Solitude and Disappointment


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I woke up this morning with a slightly heavy head from the drinking session with colleagues last night. Despite not feeling well, I went around the resort area as planned.

While the following photos might look ‘inviting’, this is not a place I would visit again any time soon. Why? Well, aside from the ever-present ‘tilapia’ in every buffet meal, one resort staff gave out ‘raffle coupons’ which turned out to be a ploy – their way of getting customers’ contact details.

About an hour before we checked out, I received a call informing me that I won a free 3-night Hotel stay in Manila; and that I could get the voucher from their office in Makati. At this point, bells started ringing.  I suddenly remembered how one of my friends got ‘trapped’ in a three-hour hard selling engagement because she went to claim her voucher; one of those hotel time-sharing bullsh*t.

I was pissed off.

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The Philippine National Museum


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I felt infinitely small when I first visited the Philippine National Museum last February. Being surrounded by tangible reminders of history was a humbling experience – the artifacts and artworks connived to remind me that in the grand scheme of things, I am both  nothing, and everything.

Our collective history is filled with personal triumphs, sacrifices, mistakes, and learnings – I am just a speck of sand soil in the Manunggul jar; you are a slab of wood in the balangay. Our personal existence is just like a little brush stroke in the Spoliarium – insignificant considering how physically large and grand this painting is; But without which, the artwork will never be ‘complete’.

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  note: photos were taken using a camera phone.

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In Saigon, “Even the Nights are Better”


1A visit to Saigon is like a spiritual retreat (click here to know why). It compels you to look inwardly – grime, and all. But to say that the city is all bout relics and memories of Vietnam War  is shortsighted.

For me, in Saigon, “even the nights are better”.2

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What do you think?  Should it be : “even the days are brighter”?

note: Even the Nights are Better is a song from Air Supply (1982)

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War: Midnight of the Soul


1“How many kinds of animals can you kill with your hands?”                                      – Michael Herr, Illumination Rounds

I. The Tunnels

If courage has a physical form, his is contained and manifested in a slender frame and a slouching posture; a bamboo made human. “I am Minh. I will be your tour guide as we visit the Cu Chi Tunnels.”  His monotonous delivery was devoid of affectation and his countenance gave no hint of a painful personal history:  he reluctantly joined the war at 23 and after the fall of Saigon spent a couple of years in re-education camps (as was the case for all who served under ARVN). “I never wanted to fight; most Vietnamese I know didn’t want to fight. But sometimes, you are left with no choice but to do so to stop the ‘crazy’ ones”. He didn’t dare go beyond this broad statement; instead, he let out a soliloquy on freedom and brotherhood of men.  I pressed my head against the bus window, my left hand propped under my chin. We were moving through the highway alongside speeding motorbikes. I thought to myself: what’s more painful than having to fight (and possibly kill) your own countrymen because of  ideology? “It has been years since the war but I still get nightmares from time to time: bombings, death of friends, severed extremities. That’s the war for you!” He said matter-of-factly. “Later when we get to Cu Chi, I won’t be able to join you underground. I still get ‘frozen’ by the bleak, dark tunnels. As much as possible, I don’t want specific memories of the war getting back to me” Before I could ask him how he was able to cope through the years, he delivered another soliloquy.  “Life during, and immediately after the war, was difficult. I didn’t have time to enjoy my youth. But I always tell myself: If you want to be happy, just always think of the little things that make you smile. Smiling is the last thing I want to do before I lie down for eternity. That way, I will be able to let people know that even if I did not have a happy youth, I still ended up appreciating life” A Tourist tries hiding in a Viet Cong fox hole.

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A fearsome booby trap.

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Tank left at Cu Chi.

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Dangerous. Bombs were ‘made’ by hand.

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Rubber Sandals. A craftsman in Cu Chi makes sandals out of old tires.

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II. The Museum.

Relics of the war were displayed outside the Museum: Planes, Tanks, Helicopters. All other accessories of human cruelty await  inside. Even on the first floor of the building, one could already inhale the (expected) stench of propaganda. But this is a War Museum; and not even the most odorous propaganda can obscure or embellish the single truth of war: nobody wins. Soldiers breathing their last, civilians pleading for life, empty shells, unexploded grenades, bulging eyes, missing arms, conjoined twins, third-degree burns, orphans, widows, grief, anger, retaliation, agent orange, wasted lives: I was drained when I reached the third floor.

Innocent victims. Framed photos showing the effects of Agent Orange. 

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An iconic Vietnam War photograph by Eddie Adams

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Spare me. A photo in the Museum showing an old man pleading for his life.8

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I sat in a corner of the room, feverish. I held the ice cream bar with my right hand, and placed it on my forehead  and temple. I clenched my teeth and tore the plastic packaging. I was a hungry, deprived animal.  One bite and I sat there frozen – my right hand now dangling on one side, the tip of the ice cream bar slightly reaching the floor. Sweltering Saigon transformed the ice cream into a pool of thick liquid. Only a small part remains dripping, like blood. Ants started crawling up my arm. Spine-tingling. One by one, they ventured to my chest, my neck, my nose, my ears; before I knew it, they started drilling holes in my heart.  I sat there motionless, lost in my thoughts: the ice cream and the ants were just figments of my imagination.  But the feeling was all too real.

III. Forgiveness.

Among the most iconic images of the Vietnam War was that of a vulnerable 9-year-old girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked toward the camera. Her clothes were burned off by napalm.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut.VIETNAM-WAR-RARE-INCREDIBLE-PICTURES-IMAGES=PHOTOS-HISTORY kim Phuc By Nick Ut -024

I wondered how she got through this experience. And a quick visit to Google gave me hints: “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?” While Minh did not explicitly say he has forgiven those who ‘wasted’ his youth, his constant smile indicates that he already did, long ago.  I walked out of the museum and drifted with the crowd. I passed by street vendors selling fresh coconut; a slender Vietnamese lady serving steaming pho; a Caucasian tourist sipping iced coffee. I didn’t have to wonder how it is for the rest of Vietnam. I know the wound is still there, somewhere. But if there’s anything I learned from my trip, it is this: Forgiveness gives a glimmer of hope in this midnight of the soul.

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The Spirit of Songkran


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Khao San Road, Bangkok – He arched his back. A steady stream of ice-cold water had hit him. As he turned to look for the culprit, another jet of water went straight to his face. Even with blurry vision, he was sure who shot him: half-dry, red floral shirt, green mono lens sunglasses, about 6 ft tall, Asian descent. “The Cyclops! Guys, shoot the Cyclops!” He was almost breathless as he started aiming his 1.5 liter water gun at the culprit. Two guns aided him even before he finished shouting; and six more came. “This cyclops guy is really asking for it!” “Here’s for you! You chose the wrong group!” The Cyclops was surprised by the sudden onslaught of adversaries – he stepped back while aimlessly moving his gun from left to right. And in what seemed like a desperate attempt at unleashing his remaining energy, he opened his mouth letting out a long “aahhhhhhh”. He probably fancied himself a Rambo. Wrong move – the reinforcement team saw a perfect opening. Water went straight to the cyclops’ tonsils all the way down to his esophagus.

The group made it easy for him to gulp down his pride. “Here’s a double bucket!” He was perfectly drenched. This was probably the last straw. He raised both arms and smiled. Two guys from the reinforcement team tapped the Cyclops on the back. We greeted him “Happy Songkran!” 1 **** The Group cs photo credit: Miao Ling Koh

About three months ago, I was looking for information online on how I could survive Songkran. I was lucky to stumble upon a couch surfing group planning to attend the same festival. And last night, with either a bottle of Chang or water in hand to ward off Bangkok heat, we introduced each other, and talked about random things. “Thesis from Thailand!” “Ummar from Singapore!” “Heather from LA!” “Jorgen from Riga!” I was initially worried that during the course of one-on-one personal introductions and small talks, my brain would freeze while remembering all the names and faces. And there’s the other concern: what are we going to talk about? This being my first couch surfing activity, I was secretly fidgety because I didn’t know what to expect. But as soon as I conversed with a few Malaysian and Singaporean CS members, I threw my worries to the wind. And there’s also the comforting thought that just behind me are a few new Filipino acquaintances who also love to travel (I could always talk to them – in Tagalog, at that!). One realization I had is this: In a big group where almost everyone doesn’t know anyone, there’s a high possibility that you all have the same concerns and worries. And as a result, you all become kind (and forgiving) to one another. The least one should worry about is bringing up a cool and engaging conversation topic. By 8.30 pm of April 12, the 2013 Songkran CS group was already making its way to Khao San Road to have a sampling of the chaos that is to come… The Morning After.

I was in my boxer shorts and white T-shirt arranging my things for my late night flight back to Manila when I heard a knock on my door. I grabbed the nearest khaki shorts and opened the door. “Hi Nenny! How’s your trip from Phuket?” I greeted her like a long-lost childhood friend. But this was the first time we were meeting each other after she sent me a message along with few other Filipinos attending the CS Songkran event. “James! Naku, grabe ang nangyari sakin… naaksidente ang bus na sinasakyan ko!” (James! A terrible thing happened to me… our bus got into an accident!”) She teaches English in Phuket; and in one of her emails, she said she really misses talking in Tagalog. “Are you ok now?” The words went out of my mouth very fast. Although half way through the sentence, I realized it’s a wrong question to ask – she’s still visibly shaken. “Just a few minor wounds from shattered glass. Otherwise, I’m fine”. “Can I stay in your room first while waiting for my Indian friend?” “Of course, you can. You can sleep first, if you want. I just have to arrange my luggage for tonight” “Thanks, let’s have breakfast after you’re done?” “Ok. I’m quite hungry too. Nenny, was the driver drunk?” “He didn’t seem drunk. But I think he was sleepy. It’s a good thing I was awake when it happened. I was able to prepare for the impact; and the Thai lady embraced me.” In 2012, death toll from accidents across Thailand during the first 6 days of Songkran reached 282 (thaivisa.com). It is primarily because of this that I shelved my plans to travel outside Bangkok during the festival – even if a part of me really wanted to visit Kanchanaburi and Ayutthaya. And the leading cause of these accidents? You’ve guessed it. Drunk driving.

Songkran Traditions. Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year celebrated from April 13 to 15 (April 13 is National Elderly Day and April 14 is Family Day). The festival is intended as a time of celebration for family and friends. The ‘water festival’ that we see now had its roots from the tradition of pouring scented water over Buddha statues (this is still being done; even in malls). The festival has since (partly) evolved into what foreigners see as “the world’s largest water fight” where people throw water at anyone in sight, including complete strangers; and where people enjoy beer guzzling, and never-ending revelry. As a Filipino, I will confess that I came for the water fight, beer guzzling, and revelry. I even have a large bottle of Chang as I am writing this entry (while I’m enviously looking at my newfound friends and acquaintances preparing for another revelry and dinner at Silom.) But I will also confess that although I came for the Songkran of booze and fun, I am going home to Manila tonight bringing with me the true spirit of Songkran. Remember how Songkran is “a time of celebration for family and friends”?

Well, I have just embraced a newfound friend who said goodbye. And you probably wouldn’t want to hear who’s waiting for me in Manila…and why I didn’t cancel my flight despite being so envious: My mom visited from the province and it is likely we will have a movie date. I’m also sure she needs someone to carry some shopping bags for her. 🙂 5 19 18 16 13 9 20 2 17 12 8 11 7 31 27 26 25 23 22 28 30 29

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Camiguin as a Mysteriously-Veiled Woman


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It’s raining. The ferry from Balingoan slowly pierces the veil-like fog that partially covers the view of Mt. Hibok-Hibok from a distance. A teary-eyed, seasick boy of about seven is constantly directing his little mouth to a plastic bag while his mother is gently stroking his back; another 30 minutes and we will already dock at Benoni port. I transfer to the viewing deck to escape the stuffy air of the closed room.

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“Is this your first time in Camiguin?”
“I was here in 2009. But I’m sure a lot have changed already. You’re from here?”
“Yes, I work for DSWD. Well, there are new things – like that Zipline near JT’s Fishpen.”
“I like it here. The place reminds me of home”
“Very laid-back, right? You wouldn’t think that our small province has seven volcanoes”

The conversation drifted from one topic to another: the number of casualties during one of the eruptions (thousands, he said), how the sea swallowed portions of the old town, the peak tourist months, and the May local elections. In my mind, I was telling myself: Here’s a man who is proud of his province.

“I hope you’ll have a great time here in Camiguin”

I smiled and said thank you before getting my bag to have the requisite arrival photo with the group.

First on our itinerary was Mantigue Island (30-minute boat ride away). Here, our tour guide entertained us with his knowledge of various ‘adjectives’ to describe photos of the group.35Starting early. A father shows his child the beauty of Katibawasan Falls.

6A view from the restaurant that serves Hawaiian Creep (that’s what the menu says! I was too scared to try it.haha)

7Nipa roof of the restaurant. 8White Island – a sand bar about 20 minutes away from Paras Beach resort.10Sun worshippers. These two women moved farther away from the crowd to enjoy the sun.11First among equals.12   Rocky area near the Sunken Cemetery13Pilgrim Church. A boatman rows towards the cross.14The reward of patience.15

Benoni Port at 5.30 am.16

17Goodbye, Camiguin.18Smoke and Fog.  We arrived at Balingoan port after 1 hour.19

Thinking of Camiguin, my mind conjures an image of a mysteriously veiled woman – one who, even behind the white lace, prefigures a remarkable beauty: plump lips, alabaster skin, and barely visible coffee brown eyes. Her calm, graceful demeanor belies a painful, violent past.

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A Letter to my Future Self (whitewater rafting in CDO)


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Dear James,

I hope you still remember the time when you used to bathe at agricultural irrigation pumps in the province when you were 4 or 5 years old. During that time, you were too young to care either about the past or the future. You race with your cousins to the cool, gushing water wearing nothing but anticipation, curiosity, and muddy little shorts. You drop the shorts and jump in a small clear pool that flows to a makeshift ‘canal’ leading to newly-planted rice fields. Because you were a child, you didn’t worry about being accused of losing (and finding) your dignity at the very spot where you left your shorts – those were adult concerns.

I hope you still remember those days. The memory came back to me this afternoon upon seeing little children jumping from the riverbank, trying to stave off the sweltering Philippine summer. While we were listening to instructions of our whitewater rafting guide, I saw them enjoying the moment: every run, every jump, every splash, and every stroke of freestyle swim was enclosed in a bubble of carefree delight.

But before you wade in the memory of our childhood years, let me first share to you some details of our whitewater rafting experience:
“Five strokes forward!” our river guide shouted from the back of our raft in a voice that is a mixture of command and encouragement. Initially, there were five of us: Alex and me at the front, Cherrie and Lau at the middle and our river guide at the back. “We are not trying to stir a cup of coffee here! We should row in unison” he joked. To me, that was a sign of a well-developed adventure tourism industry – tour guides who know how to establish rapport with ‘clients’. His enthusiasm made all the difference during the 16-kilometer downstream adventure interspersed by 21 major rapids. He showed us how the recent flooding in CDO changed the course of the river and altered the ‘face’ of the riverbanks. He too, unknowingly instilled in us awareness on the state of education in this part of the country: some school children had to cross the river and climb a temporary ladder hanging on a cliff in order to get to school. Some bridges linking the two provinces (divided by Cagayan River) were destroyed by flood.

James, I finished the rafting adventure with a smile on my face. I drew inspiration from the carefree attitude of children playing at the riverbank; from the determination of the same children who had to climb a ladder against a cliff in order to get to school. Just like in life, we bumped against rocks; and some of us almost went overboard. But the experience did not make us bitter. I hope that you find yourself now in a similar state of mind: that life all through the years was able to paint a permanent smile on your face (the circumstances notwithstanding).

And please, for the sake of your children’s sanity, don’t lose the shorts.

I hope you still remember your name,
James

P.S. If you ever decide to try whitewater rafting again, remember to go there before the rainy season (the water is green...as opposed to muddy brown when it's raining hard).

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note: most of these photos were taken by the river guides from Kagay.

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Northern Mindanao in Three Days


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It only takes a few minutes from Lumbia airport in Cagayan de Oro for a non-suspecting visitor to be freed from the chains of this (wrongful) generalization: The whole of Mindanao is a resource-rich island unfortunately marred by rebellion and terrorism. European-themed subdivisions line both sides of the highway leading to city proper. Noticeable too, is the preference of Kagayanons for Corolla Altis taxis instead of the usual Vios in Manila.

Region 10 is the ‘poster child’ of progress in Mindanao. Its economy is buoyed by thriving agriculture, and manufacturing industries. One begins to wonder why the neighboring regions can’t adopt a similar development template. Recently, northern Mindanao has become synonymous to adventure tourism – partly the reason of our visit last weekend.

I’ll write separate posts on each destination (CDO, Bukidnon, Camiguin and Iligan). For now, here are some of my favorite photos of my second trip to Northern Mindanao (the first one was in 2009).

Mantigue Island in Camiguin

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Dahilayan, Bukidnon

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Rice fields in Camiguin

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Katibawasan Falls

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Tinago Falls, Iligan

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A portion of Tinago falls in Iligan

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A stream coming from Katibawasan Falls

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Whitewater Rafting, Cagayan (Kagay)

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On a Ferry bound to Balingoan (from Camiguin)13

Balingoan Port Area

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A Wedding at Paras Beach resort

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The Sand Bar in Camiguin

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Camiguin Island (the island of 7 volcanoes)

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A variant of Sunflower in Dahilayan, Bukidnon

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