings to see, with her own eyes, the locales of her favorite Boys Over Flowers and the birthplace of Lee Min-ho, if not Lee Min-ho himself sauntering down an alley in Myeong-dong.

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The planning was the easy part. Like I always do, I went online—to skyscanner.com for the plane fares and to booking.com and tripadvisor.com for the hotel. AirAsia had a good deal for the period, and I was able to locate a small, affordable hotel at a great location in central Seoul with four-star reviews—the Hotel Kyoung Dong in the Namdaemun/Namsan Park area.

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Because of the fare structure, we signed up for a six-night, Tuesday-Monday stay—a tad longer than our usual four-day getaways. But this would open, as I’ll report next week, more fruitful possibilities beyond sightseeing and shopping. This week, I’ll focus on the personal impressions of a casual tourist, hoping they’ll be of some help when you, dear reader (and dear reader’s husband/wife/partner) make your own plans for Seoul.

Yes, we Pinoys need visas for Korea, but if you’ve done a bit of traveling before or can prove you can pay for your own kimchi, then it shouldn’t be a problem (until the end of this year, and by special arrangement, BPI Gold cardholders practically get a free pass to a three-year multiple-entry visa).

It’s a four-hour flight to Seoul and ours left around 7 am, which was perfect for avoiding the horrendous traffic around NAIA and for arriving at Incheon International Airport at midday (Korean time is one hour ahead). I’d already exchanged my pesos for Korean won at the money changer in NAIA (P1,000=W25,000), so we headed straight for the express bus shuttle to downtown Seoul, a little over an hour away. Immediately Beng was struck by how clean and modern everything looked—no litter, no “informal settlements,” no traffic—and I had to give her a spiel about how it hadn’t always been like that, and how Korea had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse within a couple of generations.

Our bus dropped us off at Namdaemun Market—which was like dropping off Beng at the portals of paradise, shopping-wise. As we would realize not too long after, Namdaemun is like Greenhills multiplied by ten—and it was hardly alone, as there was also Dongdaemun to contend with, among other emporia.

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But first, we had to locate our hotel. I usually roam on my phone, so we would have depended on Waze or Google Maps to get us there, but for some reason, I couldn’t get online, so we had to resort to the old-fashioned way: asking for directions—which, in non-Anglophone Korea, isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. (And as every wife knows, men would rather walk a mile the wrong way before asking for directions, which is why I always bring Beng along.)

And here we made our first pleasant discovery—that contrary to the notion that Koreans are rude, those we met were invariably kind and helpful. Amid a flurry of gestures and grunts, a parking attendant pointed us in the right direction, and an old man took over on the other side of the street and delivered us to our hotel’s doorstep. On the super-efficient Seoul Metro (the arrival of whose trains are heralded by a trumpet flourish you might hear at the Kentucky Derby), we would routinely see younger commuters yielding their seats to their elders, including us (haplessly incontrovertible proof of our visible age).

The last time I was in Korea, everything had been briskly orchestrated by our hosts, with nary a moment for exploring on our own, but now, with a long, lazy week stretching out ahead of us, we had hours to fill with markets and museums, parks and palaces, porcelain-cheeked nymphets in baby-doll dresses (and sometimes even more smartly coiffed young men), impeccably good food, and streetside bargains that gratified our pedestrian desires.

Beng and I didn’t sign up for any tours, nor did we venture out too far from the heart of the city. This vagabond pair of seniors decided that they would go as far as their subway tickets and their feet would carry them, spend an hour on a park bench just enjoying the scenery while munching on a slice of sweet green melon or a cob of corn (each for 1,000 won, or 40 pesos), and save our energy for the flea markets that, truth to tell and next to the museums, are always our prime targets wherever we go, and Seoul has half a dozen of them on the weekends.

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This, Beng and I acknowledged with a sigh and a smile, was tourism senior-style, punctuated by Zantac instead of ziplines, by moisturizer instead of, well, moisture. Some of our happiest moments were the quietest ones—watching the sunset from the peak of Namsan Hill, and the ducks and the carp at Cheonggyecheon Stream.

This brings up one of our small but vital complaints: as wonderful as the city was, Seoul can be hilly in parts, making for long, punishing climbs. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to deter the posses of ajummas—bag-toting Korean matrons sporting broad-brimmed visors—from marching to the markets for their daily dose of retail therapy, or perhaps even just the company of the similarly disposed. Had we lived there, we might have done the same.

Next week, I’ll report on less geriatric topics: culture, literature, and community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 180: Escapade in Bohol

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Penman for Monday, December 28, 2015

 

 

YEARS AGO I made a promise to take my wife Beng to all the beautiful places in the world I’ve been, so we’ve been traveling up a storm, flying off to whatever destination our aging knees and limited budget can still afford. The pre- and post-Christmas break is a great time for escapades like this, and we’ve run off to Shanghai and Beijing in Decembers past, availing ourselves of budget fares we’d booked months ahead for the privilege of slurping hot noodles in the freezing cold.

This year—encouraged by another irresistible combo deal on airfare and a good hotel—we chose to go down to Bohol. I’d been there a couple of times before on business and Beng and I actually found ourselves stranded there once, overnight, because our Dumaguete-bound ferry couldn’t make it through a frightful storm, so this time we decided to do a proper tour of the place, mixed in with a bit of work we both had to catch up on.

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We were lodged at the mid-range Panglao Regents Park Resort, about a 30-minute ride from the airport and a short walk to Alona Beach, a focal point not just for swimming and food but also for the innumerable dive shops that cater to showcasing Panglao’s top attraction, its underwater life. Being sedate and sedentary seniors, Beng and I contented ourselves with sipping cool mango shakes and watching the scenery, but there’s never a dearth of interesting things to look at in Bohol, whether beneath the sea or aboveground.

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We signed up for two tours: the “Chocolate Hills” tour, which takes you on a daylong ride around the island for an eyeful of its most scenic spots, and the “island-hopping” tour, which promises an early-morning rendezvous with dolphins, snorkeling and lunch at Balicasag Island, then a short detour to Virgin Island. Seasoned travelers may disdain these one-size-fits-all tours, but Beng and I never do, knowing that they’re pretty efficient and often good value for money for first-time tourists, and that ultimately it all depends on knowing what to look for, and knowing how to appreciate what you’re looking at.

It was a rainy day when we headed out for the Chocolate Hills, so the tarsiers were huddled under the branches and the hills themselves were shrouded in mist, but I took the rain in stride, seeing how it lent a certain freshness and vividness to things, and I could sense the earth exhaling after a long dry spell. The tour guide at the butterfly farm led us along with deft humor, making even dead insects come alive, and we gamely crossed the Hanging Bridge, to and fro, like schoolkids on a dare.

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I had visited the old Loboc Church before an earthquake devastated it a few years ago, so I was sad to see it covered in scaffolding, awaiting restoration. What I didn’t expect to be more deeply moved by—not being a regular churchgoer (I pray every night, but have quarrels with dogma)—was stepping into the Baclayon Church, which I had missed on my first visit. Its altar—a main retablo framed by two smaller ones—stood intact and as majestic as ever, and washed in orange, green, and blue light seemed ethereal. But behind a red cloth curtain and the yellow “Caution” warnings gaped what used to be the nave, a cavity that in the 1800s must have throbbed with pious energy, as well as with the flutter of fans and the murmur of courtships, disapprovals, and ungodly gossip.

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We set out for our island cruise at 6 am the following morning, and much to Beng’s relief the sky was clear and the water was silvery smooth. We shared our large banca with two women from Canada and another from Germany, our banter laced with the anticipation of meeting our goal for the morning: finding dolphins in the open water. I knew from previous reading that several species of dolphin and whale could be found in the Bohol Sea, but I would have been happy to spot any one of them. Dolphins feed in the morning, until about eight, so it was important that we head out quickly enough, also given that about half a dozen other boats were in the same area for the same reason.

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Our boatman, whom we’ll call Dencio, was an experienced spotter (more on his story later), and soon enough, about 30 minutes out of port, he pointed to our right, where two gray and shiny heads bobbed in and out of the water—our first of several sightings. Dolphin and whale watching is the sort of thing a CIA analyst would be good at—discerning, from the seemingly immutable pattern of cresting waves and foamy wavelets, the odd leap of a creature into the air. The Risso’s dolphins we saw (the Flipper of TV fame was a bottlenose) broke out out in pairs and trios, but for every one of them that surfaced, we were told, there were many more underwater. Dencio pushed out his boat much farther than the others did, and for a long while it felt like we were simply drifting toward Siquijor, but just as I was about to give up, I noticed a commotion in the distance—a pod of maybe a dozen spinner dolphins frolicking in the air. The whole boat came alive with glee and Dencio tried to give chase, but we were going against the waves, which had become too choppy, and the shiny caravan of fins and flippers vanished into the horizon.

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Balicasag Island is where the divers go, and was our midday stop. While our companions snorkeled in the fish sanctuary and watched giant turtles feeding on the sea grass, Beng and I ordered lunch (fresh fish, of course, broiled and kinilaw) and listened to Dencio’s story: “We used to hunt whale sharks,” he said, “and would kill two of them a day, baiting them and catching them with large hooks.” (This hook called the pamilac lent its name to Pamilacan Island nearby.) “We sold them very cheaply, not knowing that in Japan, a whale shark could sell for about half a million pesos. We could have been millionaires! We did this until a TV crew filmed what we were doing, and then a ban was imposed, so now we don’t catch whales anymore. Today you can find very large ones swimming under your boat. They’re very smart, and can sense danger. Sometimes they look straight at you with their eyes.”

On the ride back to Panglao, we stopped by Virgin Island (renamed Isola di Francesco by its private owner, who has turned the island into a religious shrine)—little more than a long curling strip of white sand with a clump of trees on one end, but serene and restful, a fine ending to a colorful day. Or rather, make that ending a Thai massage, a grilled seafood dinner, and a cold beer.

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“They’ll burn in the sun,” Beng had remarked of our European companions, who took every opportunity to swim and to laze in the tropic heat. “That’s because they’ll be flying home in a few days to an icy winter,” I said, “while we just have Manila’s traffic and pollution to deal with.” Sounds like a good reason for another escapade.

Penman No. 147: On Southern Seas

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Penman for Monday, May 4, 2015

“ON A CLEAR day, you can see Malaysia,” they said. And we did, from the waters off Balabac, on the southernmost tip of Palawan. At that point, approaching the lighthouse at Cape Melville, our guide pointed to a gray mass on the far horizon across the strait, and said, “That’s part of Sabah.”

We had arrived in Balabac the day before, after a six-hour ride by van from downtown Puerto Princesa to the station at Rio Tuba, and then another three- to four-hour trip by motorized boat to Balabac’s poblacion. It was an unlikely adventure for Beng and me, being the only seniors in our party that included our favorite traveling companions—my niece Susie, her husband Toto, my cousin Edith, and our good friends the Puerto-based expat innkeeper Herwig and his wife the chef and baker Theresa. We’ve been to Palawan pretty often—staying when possible with Herwig and Theresa, who run the very aptly named Amazing Villa in Aborlan just outside of Puerto—but had never been down to Balabac. An invitation from a Balabac native, Theresa’s lawyer Atty. Regidor Tulale, proved compelling enough to make us pack our bags and head out to our southern frontier.

I’ve always wondered why our tourists—both foreign and local—seem so fixated on Boracay when Palawan offers beaches just as spectacular, in contexts far more interesting than D’Mall, without the crush of tricycles and tourist vans depositing hordes on fellow visitors on the same crowded stretch of white sand. Puerto Princesa alone and the islands on Honda Bay offer enough pleasures and treasures for the urban straggler, but, as we would discover, the farther out you go, the closer you get to tropical nirvana.

There are buses that ply the 240-kilometer route from Puerto to Rio Tuba, the nickel-mining barangay in the town of Bataraza past Brooke’s Point, but it’s a trip best taken in an air-conditioned van, given the summer heat and the need—especially for the elderly—to stop at a gas station now and then for some private relief. It’s a long but pretty ride, not unlike the run up to Baguio from Manila in the distance and scenery, on a road flanked by views of cloud-topped mountains, and golden showers blooming riotously.

Rio Tuba itself seems as rough as mining towns tend to be, an impression little helped by a recent fire that gutted the area around the pier, the transit point for boats venturing on to Balabac. Nevertheless, there was a plucky, pick-me-up cheerfulness to the locals (the fire, they said, had started accidentally in one of the big stores in the neighborhood, and everyone was busy rebuilding what they had lost), and the pier at the end of a huddle of houses on the water bustled with traffic.

The boats they use in these waters are large motorized outriggers that can easily take 30 passengers, seated four or five to a row on wooden planks; they can theoretically reach Sabah in a few hours, but, we were told, these boats were prohibited from docking in Malaysian ports because their breadth took up too much berthing space; the sleeker and faster kumpit would be the vessel of choice for that voyage. There was clearly a lot of trade going on between Palawan and Sabah, judging from the stockpiles of Malaysian goods and groceries in Rio Tuba, and one had to wonder how much of that went through customs and other legal encumbrances, but we opted, I think wisely, not to ask too many questions.

The three-hour ride to Balabac itself, with one or two stopovers on the way, was smooth and pleasant. “Balabac” is the central island and town in the area, but it also broadly refers to a cluster of more than 30 islands, and you’re never too far from one of these. (“That’s owned by Senator XXX and by former President YYY,” our guide would tell us as we passed by one paradaisical isle after another.) The glassine sea challenged the poet to come up with all variables of blue and green, and with some luck—not that day—dolphins were known to swim alongside the boats.

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Balabac’s town proper was small and compact, with one main street along which shops selling clothes and groceries huddled; the largest and most impressive building in town, aside from the municipio, was the Coast Guard quarters, a sign of how important patrolling these waters was. The local tribe, the Molbog, are said to have migrated from North Borneo and have their own dialect, but what surprised me throughout this visit was how widely Tagalog (or, more accurately in a national context, Filipino) was spoken, even by the locals among themselves.

You won’t have any problems choosing a place to stay, because there’s only one public lodging house in Balabac, above and adjacent to the Sing and Swing Karaoke Bar. Maybe not the best prescription for a good night’s sleep, as some of my companions would discover, but for P300 per room a night with shared toilets and baths (P100 per extra person), you can’t complain.

What to do in Balabac, aside from shopping for Malaysian chocolates and biscuits? Why, island-hopping, of course, and dining on the plentiful fish, which we did the next day, taking a boat out to Candaraman Island and dipping into the cool clear water beside the small seaweed farms cultivated by the people for their livelihood. Unfortunately, the low tide prevented us from docking and marching up to the century-old lighthouse on Cape Melville, but we did get that glimpse of Malaysia along the way, in a day that culminated in one of the most stunning sunsets I’d ever seen.

As the darkness deepened around us, we sat quietly along the dock, watching the southern summer sky. Above us blazed Venus, a solitary sparkle; down to its left, as if a genie had conjured it up with a wave of his hand, emerged a crescent moon. It was a long way from home, but a sight well worth the journey.

Penman No. 58: Hello STOP Goodbye STOP

Penman for Monday, August 5, 2013

FROM INDIA, last week, came the news that the company that handles that subcontinent’s telegram service had sent out its last telegram, ending a facility that had been available to Indians since 1850. It was also from India that, two years ago, we received word of the demise of the last operating manufacturer of typewriters in the world, a company called Godrej and Boyce, which was still making up to 12,000 typewriters a year until 2009.

It might seem then that the horizon of obsolete technologies lies somewhere between Srinagar and Chennai, but of course we Pinoys know differently. For even in this age of Twitter, Instagram, SMS, and FaceTime, many Filipinos—the oldest and the poorest of us, that is—still have one foot firmly planted in the 20th century, and it will be a while before we’ll learn to let go, at least in our minds, of the things that made our life easier back in 1963.

A surprisingly comprehensive history of the Philippine telecommunications industry, written and published online by Federico and Rafael Oquindo, says that the Spanish began laying out a telegraphic service in the Philippines in 1867.

I’m not sure if we can actually still send paper telegrams to one another, since the old telegraphic companies have either died out or been taken over by telecoms giants more interested in moving money than messages. Your relatives would surely be more interested in receiving a MoneyGram from you, anyway, than your telegraphic best wishes. If you’re feeling wacky, you could also send them a singing telegram, which—for around P2,000—will include a box of chocolates to go with the guitarist and singer, and your favorite song.

But where has the old-fashioned, STOP-punctuated slip of paper gone? Gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the steam engine and the carrier pigeon, it would seem, replaced by faster, sexier, and maybe even cheaper ways of getting a message from A to B. In the US, Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006.

To be perfectly dry-eyed about it, few 21st-century citizens will miss and mourn the telegram. To send one, you had to go to an office and scrawl your message on a pad of paper—a message that, depending on your agent’s sharpness of eye and adequacy of mind, could come out garbled on the other end. The cost of the telegram was computed by the word, and how fast it traveled depended on how much of a premium you were willing to pay; I remember that “NLT”, or night letter, was the cheapest option, because you had to wait for some night clerk to attend to your message after everything else went out for the day. And then your telegram, encased in a flimsy plastic envelope, had to ride along with a bagful of others in the back of a motorcycle or even a bicycle to cross rivers and mountains to get to its recipient, two or three days after pushed your message across the counter.

It all seems too cumbersome and too quaint now, but there was a reason for the telegram’s popularity in its day. Very often, it went out to people and places without telephones (yes, there was such a country and such a time), and it was much faster than a regular letter, albeit more tight-lipped. Arguably, the telegram was unique in the power it conveyed and the significance it implied, for only the most important—both the saddest and the happiest—of messages merited a telegram.

Unlike SMS, or even the pager (remember EasyCall?) that preceded the cellular phone, the telegram was too slow for casual banter, too terse for courtship or argument. It worked best at bringing you the good news and the bad news: prizes won, loved ones lost, congratulations, condolences, reminders, pleadings.

I have a soft spot for the telegram, because it figured prominently in my literary career, starting with one I received in May 1969, informing me that I—then a high school senior—had won a national essay competition. Over the next two decades, at around this time of year, I would scan the horizon for the RCPI messenger, the bearer of the only telegram that mattered to me and hundreds of other aspiring Filipino writers: one sent by the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards Foundation, telling us that we had won and inviting us to the September 1st awarding ceremony. (Our exuberant imagination supplied the rest of the unspoken message, which understandably would have cost the Palancas too much to tack on to their congratulations: “You’re a wizard of words, a literary lion, a paladin of prose whose works will sell a million copies, attract hordes of screaming fans, foment revolutions, and uplift human life and civilization!”) I did receive a number of those telegrams, a few of which I still keep as souvenirs, reminders of the Jobsian admonition to “stay hungry.”

There was one telegram I remember sending, sometime in the mid-1970s, from my small hometown in Romblon where I had gone on a short visit with my father and had quickly run out of cash, not having had much to bring in the first place. In desperation, I cabled my new bride Beng, whom I had to leave behind in Manila: “MISSUS I MISS US HONEY SEND MONEY.” And so she did.

And that’s all the old telegram companies do these days—send money to presumably happy recipients. Let text and Twitter take care of the bad stuff. If it’s the physical telegram itself you really want to send or to get, just so you can relive the good old days when people got inky fingers from writing long letters with fountain pens and licked postage stamps and waited for weeks to get something back in the mail, there’s hope for you. A company will still deliver a telegram to a Philippine address (and to over 200 other countries), for $24.95 plus 88 cents per word (no NLT option here); you’ll just need to go online at www.itelegram.com to avail yourself of this charming if pricey service.

SPEAKING OF other countries, it’s always good to read positive things about the Philippines when you’re abroad, even if they happen to be advertisements. In Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, I beamed when I turned to the travel pages of a local newspaper and saw how many ads featured our national tourism tagline: “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” The ads offered special packages for Manila (read: the new Solaire casino) and other parts of the country (read: Boracay) via Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.

Now, I’m one of those guys who—no matter how strongly I might criticize our foibles and follies back home—like to wave the Philippine flag when they’re on the road. Any chance I get, I invite my foreign friends to come and visit, allaying their usual fears by pointing out that they could get mugged in New York or robbed in Prague, anyway—they might as well enjoy our sunshine! Lord knows we need all the plugging we can get, with neighbors like Thailand roping in some 22 million tourists a year versus our 4 million.

I’m wondering now if it was schadenfreude—that wicked burst of pleasure you get when something nasty happens to your neighbor but not to you—that coursed through my veins when I came across an article in The Standard noted that traveling to Thailand was fraught with danger “from jet-ski scams to robbery, assault and even police extortion.” Hah! I thought—that’s what I’d been trying to tell my Hong Kong friends—it’s more fun in the Philippines!

Then I read on, turning the page: “Britain said Thailand is the country where its citizens are second most likely to require consular assistance, behind the Philippines.” Ooops! Sounds like we need to do a little more work in the Philippines.

(Image from philippinephilatest.net)

Penman No. 50: More Than Islands

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Penman for Monday, June 10, 2013

LAST WEEK, I realized another lifelong dream. Nearing 60, I’ve had the privilege of traipsing all over the planet, but I’d never been to Batanes, the northern spearpoint of our vast archipelago. The occasion was a seminar held by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, specifically its Literary Arts committee, for the province’s teachers and writers on the development of local and regional literature. Truth to tell, we went there less to teach than to learn, so remote and strange was Batanes to me and my fellow committee members, who had come from as far down south as Zamboanga.

I can’t pretend to have discovered everything good and bad about Batanes in the few days we spent there, but we saw and heard enough to make us want to both rejoice and, occasionally, shake our heads in anger and sadness.

Happily there’s much, much more to celebrate about Batanes than to mourn. “Breathtaking” is almost an understatement for this cluster of islands. If there was such a thing as “panoramania,” or landscape overload, Batanes would be the cause of it, with seemingly endless and unfailingly spectacular views coming one after the other, just around the bend. The greenery covering the undulating hills is marked by a latticework of hedgerows, which act both as property boundary markers and as windbreakers. Despite the many first-class concrete roads beribboning the islands, Batanes is still clearly 4X4 country, better suited for cattle and goats than people, and no Batanes landscape would be complete without a cow or two in the picture, grazing placidly away even on the steepest of hillsides. Nearly everything on the main island of Batan happens in the shadow of the cloud-capped, 1,009-meter Mt. Iraya, although it should be fairly easy to find an undisturbed corner in one of the many coves around the island.

With a near-nonexistent crime rate, Batanes is one of those places where residents still keep their doors unlocked, where you can walk the highway at night without fear of being waylaid, and where—on my early morning strolls in the capital of Basco—I was greeted more than once with a beaming “Good morning!”

The “Basco Hymn”, with words and music penned by the mayor himself, Demy Marag, captures this lightheartedness well: “Hampas ng alon mo ay musika sa pandinig ko / Luntiang bundok mo, ginhawa’y dulot nito / Ihip ng hangin mo, haplos sa katawang hapo / Ngiting nasasalubong, ligayang totoo.”

You can find those words on one of the most useful and inexpensive PR giveaways I’ve come across, handed to us by Mayor Demy’s staff: a cardboard fan shaped like a kavaya, the leaf of the breadfruit tree, which the local people use as plates and food wrappers. Practical to begin with because of the withering heat, the fan was also very informative, in that it contained interesting facts about Basco—among them, that the population of the entire province is just somewhere above 16,000, half of whom live in Basco. The fan also highlighted Basco’s and Batan Island’s major tourist attractions.

Only in his mid-thirties, the poetically gifted Demy Marag is a Broadcast Communication graduate from UP; after graduation in 1998, he worked in the industry and with an NGO for a few years before eventually answering the calling that lodged his grandfather in the governor’s office decades earlier. A big sign just outside the municipal hall posts the mayor’s cell phone number and those of other key municipal offices; you can call them anytime. Now on his last term, Demy says that his biggest headache in Basco is zoning, with new buildings cropping up all over town, likely in response to the surge in tourism and commerce.

There are, of course, many other problems a remote province like Batanes has to contend with. Over a light merienda at the impossibly picturesque (had enough of these superlatives yet?) Fundacion Pacita, Basco’s energetic vice mayor, Ann Viola, explained how the typical Batanes resident, though not wealthy, was basically self-sufficient, producing enough for oneself and one’s family through fishing and farming. (You can appreciate this wiry self-containment in the fact that you’d be hard put to find an obese or even chubby Ivatan, and they don’t look emaciated, either.) Since transport costs are prohibitively high, producing goods for export poses a huge problem.

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Indeed, there’s literally a price to pay for all that glorious isolation: a liter of gas costs P70—which was cheap, said our guide, considering that it had shot up to P150 at some point a year ago. Bewilderingly, there are hardly any fresh fruits to be found in Basco—no bananas, pineapples, star apples, or jackfruit—and the only fruit that kept turning up on the dessert tray was the obviously imported apple, very likely from nearby Taiwan, which is closer to Batanes than much of the rest of the Philippines.

Tourism should be the province’s logical economic booster, and good, affordable bed-and-breakfast places like the Amboy Hometel, where we stayed, can be found. (For those with more elastic budgets, the Fundacion Pacita is a matchless choice.) Tours by van are readily available, taking you to the best spots—the Vayang rolling hills, the boulder-strewn Valugan beach, and the lighthouse on Naidi Hill, among many others. A day trip to nearby Sabtang Island, just half-an-hour away by ferry, is also well worth it, particularly for the stone houses of Savidug.

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It’s getting there that’s the big hurdle for most people. PAL Express and SkyJet fly three times a week from Manila to Basco, and a local airline called NorthSky makes a hop to Cagayan, but flights are sometimes canceled for lack of passengers. Only cargo vessels now dock in the harbor. As a regular one-way plane ticket to Manila costs about P9,000, a Basco native could spend his or her whole life without ever stepping on Luzon. “If you have a medical emergency and can’t be treated here, or airlifted to Manila, you’ll die,” said the vice mayor.

Another problem is the pernicious presence of poachers from Taiwan, who come down to the islands to steal the pretty arius tree, which they use for bonsai, and also fish the waters using state-of-the-art detectors—intrusions against which the local fishermen and Coast Guard are no match. It’s too bad that these criminal acts should spoil the relationship between Batanes and Taiwan, whose people—linguistically, for one—have much in common.

That remoteness and expensiveness, however, has its pluses for the locals. “It keeps the riff-raff away,” said a resident. “If it were that cheap to come to Batanes, we’d have drug dealers coming here before you know it.”

My message for the teachers and writers of Batanes was the same one I gave at the closing ceremonies of the recent Iligan National Writers Workshop. I was, I told them, an island boy, and proudly so—I was delivered by a midwife a short walk from the water’s edge in an island in Romblon, in a house with a straw roof and a bamboo-slat floor—and we Filipinos, come to think of it, all live on islands, some of them just bigger than others. But the challenge to our writers and teachers is to help us become more than a collection of islands. Our writers have to find and emphasize what we share in common as a people, even as we celebrate the things that make us unique. By building a bridge of words, Batanes can come much closer to the rest of the country.

I’d like to thank our guides—Chriz Annmarie Bayaras and Juliet Gulaga of the Batanes Heritage Foundation, Inc.—for a most productive week.

 

SPEAKING OF Iligan, MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology is capably led by Chancellor Sukarno Tanggol, a public-administration expert and another UP graduate who chose to return to his roots in Mindanao after serving as Ambassador to Kuwait to help raise the quality of education there. Dr. Tanggol recalled, jokingly, how he had lost all his poems and therefore his literary ambitions when his laptop got stolen years ago, but he’s making up for that by pledging his strong support for cultural programs in MSU-IIT, most notably the writers’ workshop and the institute’s resident performing company, IPAG.

The wonderful thing about attending a region-based workshop like Iligan’s is being able to listen to commentary and criticism in a flurry of languages—Filipino, English, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and even more obscure ones like Higaunon (spoken in parts of Bukidnon)—and somehow, with some effort and patience—to make sense of it all. This is the nation in progress, the nation at work, rightly de-centered from Manila, celebrating the vibrancy and vitality of literary talent beyond the metropolitan mainstream.

A fantastic discovery in Iligan was the talent of a young Higaunon poet named Shem Linohon from Central Mindanao University. Though perfectly fluent in English, Shem has chosen to write in Higaunon, to help preserve his people’s language and experience. At one point, Shem broke down in tears as he recalled the depredations his people have had to go through at the hands of oppressors and landgrabbers; but more than anger, Shem has the skill with which to fight back, and we can only wish him and his people well. Another happy find was Carmie Flor Ortego of Leyte Normal University, who can write about a Homeric character like Penelope in Catbalogan. Bright and earnest, young writers like Shem and Carmie make me proud and happy to be a teacher of writing.