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. 216: From Bali Song to Balisong

IMG_8436.JPGPenman for Monday, September 12, 2016

 

 

I’D BEEN meaning to write this up for the past few months, but more pressing subjects kept getting in the way—and “pressing” is the word, because this is about the complete opposite: total relaxation with no fixed schedules or time limits.

It was sometime this past summer when I accompanied my wife Beng and a group of her UP High batchmates on a day trip to Batangas to scout some places as possible sites for their upcoming golden anniversary reunion next February. Beng already had one such place in mind—Cintai Corito’s Garden in Balete, not too far from Lipa, which we had already visited with the family a few months earlier, and had been much impressed by.

Like many Manileños, we’d long been looking for day-trip or weekend alternatives to Tagaytay, especially for bringing our foreign visitors and balikbayan relatives to. Frankly, as a bulalo and ukay-ukay addict, I myself never tire of Tagaytay for a quick break from Manila’s madness. But lately, on our sorties to Mindoro and Romblon via the Batangas ferry, Beng and I have been taking the STAR tollway a lot and have often found ourselves wanting to stop over in one of the many towns on the way.

The Balete exit is one those innocuous detours that you’d take only if you really knew where you were going, and the narrow road that you get on leading to Cintai promises little beyond the shops selling honey along the roadside. Cintai itself doesn’t look like much from the outside—until you drive down the winding entranceway. The point of this long prelude is that you’d never imagine such a magical place to arise out of the Batangas countryside—a virtual Balinese-inspired Eden carved out of a rolling landscape that once might have been dotted by coconut and coffee.

Cintai (which means “love” in Bahasa and is pronounced Chin-TAI) is a love offering to the late Corito of the place’s original name, the lady who inspired this outburst of Indonesian exotica in Southern Tagalog. It would be easy to think of the place as a theme park or resort—there are three swimming pools, and you’ll find peacocks, alpacas, roosters, and dwarf horses roaming the grounds—but other such places imply loudness, both literally and architecturally.

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Cintai is anything but loud—visually impressive, for certain, but just on the right side of tastefulness. Given the easy temptation to go over the top, Cintai’s designer wisely decided to make just enough of a statement, but also to take care of the fine details and of their consistent employment, even the patterning of the rocks on the walkways and the Balinese carvings in the bathrooms.

In other words, as in Bali itself (which I had the pleasure of visiting 30 years ago), the appeal of the place is in its soulful serenity. The management could have hyped up the atmosphere by piped-in gamelan music, but they resisted even that, for better effect: the gamelan will tinkle in your mind. (One interesting discovery: the Balinese statues, figures, and accents in the complex were mostly made by Batangueño craftsmen.)

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The complex comprises 18 villas with variable capacities, two large halls, a spa, and a restaurant, among other facilities (for more details, visit http://coritosgarden.com). Beng and her UP High batchmates plan to have the place to themselves for an overnight stay, an ideal set-up for a big group, but walk-in day trippers are welcome, for a very reasonable rate that includes a sumptuous lunch.

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And that’s what we did on this scouting trip—tour Cintai and have lunch with its amiable manager Francis Salanguit—but I had another suggestion for the group, which they gamely took up: go a bit farther down the highway to Taal, about a 40-minute drive away, to give everyone (especially the balikbayans) a special treat of history and heritage. I’d also been to Taal before and had visited one of its fabled heritage houses and its cathedral; I wanted to see more. So we set out after lunch and were in Taal shortly after.

The historicity of Taal was immediately apparent in the old Spanish-era houses lining the approach to the town. But what also accentuated (I was going to say “sharpened”) Taal’s uniqueness were the shops hawking a fearsome array of bladed weapons—specifically the balisong, the fan knife of many a boyhood fancy, ranging from the mini to the outsized version. Batangas, of course, and Taal in particular can look back to a proud revolutionary tradition, and the balisong seems to exemplify that don’t-mess-with-me attitude Batangueños are famous for.

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We didn’t stop that day to buy any knives—imagine the alarms they’d trigger if someone forgot about them on the plane ride Stateside—but we pressed on to our main destinations: the Apacible and Agoncillo heritage houses, both of which can be found on Agoncillo Street. I’d seen the Apacible house on my previous visit and had been charmed by its wonderfully preserved furnishings, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how the National Historical Commission, which manages the two historic houses, had taken pains to provide visitors with a more enlightening and rewarding experience.

Guests (who may come in for free, but are encouraged to leave a donation) are met and led by a knowledgeable guide; the AV show that introduces the place, its previous owners, and its history was one of the most artistic and professionally produced I’d ever seen. Markers, captions, and child-friendly installations were provided where necessary, and additional information was contributed freely by our young guide. The Apacible brothers—Leon and Galicano—were cousins and confederates of Jose Rizal, who came to their house to talk revolution; Leon was a lawyer and soldier and Galicano a doctor and propagandist, and though less known in the pantheon of Filipino heroes, they come alive in the exhibits that pay due homage to their contributions.

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The Marcela Marino Agoncillo Museum and Monument a couple of blocks down the street was just as well kept and well introduced with its own AV production (my kudos to Dr. Maris Diokno, whose dual backgrounds as teacher and historian—not to mention her own proud lineage as the descendant of true heroes—can be seen working here to best effect). Marcela was the wife of diplomat Felipe Agoncillo, but came to be known on her own as the co-creator of the first Philippine flag while on exile in Hong Kong.

Just as Cintai’s gardens had appealed to the spirit, Taal’s heritage houses touched both heart and mind—and it took just a few mouthfuls of the local suman, washed down with barako coffee, to complete our Batangas experience with a boost to our famished stomachs. I’m not knocking Tagaytay, but one of these days, you just may want to go a little farther down the road and try a bit of the best that Batangas has to offer.

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Penman No. 211: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (2)

IMG_8346.jpgPenman for Monday, August 8, 2016

 

THE SAN Diego Convention Center’s ground-level exhibit hall covers more than half a million square feet—about the same acreage as the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—and Comic-Con occupied every inch of this territory and more, spilling over to more meeting rooms upstairs and to the adjacent hotels.

The throngs of attendees and kibitzers also fill up the streets and parks outside the venue, all the way to San Diego’s picturesque Gaslamp district, which turns into party town at night after the convention—a mammoth “Star Wars” bar scene, with throngs of costumed characters downing tequilas and exotic cocktails whipped up just for the occasion. You can have your pick of convention specials like the Katniss Kiss at Bang Bang (gin, honey, ginger, rose water), the Kryptonite Martini at Spike Africa’s (Svedka vodka, pepperoncini peppers, olive brine), or the Walking Dead at Searsucker (Hamilton’s Jamaican rum, Bacardi Light, pineapple juice, cinnamon simple syrup, Fee Brother’s bitters, fresh lime, Lemonhart 151, topped with ginger beer).

And you can choose to have that drink with Chewbacca or Captain Kirk, because Comic-Con’s strongest and most colorful attraction is, of course, cosplay, that not-too-subtle subterfuge by which anyone can be a superhero or super-villain for a day.

In this regard, Comic-Con 2016 more than met our expectations. There were Storm Troopers, Trekkies, Ghostbusters, and Batmen galore on the convention floor, even a Hulk, a Dumbledore, and a Silver Surfer or two. And as a couple of plus-size Supergirls demonstrated, you didn’t even need the prescribed physique to indulge your fantasy—just the costume, which the wearers had more than likely sewn up themselves, with a little help from suppliers like BuyCostumes.com (where you could be Spiderman for $44.99, or Queen Arwen for $59.99—Darth Vader will cost you more, with just the mask selling for $149.99). A day before Comic-Con opened, Demi’s nephew Matt was still busy preparing his costume and homemade weapon as the Soldier:76 character from “Overwatch,” with key components being shipped in by express courier from Hong Kong.

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If you didn’t care to dress up as a Sith Lord but had always wanted one to park behind your bar, you could take a life-sized Darth Vader home for about $7,000, for a tenth of which you could get a silicone mask of the Ice King from “Game of Thrones.”

Comic-Con, in other words, was merchandise mania, and it wasn’t uncommon to see hardcore fans staggering out of the venue with huge boxes and bags of souvenirs. Some may have addictions that will seem very peculiar to you and me—like the people who line up at midnight for special editions of the bobble-head Funko figurines—but beyond being a passion, it’s also a business that can see a Funko character that nominally sells for $15 be worth ten times that much on eBay the morning after (more on this later).

In a corner devoted to comic-book auctions, the cover art for an August 1977 issue of Conan the Barbarian had a pre-auction estimate of $12,000—a bargain compared to $20,000 for a Watchmen page. Being oldies and cheapskates, all Beng and I could sport were our black Star Wars T-shirts, which Demi had snapped at a sale (there wasn’t much demand, predictably, for T-shirts that invited you to “Join the Dark Side!”).

 

It’s all about fads and fashions, and those preferences are set on a screen somewhere—the movies, TV, the Internet, the mobile phone, the vast global domain of popular culture (which is to say, still largely Hollywood). The biggest draws this year included “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Wonder Woman,” “Teen Wolf,” “Snowden,” “Suicide Squad,” “Aliens” (marking its 30th anniversary), “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Star Trek Beyond,” but there’s never a lack of fans (and merchandise) for perennials like “Superman,” “Batman,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Ghostbusters.”

But all these blockbusters begin with a writer and an artist—a “creator,” in industry parlance, along the lines of Marvel’s legendary Stan Lee—and as another main feature of Comic-Con, these creative geniuses were gathered at the far end of the hall in the Artists’ Alley. Tipped off by my younger friends at Philmug (who were attending Comic-Con vicariously through their former chairman), I made a beeline for the booth of Whilce Portacio, one of the most accomplished Filipino-Americans in the comic-book industry.

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Born a Navy brat in Sangley Point, Whilce had moved to the States as a baby and had grown up in Hawaii, where his artistic talent was nurtured by supportive teachers. He came home in 1978 and studied Fine Arts at Philippine Women’s University under Ibarra de la Rosa. Not speaking Tagalog and feeling very much alone, Whilce spent the time honing his craft, and by the time he flew back to the US a few years later, he was ready for his big break—where else but at Comic-Con, which was then a much smaller event but already the place to be if you were a gifted young artist with a portfolio to show.

A Marvel editor named Carl Potts (who also had some Filipino blood) took Whilce under his wing and from there on, there was no turning back. Whilce (a shortening of William Joyce) would go on to work on Punisher, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Wetworks, and Spawn, among many other major projects, moving up from basic inking and penciling to becoming a creator himself of such characters as Bishop in X-Men and the Pinoy superhero Grail in Wetworks.

Following in the footsteps of such Filipino comics pioneers in the US as Alex Niño (who also had a booth at Comic-Con, but hadn’t checked in yet when I was there), Whilce sees himself as part of a series of waves of Filipinos who’ve excelled in the global industry. In 1995, he returned to the Philippines to set up a studio on Balete Drive, where he discovered and trained the next wave, which now includes such standouts as Leinil Yu and Philip Tan.

Indeed, another booth at Comic-Con featured the works of Philip Tan, Jay Anacleto, Stephen Segovia, and Carlo Pagulayan. While it took lucky breaks and personal contacts for people like him to succeed, Whilce says that “Today, with the Internet, young artists can introduce themselves. The bridges are now connected. The process and pipeline are now set for everybody.” (I know I promised to report on my long and very interesting interview with Whilce, but it would be a pity to summarize, so I’ll save that for another time. Better yet, come and see him in person when he flies in to Manila to grace our version of Comic-Con—the AsiaPOP Comicon, which will happen on August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center, with tickets starting at just P550 for a one-day pass.)

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To cap my Comic-Con 2016 experience, and by another stroke of luck, our daughter Demi conjured a special pass to a live taping of Conan O’Brien’s show at the historic Spreckels Theater downtown (Conan has been a Comic-Con regular for some years now). Did I want to go? The featured guests were a surprise—the cast and crew of “Game of Thrones,” with Hodor, killed off in Season 6, getting the warmest applause. I’d have to admit that being a documentary and car-show freak, I’ve never been a fan of the series. But I had a great time watching Conan, the total pro, and every member of that audience left the theater with a Funko Conan Storm Trooper doll, which touts tried to buy at the door for a paltry $8.

Were they kidding? The dolls showed up on eBay the next day for as much as $300. I gave mine to Demi, which was the least her Tatay could do thank her for the treat of a lifetime.

 

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Penman No.205: Sojourn in Seoul (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 27, 2016

 

HAVING PLANNED our trip to Seoul months in advance, I made a point of touching base with some local contacts for possible meetings—something I usually don’t do, wary of disturbing people with my unseasonable presence. But with a week to kill in one city and with some longstanding connections in place, I thought it would be even more ill-mannered if I didn’t at least tell them that I was going to be in town.

One of those connections was Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English at Dong-a University in Busan, Korea’s big industrial center four hours by train from Seoul. Sukjoo—a specialist in world literature—happens to be married to Catherine Rose Torres, one of our bright new young fictionists who now serves as First Secretary and Consul at our embassy in Berlin. I’d first met Catherine in 2011 when I attended the Singapore Writers Festival and she was with our embassy there, and I was later very happy to write a blurb for her first book, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories (UST, 2015).

It’s really these personal connections that make for global literary networking, the value of which I can’t overemphasize. In 2014, Sukjoo translated one of my stories for publication in Global World Literature, which is put out by some of Korea’s foremost literary scholars and critics in that area. Through Sukjoo, I was also able to contribute an article to the Korea-based journal Asia, in which I wrote about some of our most gifted and exciting younger writers. As a result of that article, one of our best young non-fictionists, Sandra Nicole Roldan, will be visiting Seoul this week to attend the 2016 Asia Literature Creative Workshop.

And so our connections continue and deepen. When they learned that I was visiting Korea, Sukjoo’s organization invited me to a special meeting, so I could tell them more about Philippine literature. That gathering took place at Seoul National University toward the end of our visit, and a very fruitful and engaging encounter it turned out to be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but their very first question had nothing to do with lyric poetry: “What do you think of your new President, Rodrigo Duterte?”

It will take more than this column to share my answer with you, but suffice it to say for now that we talked about our colonial history, our Catholic predisposition to suffering, the two Joses (not me) by which our literature is best known overseas, class as the key divisor in our literature and society, Korea’s and the Philippines’ shared experience of dictatorship, and the irony of having to deal with a resurgent Park and a resurgent Marcos, and our younger writers’ affinity with Gaiman, Murakami, and Wattpad.

We discussed my translated story, “In the Garden,” which I’d written in the 1980s about militarization in the countryside and the moral duty of a teacher caught in the crossfire. While the topics were unavoidably contentious, our meeting itself was thoroughly pleasant and mutually informative, capped by dinner, shop talk, and, yes, chatter about Lee Min-ho.

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The second highlight of our visit—away from the malls and the flea markets—was a meeting with the Filipino community in Seoul, which had also been pre-arranged by Catherine through her Seoul colleague, the very capable Third Secretary and Vice Consul Ella Mitra.

It was a Sunday—our last full day in Korea—and much to our surprise, the embassy was open and bustling with people, with a wedding taking place right in Ella’s office. (“We can officiate at weddings,” Ella told us, “as long as the two parties are both Filipino citizens. We’re open on Sundays because that’s when most of the community can come.”) There were over 40,000 Filipinos in Korea, Ella informed me, many employed as factory workers in jobs that the locals themselves prefer not to do.

I’d been asked by the embassy to give a reading for the community—something I love to do whenever I’m abroad, as it puts me in touch with ordinary Filipinos striving to do their best in often very challenging circumstances. The Filipino, I like to say whenever the opportunity arises, is the modern-day Ulysses, roaming recklessly to the farthest reaches of the globe, but imbued with an unfailing sense of home. Now here they were, a crowd that filled the room beyond our most generous expectations—professionals, teachers, graduate students, Filipino-Korean couples, even the Ambassador himself, the dapper and articulate Raul Hernandez.

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The embassy had calendared my reading as its second Sentro Rizal activity, and with June 12 coming up, it seemed a good time to remind ourselves of the things that both divided and united us, and of the need to hang together as Filipinos, at a time and in a region of revived nationalisms. Even so I chose to do a very light reading, one that made fun of my own social ineptitude in cross-cultural situations, and thankfully it went over well with the audience. More than the reading, it was the ensuing Q&A and freewheeling chat over pancit and puto that proved most gratifying. I could sense the community’s strength of spirit, its determination to master a new cultural terrain.

I was especially happy to see a former student, Tech Apognol, now doing an MA in International Relations and speaking Korean. She’s hardly alone; the association of Filipino grad students in Korea now numbers 500, I was told, and there were plenty of masteral and doctoral scholarships for those inclined. “We can take classes in English,” one student named Eve told me.

Another grad student named RJ solved a mystery that had been bugging me for 40 years. Back then, I told him, I was a young writer employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, and one of my tasks was to help edit the Five-Year Development Plan, which was thicker than an encyclopedia because of its bloated prose. On the other hand, I recalled, the South Korean development plan that I used as a reference was no bigger and fatter than a paperback novel—and look, I told RJ, where Korea was now. “Ah, that’s easy,” RJ said. “It’s because the Koreans value brevity, and memos are expected to be no more than a page. The higher up the ladder papers go, the more concise they’re expected to be.”

The shopping was fun—just the flea markets for us, please, not the high-end shops—and the streetcorner food delicious, but it was, ultimately, our encounters with the people that added the most value to our visit. Kamsahamnida, Sukjoo, Cathy, Ella, and Tech for these memorable exchanges.

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. 190: A Makati Staycation

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Penman for Monday, March 7, 2016

 

THE WORD “staycation” must have been invented for people like my wife Beng and me, who now and then like to laze around in a hotel away from home, though not too far away that we’d have to book a flight or take a long bus ride. For those who’ve been living under a rock, a “staycation” is defined as “a holiday spent in one’s home country rather than abroad, or one spent at home and involving day trips to local attractions.”

For us Pinoys, a staycation is halfway to heaven. It’s neither home nor Hawaii; usually, it means parking the car and one’s brood in a local hotel, then spending the weekend pigging out on restaurant fare and TV marathons, scouting the nearby shops, and flopping around in the pool. So it’s not free, but it won’t break the bank, either.

Of course, there will be people who—for perfectly good reasons—will ask, “Why even bother? Why not just stay at home?” Yes, sure, home won’t cost you a thing, but that won’t do what a staycation does, which is to play and pretend for a blessed couple of days that you’re somewhere or someone else, like a tourist in your own country. A fancy word critics might use for the experience is “defamiliarization,” which is looking at the same old things with new eyes, producing unexpected effects.

Well, Beng and I got a pleasant dose of defamiliarization a couple of weekends ago when a friend generously passed us a staycation package that she and her husband couldn’t avail themselves of, and we found ourselves at the door of a hotel that we’d never really noticed before, in a neighborhood we’d never really lived in before.

The neighborhood, of all places, was Makati. Both steadfast northerners, Beng and I have lived in Quezon City nearly all our adult lives, and crossing Guadalupe Bridge—despite the many thousands of times we’ve done it for business and pleasure sorties to the south—still means crossing a psychological barrier. Makati was always just a place for shopping or for work, or otherwise for attending some bash at a big hotel. And I realized that until that weekend, it had probably been at least 15 years when we last slept over in Makati, thanks to our daughter Demi who was then working for a big hotel chain.

So it was about time we got a bit cozier with our southern metropolis, and off we went to the City Garden Grand Hotel at the corner of Makati and Kalayaan Avenues, a 33-storey, 300-room structure that I vaguely remembered seeing rising but had never stepped into. (An older and smaller cousin, the City Garden—minus the “grand”—was just across the street, and I almost mixed up the two.) The drive up the parking ramp was a bit steep and the elevator could have used a shot of adrenaline in its pulleys, but that would turn out to be the first and last of our complaints.

We were booked into a junior suite on the 30th floor, with a spacious living room and entertainment area (and a large sofa that could have easily slept one more) plus a bedroom with a king-size bed; the suite also contained one big bathroom and two toilets, two TVs, a full-size fridge, a microwave, and a coffeemaker—plus, let’s not forget that most essential of today’s amenities, free wi-fi. In other words, it was a hotel easily at par with its four-star counterparts in Hong Kong or Singapore in terms of creature comforts. We were on the north side of the building, so throwing our curtains open revealed a vista we weren’t used to seeing—our part of the city, stretching from the Pasig to the hills of Antipolo.

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An even better view could be had just two floors up, as we soon discovered. The City Garden Grand’s piece de resistance is arguably its 32nd-floor Firefly roofdeck bar, which offers a nearly 360-degree perspective of Manila and its environs. (A terrace on the 33rd floor is used for weddings and other special events.) Looking southward at sunset, Laguna de Bay shimmered on the left and Manila Bay glowed on the right, while behind us the darkening north soon lit up like a bed of stars. With a cold beer in hand, the swimming pool bubbling in a corner of the roofdeck, a barbecue on the grill casting its savory spell, and the city twinkling at our feet, we felt utterly transported. The sense of estrangement was enhanced by the preponderance of foreigners in the hotel’s clientele—Australians, Brits, and Germans, it seemed to me, who were leveling up from backpacking.

Beng’s a huge fan of breakfast buffets, and even more than dinner, we both look forward to a hearty breakfast to start the day with, and will often judge a hotel by its breakfast buffet; we’d rather live with a smaller room than a skimpy spread. In this respect, the City Garden Grand passed with flying colors, offering a range wide enough to please everyone, from mushroom with truffles to crispy dangguit (and the menu rotated from one day to the next, providing even more variety).

But the best was yet to come, as we were to discover at dinner. Beng and I usually prefer to go Chinese, but as a set dinner at the hotel’s Spice restaurant on the 7th floor was included in the “Love and Luck” package, we decided to give it a try, despite my well-known and admittedly strange aversion to fine dining. Dinner proved a pleasant shock to my pedestrian palate, from the organic mixed salad of shrimp toast and edible flower in strawberry vinaigrette to the broccoli and garlic soup with beetroot foam and focaccia bread to the entrée of beef wellington with bone marrow sauce (Beng’s choice) or sous vide of New Zealand salmon with brown butter asparagus (mine). (I may be a culinary philistine, but I’m addicted to food and cooking shows, so I knew at least what sous vide involved and meant—in short, scrumptious.) The dessert of deconstructed strawberry shortcake with berry coulis and chocolate marble proved too much, on top of everything—we ordered just one and happily had the other taken out.

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We were so impressed that we asked to see the chef, and were even more floored when he turned out to be no imported Frenchman or Swiss but an entirely homegrown 24-year-old, Ariel “Yeye” dela Umbria, a proud graduate of NCBA’s HRM program.

The surroundings of a hotel are always part of the package, and Beng and I were glad to spend the weekend exploring Century City Mall (just a couple of blocks away) and the Greenbelt-Glorietta area (a longer 20-minute walk, but good for the exercise). Of course, the entire Kalayaan-Jupiter district is a prime restaurant and entertainment zone, which we’ll revisit at greater leisure one of these days.

Meanwhile, our warmest thanks to that friend for the weekend break and for giving us more reasons to enjoy the metropolis; 30 floors up, it never looked so good.

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Penman No. 159: Border Insecurity

Penman for Monday, July 27, 2015

I’M NOT as big a TV fan as I used to be—I haven’t seen a single episode of Game of Thrones—but I can’t get enough of certain types of reality shows. I’ve been strangely attracted to Project Runway, and despite being a culinary philistine who hates cheese, I’m a sucker for food shows. I don’t care much for Survivor-type formats, believing that living in Manila beats sharing an island with snakes and monkeys anytime. I reserve my highest praise and deepest fascination for junk-o-ramas like American Pickers and Pawn Stars, being the kind of ukay-ukay addict who flew to Barcelona not for Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia but for the Encants flea market.

But there’s another kind of show I’m fixated on, in the same odd way that I hate even the prospect of surgery—I shrink like a schoolboy at the sight of a needle—but can be engrossed by medical documentaries, where other people get cut up. It’s the airport immigration and customs show, like Border Security Australia and Border Security Canada, where incoming passengers go through a gauntlet of questions and searches meant to find out if they’re drug dealers or food smugglers or people pretending to be tourists but are either (a) jobseekers; (b) international terrorists; or (c) fugitives from justice in disguise.

I cringe whenever a passenger—usually an Asian, sometimes a Pinoy—is loudly asked a dozen times, in clear, slow English, “Are you carrying any food?” The passenger looks stricken and bewildered, but ultimately decides to feign ignorance and/or linguistic incompetence and shakes his or her head, immediately upon which the customs officer opens the passenger’s bags to reveal enough meats, cooked dishes, condiments, and desserts for a wedding feast. The officer points to the customs form in which the passenger has boldly checked “No,” which occasions even more vigorous head-shaking, or the groan of discovery, or the wheezy laughter of surrender. The culprit is then fined, or given a stern warning, and the illegal edibles are confiscated, presumably for incineration (in this country, I think we know where they’ll end up—it’s a bigger crime to waste good food!).

As a frequent traveler myself to places out West, I shouldn’t rejoice at these embarrassing encounters between cat and mouse, but I’d have to shamefully admit that I do, which is why I keep watching these shows, for more of the same thing. I suppose it’s what the Germans call schadenfreude—the strange but delectable pleasure we get from the misfortunes of others, if only because it happens to them and not to us. Or at least that’s what we’d like to think.

I remember how, just a couple of years ago and after having made dozens of trips across the Pacific and gone through countless immigration lines, I foolishly “forgot” that I’d bought a few packets of chicharon—the deadlier bituka version, mind you, not the more innocent-looking rinds—at a planeside shop in NAIA, thinking that I would munch on them on the flight to San Francisco in the long stretch between meals. I must’ve fallen asleep instead, because they were still in my carry-on bag when Beng and I arrived in SFO, and had the misfortune of being singled out for random inspection (I think they read the vibes I must have subliminally emanated: “This guy is carrying chicharon. Arrest him.”) I speeded through the immigration process like the veteran I’d thought I was, chatting up the border agent in my best Midwestern-accented English, only to find myself in a special customs queue for secondary inspection. OK, I thought with a minor shrug of annoyance, no problem, let’s get this over and done with, shall we?

The immigration gods didn’t desert me completely, however, assigning me to a customs agent who was obviously Fil-Am, and who just as obviously knew how to deal with sneaky kababayans like me. “Magandang umaga po,” she said sweetly in Filipino as she took hold of my bag. “May pagkain po ba kayong dala ngayon—bagoong, chicharon, mangga?” I was all set to harrumph and put on my foulest professorial airs when I suddenly remembered—at her mention of the usual suspects—the packets of chicharon that I’d stuffed into the side pocket of my bag.

For a millisecond I toyed with gambling on her missing them—the chicharon bulaklak seemed even more delicious, being forbidden, and now I was never going to get a taste of it—but decided to come clean. Decades earlier (you see how these things have histories), an immigration beagle had sniffed out a stash of dubious comestibles in Beng’s luggage, meant for lonesome me in Milwaukee; now I was sure that they had 21st-century detectors and X-ray profiles of bagoong, chicharon, etc. in some secret room behind a nearby wall.

Ay, may chicharon bulaklak pala ako!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands up. “I meant to eat it on the plane, but forgot,” I added, grinning sheepishly. The agent reached in, felt for, and fished out the offending packets, and tossed them into a trash bin that seemed about to overflow with other people’s confiscated contraband. “I’m glad you told me, sir,” the Fil-Am agent said, with the barest hint of regret. “I would have fined you $300 if you didn’t!” I shuddered at the thought of having to fork over $300—the price of a fancy fountain pen—for three packets of pork innards that I didn’t even get a bite of. There, I thought, but for the grace of a kind Pinay go I.

So whenever I watch those poor, guilty souls trudging toward the immigration and customs agents on the TV shows, I silently scream at them, “Confess! Reveal the sausages and the century eggs! Resistance is futile!” Of course they never do, and I feel rewarded with my minute of smug satisfaction at having narrowly escaped the clutches of Western justice. (And it’s just them, right? Nobody but nobody ever asks incoming Americans, Canadians, or Australians, “Excuse me, sir, but do you have hotdogs, burgers, or French fries in your luggage?” Perhaps our immigration people should be better trained.)

SPEAKING OF overseas Pinoys, a fraternity brother in Toronto, Fred Postrado, emailed me to ask for some help in reaching out to his batchmates from the Manila High School Class of 1973, which is planning to hold a reunion during the last week of February 2016. Those interested may contact organizers Zen Alcantara Cabaluna at 0908-8849190 and goldland_zen@yahoo.com, Mario Bulatao at 0917-5215739 and supermcb55@yahoo.com or Virgie Nudalo Calimag at 0932-8615484 and vncalimag@yahoo.com.

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. 143: A Foray into Fairyland (2)

IMG_7281Penman for Monday, April 6, 2015

LAST WEEK’S piece on “Fairlyand”—the mountain of Calatong in my home province of Romblon—elicited quite a bit of interest among my readers, and I was very pleased with the response until my mother, who grew up around the place, called my attention to a potentially lethal mistake I’d made in my retelling of my cousins’ and aunts’ stories about that enchanted kingdom. (I’m thinking that “lethal” might depend on whether you believe in spirits or not, and I don’t, but talk like this always reminds me of a conversation I had with a sharp old nun whom I met in one of my Italian sojourns, who said: “The question isn’t “Do you believe in God?’ but rather ‘Does God believe in you?’”)

The mistake I’d apparently made was in saying that eating quinta, or black mountain rice, was an antidote to fairy spells. “It actually works the other way around,” my mother told me in our little garden in Diliman. “They’ll offer you black rice, and if you eat even a handful of it, they’ll take you to Calatong and you’ll never be seen again.” So folks, be so advised; beware of strangers offering black rice, although it’s not very likely you’ll be seeing any soon. The last time I saw truly black rice was in an American grocery store in the Midwest, where it was being sold as Indian wild rice, and cost considerably more than any other exotic variety on the shelf. But then maybe that preciousness implies more than a smidgen of magic. If black rice banishes people to oblivion, I’d like to buy a sack of it, whatever the cost, to feed to certain politicians before 2016.

Which returns us to the more prosaic realities of modern-day Romblon. Not too many people, even Filipinos, know about Romblon, which if they ever board a ship for Panay they’re likely to pass unseen in the night, after Mindoro. It’s composed of three main islands—Tablas, Sibuyan, and Romblon—and was a sub-province of Capiz during Spanish times. As Philippine provinces go, it’s a pretty small one, with less than 300,000 people (excluding encantos), and my favorite quote about it comes from Jose Rizal via NVM Gonzalez (who was born in Romblon in 1915), who passed it on his way back to Manila from exile in Dapitan, remarking that it was “muy hermosa pero muy triste.”

Much of the hermosa part remains. On this first long visit home in two decades, we took an SUV around Tablas, a day trip I’d never taken before, and I was awestruck by how lovely the place was, fringed by one emerald cove after another. I lost no time in telling my friends to consider Romblon as a vacation alternative to Batanes, Palawan, and Boracay.

Indeed, Boracay’s a short hop away by motorized banca, and being on the other side of the same oceanic basin, Romblon is also blessed with many white beaches, most of them yet undiscovered. (All these islands and their people belong to one ecosystem, as it were, their languages familiar to one another, though subtly different; my paternal grandfather must have come from the Dalisays of Ibajay, Aklan, where a playwright named Marianito Dalisay Calizo wrote moro-moros in the mid-1700s.)

Some of these natural getaways have been found out, and the developers and entrepreneurs have begun streaming in, and foreigners with Filipino wives have been buying up prime beachfront property for a fraction of Boracay prices. (The best fish catch in Romblon still goes to Boracay, where it can fetch two to three times as much.)

One happy discovery we made was just a 15-minute ride from my hometown of Alcantara: Aglicay Beach, owned and managed by an affable balikbayan doctor, which offers a white-sand beach, great snorkeling, and spectacular hilltop views, all within a resort with the usual amenities, including conference facilities and wi-fi. You’ll have to pay the admission fee, though—all of 30 pesos. (To know more, check out www.aglicaybeachresort.com.)

The triste part, I don’t know. There’s certainly enough to be sad about, as much of Romblon remains painfully poor. On the other hand, the tougher things get, the harder many Romblomanons work, with their brains if not with their hands. I was puzzled by the knot of schoolchildren who gathered in front of our beachside house at dawn every morning—they carried their shoes rather than wore them—until I realized that they had walked over barefoot from a nearby island at low tide. I would later learn that one child, barely nine, had drowned this way when the tide came back in too quickly. But there was no fear in these survivors’ faces, only an insistent resolve that now and then would fracture into laughter.

We were roused one morning by the thump-thump-thump of techno music in the plaza. “They’re just testing the sound system,” said our host. “It’ll be fiesta soon.” They called the uncanny practice of waking every one up pag-di-diana, and I thought that it might have had something to do with Paul Anka’s karaoke staple.

A few other discoveries I learned on this trip were rather more personal. I had always wondered why I had spent such a long summer there as a ten-year-old in 1964—an experience I recounted in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place—and I learned that it was because we were then so hard up in Manila that we children had to be farmed out, as it were, to save some money. My aunts recalled me as a smart but prissy boy who wore long-sleeved shirts in a seaside village and who would recite long poems in English at the drop of a hat.

We also solved the mystery of why my grandmother Pinang left my Lolo Tolio in the mid-1920s shortly after marrying him and giving birth to my father Jose. It had been something of a forced marriage to begin with, and Pinang was a headstrong woman, but the story we heard was that she hated being made to serve hot chocolate when some constables came visiting one day, and took that as the last straw and left. (They would live a kilometer apart for the next 60 years, and would inevitably run into each other in town but never speak.) Now it emerged that Tolio was having a saucy little affair—an explanation that makes Lola Pinang much less petulant than the chocolate story would make her out to be.

Whether sad or funny, it felt good to hear and to understand these stories again in Romblomanon without having to defer to my wife’s more widely spoken Hiligaynon, to say udi instead of diri, basi instead of ngaa; it’s still palangga in both languages. I felt at home.

Penman No. 142: A Foray into Fairyland

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Penman for Monday, March 30, 2015

LIKE I promised to do after an all-too-brief overnight sortie last January, I returned to my birth province of Romblon a couple of weeks ago—my first real visit home in almost 20 years—for a full week of catching up with a barangay of cousins, uncles, and aunts, some of whom hadn’t seen me since I was a boy.

But the family reunions and the endless festivities aside, what stood out on this trip was a foray into Fairyland—a highly unusual detour for this hardcore skeptic, who nevertheless went gamely along for the ride, and who came out richly rewarded with fairy tales if not with actual encounters with the other kind.

You won’t see it in any of the tourist guidebooks, and you might need to know the cousin of a cousin to navigate safely around the place. They call it Calatong—a word for which, in the local dialect of Guinbiraynon, there seems to be no precise translation, but it’s otherwise known even to the place’s youngsters as fairyland, the mountain inhabited by encantos, the enchanted ones. It dominates this corner of Romblon’s largest island of Tablas, both physically and culturally; from far at sea, Calatong’s tall hump offers an unmistakable landmark; by land, along the winding dirt road from Alcantara to Guinbirayan, it rises on your left, a massive mystery, although it might take some time and tuba to get the stories about Calatong flowing through the conversation.

I had seen and known about Calatong from my earliest years in Guinbirayan—my mother’s hometown—and even on this most recent visit, it was the first thing I would see outdoors when I stepped out of the house at daybreak, because the sun would emerge from behind it like a glowing crown above a dark and brooding head.

But I had never gone out there, although it seemed close enough to walk from where I stood on the shore. On this trip, at age 61, I told myself that it was now or never, and on the appointed morning we rode out to Calatong, but not before Letty, the retired schoolteacher who kindly hosted us, armed each one of us with a sliver of ginger. My mother Emy, now 86, had not been back to Calatong since she was a nine-year-old schoolgirl on a field trip with her class. “My teacher never let me out of her sight the whole time we were here,” my mother said as we parked the SUV as far up the dirt road as it could go. We walked up to the shore and took a banca over the glassine water—now turquoise, now emerald—to view the mountain from the sea, turning back only when the waves grew choppy.

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It’s said that during the War, when the Japanese flew over Calatong, they saw a brightly lit city, but then found nothing on the ground. This gave rise to the legend of Calatong as a ciudad, the name by which many of the locals still call it.

Somewhere in that sylvan cosmopolis was a waterfalls or a spring they called Labhang Dalaga, or “where the maidens washed,” from which flowed bubbly water, fragrant as if it had carried soap. We didn’t venture far enough inland to catch this frothy spectacle, but the rocks did sparkle in the sun in Calatong, as we were told they would; it was easy to see that the rocks were granitic, and contained liberal inclusions of quartz and mica, among other shiny minerals.

The mountain resists poachers and souvenir-hunters unless they’re locals who respectfully ask permission. They say that a woman who picked up a black rock and brought it home was horrified to find that the rock, left in her bathroom, had turned into a snake. A man who reportedly dug up oil and brought it out would find his precious discovery turning to water. There’s talk of siphoning water from Calatong to serve the nearby barangays, but already there’s grumbling about irregularities in the process, and about the likely consequences of displeasing the spirits.

The encantos, our cousins said, were fair-skinned, and one way of ascertaining who they were was to note the absence of a philtrum—that depression in the skin on your upper lip beneath your nose. The encantos liked to come to town to join the dances during the fiesta, when beautiful strangers typically appeared from nowhere, enjoying themselves and charming the locals. The encantos seemed to particularly favor the pretty nurses from far away who came to serve in Romblon as part of their martial-law-era YCAP duties. The antidote to their charms was to eat quinta, or black mountain rice; marriage to a local boy also seemed to ward off any further claims by the spirits—so swore my cousin Fred, who thereby met and married his wife Nanette.

You had to be careful about whom you made friends with, as a boy would realize when he accompanied his new friend home, and made the Sign of the Cross to be on the safe side of things—only to suddenly find himself hanging from the limbs of a tree. The townspeople would also see their neighbors jumping out their windows—and these neighbors would later return with fantastic stories about riding golden chariots over the mountaintops.

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The most persistent story also happens to be the most fantastic one, its incredibility only magnified by the insistence of the storytellers upon its veracity. Among those storytellers was an aunt-figure we’ve always known as Manang Munday, who recounted her story at the dining table, thusly:

One mid-afternoon in 1942, when she was in the fourth grade, Manang Munday heard a large commotion brewing and joined a throng of people rushing to the Guinbirayan shore. There, she says, she and the others saw a light-colored ship—the kind that plied the Romblon-Manila route—with the name “COSME YAP” brightly emblazoned in gold letters on its side. It sailed behind Calatong, but when the people tried to follow it and view it from afar, it was nowhere to be found. Years later the villagers would swear that they had heard the sound of an anchor chain being unwound in the night from the direction of Calatong.

Cosme Yap was my maternal grandfather, a merchant and a goldsmith, one of the richest citizens of Guinbirayan in his time. Lolo Cosme did own a sailboat, a batel as they call it in those parts, but it rather dramatically sank in a storm on its maiden voyage, Titanic-like (his wealth survived the catastrophe, but how it eventually vanished is another novel unto itself, albeit an unimaginatively prosaic one). The boat and the gold probably explain the persistence of this tale, and of its variations. Relatives say that when my Aunt Nieves was close to death, she had a vision of Lolo Cosme coming to fetch her in a golden airplane.

Again, unlike my sweet Beng who’s wired to the Universe, I don’t believe in spirits—but if something golden flashes before my eyes in my final hour, at least I’d have an inkling where that was coming from.