Summer Dreams 2014

coming soon

Granada Nicaragua

In Search or the Perfect Ceviche and other adventures out soon in my TravelOkcity column, Leisure+Adventure Magazine, and here.

Marshall Islands

Got Wasabi? (A deep sea fishing adventure in the Marshall Islands)

Prairie Dog Town

Adventures in the city of Oklahoma and beyond in my travel column, TravelOkcity.

Hefner Lake Park

Adventures in the city of Oklahoma and beyond in my travel column, TravelOkcity.

Huahin, Thailand

The warm hospitality of a boutique hotel in the beach resort town of royalty in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sleepless in Guam

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine, 2009

This is the view that I wake up to every morning.

Our Continental Airlines flight came in at the most ungodly hour. By the time we reached our hotel, the Pacific Islands Club, I was ready to crash. But my pillow had been barely warmed by my weary head when the alarm went off. It was time to head down for breakfast. There was going to be no sleep for me that night and the many nights to come in Guam, I later discovered. For in this tiny island in the western Pacific Ocean, an island that can be circled in a day, where supermarkets are open 24/7, and the Chamorros chant in the middle of your dreams, the old cliché stays true: so much to do and so little time.

Cruising and crinkly smiles

And so without wasting a second, we were off through the open wide roads of Tumon, the center of Guam’s tourist industry. A drizzle had just let up, leaving the glass and concrete buildings a sparkly sheen amidst the greenery. Funny how a sun stream and a light shower can paint the world a different color. There was excited chatter in our tour van as if we had had enough snooze time. Anticipation was our adrenaline.

Designer brands are considerably cheaper in this tax free island.

Soon the smooth road gave way to a quarried stone-paved street lined with palm trees (or were they coconut?). Christian Dior, Bulgari, and Louis Vuitton beckoned silently behind perfectly tended bushes. My heart leaped and I thought I heard the dollar coins in my pocket jingle. What could I possibly buy with the little currency I had in my pocket, I mused. But worries, like sleep, should not be in the itinerary. We were on a holiday, after all. We were in Guam, I reasoned, as we drove past the premier shopping district I could have easily mistaken as a street in Beverly Hills. It was almost exactly the same except for one difference: the smell of the sea.

Worshiping the sun, sand, and sea.

A drive farther along Pale San Vitores Road led us to the beaches of Tumon Bay. “I love driving through here everyday on my way to work,” Charlene, our host, chirped as we cruised along. Her eyes crinkled into a smile as she pointed at Mata’pang Beach before us. The park opened into a long stretch of sandy cove where kayakers and jet skiers dotted the baby blue waters. Cars zipped by quietly, and I thought I understood where the enthusiasm for work came from.

Home in a strange place

Charlene, like most of the locals, shares the same happy disposition, the same smile. Maybe it is the air, the kind that invigorates and incites excitement in spite of the lack of sleep. Maybe it is the lullaby of the island, quiet but merry, like their greetings, Hafa adai (hello)!

Where America's Day Begins.

And like Charlene, many of the locals in Guam are Filipinos or part-Filipino. As a visiting Pinoy, it was hard to feel like a stranger this side of Micronesia. Everywhere was new yet surprisingly familiar, including the busy retail sections. At the Guam Premium Outlet – a mall that sells brands for less - in Tamuning, we rummaged through a rack of Levi’s jeans with a sign that said, “$3.99”. Just to be sure, we asked which ones exactly were on sale in English.  “Ito lang,” replied an attractive saleslady.  She hardly even looked at us as she folded pants in neat piles. It was hard to tell a Chamorro from a Filipino, both sharing the same dusky features. How did she know? Was it our accents that gave us away? Or was it simply assumed that only Pinoys go for the bargains?

Ask anyone for directions or assistance - a sales personnel, a waitress, a hotel receptionist – in English, and one out of three times, you’ll probably be answered in Tagalog -- with a warm smile, of course. A third of Guam’s population are Filipino descendants, a majority of which are American citizens. Many of them hold positions of power: lawyers, senators, entrepreneurs. Some of them we were privileged to meet, including Senator James Espaldon. He regaled us with stories of the world of politics, including his triumphs in spite of being part of the minority. Although the Fil-Am senator has lived in the United States most of his life, the Filipino pride in him was evident. It is the same in almost every Filipino that co-inhabited with the Chamorros or Guam locals.

With Senator James Espaldon who is proudly of Filipino descent.

The menus -- diverse with American, Chamorro, and Asian cuisine -- also have its strong Filipino smattering: arroz caldo, pancit, longaniza -- oh, and don’t get me started on the kilawin (raw fish or meat marinated in vinegar and other spices). The Chamorro version is called kilaguen made by pouring vinegar on almost anything they fancy: pork, fish, chicken, beef, deer, shrimp and yes, Spam. The idea may seem odd at first, but the vinegar and the lemon did a nice job tempering the saltiness of the processed meat. Grated coconut, onion, and red pepper added an interesting flavor that I still dream of even in my sleep – well, half-sleep, in this case.

Sleepy but happy in a new pair of sandals

I am guessing that the figure $3.99 is still flashing before your eyes. You’re probably thinking, wait a minute, forget about Spam kelaguen, I’m sure it’s heaven to the palate, but a pair of Levi’s jeans for $3.99? The figures can keep you up. In spite of the lack of sleep, we agreeably woke up bright and early the next day, knowing that shopping was in the agenda.

Guam, like many islands in Micronesia, is well-known for its beaches. But another thing that Guam is famous for is the shopping -- cheap shopping, might I add. Again, $3.99 for a pair of Levi’s jeans? Who could argue with that? An international travel hub, Guam has a reputation for being a tax-free port. Known as the Paris of the Pacific, this side of paradise is the perfect place for Christmas shopping as it can offer you a good bargain anywhere from the supermarkets to the high-end stores like the Duty-Free Shop. Having been informed about this beforehand, I looked up the catalog of perfumes on the flight to Guam so I could compare prices. At one of the stores, I was able to get a bottle of Burberry Touch for half the price. Ahh… the sweet smell of a great deal.

Inside the Duty Free Shop, wearing my $7 tax free sandals.

One night, after a fully packed day, I was ready to retire and catch up on much needed ZZZs. My tour mates, however, although running low, still had enough battery to get them going while we waited outside K-mart. Eager to call it a night, I volunteered to go look for the last errant ones.  After a few minutes, I was the last one out, renewed with a beaming smile, and a new pair of sandals. I had found one of our companions lining up at the counter with a pair of pretty pink sandals. The tag said $14.00, reduced from $24.00. Forgetting our waiting caravan outside, I rushed to the shoe aisle looking for the same pair and found the last one on my size. Oh joy! But even more joyous was the fact that it was half off the reduced price. I got a new pair of sandals for $7.00! Oh and did I mention that it was tax-free?

Dreaming of whirling men in skirts

Once in a while, in the middle of a deep slumber, you will find yourself flying in the air, chasing feathers, and dancing before tigers. These are what dreams are made of, kind of like how the shows in Sandcastle Theatre in Tumon are. The show Dream, in particular, is a front-row pass to your fantasies, featuring Las Vegas-style routines and costumes, world-class illusionists, and whimsical acrobatics.

This is what Dreams are made of.

The act that moved me most was a couple’s dance midair while suspended in ribbons. I’ve never quite seen anything so graceful, romantic - and pardon the unimaginative term – dreamy. Tethered in streams of cloth, they pirouetted, sprinted, and whirled in fluid motions, unhindered by gravity, thrust by the rush of wind and the silence of their passion. Drawn together by desire, their bodies were weightless, lissom, and unified. They exchanged silent vows with the supple sway of the hips and the impossible stretch of their arms.

We had the best seats in the house at the Sandcastle Theatre in Tumon.

After the dance, we raised our glasses of wine and were rendered speechless. In complete contrast, a group of bald men suddenly made an entrance. Wearing nothing but balloon skirts, they twirled around to a powerful beat like whirling dervishes. Half-naked women appeared from nowhere and birds exploded into a confetti of colors while white tigers lay majestic but indifferent.   

Under the shade of the huts

Under the baking sun, the dream is raw but no less powerful. At Ypao Beach on the West coast of Guam, dancers, weavers, and dreamers, some half-naked and donning flower wreathes with intoxicating fragrances, converge to give locals and tourists a taste of the islands. While December is the best month to visit Guam for the Christmas festivities and the holiday shopping, October is also a good month as this is the time when the Guam Micronesia Island Fair is celebrated. 

Chamorros wear their culture with naked pride.

Here the different Micronesian nations – Chuuk, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Phonpei, and Yap - showcase their art and culture under native huts of mangrove and banana leaves tied together by cobra strings. Under the huts, tribe members sit around chewing on betel nut, dancing in bright-printed lava-lavas (island dress), while others busy themselves dressing a butchered pig with citrus and coconut juice for the stone pit. Under makeshift stalls, they display their crafts and wares: woven baskets, flower wreathes, and seashells.  

Guam is a cosmopolitan tropical paradise, a nation of modern infrastructure and facilities, yet the locals proudly hold on to their traditions. Although they live in concrete homes and sleep in air-conditioned rooms, they still look back to the past when their ancestors inhabited ancient homes raised off the ground in stone pillars called latte. Today, although these lattes no longer hold up structures in Chamorro villages, they still stand proud, some at the Senator Angel LG Santos Latte Park, the others in jungle areas, as a reminder to the younger generation of their roots.

The call of the sea

Locks like this are all over the railings of Two Lover's Point, representing promises of everlasting love.

Another reminder that stands still today in Guam is Two Lovers’ Point in Tumon Bay, a monument that honors love and devotion. The park sits on a cliff line that overlooks a heartbreaking view of the Philippine Sea and Tumon Bay. Here, where walkways hang at the side of the cliff and lookout points offer a view of infinite possibilities, lovers come to lock in their promises symbolized by heart-shaped combination padlocks bolted on the fences. Here, too, couples come to be married, exchanging promises while white waters crash into the rocks, inspired by the tale. Legend has it that two forbidden lovers tied their hair together and jumped off the cliff into the jagged rocks in the hopes that, in the afterlife, they shall be together.

On the way back to the airport. Now I'll be able to sleep, but I shall  dream of you, Guam.

Their vows are as haunting as the call of the island’s sea, gentle yet lingering. It does not want me to sleep. Even while I sink deep under the covers, hoping to escape the light and drown in oblivion, the island air is persistent, rousing me from my half-sleep, tempting me with the salty air that wafts in through the balcony until I wake up and give in.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rising City of the South Offers a Green Sanctuary (Kabankalan, Negros Occidental)

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine, 2007

It was late evening when we entered the gateway to Southern Negros. Greeting us was a beautifully lit public plaza pulsing with life.  Piped music floated out from the old city hall. While U2 sang Pride (in the Name of Love) in the background and the water fountain danced in a spray of water and colored lights, locals sat around on benches, reflecting on the day that just passed.

Kabankalan before me.

Up on the veranda of the old municipal hall still intact in its former glory, we stood watching the quiet revelry below. At the entrance of the seventy-four year old municipal hall, the monument of Jose Rizal stood guard, watching his denizens. We soaked in the quiet of the evening, preparing ourselves for the next day ahead. Kabankalan, the Rising City of the South, awaited us in the morning.

A roosting welcome

Soon as day broke, Kabankalan was awash with colors. The city’s clean smooth roads were bordered with yellow and orange trumpet like flowers swaying with the breeze in their graceful long stalks. The locals call them saging-saging because of their long banana-like stalks. Others call them Cannas or Bandera Espanola.  At the foot of these proud colourful flowers were Morning Glories, giving ode to the sun. These white funnel shaped flowers open in the mornings and die in the afternoons. The next morning, new flowers bloom to welcome a new day in Kabankalan City.

The Morning Glories welcomed our arrival at Kabankalan City, Negros Occidental, a 91 kilometre ride from Bacolod. The beautiful landscaped roadside proved that the city had every right to be named the cleanest and greenest city in Western Visayas. Task Force Cleanser, a multi-sectoral group spearheaded by the first lady of Kabankalan, was formed to support the city’s Clean and Green Program. The program includes roadside beautification and park landscaping.  A massive reforestation program is also underway with the help of the Negros State College of Agriculture.

Moment of solitude captured by Lisa Cruz
We passed through several sugarcane plantations and verdant fields crowded with trees before we came upon stretches of land that are home to one of Kabankalan’s major industry, derby cock and game fowl breeding. Rows and rows of small huts housed roosters and fowls sold for cockfighting. Arranged uniformly and spaced equally away from each other on vast rolling hills, they stood like vigilant sentinels awaiting action. Occasionally, game fowls, resplendent in their tall combs and lustrous feathers, would step out from their sentries like proud soldiers. These stunning creatures are just some of Kabankalan’s pride.

Mist and Magic

Kabankalan’s reforestation and green program is evident everywhere else. The city prides itself for its caves, springs and waterfalls.  One such attraction is the Mag-Aso Falls. A 21 kilometre drive away from the city centre, the Mag-Aso falls is a natural attraction that is currently being developed by the city government to make it more tourist friendly. 

Wild white waters create a magical mist, thus the name Mag-Aso Falls.

In all my travels and intimate encounters with waterfalls, Kabankalan's Mag-Aso has got to be the friendliest waterfalls in the country.  I’m used to an hour of hiking up or down a mountain through rocky and muddy terrain.  Before the prize of a refreshing goal, I normally have to work for it, cutting through thick foliage and finding footholds on a steep crude path with nothing but roots and rocks to hold on to. It makes sense though, because after the arduous trek, the destination becomes even more magical.

At Mag-Aso Falls, the magic is in the effortless climb. Not only is it a short walk down, it’s also easy with rock hewn steps leading down to the waterfalls. Although the climb is a bit steep, even those who are not too keen on roughing it can walk down in their own pace safely while holding on to the iron railings on the sides. It’s about a 15 minute descent through the 50 steps, give or take, but those who are not up to the challenge of huffing and puffing their way back up can stay at the lookout points. There are several viewing decks on almost every bend where people can catch their breath or just take in the view in huts and benches. 

Beholding God's magnificence

Personally, I don’t see the reason why I should sit and experience Mag-Aso from afar, when a refreshing oasis awaited at the foot. Mag-Aso is named so for the mist the surge of water releases once it hits the pool and the rocks. You don’t have to dive in to be cooled off.

My favorite spot in Mag-Aso however is not the powerful 75 foot long waterfalls that cascades down the mountain side; what enchanted me the most was an aged monstrous tree that fell on its side and serves as a bridge over the waters. Covered with moss and inhabited by small plants in some areas, the tree’s crevices keep stories untold and secrets hundreds of years old. It probably laid witness to Kabankalan’s Christianization in the early 1600s back when the tree was a mere sapling. Tucked somewhere away from the falls, in a nook of trees and vegetation, it was the perfect spot to take in the sun, the cooling mist and the soothing sound of the rushing falls.  

A monstrous felled tree serves as a bridge over the cool water.

Mother’s embrace

Kabankalan is the place to reacquaint one’s self with nature. Balicaocao Highland Resort, a short ride from our accommodations at Justine’s Pension House, is one of the places wherein one can rest in Mother Nature’s hold. The resort sits high up on a hill, giving guests a breathtaking view of Kabankalan. Locals and tourists can come for a picnic or a dip at the resort pool. Others come at night for a few drinks while taking in the evening view of the city lights below, blinking like a hundred stars beckoning to experience the splendour of Kabankalan.

After a filling meal of buttered chicken and sour hot soup at the Asiatic Restaurant near the municipal hall, we drove to Balicaocao just to sit on the grass on a slope. We watched lazy carabaos munching on grass and surveyed the rows of sugarcane fields dotted with hacienda houses. Many of the ancestral homes had been ravaged by several wars and the punishment of time and the elements. As a yellow butterfly flitted by, I took in the fresh air and exhaled the poisons of the city life.

I savoured the quiet and allowed the spirit of the lazy view before me to embrace me, knowing that in a few years time, I might expect something much more different, a more cosmopolitan view perhaps because of the government’s aggressive campaign to promote a more robust trade and tourism.  All over town, signs of ongoing construction and infrastructure are evident. The building of the Kabankalan Domestic Airport is currently underway and is expected to be completed by 2010. A 40 kilometre concrete road network linking all barangays to the poblacion is also under construction. Steel and concrete bridges are growing over rivers, and resorts similar to Balicaocao are sprouting almost everywhere.

It’ll only be a matter of time before this secret green sanctuary, flourishing with vegetation and charming in its simplicity, will be overcome by tourists. Investors will come in droves and soon Kabankalan will be a bustling city of tourism and commerce, but that’s up ahead. As I look past the coconut trees and down at the quiet breathing city, I rest knowing that for now, I have known Kabankalan intimately.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Angsana: the Fire of Life and Light (Bintan, Indonesia)

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine, 2008
She knelt in front of us, bearing the story of a legend in her hands.  The early evening breeze whipped the sheer canopy to and fro, and the tide ebbed silently behind her as she told the tale of a violet rainbow goddess.  

Chewing on mouthfuls of yellow fin tuna salad, we listened to the Angsana staff read the Indonesian folk tale written in a scroll covered with green batik fabric. It was a story of a legend told over a feast fit for the gods.

The 3 course dinner for two is served privately on the beach 
with a bottle of wine.

 Angsana Resort and Spa was all about the small details and the dramatic flair. They were all about drama, romance, and tradition.  From the little surprises that waited for us in our room when we turned in for the night, to the elaborately prepared themed dinners, Angsana made sure that we were given the welcome and treatment fit for legends and gods.

Flame and fragrance

It’s the little things that count, from the fresh flowers on the bed to a burning scented oil when you return from a day of swimming. These little touches exhibit the warmth of Indonesian hospitality and the flair of Asian mysticism, apparent the very moment we stepped in Angsana’s spacious high ceiling interiors.

After being pampered like a princess, it's almost a shame to leave my room, 
but the blue ocean beckons.

Angsana Resort and Spa is a luxurious retreat in Bintan, 55 minutes away from Singapore by ferry. Owing its name to a statuesque tree found in the tropical rainforest of Asia, Angsana offers a  grand haven to holiday seekers and to those who seek to enjoy the blessings of the majestic South China Sea and the lush tropical rainforest of Indonesia. All 120 rooms and suites share a spectacular view of the South China Sea and opens to the refreshing greens of the forest.

The Angsana tree, offering a generous shelter at the entrance of the resort, bursts into a crown of golden yellow blooms unexpectedly, giving off a fragrance that reminds us of the flame of life – vibrant but brief and therefore should be savoured without inhibitions. Everywhere, from the seaside pavilions to the lush garden terraces of Angsana, this same flame and fragrance is apparent, even amongst the resort staff, who welcomed us bowing with their hands clasped. Smiling they greeted us in their tiny voices heavy with the Bahasa accent. They received us with a tall drink of lemon grass that came with a cold scented towel to cool our faces and parched throats after a day out in the hot Bintan sun.

The moment I stepped in my one bedroom suite, I knew I would not find it difficult to make this place my temporary home.  The room smelled of tranquil waters and wild flowers on an evening full of promises. A writing desk of dark wood sat by the window, offering an inviting workspace with a veranda overlooking blue waters to rest tired eyes on.

Feast for a goddess

That night, as we were ushered  out to the beach, leading us through the gardens and out into the sandy beaches under a multitude of stars, I was intrigued. After a short walk, the quiet darkness was soon broken by an inviting bonfire by the beach. It gave light to a breezy canopy set up under a glimmering sky.

Beach, bonfire, and beloved: a blessed combination for an evening of bliss.

Our server, garbed in traditional Javanese costume, led us into the diaphanous tent where our elaborate Indonesia Rijstafel feast awaited us. Inside, a generous bed was laden with pillows of deep reds, yellows and oranges, colours that celebrated the Angsana sun. Before the bed was a low rice table set with candles and fine tableware.

With great flair and pride, the server presented the dishes in small clay pots presented in trays of burning coals. The meal was started with an assortment of salads of long beans, pineapples, grated coconut, and cucumbers to refresh our palates. Hot salads of marinated minced chicken, vegetables, potatoes, and quail eggs in peanut dressing were served in small bowls sitting on banana leaves over a tray of uncooked rice. The heavy meal was washed down with sparkling water and glasses of wine of deep dark tones.

Rijstafel feast: a variety of tastes and textures

Our bellies bursting, we listened to the story teller  read the tale of the violet rainbow goddess. The spirit of the red wine lay heavy on my eyelids as I listened to the song of her voice and settled into the pillows. I drifted into a half sleep, rocked by the soft ocean breeze playing with the gossamer curtains. The light of the fire danced on our golden skin as I dreamed about  the goddess’ stolen violet scarf.

My bed was too big for me alone; 
I opted for the sofa in front of the TV instead.

When I returned to my room that evening, I was delighted to find a small glass of honey to usher in sweet dreams for the night.  A tiny figurine sat on my bed to tuck me in. A white figurine of a mother elephant, embracing her baby with her trunk, the ornament was the perfect representation of Angsana’s hospitality, a big warm embrace, generous and calming.

Glorious and healing

The next day, we further experienced the soothing embrace of Angsana as we lay looking up at the  azure skies through the open-air rooftop pavilion of the resort’s signature spa, enveloped by the intoxicating scents of Jasmine and Frangipani. 

Only healing hands can bring a glow like this.

A little Indonesian woman by the name of Neni knelt before me to clean my feet with a scented wet towel while I sipped on a cold drink of sweet cucumber. Treating me like a Javanese princess, she gently took off my slippers, slid off my robe, and lay me down on the massage bed. In a soft girlish voice, she explained the treatment that I was about to get. Her velvety voice was as comforting as the warm sesame seed oil she poured all over my body. I drifted into a dream like state, escaping into the primeval Indian world. The ninety minute Ayurvedic massage eased the aches and tensions in my muscles. The Sesame oil’s warming and purifying properties made my blood rush and cleansed away the grime  I’ve acquired from the hectic city.

After the Ayuverdic massage, I sat looking out to the white beach and the blue waters. Watching the stretches of swaying palm trees, I reflected on how Angsana was subtly bewitching. With the soft kneading palms of her hands, the Lavender perfume of her hair, and the delectable  treats that she fed us with her fingertips, she was cunningly trying to make us forget and forsake our world for hers. She wanted us to stay, to forever lie in her quiet sands, bathe in her crystal waters, and soak in her glorious healing light.

What joy it is to always be shaking the sand off your toes.

On the day of our departure, Angsana  mourned our leaving. Her beautiful blue skies  threatened tears that would wash the litter of last night’s revelry.  The wind blew crying, shaking the palm trees in protest while the white washed frog statues stood indifferent by the poolside, proudly bearing the weight of tradition. They would wait standing, aloft like soldiers in a sentinel, waiting for the next guest seeking a brief refuge from the madness of the city. They would stand waiting alongside the waiters and hotel staff, their hands clasped, their heads bowed, ready for the coming of another goddess.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chasing the Elusive Signal

Published by Speed Magazine, April 2008
The cell phone signal - It breathes along with the hum of the city. If you sit quietly still  for a moment, you can almost hear it pulsing.  But outdoors, up in the mountains where goats sit to contemplate on greener pastures, or out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where tiger sharks circle your boat, the powerful ever-present network coverage becomes the Elusive Signal. 

The idea of a respite to the remotest place possible, away from the city, away from the worries of an advanced world where everyone is connected, keeps us tramping on in the rat race.  But as much as we’d like to escape the drudgery of a crowded metropolis, a society so automated and computerized that it has almost lost its heart, we still seek the Elusive Signal, our last link to civilization, a world we greatly want to escape from yet still long for.

Batanes, Philippines

When Epson sponsored a press launch in Batanes, my first question was, how’s the signal out there? My second concern was if we would have internet access.  The third question was why Epson would want to launch their new batch of photo printers, the R290, RX610 and CX9300, at a place where most people still live in stone huts. Fortunately, the hills are alive with the sound of the phone ringing. Up in the northernmost part of Luzon, about 190 kilometres south of Taiwan, Batanes Islands thrives with lush landscapes, a carefully preserved culture, and up-to-date technology. Where the Pacific Ocean merges with the South China Sea, Batanes Islands harmoniously converges nature and technology where the heart of telecommunications network coverage pumps as healthily as the fat cows that sit on its verdant hills.

Sagada, Philippines

Out in Sagada,  Globe’s service follows the 9pm to 5am curfew. A mysterious figure, who introduced himself as the Lone Rider told us, over a blazing bonfire and a thermos of rice wine, that Globe’s cell site is still experimental. Lazy smoke from the fire swirled around us as we looked far out into the night, high up in the hills near the cemetery, where a single red light blinked  in agreement.

How long is a day without network coverage? For my friend, it was half a day. Out in Connecticut, where Bambi can often be sighted darting through the backyard and where you’re bound to bump into Hansel or Gretel if you wander far enough into the woods, is a place where you can escape the hustle and bustle of a demanding city. My friend from Silicon Valley had business at their office in Stanford, so I invited her over to stay a few nights in quaint Brookfield at my brother’s place. Upon arrival, she enthusiastically  took in the fairy tale charm of New England, but after several hours without Yahoo Messenger or a cell phone signal, she felt like she was trapped in a gingerbread house with a toothache. Promptly, we drove off to Stanford and checked in at the Hyatt hotel where her mobile phone became blissfully alive again.

At my brother's backyard in Brookefield, Connecticut

Before going to Connecticut, my brother had warned me of his place’s charming disconnectedness. It only made sense then for me to leave my mobile phone at home. It served as a great excuse to avoid calls from work. Besides, I would rather spend  my dollars shopping at Ralph Lauren’s factory outlet store in Maine than on ridiculously high roaming charges. But even without my phone, the Elusive Signal haunted me. I suffered withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes   I would hear the Godfather theme song, my ring tone, playing in the middle of the night. Its sombre and dark tune would float through the windows, causing me to jump out of bed, looking for something that wasn’t there.

Banahaw, Philippines

Back in the Philippines, in Banahaw, the phone signal is erratic.  While staying overnight at a friend’s family rest house, my friend and I were given the tree house where the signal would jump up to three bars. The rest of the compound suffered the Elusive One. After a hard day of trekking, we lazed on the floor sending text messages to friends about our adventure. Below, the rest of our caravan scampered around for a signal. Every now and then we would hear a  stubborn beep signifying, “message not sent.” It went on like that for several hours, people muttering curses under their breath, shoes scuffing the damp ground as they went around chasing the signal. Then suddenly, a victorious cry, “signal!!!” The joyous exclamation was followed by three successive spiteful bleeps and then a scream, or more of a wounded animal’s wail actually - “Nooooooo!!!!! Low bat!!!!”  

Nuts Huts, Loboc, Bohol

In the heart of the Loboc jungle in Bohol, sits a quaint hostel named Nuts Huts, a page right out of Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, where a European beauty with startling aquamarine eyes plays ping pong with a businessman from Hong Kong. On a hammock, a filthy Frenchwoman reads her dog-eared Lonely Planet guide. You may say it is another world all together kept secret by towering trees and thick vegetation. It would have been a perfect escape except for one thing, the stairs. The flight of  stairs that leads from our huts down by the river up to the communal area where they served food is quite steep. Going up about 200 steps for breakfast makes their famous Big Farmer’s Omelette seem almost unappetizing. It doesn’t help when you’re already upstairs, and then suddenly remember that you left the door to your hut unlocked. This was where I was extremely grateful that the Elusive One decided to make a presence out in the jungles.  All I needed was a single bar to call whoever was left downstairs to lock the door for me.

Thank God for the signal. It’s intangible, a silent but powerful presence that has become almost as vital as the throbbing heart. Without it we feel lost, disconnected. So we run around, chasing it, combing every inch of space in the outdoors  while a firefly buzzes around uncaring and the crickets thrill as if to mock us for our dependence. We raise our phones up high in the sky like  beacons, like the sword of Excalibur, beckoning the Elusive One to grace us with its almighty presence. One bar is all we need to feel safe, knowing the world is as it should be.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Banaue Rice Terraces: Experiencing the Solitude of the Sky and the Self

Published by Pilmap Magazine, 2007

Happy faces with permanent blushes, crossing mother hens with her brood of chicks holding up the traffic and trail ways that kiss the clouds: these are the images I take with me as the twitch on my sore calves slowly becomes a memory. And as I remember the feel of the sun on my cheek while the chilly air cooled my skin, I think to myself that Banaue is a place of beautiful contradiction that anyone, who wishes to claim that he has truly lived, should experience. 

Image by Karlo de Leon
Banaue is home to the rice terraces, ancient sprawling structures and true testaments to God’s greatness and man’s ingenuity. The Banaue Rice Terraces remains a secret to us city folk who prefer the luxury of white sand and cocktail drinks or the artificial chill of a freezing mall. Up in the Cordilleras, breathes a quiet place where the hands of commercialism have barely reached, a place undiscovered by many, secret only to most Filipinos. Located in the Luzon Province of the Northern Philippines, the 2000 year old Banaue Rice Terraces is a dream destination, the eight wonder of the world for many foreign tourists.

Long cold road to the sky

The nine hour bus drive to Banaue is more than enough reason for many to opt taking the short and comfortable plane ride to kiss the pristine sands of our beaches instead. The Autobus liner takes several trips to Banaue everyday for 462 pesos per person. We took one of the last trips on a 45-seater at the Autobus Terminal at Espana Boulevard around ten P.M. and got there around seven in the morning in time for breakfast. If you don’t have all the time in the world, the most practical thing to do is to take the evening trip so you can sleep most of the way up. By the time you arrive, you’ve had your eight hours of solid sleep and will be raring to go for a day of trekking. At least that’s the ideal scenario, assuming you can sleep like a log through all the stops and the freezing air conditioning. That wasn’t the case for me, especially with a snoring seatmate who only wakes up at the rustle of a bag of potato chips being opened.

 When we got there, we discovered that getting around was relatively easy. Although the province’s major industries are rice production, vegetable farming and wood carving, it seems that tourism is another prevalent industry in Banaue. According to many, it is the tourism industry that’s been helping keep the terraces alive. I noticed that almost everyone catered to the visitors, a large majority of which are foreigners. Jeeps and tricycles wait outside the hotel and the bus station to ferry guests around. At ten pesos per passenger, short trips are quick and cheap. But jeepney tours can cost you anywhere from 300 to 3,000, depending on where you’re going, so it’s always best to travel in groups.

The local life

After we’ve deposited our bags, we took an hour’s drive to Bangaan Village. The ride was a treat in itself, albeit bumpy. Jeepneys can be hired for the tours. It would be a shame to travel in an air conditioned car with the windows closed. The best way to experience Banaue is to inhale the sweet air and soak in the gentle sun. The ride gave us a peek into the local life. Small houses, hanging precariously on the edge of the mountain, lined the narrow dusty road. Most doors were wide open, revealing locals weaving baskets or watching the sluggish parade of tourists making their way up to the different viewing points.

Halfway to our destination, our driver pointed out the view below. Right at the very base, surrounded by mountains on all sides, laid a tiny village. About ten huts were clustered in a tight circle, surrounded by rice paddies. “Bangaan Village,” our driver said smiling, revealing red stained teeth. He spat out the betel nut he had been masticating, leaving bright crimson spatters on the ground, and explained that the village was named after a banga or a jar because the little community is enclosed by mountains.

With photographer Karlo de Leon

The valley village is a thirty minute hike from the road. For city slickers like us, who consider shopping a good work out, thirty minutes is forty five minutes. Halfway through stone carved steps, steep trails and rice paddy borders, our knees started to shake. Kids running home from school kept us going. The public school was at the foot of the trail. As two little boys overtook us, I realized that these children take the same path everyday, back and forth. After a few minutes, they were near the entrance of the village, looking back at us with gleeful faces while we bent over catching our breath, counting the terraced paddies we had to conquer before we reached the village. 

Of culture and commerce

A make shift sign, made out of a slab of wood, welcomed us to Bangaan Village where it is said that Ifugaos lived with their traditional indigenous culture strongly intact. A woman transplanting seedlings, chickens clucking around under Ifugao huts and clay colored spatters on the stone ground confirmed the Village’s pride. However, a closer look contradicted the claim that Banaue is the only part of Luzon that has completely resisted commercialism. Upon entry, we were greeted by a hearty “good morning” by locals who seemed to have the art of tourism down to a pat. “Welcome,” they said in English with nary an accent. My suspicion grew as we found tiny souvenir stalls on every corner and a couple of refreshment stands serving cold soft drinks. It was a stark contrast against a little old lady squatting under a hut. Her almond eyes squinted against the light of the camera lens, wrinkly fingers toying with the dry ground.

Image by Karlo de Leon

If you happen to wander to that secret place, you will find Virginia and her Ifugao hut (bale) which was handed down to her by her ancestors. She used to sleep in that small space with her children. All nine of them huddled on the wooden floors where they also cook and eat. Now that most of her daughters had gone off to marry, there is a little bit more space to move around.

On a sunny day you would find her under the hut weaving a table runner. It was from Virginia where we also found place mats made of wood bark. “My mother used to make our dresses out of these,” she said in perfect measured English and a motherly voice. “They were very hard to wear, but after several washings, they became very uncomfortable.” We foraged through all the souvenir shops in the town center and could not find the same place mats that Virginia made with her own hands.

Delicious stopover

After conquering Bangaan, we had second thoughts about taking the whole day trip to the Batad Rice Terraces. The locals assured as that it would be an easier trek on flat ground. Although it was a two hour hike, one way, we fooled ourselves to believe that it would be easier because we didn’t have to go through steep steps and sloping trails. And so with sore legs and renewed spirits, we laced up our hiking shoes and set out for Batad. City folk can be so naïve. Karlo, the travel photographer, was right. “Once you get there, you wouldn’t want to leave,” he said, not because the panoramic view is so overwhelming that you will want to stay longer to soak it all in, but because no amount of will power can push you to take the six kilometer climb back up. Gravity never cooperates.

Conquering the Batad Trails with our guide

After hurdling four kilometers, hikers can opt to stay and rest on the viewing deck. Local authentic cuisine can be sampled in the few restaurants. Don’t get the wrong idea; I’m talking about restaurants with Monobloc chairs and linoleum topped tables. They serve the freshest vegetables and red rice mixed with an assortment of greens. Oddly enough, the dish to try in this part of the mountains is the pizza. Served on thin dough, crisp on some parts, soft on others, Batad pizza is an interesting plate of tomatoes, onions, garlic and cheese sans the usual tomato or pizza sauce.

These restaurants-cum-lodge also offer a decent bed and bath for150 pesos a night. We didn’t have the luxury of time to stay over night so I don’t know if they have hot running water. For the sake of the students on a field trip staying for the night, I hope to God they do have hot water. At about 20 degrees centigrade, they would need it.

Give me money

What normally takes locals half an hour, took us about an hour to get to Batad Village from the viewing deck. It was once again a precarious descent. We held on to clumps of earth and vegetation to ease our descent, our feet balancing dangerously on jagged rocks and crude stone steps. One wrong step can send you spiraling down a jagged ravine. If the rice gods are smiling down on you, you’ll land right on the soft rice paddies. At this time of the year, the season when seedlings are transplanted, paddies are filled with water. March to August is the time when the terraces are lush and green.

Children sprinting past us with agile little limbs distracted us from our slow and painful slog. Used to visitors with spanking new hiking boots and cameras slung around their necks, the children piped out in unison: “give me candy. Give me money.” Several clamoring kids and empty pockets later, we shook our heads. They were obviously used to this game and sang out instead “give me ruler. Give me pencil.” We blamed the sweet air that was getting into our heads for the absurdity of it all. Later, my boyfriend, who backpacks almost every year, explained that tourists are encouraged to bring school supplies instead of giving away candies or money.

Love affair with the self
During the trek, we were too busy catching our breath and looking for stable footholds to notice the splendor of the silver paddies slowly unfolding before us. 

Image by Karlo de Leon

At the view deck, the terraces looked like an elaborately designed maze, a patchwork of brown, green and silver. The high sun bounced off on the surface of the water filled paddies, mirroring the sky. If we had come a few months later, we would have been greeted by an emerald cascade.

At the foot of this amphitheater shaped terraces, it was a whole different experience. Up close, we could see the cleverly stacked stones forming the terraces. At the edges were makeshift steps, rocks jutting out of the sides.

The sound of squealing children and young tourists horsing around gave way to a moaning echo that reverberated throughout the open sky. It was almost as if the mountains were mourning the degradation and erosion of these two thousand old structures. Ravaged by time, neglect, the elements and calamities, some of the paddies have collapsed, others overtaken by the jungle.

As we sat to ourselves, each of us perched on one of the tiers of the countless terraces; we contemplated the meaning of this trip in front of the Creator’s masterpiece. Here lay another contradiction, amidst the splendor of the mountains lies the simplicity of life, the peace of existence. In a place of romance, supposedly a haven for intimate escapes, Banaue is the best place to romance one’s self. To hold not a lover’s hand, but to embrace that part of yourself you had never acknowledged before.

Away from the blare of horns and the ruckus of a travel group, here is where you acquaint yourself to an inner strength that you never knew existed. In the solitude of these steps, products of the brown callused hands of the ancient Ifugaos, you discover a physical strength, an iron will and a stubborn pride, to put one foot in front of the other, ignoring screaming tendons and groaning muscles, to reach your destination.

It is a place where you are also forced to listen. In the quiet of the gaping valley, in the serenity of beauty, in the voice of the mountains’ silent but powerful whispers, here you are forced to listen to the echoes of silence.  Faced with the grandeur of the terraces, one contemplates the smallness and significance of one’s existence.

Kissing the clouds

Our last day at Banaue, we visited Hiwang, a native village inn where Ifugao huts are available for lodging at 800 pesos per night. The bales, some of them 250 years old, can accommodate up to four people each. Electricity is available, but don’t expect five-star hotel treatment. Immersing in the Ifugao way of life means the barest essentials. This means no hot water, no TV, and a bamboo ladder you hang by the door before going to sleep.

caught in the act by Karlo de Leon

The view and experience however are more than enough to compensate for the lack of room service and fluffy towels. Three kilometers from the bus station, Hiwang offers a panoramic view of the rice terraces. The view that you will see from that point is the exact picture that you will see on your 1,000 peso bill, except for one big difference - this picture breathes. This point also allows you to kiss the clouds. At 8000 feet above sea level, this is probably the closest you can get to heaven, at least in the Philippines.

Hiwang also boasts of an interesting collection of antique carvings and artifacts like the solibao, a Japanese canyon that was converted into a musical instrument, or carved stone seats where the Ifugao leaders and elders met or danced around severed heads. Scattered around beautifully landscaped gardens are sculpted giant ferns that display the people’s artistry. The Banaue museum, a nice leisurely walk away from the market, is also home to many antiques and artifacts. Before heading home, we walked back to the town center to shop for baubles and bibelots. Everybody knows souvenirs are always cheaper at the market. It’s the best place to find bargain hand carved trinkets with basket trims that will soon gather dust in our shelves as the memory of this trip becomes as hazy as the fog-lined road that led us back home.