Hindsight No. 25: The Museum of Suffering

(Photo from philstar.com)

Hindsight for July 4, 2022

PEPITO FANCIED himself a museophile, a lover of places where old and fascinating objects were exhibited for the public’s delectation. Having achieved a certain level of leisure in his life, he had been able to indulge in a bit of travel, the highlights of which were invariably visits to local museums and galleries. While other tourists spent time posing before the Eiffel Tower or throwing coins into the Fontana di Trevi, Pepito preferred to wander the hallways of more obscure attractions such as the Musée de la Magie, where golden swans and painted ballerinas moved as if of their own accord, or the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari, where he could follow eight centuries of pasta-making across the globe. 

He was an omnivore, as far as interests were concerned. He could spend hours poring over Etruscan vases, Masamune katanas, deep-sea organisms, and Calder mobiles. Being something of a self-taught snob (he had a degree in civil engineering, but had never built a bridge or even a bungalow after he married into his late wife’s family), he liked to play guessing games—observing objects without reading their captions, making inspired surmises about their origins or back stories. 

Once, staring at a death mask from the Lambayeque culture of Peru, he voiced his suspicion to the docent beside him that “The red paint on this mask could have been human blood,” to which the docent replied, rather dismissively, “A lot of people say that, but there’s no proof, so it’s likely just cinnabar.” Years later, he was overjoyed to find vindication in a scientific report on analyticalscience.wiley.com that “The blood proteins serum albumin, immunoglobulin G, and immunoglobulin kappa constant were all identified, strongly indicating the presence of human blood in the red coating of the mask….” Pepito wanted to print out that page and mail it to the docent—in a real, stamped envelope, so the poor fellow could appreciate the materiality of the truth.

He could have been a docent himself, of course—one of those doddering retirees with nothing better to do than recite memorized scripts to glaze-eyed visitors about patinated silver and the importance of ruffles to Elizabethan gentlemen—but he found more pleasure in trailing them and the tour groups they shepherded around museums to pounce on an overheard mistake or to add his own little flourish. “There’s no proof that Jesus was born on the 25th of December,” he told some Japanese tourists examining an 18th-century belen. “Scholars calculate that he was actually born between 3 and 6 BC—before himself!” He expected them to chuckle with him, but their interpreter seemed annoyed at his intrusion and kept quiet.

No matter; truly, he didn’t care what others thought. They were all opinions, from small, provincial minds. He declared the present uninteresting, a jiggly kind of frame for the past, and politics the folly of idealists who kept hoping that communal inventions like government would get better, against obvious evidence to the contrary. He had long resigned himself to accepting whatever came, keeping his head low, vanishing into the woodwork, luxuriating in his connoisseurship of the strange and wonderful. People came and went, but things survived, and the most interesting of them were to be found in museums.

When he received the hand-lettered invitation to attend the soft opening of the new Museum of Suffering in San Miguel, Manila, Pepito wondered if they had made a mistake. Although he had posted his museum sorties on Facebook and had amassed 31,629 followers (he accepted no friends), he did not think of himself as a social media celebrity. But with vloggers now covering the President in the Palace, he figured he had been found out and finally recognized for his expertise on—well, anything and everything.

He took a cab to the address indicated on the card—about 45 minutes through the traffic, according to Waze—and tried to guess what the Museum of Suffering might feature. Pepito had to admit to a special attraction to the grotesque—to medieval instruments of torture (Prague, Toledo, Amsterdam), medical curiosities (Philadelphia, Boston), and even cannibalism (San Diego, Onnekop). This new museum had to be something of the sort, in a Philippine setting—exhibits of massacres, famines, imprisonment, floods, volcanic eruptions, locust infestations…. He looked at his driver and saw the crusty scab on the man’s neck, which probably began as an insect bite. 

He was met at the door of the refurbished mansion by—of course—a docent, but a woman not a year older than he was, wearing a pink dress with a Chinese collar to go with her dimpled smile. “Mr. Tanglaw? I’m so glad you could come. My name is Winnie, and I’ll be your guide for this tour…. Oh, don’t be surprised, we arranged this just for you, given your followership. This way, please.” Pepito looked around, expecting to be led to a roomful of specimens under glass, but instead an apple-green Vios appeared at the driveway and Winnie led him to the back seat before sitting in front. “Tikoy, let’s go,” she told the driver.

“Where are we going?” Pepito asked as the Vios eased into the traffic. 

“To the Museum of Suffering,” Winnie said. “That was just our meeting point.”

“Is it far?” Pepito asked after they had crossed three traffic lights, headed south.

“We’re low on gas,” Tikoy butted in, and slid behind a long queue of cars and jeepneys at a gas station. “Prices go up tomorrow, so everyone’s here. It was on the radio.” He turned the radio on and settled on a program where the hosts discussed tax evasion. 

Pepito looked at the prices per liter and saw nothing but numbers. He watched a truck driver wiping his face with a soiled towel. Winnie was explaining something about rice importation, but all he could think of was the olfactory testing game he played at the end of his tour of the Musée du Parfum Fragonard. He struggled to recall the scent of Belle de Nuit. He wanted out of this place. “Is it far?” he asked, gasping. “Is it far?”

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.

Penman No. 388: To Fall in Love with the World, Again

Penman for Monday, May 25, 2020

THE TERRIBLE loss of lives and jobs aside, the one thing that Beng and I will miss the most in whatever “new normal” emerges out of this Covid crisis is travel, whose contours, protocols, and costs we can only begin to guess at. We are, of course, deeply grateful and relieved just to be alive and well (so far) and adequately fed (so far), lifting us up far above the lot of millions of Filipinos who cannot even venture into the next municipality for their livelihood and sustenance. 

In this light, travel and everything we associate with it—dining, entertainment, shopping, sports (even given that for Beng and me, it’s mostly just museums, flea markets, and street food)—would seem utterly frivolous. But we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t dream of frivolity and indulgence, even and especially in the most trying of times, if only to convince ourselves that tomorrow will be better and worth waking up for.

At about this time last year, Beng and I returned to Manila from a two-week romp across Scotland, London, and Norfolk, a sentimental journey that reprised, on a smaller scale, a nine-month stay in the UK twenty years earlier. I had just retired that January from 35 years of teaching, and at 65, I figured that Beng and I had maybe another ten good years to spend together, to poke our noses into the flea markets of Hell’s Kitchen, Spitalfield, Panjiayuan, Encants, and Clignancourt. We’re cheap and easy to please; I’d say the highlight of our traveling life was a one-day tour of Venice on the vaporetto, because that was all the time and the money we had, delighting simply in the magic of being together amid such breathtaking beauty, K-drama-style.

As it happened, 2019 turned out to be the busiest travel year of our lives. Starting the week after I retired, we went off on a crazy spree that would have collapsed many younger people: Penang, Tokyo, Scotland, London, Singapore, Turkey (a grueling 3,000-km overland tour), the US, Singapore again, Macau, and Singapore again, not to mention local sorties to Davao and Dipolog.

We had been debating between doing it all in one year, or phasing the trips over a couple of years. Our friends and family began worrying about the strain on our bodies and budget, despite our assurances that we were managing ourselves quite well, even if—such as when we spent a day at New York’s MoMA, redeeming a pledge to see Chagall together—we had to pause on every floor to catch our breath.

We know now that if we didn’t do it when we could, we never would. We had the happiest time together, and if we never go on another plane, we will have enough memories to last us to the end. But even as those memories please me, I grieve for the fact that we will never travel again the way we did. Even those extra security measures then, which we used to complain about—the endless X-rays, the unbuckling of belts and watches—seem carefree now. 

Wearing a mask for a 12-hour trans-Pacific flight? Dousing myself in alcohol at the hotel? Mistrusting every door handle and faucet, every driver and waiter, every open mouth and extended hand? And even if we do get to fly again, it will be a changed world we will be landing in—forbidding, even hostile, still desperate for your money but not much else.

Late last year, before anyone had ever heard or minded the word “coronavirus,” Beng and I planned our travel year—not much, we said, let’s stay at home and get back to work, but we did have two destinations on the wish list: St. Petersburg in Russia, which was offering free e-visas to Filipinos for eight-day stays, and Alicante in Spain, where a big conference in Philippine Studies was to take place in September. They will not happen now nor anytime soon, and frankly I don’t regret that as much as other kinds of less tangible but also deeper losses. 

I mourn, for example, the loss of intimacy—not the bond between two people who sleep together, which has to survive all viruses—but the more casual kind between friends at table in a restaurant or even strangers on a train, the kind that says “I’m OK, you’re OK, I won’t hurt you and you won’t hurt me”—indeed the loss of casualness itself. 

The younger folks among us can still look forward to something vaguely resembling 2019 by, say, 2024. They might even be laughing then at the memory of “that Covid thing” as they take their partner’s hand and mingle with the crowd in Seoul or San Francisco before diving into their favorite restaurant. For those of us now close to 70, that will probably not happen; even if the world forgets and relaxes once again, we could be too old by then. 

In this time of too many “never agains,” I can only thank God there was a 2019, and that we made as full use of it as we could. But life’s a long road with many unexpected turns, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from our journeys, it’s those turns off the tourist map that have led to the most wonderful discoveries. If not St. Petersburg, if not Alicante, I trust something will come up, perhaps in our own backyard, to make us fall in love with the world again, as we so badly need to do.

Penman No. 375: Delightful Turkey

Attachment-1.jpeg

Penman for Monday, November 25, 2019

 

AS 2019 draws to a close, it’s struck me that the year I turned 65 and retired has also been the busiest travel year of my life. Since I shut the door to my office for the last time in January—and thanks to my retirement check—my wife Beng and I have been to Penang, Tokyo, Scotland, London, Singapore, Turkey, the US, and Macau, doubling down on a pledge to keep moving while our knees can take it, which may not be for much longer. We’re also empty nesters, so with no fixed schedules and domestic responsibilities, it becomes that much easier to pack a bag and vanish for a few days. (Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that I have no work to worry about—I just carry half a dozen book projects with me all the time, on the road, in my trusty laptop and backed up to the Cloud.)

Among all those places—most of which we’d already been to before—the pick of the year has to be Turkey. Like many Pinoy seniors standing at the pre-departure area, I’d long nursed a Turkish trip on my bucket list—and it’s hardly just me: Turkey, specifically Istanbul, remains the world’s top tourist destination, attracting some 30 million visitors a year.

Why Turkey? Because why not? The very name conjures exotic adventures in a landscape swept by history and culture. Mosques, muezzins, and markets all come to mind, in a gaudy parade of images and tropes shaped as much by Hollywood as by the TV news. Indeed my earliest acquaintance with Turkey came with a movie I saw at the Leleng Theater behind Pasig’s public market as a boy in the mid-‘60s. It was titled “Topkapi” and starred Melina Mercouri, and it had to do with jewel thieves going for an emerald-encrusted dagger on exhibit in the palace of that name, and I remember how far away Turkey seemed,  in that lice-infested darkness, from the fish scales and pineapple peels of my reality. More than fifty years later, I was going to be the jewel thief, and the precious dagger was none other than Turkey itself, which I was going to see and hold for myself.

IMG_1567.jpeg

IMG_1650.jpeg

The immediate trigger for this sortie was an irresistible offer we heard about from the Makati-based Rakso Travel agency, which sells package tours to Turkey for less than $2,000 all-in—and by “all-in” they mean exactly that, inclusive of flights, hotels, all meals, tours, tips, and visas. We thought it was an amazing deal, given that the trip would cover ten days and eight nights (the extra days would be for the flights) and cover all the major cities and sites you’d like to see in that country (with the exception of Mt. Ararat on the eastern side, off-limits because of political tensions). The itinerary included Istanbul, Cannakale, Troy, Pergamon, Kusadasi, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Konya, Amasya, Safranbolu, and Istanbul again—a 3,000-kilometer romp. Rakso also took care of the visas, which are now easier and cheaper to get if you have a US visa, in which case you can receive an e-visa online.

Despite being seasoned travelers, this was the first time Beng and I joined a group tour, and we were relieved to see, as we assembled at the airport, that our all-Pinoy group of 38 was composed mainly of mature professionals and bright young people eager to explore the world. The most senior member of our group was a jolly, still sprightly, and beer-loving 88-year-old we all called “Tatang,” whose very presence offered hope that we had some mileage still ahead of us.

IMG_1423.jpeg

IMG_1479.jpeg

The 12-hour flight from Manila to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines was timed perfectly to arrive in Istanbul at dawn, with the city’s towers rising about the mists, heralding a whole new day of discovery and adventure. And that’s what awaited us for the next eight days, starting right off the bat after a quick breakfast with the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, two of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks.

IMG_1414.jpeg

I’m not going to bore you with a blow-by-blow, scene-by-scene account of all the sites we visited; there’s often nothing more annoying than to have to leaf through someone else’s travel pictures, which also tend to look like, well, everybody else’s. There are only so many “evil eyes” (the virtual logo of Turkish tourism) you can look at, only so many Turkish delights you can nibble on.

IMG_1374.jpeg

I’ll just say that aside from Istanbul itself, with its majestic domes and labyrinthine markets, the highlights of the tour for me were those on the quiet side: driving past the muted batteries of Gallipoli; standing on the ramparts of Troy, overlooking what would have been a tableau of both courage and carnage; stepping into the ancient library at Ephesus; watching dozens of multicolored balloons lift up into the early morning sky at Cappadocia; having lunch in Amasya with a waterfall cascading behind Beng’s shoulder; and stumbling into a sidestreet in Safranbolu, canopied by grapevines.

IMG_0507.jpeg

Hats off to Rakso for the package—the hotels and the food were excellent, the tours were fascinating (if fatiguing for the slow-footed), our guide was wonderful, and we emerged with three dozen new friends. I still keep two precious boxes of Turkish delights in the fridge, which our guide said would easily keep for six months; Turkey itself will surely linger longer in the memory.

IMG_1296.jpeg

Penman No. 356: Loverly London (2)

IMG_0602.jpeg

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.

IMG_0285.jpeg

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.

IMG_0238.jpeg

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.

IMG_0281.jpeg

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.

IMG_0294.jpeg

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.)

IMG_0588.jpeg

IMG_0566.jpeg

IMG_0572.jpeg

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.

d7bbdbf04633e0c9431f751041ddf1d6.jpg

IMG_0327.jpeg

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)

IMG_0319.jpeg

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.

9101e10824ce12963ec78a189abcd3c22e091785.jpg

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.

IMG_0329.jpeg

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!”

IMG_0618.JPG

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.

IMG_0269.jpeg

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.

IMG_0369.jpeg

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).

IMG_0434.jpeg

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.”

IMG_0387.jpeg

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.”

IMG_0123.jpeg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 342: Have Beng, Will Travel

IMG_8757.jpeg

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. 308: A Respite in Luang Prabang

27677144927_4dbfae4e9c_k

Penman for Monday, June 25, 2018

 

 

I TRY to give my wife Beng a birthday treat abroad every year—a small price to pay for her manifold acts of kindness and generosity, not to mention her 44 years of patience in sharing a bed with a snorer—so early this June, we flew out to Luang Prabang in Laos. Why Luang Prabang? Because I couldn’t think of a place with a more musical name, and because we’d never been to Laos, and because it had come highly recommended by a dear friend Julie Hill, who’s been all over the planet but who considers Luang Prabang one of her favorite haunts.

With atypical optimism, I’d booked our trip eight months earlier. There are no straight flights from Manila to Luang Prabang, so we spent a night in Kuala Lumpur before making the short hop to LP.

Street

As in much of Southeast Asia, things were cheap, easy, and infinitely interesting the moment we landed. The local currency is the kip, of which you’ll need about 8,400 to buy one US dollar, but for the princely sum of 50,000 kip or $6, we were brought by an airconditioned van to our digs, the comfortable, two-story Villay Vanh Guest House about 15 minutes away. Like many lodging houses in LP, the Villay Vanh was a largely wooden house—shoes off, please—that had been converted into a hotel, and it maintained that homey ambience without sacrificing modern necessities like airconditioning, hot water, and wi-fi.

Of course, you don’t really go to Luang Prabang for the airconditioning, the hot water, and the wi-fi. As it happened, our hotel was a few steps away from a large Buddhist temple on the left, and a river on the right. And should I say that our four-night stay, including breakfast with about a dozen choices from pancakes to beef fried rice, cost all of $52 (that’s for all four nights)?

Market

Beng, of course, made a beeline for the night market, which was also just a short walk away, but not before we made the obligatory climb up nearby Phousi Hill, which offered a 360-degree view of the city, the Mekong River, and the misty mountains in the distance. We love to travel around Asia for the markets, the museums, and the food, and LP delivered wonderfully on all accounts.

The night market, where lavishly woven textiles abound, stands right in front of the museum, which is also right next to the food stalls in the public market. I know that many travelers are queasy about eating with the locals, but that’s what Beng and I did, stuffing ourselves on broiled chicken, mudfish, and the sticky rice that’s a staple in Laos, for another 50,000 kip (that’s 300 pesos to us, including a soft drink). Over the next few days, we would discover that Laos has some of the sweetest and smoothest mangoes, which could well put ours to shame. (As well as Laos’ worst-kept secret: all wi-fi passwords are the same anywhere you go.)

The National Museum used to be the palace of the Laotian kings, the last one of whom was deposed in a communist takeover in the mid-1970s. Amid the slightly musty regalia hangs an unspoken horror, that the king and his family, much like the Russian Romanovs, were murdered a few years after they gave up power.

Shrine

More uplifting was the tour I truly wanted to take—a day trip involving cruising down the Mekong, visiting a Buddhist shrine up a mountainside, having lunch at an elephant sanctuary, then taking in the fabulous Kuang Si waterfalls. At just $40 per person, including a nourishing lunch, it was a bargain.

The Mekong in Laos is the same immutable, undulating, coffee brown that it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but the boats are long and narrow, often painted in pink and blue, somewhat echoing the Laotian flag. Stately villas and temples overlook the river, and now and then elephants peek through the bushes along the banks.

Falls

Luang Prabang stands at the confluence of two rivers, one that started out in China and the other in Vietnam. So far from the ocean, it thrives on water—and tourists like us, willing to go the extra mile from Bangkok and KL.

BINONDO 1 - FLOYD TENA, SHIELA VALDERRAMA MARTINEZ, ARMAN FERRER

Speaking of China, my wife Beng and I were having lunch at a Megamall restaurant a week ago when we suddenly heard mellifluous operatic voices singing in the lobby nearby. I took a peek and discovered that it was a mall tour to preview Binondo, a Tsinoy musical that’s opening on June 29, Friday, and July 1, Sunday, 8 pm at the Theatre in Solaire.

I got curious enough to seek out its publicist, Toots Tolentino, who told me that this was a love story, set in Manila’s Chinatown ca. 1971, involving a love triangle consisting of Lily, a night club singer and hopeless romantic; Ah Tiong, a scholarly cynic; and Carlos, a childhood friend. With book and lyrics by Ricky Lee and directed by Joel Lamangan, I can predict only good things for this musical, which is being produced by Synergy 88 Digital and Rebecca Chuaunsu Film Production. Rebecca, a theater artist in her own right, also wrote the original story.

I’ll take Chinese love triangles over Chinese island-hoppers anytime!

 

 

Penman No. 231: A Sortie to Siem Reap

IMG_0296.jpg

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.

IMG_0094.JPG

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.

IMG_0295.JPG

IMG_0110.JPG

IMG_0340.JPG

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.

IMG_0391.JPG

IMG_0402.JPG

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.

img_0231

img_0246

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.

img_0320

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.

img_0192

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.

img_0291