Category: Life

The Year That Was 2016

It looks like everyone couldn’t wait for the shitshow that was 2016 to be over soon enough. Highlighted by too many celebrity deaths, terrorist attacks, refugee crisis, extra judicial killings, trolling, bigotry, fake news, a couple of presidential elections that produced less than desired outcomes, 2016 has been a trying year for many.

I could say it’s been a trying year for me, as well, but it would be unfair and mostly untrue. A few years ago, I created a “40 before 40” list of things to achieve or do before I turned 40, and on top of which was to find the one. I didn’t give it much thought afterwards, such that in my rush to fly out of Manila last year, one of the things that I left behind was that piece of paper that contained the list. However, realising that I managed to accomplish a number of items on that list this year makes for a happy recollection of the past 12 months. It has been a challenging year, stressful on some parts, but one that I should recall favourably. (more…)

The Problem with Leaders with Low Self-Esteem

“The problem with people of low esteem is that they cast strong people as villains. The crab culture in which the Philippines works is, after all, a culture of low self-esteem that is not surprising considering how people have largely been pawns to greater interests from the Spanish, the Catholic Church, the Americans, the Japanese briefly, and forever by their overbearing, corrupt, me-first dynastic landlords, warlords and archaic autocrats devoid of any compassion toward people beyond their dining room tables.

“The problem with people of low self-esteem is that they don’t see themselves very well. They are in a daily state of delusional denial. They think they are smart, and normal.

“So the President of the Philippines, who seems to me to be a degree beyond insecure and operating in a realm of applied vengeance, sees the US as a villain, laws as a villain, socio-economic health problems (drugs) as a villain, and any critic as a villain. Even if they make total sense and are of high character.”

Source: “Every Filipino for himself!!!”

Sayonara, Manila!

purple bagsNearly 12 months of communicating mostly online, patiently waiting for school holidays to come around, and traveling thousands of miles to be together for just a few days, this is what it comes down to.

While the last three weeks have been absolutely stressful, thanks to having to deal with red tape and braving Christmas traffic to get from one point of Metro Manila to another (hello, Pasay to Kyusi in a day!) to run after certifications and official documents, I still count myself absolutely lucky to have the chance to be with The One and, upon learning that I was relocating, to be given by the mothership the opportunity to work in its main country. Things fell into place just when I was about to give up and embrace life-long singlehood (nothing wrong there, mind you!) or accept the prospect of working in the same city for the rest of my productive years.

And so after feeling like I’ve gone a decade older pleading with all sorts of powers-that-be to give me a piece of paper, sign statements or give me a clean bill of health, I’m flying tonight to be with my love. They say that luck is when preparedness meets opportunity, so I guess this is just as true in my case.

I wish I had the time to have a proper send-off party of sorts with friends or a nice dinner with my family, but the last few days have been a blur of rushing projects, completing presentations, attending meetings, gathering personal documents, and letting go of my most precious belongings. It was not at all easy to say “bye” to Voltron, my car of nearly 18 months and my fist big ticket purchase; to scramble for someone to take over my nearly new mattress because I wasn’t in the mood to give it to my landlord who refused to reimburse my two months’ worth of advance rent; to let go of the shoes, books, and clothes that would not fit into the 40-kilo limit the airline imposes on luggage; and to end my gym membership which has sustained me through tough times, that instead of tearing my hair like a mad woman, I would attend combat classes that encouraged me to throw imaginary punches at  phantom enemies while burning hundreds of calories in the process.

I have lost count of how many times I packed and repacked the precious few things that I could bring, but it has been a great exercise in letting go and focusing on what’s ahead. I decided to take with me only the clothes I see myself wearing a lot to work, runs, or strolls around the city and elsewhere. I packed my most precious bags and purses (read: mejo mahal), a few accessories, and a couple of books that might look nice on a library that I hope to rebuild in the future.

And so here I am waiting for the driver whose service my soon ex-boss lent to make sure that I would reach the airport on time safely. In this mad Christmas traffic made worse by the Metro Manila Film Fest parade, who knows how long it would take me to get to the airport which is not even that far from my now-former apartment.

I hardly had any sleep since last week, but nothing compares to the excitement of starting a new life with the love of my life. I have indeed been lucky.

Tales of El Nido

el nido, philippines

I first visited El Nido three years ago upon the invitation of a friend whom I dated very briefly. I must have been living in a bubble all my life for I never knew how relationships with visitors worked. Since then, I treasured a hate/hate relationship with this destination popular amongst backpackers.

And so excited to visit a place that I only knew about from travel magazines, I booked tickets to the nearest major airport, not knowing full well about the harrowing land transfer between Puerto Princesa and this tiny town sitting on the edge of nowhere: six hours of commute on some of the roughest roads I knew. If you asked me now, I would pay anything to avoid spending a total of twelve hours that I could never get back on a backbreaking road trip.

By the time we reached El Nido town in the middle of the night looking for someplace to sleep, everyone was in a foul mood. I think that our group was taken advantage of by the booking agent who found a non-air conditioned van for us without informing us about the miles of rugged and dusty road ahead. We were lucky to find a place that was still open and accepted guests who didn’t have pre-booking.

Two days of roughing it on small boats that took us on “island hopping” followed. Island hopping tours are the backbone of El Nido tourism, and most tour operators make money from the island hopping packages that go for a few hours or overnight any of the major islands that make up El Nido. It has its charms and the islands themselves were nothing short of amazing if you are not the sort whose idea of a great time is wading in calm waters or getting a tan somewhere by the shores of Boracay, some fancy private resort, or a party island.

Let me tell you what I learned then and what I still know now: El Nido is rough. You have to be brave to cross patches of West Philippine Sea and channels between islands as your tiny boat is tossed around large wave after large wave. Pray that the outrigger you were sailing in stays intact or you might as well call it a life, then go. 

(Please, banca owners, make sure your boats are in tip-top shaping before taking in guests. It’s not imaginary if everyone looks towards the same direction whenever your outriggers are making cracking sound as if your vessels were begging to disintegrate in the middle of the sea.)

Always wear aqua shoes so you can walk on dead corals and shells that are always present at every cove, lagoon, or beach. Your buns of steel are no match to unpadded boat seats where you have to sit for hours. This makes me wonder how padded banca seats are still not a thing. Just asking. Those life vests are heaven-sent if your backside starts to go sore. On the other hand, those vests are meant to be worn, not seated on.

You would be lucky to find a comfort room or lavatory on the islands. And if you ever got lucky to find one, there was no assurance that it was clean or had proper running water. Brush up on your swimming skills, because not all stops are done on shallow waters.

If you are not a strong swimmer, ask your tour guide for a life vest. It doesn’t look cool, but at least you will live for another day. If you want a fuss-free El Nido experience, go fancy and spend a month’s paycheck to stay at the private resorts on the islands. Otherwise, you have to be open to the idea that it’s a popular destination mostly for backpackers, and not without a good reason.

The night scene was not promising either if you do not know where to go. Back then, if we had only walked a couple of blocks further, or made the right turn, maybe we would have discovered that there was a thriving party and music scene amongst restaurants and pubs fronting the beach.

It is definitely not Boracay or any of those fancy beach destinations around the globe, so nightlife was rather limited. It is still limited as of this writing, but at least there are a number of places to enjoy good music or a couple of drinks, such as the famous Pukka bar. It was overcrowded when I got there around midnight in my last visit; rhum Coke was okay (hindi pa uso ang sliced lemon). Amoy backpacker din :)

Three years ago, because we stayed on the town’s outskirts, we hardly knew of any decent restaurant apart from one that took all of 45 minutes to serve anything. At least now, there are some places that serve basic fare based on which country their owners come from or whichever place their chefs took inspiration. On the other hand, one cannot help but have the impression that whatever was served had that ersatz quality to it.

Alcohol is very expensive. I thought of getting a bottle of red from some of the liquor stores found around town, but had to change my mind when I realised just how much resellers had to jack up prices: roughly double that of liquors sold in Manila. That’s one disadvantage of being in a remote town, I suppose–you need to cover your investment around transportation, time, and effort in bringing in some basic necessities just to break even.

Customer service left much to be desired at many establishments back then. I thought the staff were either too shy, too tired, or just didn’t care. We were so clueless about the town, we ended up at the most depressing karaoke bar I had ever seen in my life. It was so depressing, not even the few drunk locals at the place were in the mood to sing and that was saying a lot because there was no one on this planet that could possibly out-karaoke Filipinos. The Japanese invented it, but we took karaoke singing to a whole new phenomenon.

Power was out at least six hours a day, and it only switched back on mid-afternoon. At least nowadays, six-hour blackouts are replaced by random short brownouts or none at all. There was no ATM either, so I had to watch my spending closely.  Towards the end of the trip, I couldn’t be happier to leave El Nido.

Three years ago, I swore to never visit El Nido again. There had been places that I enjoyed so much that I didn’t mind visiting them many times over. This little pocket of Palawan, Puerto Princesa itself, left me despairing to no end with its remoteness, the never-ending bumpy roads, the tendency of a few locals to take advantage of tourists, and my company’s foul disposition.

Since then, a few things seems to have changed. It doesn’t look too remote at all on my second visit, I could fly in with just my wallet and mobile in tow. I thought there would’t be anywhere to buy decent clothes or supplies, so I ended up packing twice of everything for the next trip. Two of everything and a little fear in my heart that it would be just as bad an experience as three years ago.

Travel Is a Lot Like Life

Air Travel
Somewhere over the West Philippine Sea

“Travel is little beds and cramped bathrooms. It’s old television sets and slow Internet connections. Travel is extraordinary conversations with ordinary people. It’s waiters, gas station attendants, and housekeepers becoming the most interesting people in the world. It’s churches that are compelling enough to enter. It’s McDonald’s being a luxury. It’s the realisation that you may have been born in the wrong country.

Travel is a smile that leads to a conversation in broken English. It’s the epiphany that pretty girls smile the same way all over the world.

Travel is… a street full of bearded backpackers looking down at maps. Travel is wishing for one more bite of whatever that just was. It’s the rediscovery of walking somewhere. It’s sharing a bottle of liquor on an overnight train with a new friend. Travel is “Maybe I don’t have to do it that way when I get back home.” 

— Nick Miller, New Girl

Last year was the only one in the past six that I didn’t leave the country. Maybe it’s time to get a new visa or use up what’s remaining of what I still have. Or maybe it’s time to dust off my old camera and drive hundreds of miles to capture the beauty that my country is known for: its rich traditions, its people, the kindness of strangers whose languages I don’t even speak.

Travel brings out the worst and the best in us. In it, we find ourselves and realise how strong and brave and patient we can be. Along the way, we find friends and along the way, I may find what and who I have been searching for.

Travel opens our eyes to certain truths: are we there for the whole journey or are we just tagging along until the next pit-stop, the next station? Are we travelling with the right companion and going in the right direction? Travel has its perils, too: wasted time, false promises of a good adventure, lost resources, physical threats, heartbreak.

Sometimes, these pitfalls make me wonder if some travels are worth taking. Not all travels are equal, and we cannot keep on making reckless decisions with our limited time and resources. Maybe some journeys are better taken towards other directions.

Take the next or the first step; bring out the map; take with you only what is necessary. Keep it simple. Follow your inner compass. Sing if you are afraid, dance when you are happy. Meet fellow travellers; treat them kindly and respectfully.

Travel is life. Have faith. Find your courage. Travel is why I don’t have nice things. But oh, I would not want it any other way!