Walking around Central Hong Kong on a Sunday morning, possibly in search of happiness

When I read the following passage on Francois Lelord’s book, Hector and the Search for Happiness, I knew he was referring toa familiar sight in Hong Kong where domestic workers gather in parks and practically every available space, mostly around the Central business district, to enjoy their day off.  It was my first tiime to see for myself the convergence of these workers on a Sunday morning amidst the rather fancy backdrop of massive buildings and adverts for luxury goods.

Most of these workers are Filipinas coming from various regions and talking in varied dialects and accents, and it is during this one day off in the week where they meet amongst friends, sometimes making calls to families, trade gossips and stories, and share food that remind them of home.


Hong Kong CentralHector began sipping his large coffee and watching the entrance to the tower.

And he saw something he’d seen several times before when he came to his neighbourhood: a group of Chinese women had spread an oilcloth out on the ground and were sitting on it in a circle, like schoolchildren having a picnic. on closer inspection, Hector noticed that they weren’t exactly like Chinese women; they were in general slightly shorter, and quite slender and dark-skinned. They seemed to be  enjoying themselves, continually chatting and laughing. He’d seen several groups like that when he came to his neighbourhood, with their oilcloths spread out beside the entrance to the towers, under the footbridges or anywhere that gave shelter from the rain, but always outside the buildings.



Hector wondered whether they got together like that in order to practice some new religion. He would have liked to know what it was, perhaps the same one the old monk practised, because, like him, they laughed a lot.

… There were also westerners like Edouard, and Hector tried to guess where they came from just from the way they looked. No doubt they got it wrong a few times, but since he couldn’t check he didn’t know, and it amused him, and from time to time he laughed to himself.

Edouard’s colleagues didn’t look amused at all as they left the towers, they looked tired, and some of them were staring at the ground as if weight down by worries. When the group of them emerged, talking amongst themselves, they looked very serious and sometimes it seemed as if they were cross with one another. Some looked so preoccupied, so caught up in their own thoughts that Hector almost felt like going up and prescribing pills for them. This cafe would have been a perfect place to establish himself as a psychiatrist if he had been planning to stay longer.

Finally, he saw Edouard, and he felt glad, because it’s always more heartening to see afriend in a country than simply to come across him at home, even if you are slightly annoyed with him. Edouard looked very pleased to see Hector, and he immediately ordered a beer to celebrate…

Central Hong Kong

…He asked Edouard who the groups of women were that he’d seen everywhere sitting on their oilcloths. Edouard explained that they were cleaners, and that they all came from the same country, a group of small, very poor islands quite a long way from China. They work in this city (and other cities in the world) so tat they could send money to their families, who’d stayed behind.

‘But why do they gather here on those oilcloths?’ asked Hector.

Hong Kong Central


‘Because they’ve nowhere else to go,’ replied Edouard. ‘Today is Sunday, their day off, so they can’t stay at work and they don’t have enough money to sit in cafes, so they meet here and sit on the ground.’

Edouard also explained that as their country was made up of small islands, women from particular islands or villages often sat together, and it was almost as if all their oilcloths formed a map of their impoverished archipelago in the midst of these very wealthy towers.

Hong Kong Central


Hector watched the women who had nowhere else to go and who were laughing, he watched Edouard’s colleagues coming out of the tower looking very serious and he told himself that the world was a very wonderful or a very terrible place — it was difficult to say which.

When they left the cafe, Hector wanted to go over and speak to these women, because he felt that it was very important for his investigation. He walked towards a group of them, and as they saw him approach they all stopped talking and smiling. It occurred to  Hector that they might think he was going to ask them to move along. But people usually quickly sensed that Hector meant well, and when they heard hilm speak in English they began laughing again. He told them that he’d been watching them for a while and that they seemed very happy. He wanted to know why.

They looked at one another, chuckling, and then one of them said, ‘Because it’s our day off!’

And another added, ‘Because we’re with our friends.’

‘Yes that’s right,’ the others said, ‘it’s because we’re with our friends.’ And even with their families, because some of them were cousins.

Hector asked tem what their religion was, and it turned out that it was the same as Hector’s! This dated back to the time, long ago, when people of Hector’s religion had occupied their islands, because at that time they tended to think that everything belonged to them.

But they didn’t seem to hold it against Hector because all said goodbye to him smiling and waiving.

From Hector and the Search for Happiness  by Francois Lelord. The book is being translated into film, starring Simon Pegg as Hector.

Baguio, Revisited

It had been over a decade since my last trip to Baguio, so I thought a bit of catching up with the city of pines would be a good idea to spend a long weekend.

Getting there

Eight days prior to taking the trip, I booked a ticket for one of Victory Liner’s deluxe buses. A seat costs P715 plus P100 service and delivery charges; I received the tickets just two days after my confirmed booking.

The bus left the Pasay at exactly 1:15 AM and reached the Baguio terminal 10 minutes before 6:00. Paying twice as much as I would have if I had taken the usual aircon buses was well worth it for the speed and convenience of getting there.

Accommodations

After spending hours on Agoda and reading a number of reviews and blogs on the best places to stay in the city, I was left with two options: Casa Vallejo and new-ish The Chalet. For its old-world charms and proximity to the city center  I decided on booking a room at Casa Vallejo.

Located on Upper Session Road, the hotel is one of the oldest buildings in the city, dating back to 1925, and has survived even the Japanese onslaught during WWII.  And similar to most old structures found anywhere in the Philippines, an urban legend has been passed on from one generation to the next concerning so-called ghostly apparitions within its halls. But ghostly apparitions or not, I thought that with the promise of having a very accessible book shop, a charming restaurant, and a mini theatre, Casa would be a great alternative to the usual hotel.

I booked a Single Standard room, which cost me roughly P2,400+ a night. Perhaps like most hotels in Baguio too, the room I was booked in had no aircon because the weather was cool anyway, especially in this time of the year. Although the room featured some basic necessities, I still wished there were at least a mini-bar and a hair dryer.

I reached Baguio too early, slightly hung-over, and too tired to wait for mid-day check-in.  I thought I would be charged extra for showing up too soon, but maybe the hotel had more rooms available for that day and could accommodate me immediately. That, or the hotel staff are just too nice–which they are.

I wasn’t too happy with the room that they provided, though: it just smelled of mold and mildew, so I asked that they move me to a cleaner one.

Casa Vallejo

Similar to other offers from nearby hotels, booking at Casa Vallejo includes free breakfast. However, I’m glad that breakfast was served by its in-house restaurant, which is frequented by locals, particularly it seemed by university types–professors, students, the “artsy” crowd. Hill Station serves a mix of Filipino, Asian, and basic Continental fares.

Casa Vallejo Hill Station Restaurant Baguio City
Hill Station interiors
Did someone say refillable brewed coffee?
First breakfast: fried mountain brown rice, eggs, and Baguio longganisa (sausage)
Guests’ meal stubs included desserts and drinks. I recommend their NY cheesecake.
Yep, they serve cocktails in the morning, as well.

 A quirky bookshop and a mini-theatre

Mt Cloud Bookshop reminds me of those independent book stores found around university/school districts. The shop sells anything from select textbooks to local anthologies; books on anthropological studies, travel, business, and non-fiction. If one’s lucky, they could also land second-hand titles at much lower prices. For light reading, I decided on Jessica Zafra’s Twisted Travels, which was just right for the occasion.

Mt. Cloud Bookshop Casa Vallejo Baguio City
Customers can pull any open copy from the shelves and read it at any of the shop’s reading nooks.

On my first night at the hotel, I was lucky to catch a poetry reading about HIV/AIDS  to commemorate World AIDS Day:  Those who wanted to read or have their works read at the event could pay P100 to participate. 

The week of my stay in Baguio, Instituto Cervantes was also sponsoring a Spanish Film Festival, which luckily was held at Casa Vallejo’s mini theatre. After a few attempts to show up before screenings began, I just realised I wasn’t that keen on watching a movie when the city and I had so much to catch up on.

Where else to eat:

I decided to skip some of the touristy places that I’d seen nearly half a dozen times during my previous visits and instead tried to discover some of the things I might have missed. For one: there are more restaurants than I can remember, and while these establishments do not necessarily offer anything unique (I’m not a fan of pinikpikan, so to heck with uniqueness), it was still worthwhile to try them out or at least to compare them with what I was used to in Manila. Verdict: Baguio’s restaurants did not disappoint, except for one.

I love the Thai/Vietnamese fares at Ocha Asian Cuisine on Session Road, where I ordered spring rolls that bested the ones served at the more popular Vietnamese restaurants in Manila and a Thai soup that unfortunately I didn’t realise was good for 4-5 people. Imagine my surprise when the food attendant set a humongous bowl on my table.

For cakes and coffee, it’s best to visit the local joints, and one of the best is by a viewing deck of SM City. A house blend and cake set costs only P155 at Syblings’ Nook located at the mall’s third level.

syblings nook

For dinner, I chose to stay in, as I didn’t want to venture out in the cold or go out by myself in a still unfamiliar territory. Hill Station serves tapas, pasta, and pizza, as well as cocktails and wines.

Looking for a quiet, relaxing dinner? Hill Station is a good bet.
Hill Station - Chorizo
Their chorizo is a must.
Bolognese and Tequila Sunrise, oh yes!

A friend suggested the now famous Cafe by the Ruins, just a couple of blocks from Session/Burnham Park. I guess the best thing about Cafe by the Ruins is its interior design. But as far as food went, I wouldn’t have missed much if I had skipped the cafe altogether.

While the open-air design of the place is quite something for its furniture and quirky layout, what ruins the ambiance is the fact that people are lighting up just about anywhere in this city, and Ruins is one of those anywheres. If you’re going to the city dreaming of clean air, think again: Baguio has no ordinance against smoking in public, you might as well walk around wearing a facial mask.

Not the best ensaymada I’ve tried.

Baguio still has the charms that pilgrims often look for–the cool weather, the hundreds of pine trees that lined its winding roads, fantastic vistas, its courteous people. However, the city has seemed to develop beyond its capacity through the years, marked by the traffic that now clogs some of its main roads and the apparent sprawl beyond its edges.

My biggest disappointment is the air quality, which has remarkably suffered from too many diesel cars, jeepneys, and taxis on its roads and the lack of ordinance needed to manage smoking in public areas. Any place that is not within the confines of an air-conditioned building is fare game for smokers, the rest of us be damned.

Session Road, Baguio City
Session Road
Session Road, Baguio City

Although there are a lot of pedestrians and cars on its main roads and especially within the centre, what’s good about the city is that nobody (or very few, if ever) jaywalks; drivers stop or slow down for crossing pedestrians; and traffic lights are there to really control the flow of traffic. Its people are also among the nicest and most courteous one can have the pleasure of meeting anywhere in the Philippines. I guess it’s just how Ilocanos are, but then again I am biased. From its taxi drivers to food attendants and hotel staff, none of the people I met treated me rudely which is something especially in a highly urbanised area. 

Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province
A view of Baguio from the SM City’s upper deck. The cluster of buildings on the right is the city centre.
Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province
University of Cordillera’s track and field area. These are facilities that many an overpriced universities in
Manila  cannot even match.

Places to visit

Tam-Awan Village showcases the culture of Baguio’s indigenous peoples. Mind, however, that the place is not for those who have neither patience nor strength to deal with the countless steps that brought visitors from one level of the village to the next. Going around the village is another version of a cardio exercise, and its best visited wearing very comfortable shoes.

Tam-Awan Village, Baguio

Tam-Awan Village, Baguio
Tam Awan Village, Baguio City

Tam-Awan Village

Camp John Hay is perfect for group/family picnics and retail therapy. However, as someone who’s a regular at Landmark, Greenhills, and Surplus Shop, I could tell that CJH’s bargains are still way too expensive for the casual shopper. Thrift shopping is best done somewhere else, including the famous Ukay-ukay.

Camp John Hay shopping, Baguio City
What I enjoyed most, however, was walking along its tree-lined roads. At least John Hay is not yet suffering from the presence of too many diesel engine cars, and there are areas where visitors can have a good time away from the noise of motor traffic.

Camp John Hay, Baguio

 The road back to Manila

This was the first time that I actually saw Marcos Highway, or at least the section on the upper Cordilleras. The grandeur of the mountain range, as well as its deep ravines that go hundreds of meters are something to behold, and one just had to be there to really appreciate the effort (and surely, the public budget) put into place to make the road safe for motorists. 
Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province, Marcos Highway

Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province, Marcos Highway
Baguio City has now expanded towards the outer reaches of the mountains

I should have bought return tickets prior to my trip and spared myself the agony of spending eight butt-numbing hours on the road while crossing my fingers, hoping to make it in time for a Saturday night out with friends. Deluxe buses take roughly five hours to reach Manila, while ordinary aircon buses take their merry time jetting passengers back to the capital.

All in all, it was still a fun and much-needed trip away from the craziness of Metro Manila and some of its bothersome people, among other things. If either money or time is not an issue, I would choose a quiet weekend in Baguio over the hustle and bustle of  NCR.

John le Carré has been Federised

Federer makes an appearance on John le Carré’s new novel, Our Kind of Traitor.

le Carré, author of numerous espionage thrillers, rehashes the historic 2009 French Open finals between Le Fed and the Swede Robin Soderling, and in this snippet from the upcoming novel’s extract, Perry and Gail, two Oxford academics, go to Paris to watch the French Open championship match. Does it mean that he has been a fan of the Swiss all along?

Note: Pictures were added for dramatic effect 🙂

“The stadium is erupting.
First Robin Soderling, then Roger Federer looking as becomingly modest and self-assured as only God can. Perry is craning forward, lips pressed tensely together. He’s in the presence.

Warm-up time. Federer mis-hits a couple of backhands; Soderling’s forehand returns are a little too waspish for a friendly exchange. Federer practises a couple of serves, alone. Soderling does the same, alone.
Source: Rolandgarros.com

Practice over. Their jackets fall off them like sheaths from swords. In the pale blue corner, Federer, with a flash of red inside his collar and a matching red tick on his headband. In the white corner, Soderling, with phosphorescent yellow flashes on his sleeves and shorts….

… the match has begun and to the joy of the crowd, but too suddenly for Gail, Federer has broken Soderling’s serve and won his own. Now it’s Soderling to serve again. A pretty blonde ballgirl with a ponytail hands him a ball, drops a bob, and canters off again. The linesman howls as if he’s been stung. The rain’s coming on again.

Soderling has double-faulted; Federer’s triumphal march to victory has begun. Perry’s face is lit with simple awe and Gail discovers she is loving him all over again from scratch: his unaffected courage, his determination to do the right thing even if it’s wrong, his need to be loyal and his refusal to be sorry for himself. She’s his sister, friend, protector. A similar feeling must have overtaken Perry, for he grasps her hand and keeps it. Soderling is going for the French Open. Federer is going for history and Perry is going with him. Federer has won the first set 6-1. It took him just under half an hour.

The manners of the French crowd are truly beautiful, Gail decides. Federer is their hero as well as Perry’s. But they are meticulous in awarding praise to Soderling wherever praise is due. And Soderling is grateful, and shows it. He’s taking risks, which means he is also forcing errors and Federer has just committed one. To make up for it he delivers a lethal drop shot from 10 feet behind the baseline…
… But suddenly Perry isn’t watching the game any more. He isn’t watching the smoked windows either. He has leapt to his feet and barged in front of her, apparently to shield her, and he’s yelling: ‘What the hell!’ with no hope of an answer.
Rising with him, which isn’t easy because now everyone is standing too and yelling ‘What the hell’ in French, Swiss German, English or whatever language comes naturally to them, her first expectation is that she is about to see a brace of dead pheasant at Roger Federer’s feet: a left and a right. This is because she confuses the clatter of everybody leaping up with the din of panicked birds clambering into the air like out-of-date aeroplanes, to be shot down by her brother and his rich friends. Her second equally wild thought is that it is Dima who has been shot, probably by Niki, and tossed out of the smoked-glass windows.
Source: TheGuardian.co.uk
But the spindly man who has appeared like a ragged red bird at Federer’s end of the tennis court is not Dima, and he is anything but dead. He wears the red hat favoured by Madame Guillotine and long, blood-red socks. He has a blood-red robe draped over his shoulders and he’s standing chatting to Federer just behind the baseline that Federer has been serving from.

Federer is a bit perplexed about what to say – they clearly haven’t met before – but he preserves his on-court nice manners, although he looks a tad irritated in a grouchy, Swiss sort of way that reminds us that his celebrated armour has its chinks. After all, he’s here to make history, not waste the time of day with a spindly man in a red dress who’s burst onto the court and introduced himself.

But whatever has passed between them is over, and the man in the red dress is scampering for the net, skirts and elbows flying. A bunch of tardy, black-suited gentlemen are in comic pursuit and the crowd isn’t uttering a word any more: it’s a sporting crowd and this is sport, if not of a high order. The man in the red dress vaults the net, but not cleanly: a bit of net-cord there. The dress is no longer a dress. It never was. It’s a flag. Two more black-suits have appeared on the other side of the net. The flag is the flag of Spain – L’Espagne – but that’s only according to the woman who sang La Marseillaise, and her opinion is contested by a hoarse-voiced man several rows up from her who insists it belongs to le Club Football de Barcelona.

A black-suit has finally brought the man with the flag down with a rugger tackle. Two more pounce on him and drag him into the darkness of a tunnel. Gail is staring into Perry’s face, which is paler than she has ever seen it before.
God does not sweat. Federer’s pale blue shirt is unstained except for a single skid-mark between the shoulder blades. His movements seem a trifle less fluid, but whether that’s the rain or the clotting clay or the nervous impact of the flagman is anybody’s guess. The sun has gone in, umbrellas are opening around the court, somehow it’s 3-4 in the second set, Soderling is rallying and Federer looks a bit depressed.
He just wants to make history and go home to his beloved Switzerland. And, oh dear, it’s a tiebreak – except it hardly is, because Federer’s first serves are flying in one after the other, the way Perry’s do sometimes, but twice as fast. It’s the third set and Federer has broken Soderling’s serve, he’s back in perfect rhythm and the flagman has lost after all. Is Federer weeping even before he’s won? Never mind. He’s won now. It’s as simple and uneventful as that.

Federer has won and he can weep his heart out, and Perry, too, is blinking away a manly tear. His idol has made the history that he came to make and the crowd is on its feet for the history-maker, and Niki the baby-faced bodyguard is edging his way towards them along the row of happy people; the handclapping has become a coordinated drumbeat.”

Read the rest on The Telegraph.

Because he has something to live for

Bloody bajeebees! Harry Potter just gets better with each outing, and I will bet my last horcrux that the last part (well, at least the first half of the last part) will top all jinxes and avade kedavra’ing in the past issues combined. Call me infantile (don’t!), but my love of books was revived post-college because of Harry Potter.With the publication of Deathly Hallows and the showing of its film adaptation, we’re seeing the end of an era. Must re-read HP7.

http://www.trailerspy.com/xmoov_flv/player/7066/va_l/

http://www.trailerspy.com/xmoov_flv/player/10303/va_l/