September 12, 2016 § Leave a comment
I must admit I’ve never given much thought to Taiwan previous to my trip. Taiwan is a country familiar to Filipinos perhaps mostly due to all the TV series that were a massive hit in the Philippines several years ago. If not for that, news would usually mention about their illegal fishing activities in our seas – and so Taiwan to me was either the land of F4 or the land of fishermen. Sure, I knew a little historical background about this country and its complicated relations with China, but that was about it. Neither was it a destination I was particularly eyeing. So when I finally had the opportunity to see Taiwan because of a conference, I found every experience insightful. Every observation was a visual and cognitive treat.
Throughout my trip, I was impressed with how easy it was to navigate around even for non-Chinese speaking individuals like me. They had an Easycard which worked with most trains, buses, convenience stores, etc and this made things far simpler. Data was reliable as long as you get a 4G simcard, and at reasonable rates at that. Google Maps didn’t work as seamlessly as in Singapore, for one it kept giving me directions in Chinese ( eliciting a “you’ve got to be kidding me” from me most of the time) and travel time estimates were not accurate, but it was easier than having to have done so with a physical map. If your destination was something for tourists, you can almost always expect signs along the way. If they’ll be in Chinese or in English as well is a matter of popularity. I have to say majority of the tourists when I was there were Chinese so I really did have to ask and struggle with pronouncing Chinese words a few times to get around. Though I didn’t get detrimentally lost in Taiwan, I could imagine it would be easy to just decide where to go on a whim. Take a bus somewhere, visit the Tourist Information Booth nearby, and you can add an item to your itinerary on the spot. Knowing me, I did have quite a detailed itinerary to work with, but that didn’t prevent me from veering off from plans. That being said, fear not getting around in Taiwan. Though taking the bus can be a bit of an adventure as most bus stops were written purely in Chinese, you can always try asking the friendly locals and pray they understand English. The only thing I struggled with were the menus. because as much as I had wanted to eat as authentically local as possible, it was impossible for me to read the names of most stores, much less their menus. I found myself confined to food that had pictures or if someone else had ordered it (then I could conveniently point to it). At times I tried to make use of my brother’s Mandarin knowledge and send him pictures of what I wanted to eat and confirm if it was what I thought. But I ended up one time getting some bun with fermented vegetables and pork fat (no, I didn’t like it) when I wanted a pork bun so I just decided to resort to my more reliable method of pointing. Night markets, convenience stores and restaurants are a good bet for people who want to order easily. I also noticed that the streets were very clean and public toilets were also clean in general (thank goodness!). I still haven’t mastered doing it in a squat toilet though even after so many times of having had to do this in other countries, but if you’re in a tourist area you’d most likely find a toilet bowl. I could only wish the Philippines can follow suit. I read online that Taiwan lessened garbage bins in the street thus curbing litter and vermin. I was surprised to see clear streets even in areas where night markets are held (in Shilin itself!) so it apparently works. They also diligently segregate trash (with particular emphasis on plastics). With the Filipinos’ penchant of throwing trash anywhere though, I think this might make matters worse unless littering gets a heavier penalty. Another observation I made was that a lot of people wore face masks. At first I thought it was because they were scared of getting any contagious disease in public transportation, I found out later on that these people may have a slight cold and it’s their way of politely saying that they don’t want to infect anyone.
train stations in Taipei looked characteristically Chinese. It’s very easy to get around using their train, even to other provinces. They had both options for the traditional train system (TRA) and the high speed one (HSR). That’s me on the train platform from Ruifang on the way back to Taipei with my loot from Jiufen.
night markets are the place to be at night for food lovers like me! I went to a total of 6 while I was there! after I got tired of the night market staples (this may take a while for others as there’s really a lot of options), I wandered to other stores with crowds and I was never disappointed. My favorites were their melon bread, luruofan (rice topped with savory minced pork), braised beef noodles, dumplings (OMG yes), guava juice (perhaps it was in season this time), papaya milk and da chang bao xiao chang (grilled sausage and sticky rice). The infamous stinky tofu is also worth a try and for me though the fried version was a cinch eating and in fact was normal tasting enough, the stewed one was more queer especially with the duck blood (I tried a bit but the texture is really not to my liking. I miss our own version of chicken blood with rice – now that I’m crazy for).
…and let’s not forget the taro balls, which you can eat a lot of at Jiufen Old Street. Let me just say that this is another thing I know of Taiwan, that it’s where Blackball Dessert originated from. As that’s one of my favorite desserts ever, naturally I had to try it in its place of origin. It was really good as well, though I prefer Blackball’s twist of putting in yam and taro chunks along with grass jelly and their signature coffee creamer much more. And yes, I did eat at Blackball Dessert in Taiwan. haha
Tamsui / Damsui / Danshui was the first place I got really familiar with as it was the venue of our conference. The Fisherman’s Wharf and the Lover’s Bridge are the usual spots to visit here. From the MRT to the harbor is a long street dotted with food, souvenirs, other places of interest and what not. A good discovery for me was bus F112 which offered free rides around the area. Something to note about the buses though is that some require you to tap when you enter, some when you leave, and some both upon entering and exiting. I haven’t quite figured out how to distinguish this, I suppose it’s written somewhere in Chinese. Nevertheless, always board the bus in front. Coins are still accepted but you should have the exact fare.
To get a good view of the city, I went up Elephant Mountain. It was a 20 min hike up, but don’t underestimate the continuous stairs that lead up. I initially planned on continuing further up if I had made it here earlier, but as exploring the night markets was a stronger urge in me rather than getting a better view of the city from on top, I headed back down after reaching the first viewing platform. It was a good idea since I realized I don’t do well walking down the stairs – I might have developed a little bit of climacophobia on the way down. Elephant Mountain is actually beside 3 other “beast” mountains that have interconnected trails and is a good activity option for those who have more time. After this, I decided to walk down to Taipei 101 and check out Tonghua night market which was supposed to be near Taipei 101 but it took me a good 20 minutes to walk there. @_@
My first destination after the conference was Yehliu. I took a bus from Taipei Main Station to go to the famous Geopark with their interesting limestone formations. When I got there, I found that the place was a quaint seaside neighborhood with a lot of seafood restaurants! It was a terrible pity that the bus ride left me dizzy so I wasn’t really in the mood to eat anything. I was reading off from my phone the stop list of the bus I was on, and this was what made my head spin aside from the intense heat that day. I became friends with another Japanese tourist traveling by herself, but as her English wasn’t good, we ended up mostly conversing in smiles and short questions. Talking to her did manage to make me change my plans of going back to Taipei that afternoon and instead I headed to Keelung, another seaside city.
All I knew about Keelung was their Miakakoku Night Market. But as I reached there a little after lunchtime, that wasn’t really an option. I went to the train station and saw the Visitor’s Information Center where a friendly grandpa who was working there showed me the map and all the options I had. I scanned the pictures and saw Badouzi – the beautiful view from the brochure was enough to convince me and I got the directions and straight away headed there. When I was already on the bus, it was only then I realized that I didn’t know where to go down and how exactly to get to Badouzi Wangyou Valley. I was actually on the right track when I tried figuring out the way by myself, but a few turns and the lack of English signs made me doubt my instinct and so I headed back to a Maritime Museum there where I decided to ask for decisions. The Maritime Museum was huge and beautiful that I almost felt bad there were barely any people there. It was probably so slow that day that when I asked one of their staff, he volunteered to leave his post and take me to the bus stop to go to the Valley. He even made sure I had an umbrella as it started drizzling at this point. The bus took forever though and as I was conscious of the time, I ended up taking a taxi instead. Turns out I should have walked straight on where I was earlier. Oh well, as long as I managed to reach it!
The view was worth it and I was lucky the rain stopped while I was there, allowing me to get a bit of blue sky on my photos. It was picturesque enough that so many couples were there enjoying the breezy afternoon by the sea. I contented myself by taking their pictures instead. haha. After taking in the scenery, I walked back to town and took a bus to Keelung and subsequently easily took a train back to Taipei.
When I got back to Taipei, I went to Dihua Street and Ningxia Night Market. Dihua Street is full of Chinese herbs and medicine – and a lot of stalls were selling fish roe. I wasn’t familiar with the use of most of these things so I just walked down the road and went inside some interesting shops that sold novelty/vintage items. There were also a few pastry shops down the road, but I was craving for something savory so I ate dumplings at Ningxia Night Market which is a 10-minute walk from Dihua Street. I should mention at this point now that the walk from the MRT to Dihua Street was also 10 minutes, and from Ningxia Night Market to the next MRT station was also 10 minutes. Needless to say, I was damn tired at the end of this day.
The following day, Gale had finally arrived and I finally had a companion going around! More stomach space too to try things since we could split everything. We went to some usual tourist stops in the morning (Longshan Temple & the Chang Kai-Chek Memorial Hall) and proceeded to Maokong thereafter to take the Gondola and enjoy our lunch with the view of Taipei. Although Maokong was quite elevated, it was terribly humid and hot still. There were a lot of dining options but we ended up eating somewhere with AC because there was barely any breeze and it was unthinkable to enjoy sipping tea in that weather. The gondola ride was enjoyable especially if you get the “Eye of Maokong” option which had a glass bottom. Not much tourists that day so no queuing for us yay! After Maokong, we went to Eslite, which is a 24/7 bookstore. It was huge and if not for the weak AC, it was paradise! There were books, food, clothes, toys, stationaries, even cosmetics. Most books were in Chinese though. Syntrend mall since Gale wanted to buy some gundams for her Mike. The mall was swanky and we especially loved how each floor had themes like “Create, Imagine, etc”. It was at this point that we realized that we needed to change money, but found out that the banks don’t allow currency exchange after 3:30pm. And there was no other option but the airport. So we actually had to go to Songshan Airport to change money. Money exchangers are practically non-existent in Taiwan so it’s best to estimate your budget beforehand or bring a lot of extra. We had plans of hiking Teapot Mountain at Jinguashi the following day (i.e. wake up at 4:30 am) so we were bewildered when we managed to do this and find out that the weather forecast that day was thunderstorms when we reached Ruifang!
It took me a few minutes to get over the change in plans but as it was very cloudy, I didn’t think it was worth it going through the hike and not seeing the view I looked forward to. So we proceeded to Jiufen instead. We were there by 8:30 am and so most stalls were still closed. It was a quaint town and fortunately it was only drizzling. I didn’t get a photo with the quality of a Spirited Away-inspiration, but walking in the town situated on the hill, one could get a feel of community and serenity of the place. Gale and I realized Jiufen would be a good place to stay overnight at if we had the chance of going back. The view from the lodges were nice and it was much colder up here. There was also so much good food again, and I will mention again: Taro Balls. After getting enough of Jiufen Old Street, we headed back to Ruifang and bought one-day pass tickets (80 NTD) for the Pingxi Line to go to Pingxi and Shifen. The main tourist attractions were along the old railway, and visitors usually released lanterns here as well as buy pretty souvenirs. Though we didn’t get to go to Teapot Mountain that day, the experience of riding their Tze-Chiang TRA train as well as at the Pingxi line left me a good impression of their railway system. People can actually eat on the train yet it was clean.
This is by the way the fermented vegetables bun I bought with the help of Gab’s Mandarin. I told him to consider going back to Taiwan to practice his Mandarin so I don’t end up eating such things and he told me to go smell the smelly people because it’s deemed respectable. Nothing as reliable as a brother’s advice, really. (sarcasm)
The next day, Yangminshan National Park was on our itinerary. The park is huge and beautiful and more importantly, just 20 minutes from the city center! I’m just really speechless. There are a lot of stops available inside the park, you can even opt to hike. But as we had to meet April that day, we just went down Qingtiangang. The road on the way up is quite curvy and steep. We took an S17 bus which stopped directly at Qintiangang. It was a minibus and that day most of the people on the bus were senior citizens probably looking forward to enjoy some natural scenery on a weekday. After that, we proceeded to Xinbeitou via bus as well from the Yangminshan Bus Terminal.
It was here that we met up with April and her friend. It was really fortuitous that my conference was almost the same time as when April just moved to Taiwan. She’s moved here for work and I’m happy Gale and I were able to meet her here before we gear up for probably a long time of not seeing each other again. Marge was supposed to go as well but she wasn’t able to make it. Xinbeitou is known for its natural hot springs, and it didn’t help that it was damn hot as well that day. We didn’t try the hot springs, but I can imagine it would be a good option on a cooler day. The public library at Xinbeitou is worth visiting though, it had full-length glass windows and wooden interiors. It would have been an optimum place to read had it not been for the droves of people playing Pokemon Go scattered all over the entire area! It was quite an eyesore, and I’m pretty sure they contributed to the heat. We had lunch at a tea shop and went to the Thermal Valley where steam can be seen rising up all year round. After that, we headed to Tamsui that afternoon to see the sunset. That night, Gale left and the next day though I had planned to go around the city area some more, the heat and all the walking the previous days discouraged me and I went to the airport 8 hours early instead. I didn’t really regret it as I got to eat my xiao long bao and do some leisurely souvenir window shopping. The airport was quite comfortable to hang out at actually. There were a lot of lounge-style seats even in the waiting area, not to mention charge points and restaurants, so it wasn’t that bad.
It was a wonderful experience, and if given the chance to go back I definitely will for the sights, the cuisine and the nice people. I’ll make sure to do this on a colder season though. I’m also really grateful for my Taiwanese friend, Jacky, who practically helped me translate and get around so many times when I was at the brink of getting hopelessly lost in translation. Xiexie~ (this is the only Chinese phrase I used and it somehow managed to go a long way)! Here’s my itinerary for anyone interested. 600 NTD budget per day for food would be good (you can’t drink from the tap but you can easily buy bottled water from convenience stores), accommodations are flexible – both cheap and pricey ones are available, and it’s easy to estimate your transportation cost using their train websites so I suggest you do this to see if you’ll do better buying their unlimited train/bus pass. I preferred buying an Easycard though. If I had more time, I would have included a visit to the Sun Moon Lake & Longdon as well. Even more time and I would definitely explore Central, East and Southern Taiwan! Hopefully at another time in the future!
August 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
Some 11 months ago, I dealt with a broken heart. And while I never found the courage to actually write about it until now, I struggled through so much emotions – blocking them mostly, if anything. So many times I attempted to write about what I felt in an effort to make sense of the turbulence but each time I had finished writing, I was afraid to expose the defeat I felt at that point. I was afraid to admit how I failed in my pursuit of making myself vulnerable. I was afraid to admit that I lost someone I loved and face the question if I’ll ever find someone again. As a person, I had never felt comfortable writing anything that I hadn’t resolved. Ending a narrative without a conclusion was unthinkable to me then.
In the beginning, I allowed myself to drown in the vortex of regret, disappointment, pain, and confusion that I felt. I broke down several times each day. Never in the company of anyone if I could help it, as I resolved to confine my misery within the walls of my room. I went home at odd times in the middle of the day and finished an excess of tissue boxes. Sometimes I had to make do with the walls of a cubicle in the school’s lavatory. It was ugly and not an inch beautiful unlike those portrayed in movies, but tears did not discern between situations. I went through my daily tasks in a lifeless body – how my brain managed to function, I have no recollection now. Within a month, I consciously decided to put an end to the daily misery. I forced myself out of that pit I wallowed in. I told my friends I was okay. I repressed memories with news articles and new hobbies. I intentionally rebuilt memories by creating new ones in the same places where the old ones occurred. Anything that preoccupied me was welcomed. I reprimanded myself every single time I felt any drop of remorse. I faked smiles and maybe bordered on being hysterical. And while I refuse to admit I felt bitter, in all honesty I probably was to some degree. In an effort to find strength, I lost a bit of my kindness. I had to protect the tender wound by covering it with a numb callus.
But faking it til I made it worked for the most part. Soon enough, I found myself thinking about him less and less. Eventually, that turned into feeling lonely less and less. I felt liberated in more ways than I expected. Enjoying my newly found solitude became my source of comfort. Though I wouldn’t go to the extent of saying if I had stayed in that relationship, my life this past year would have been far less colorful – I can say it was far better than I feared it could possibly turn out to be. I had nothing to lose and more reason to try new things. And I did go on to do new things. Despite the pervasive myth of women being biological time bombs, I did not succumb to the desperation. While I have to admit there is a certain despair to seeing my social media feed filled with news of engagements, marriages and children (basically, stable relationships) – I appreciated the fact that the magic of falling in love once again is something I can still potentially experience in the future. I was free to be my own self and I didn’t feel the need to glorify it. Neither being single or attached or happily married is better than the other. I took my situation as it was and held my ground as everyone else went ahead with their own.
Looking back, I would have never made it out as good as I did it without my family and friends. To Kat, thank you for forcing me to think about the good in that breakup. While I didn’t appreciate the nudge then, that assignment was always on my mind. And while I never told you, I lived working on it each day hence. Thank you for taking me to Langkawi. To Marge, thank you for consoling me over the phone. I appreciated it more than I could verbalize at that point in time. To JM, thank you for forcing me to go to Myanmar. To my brother, thank you for listening to me when I couldn’t tell our dad what I was going through. To my dad, thank you for listening to me cry over the phone, even if you had no idea what the real underlying reason was. To Ray and Renee, thank you for helping me see the humor in my situation, as always. To Swati, thank you for being patient enough to deal with my fleeting moods. Thank you for bearing with me as I worked on removing the indifference I felt for the world. And to so much other friends who had no idea how their random kindness soothed my callousness, thank you. Thank you Marvin for the memories and the lessons – the good and the bad. And most importantly, I thank God for continually staying by my side despite my unreasonable disregard. I am not worthy of anything, yet the life I’m blessed with is more than enough to dispel any doubts. I’m sorry it took me time to process things.
It was a beauty being underwater, but I’ve finally resurfaced. And god, is there even much more beauty above.
August 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
I just got back yesterday from a 2-week course on Bioceramics and Tissue Engineering hosted by University Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. When my supervisor emailed me regarding this opportunity, I wasn’t sure if I should really give up 2 weeks of lab work. It would definitely have been a setback to my schedule. But I eventually decided not to pass it off and the beginning of a really memorable academic/travel experience commenced. I won’t narrate it in detail (as there’s just too much noteworthy moments to tell about), but in summary – it was awesome and totally worth the 2 weeks. The hospitality of our Indonesian hosts was beyond measure, the guest lecturers and program was enlightening, the experiences were unforgettable, and most importantly the new friends I met made the entire thing all the more amazing.
I’ll miss these guys the most. Although I’m Filipino, my first set of friends were the Singaporeans.
One of the many group pictures we took. This was at the Java Man Museum as this site was where the first fossil of Homo Erectus was found.
Having Kopi Joss along Jalan Malioboro (Ben, Mohsin, Si Ning, Patricia, Akshaya, Charmay & Kenny)
Kopi Joss is made by placing a lighted charcoal in a glass of coffee. I don’t drink coffee but as I’m always up for new experiences I didn’t miss this chance. I liked the gritty texture and smoky flavor.
Watching the open-air Ramayana Ballet with the lighted Prambanan Temple at the backdrop
At Mangunan Forest. Best part were the tree houses!
At Borubudur Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the world’s largest Buddhist temple).
with fellow Filipinos in the course, Prof. Leo & Prof. Rizal
Having dinner at one of the Ayam & Kepiting roadside stalls at Jalan Malioboro with new friends (Tag, Dollah, Si Ning, Ben, Patricia, Charmay, Kenny & Ram)
Cheapest supper ever, so cheap that Ben fearlessly treated all of us girls after an affordable massage at Jogja City Mall. We’re eating our dinner boxes at the mall as UGM provided us 5 meals a day without failure.
Some moments in class, with my groupmates for our Capstone Project (Syu & Di Chang) as well as with prominent experts (i.e. celebrities) in the field of Bioceramics & Tissue Engineering. It was truly inspiring to listen to them.
And the most unforgettable part of all – the entire Mount Merapi experience! From the grueling 6-hour hike up in the dark (11pm-5am), multiple shooting stars and star-filled night sky, reaching the peak of the crater, the punishing 5-hour rush down the mountain, the legendary road trip to get Mohsin to the airport, and getting back to the hostel still covered with Merapi dust. Thankful for Dr. Mohsin who initiated the entire thing, Dr. Oki for being our local guide and did so much things to make the whole experience possible, and of course to Kenny, Dollah and Akshaya. Without all of them, I doubt I would have had it in me to finish the ordeal. The only thing I regret was having a pimple right smack on my nose that week – almost ruined my pictures if not for the unbeatable breathtaking views on top of Merapi.
view from the top: a sea of clouds
I’m extremely thankful to UGM, especially to Prof. Ika and her team. Also, to my supervisor for extending the invitation in the first place. I’ll definitely go back to Indonesia, and would even consider going back to Yogyakarta itself.
P.S. Interestingly, I guess this is the final nail to the coffin of my moving on – Indonesia finally meaning something else for me. Though the ending still did break my heart, a little.
Here’s a video of TEAM SAPI on top of Merapi :)
July 24, 2016 § 3 Comments
The three of us huddled at the back of the passenger jeep, shivering from the cold and pouring rain. As the vehicle made its way up the slope of the road, I thought about the other crewmen left to unload the diving gear and how long it would take for their other jeep to reach them at the shore. It’s all in a day’s work for them I guess. “You and your ideas”, Ama finally told me while still visibly shaken from the whole ordeal. “Basta ako, my idea of a vacation was to relax inside a resort sleeping and reading a book”, Gab followed through. “Whaaat? I didn’t know there was going to be a storm”, I answered while seriously considering where to have lunch. A few minutes later, my dad vomited out some of the snacks he had on the boat. Looking back, it was a very fortunate day. The wind had been strong this morning, but the sun’s heat radiated through a relatively cloudy sky. Gab and I clocked in two dives – good ones at that (I had never seen that much giant clams in a single area; and there was a pawikan sea turtle as a bonus). But after surfacing from the last dive, as if on cue, the storm came pounding in. Our boat made its way against the current and we were repeatedly tossed by the waves as the rain whipped us on the trip back to the main island. It was quite an experience, but I was too busy trying to remember if I had experienced worse. The sensation of nausea and the desire to end the ordeal was familiar. Thankfully, we all got back safely and right on time for lunch. If we had needed to wait out the storm and thus delay lunch, it would have probably been worse.
Though I wanted to go elsewhere for my recent trip back home, Ama was hesitant to book flight tickets because July is monsoon season. I grudgingly complied and proceeded to look for nearby options and settled with Puerto Galera. Our trip started at 4:00 am at the JAM bus station in Buendia where we took a bus straight to Batangas port. We arrived before 6:00am to find out that they had canceled their early (yet published) trips since it was low season. Ama and Gab were not exactly amused that I woke them up too early just to wait in the terminal. The first boat was to leave at 8:30am but thankfully the terminal was clean and comfortable enough. I booked our stay at Aninuan beach, which was one of the more quiet options in Puerto Galera. It wasn’t the optimum location for diving, but I figured Ama would appreciate the more rustic and rural environment. We stayed at Bamboo House Beach Lodge & Restaurant where the staff was very nice and the food was also good. Their restaurant/lounge was a nice place to sit at, and they had hammocks by the beach where I spent some afternoons reading. They also had kayaks that could be borrowed for free, though you needed to drag them out and return them by yourself. I did not however find the bathroom comfortable – and it didn’t help that I’m very particular about bathrooms. Aninuan beach sat right at the foot of a low mountain (the name of which I am not aware of). The beach was a mixture of sand and polished rocks – not particularly amazing yet clean and pretty enough. The isolation from the usual tourist traffic may be appreciated by some. Most resorts were ran by families, where they did everything including the cooking. Food was usually prepared right when you ordered it and we had a satisfactory dining experience overall. I also noticed an ubiquity of Italian restaurants in the area, perhaps signifying a lot of Italians who found the place conducive for settling, and thus a prevalence of authentic pizza. My dad bought one before our trip back home. A pizza that he had to run for under the rain in order for us not to miss the boat – only to find out that the boat trip was canceled due to the inclement weather. This resulted to more than 15 hours of travel (van-ferry-bus-car) as we had to go to another port where bigger boats set off from. By the time we got home, I was thankful of finally being able to use our own bathroom and sleep on my own bed. Oh, and the pizza was quite good actually. I would have eaten more if not for the fact that the van trip from Aninuan to Calapan made me dizzy as hell. As we only spent a little more than a day in the actual island, we weren’t able to explore much. I would definitely consider going back as Puerto Galera did prove an easy place to go to from Manila, a good jump point for scubadiving, and a pleasant respite from the city.
The rest of my trip back home was filled with meeting friends and family, which is always good if not for the heavier traffic nowadays. It was painful to be on the road any time beyond 6am. We even got into a minor road accident (a motorcycle hit and dented the car while we were stationary in traffic, and he just rode off). I didn’t get to meet everyone I would have wanted to, but I was thankful I finally got to visit Sheena (I couldn’t make it to her wedding last December and she’s now radiating with a baby in her womb). I was also thankful that Ama insisted we spent more time visiting Grandpa and Mama Mila, as well as Lolo. It wasn’t until now that I actually thought about how fragile they are now, literally and figuratively. Two weeks seemed a long time removed from my research, yet it felt too short to actually feel like I was home. I was finally able to start a compilation of Ama’s funny quotes though, a project I’ve always wanted to document a long time ago but just never got around writing. My brother fortunately stayed home longer as he was in-between jobs. At least this time around, Ama didn’t have to take us to the airport together.
my two grandfathers toasting bananas for the happiness of being with family
May 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
We finally made it to our first milestone! I called Mamow immediately when I received the news. I then texted Rhubz, because he’s about the closest thing I have right now to a boyfriend. I was ecstatic, not so much because it’s my first publication but more so because the endless nights of pounding myself if what I’m doing is any relevance has finally at least paid off (not that I’m convinced yet that it is relevant). I got busy telling a few other friends soon after that, to be honest. But as soon as I closed my lights and walked towards my bed, excitement overwhelmed me. In the darkness and solitude where I am always sure to find you, I told you that we nailed it. Just as how I rushed home to tell you years ago whenever I got an honor card at the end of every quarter, it was that exact same feeling that brimmed in me. In me is still the child who just wants to make her parents smile. Only now I had some tears in my eyes – partly for happiness and partly for sadness. If you were still here, I can imagine you’d send the link to all our relatives. I guess the prevention of that is the only advantage of you being not of the earth now. Otherwise, it would have been heartwarming if you were here in person to tell me I made you proud. Don’t worry about the link. I’m sure Mamow, even against my wishes, will take care of it.
May 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
Though my trip to Myanmar blandly started at the website of Skyscanner comparing air ticket prices, I’d like to think it actually started along stacks of bookshelves lined with yellowing pages about Southeast Asia. It was a Friday afternoon in the library when before leaving, I was suddenly gripped by the impulse of checking out a couple of books about Myanmar. Going there and ticking off on my list all the blogged-about activities certainly wouldn’t differentiate me from other casual travelers. But reading something more rooted and personal than the Wikipedia article might just do otherwise. I went to the shelf assigned to Myanmar, skimmed superficially through the decaying spines and plucked out several compelling ones that I subjected to another round of selection by reading a few pages of each. I didn’t want to be a pretentious history buff, nor did I want to commit to books I was dead sure I wouldn’t finish (i.e. too thick). In usual dating fashion, I bade “Sorry, it’s never going to work out” to all the titles I just forced myself to pick earlier and in the end checked out a narrative by one of my favorite Filipino writers (C.P. Hidalgo), a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi (B. Victor), and finally a historical guide book lined with much needed photographs to whet my curiosity. “28 days”, the lady told me as I asked when it was due back. “I can renew it online, right?”. “Can”, she said with a toothy smile. And with that, I flipped to the first page of Five Years in a Forgotten Land. Exactly a week later, I took my first step on the land where Orwell took inspiration for 1984 and where some of the best travel photos are often taken.
Upon landing in Yangon, the structure of the airport was nothing impressive. If anything, it was reminiscent of our own airport; though JM claims ours was way better now when I told her that. I haven’t been home lately so I wouldn’t know. We exchanged our USDs at the airport, as all the online blogs advised. You get better rates when you have 100s, so forget the 50s and 20s unless you really want to. And oh, don’t ever bring even just creased or stapled bills. They’re not likely to accept it. After counting almost half a million kyats (CHATS), we took a taxi to the city. Make sure to look for the official taxi stand when you do so. If you walk straight out of the door immediately like we did and commit to just any driver, you might get charged 20,000 kyats for what’s rightfully 8,000. We haggled and they brought it down to 12,000. I almost gave in, but JM was on a strict budget. And that’s how we found the deviously hidden official taxi stand by circumstance.
The drive down Pyay Road was dotted with big mansions, which was a contrast to the multistory apartments in downtown Yangon. Our taxi driver that day had a good command of English and he answered my inquiries as I drew questions from the road. As democracy in Myanmar had only been formally attained a year before when they held their first election after years of being ruled by a military regime, it was a fascinating time to be there. Tourism mocks were already starting to appear, but a lot of its culture and history remains intact and observable. A lot of British structures were present, and the support of the Japanese was particularly evident in the vehicles, appliances and even the trains. For awhile, I also thought North Korea had captured their market which was historically illogical, turns out Nok Air was a Thai budget airline. I asked our driver if the people look up to Aung San Suu Kyi, and he quickly replied “Oh yes, the people love the Lady”. During the entire trip, I would recall threads of history I had read and was reading from the books I borrowed. Among the things we noticed was that majority of the cars were white. We presumed it might have something to do with religion or culture, but we never found out the real answer. The majority of the men also wore longyis (LONG-JIS) whether under normal shirts or branded polos, while women were oblivious to the opaque thanaka painted on their face to protect them from the sun. We reached the city in under an hour and we had the taxi drop us at Agga Youth Hostel. Technically, all we needed that day was a place to leave our bags and to take a bath. We were scheduled to take the night bus to Bagan in 10 hours. What was wonderful about Agga Youth though was that when I emailed them asking for day-rates, they told me we could shower and leave our bags for free. I was dumbfounded by their email. “Why would it be free?”, I asked JM in disbelief weeks before while I was doing the itinerary. “Isn’t it interesting that we’re shocked when people do something innately good these days?”, she replied. So we accepted the kindness and dropped off our bags there before heading out to the streets of Yangon under the uncomfortably blazing hot weather.
We took a path going to Sule Pagoda, while meandering here and there in between some side-streets. The people were nice in general, they were neither withdrawn nor imposing. Though not everyone knew how to speak English, they were courteous and pleasant. We didn’t feel like we were going to get mugged no matter how shady the place looked, and most importantly we never got mugged nor heard from anyone that they had any equivalent experience. Hygiene was a different matter though, so medicine and abstinence would probably be wise for the faint-gutted. For an hour while walking, what we wanted to spot most was a store that sold hats. We were a bit surprised that it took us an hour to find a stall selling hats when it was practically a necessity at that weather. After circling around interesting stalls and tea shops, we finally found a stall that specifically sold hats. *pure joy* I got the widest brimmed hat I could find while JM picked out the cowboy cut. “Bagay sayo”, I told her, whereas mine looked like my bolster pillow’s cover. I couldn’t care less, except for having to remove it every time I wanted a photograph.
Before reaching Sule Pagoda, we were already dripping wet from our sweat. The moment I saw blocked plastic letters saying “ICE COLD BEVERAGES” displayed in one of the old buildings, I quickly dragged JM to the other side of the road. It was a major road I believe, but J-walking was very much the norm. We both ordered cold fruit drinks and I got a couple of dumplings. That was our first juice in Myanmar, and we found them too sweet. By the time we had our last juice, we still had the same conclusion that their drinks must be laden with sugar. “Para akong uminom ng diabetes”, she said. After resting awhile within that restaurant’s failing air-conditioning, we walked out again to look for the Yangon Central Station of the Circular Train. This train goes literally around Yangon and is a good bet for people-watching if you have 3 hours to spare. It costs 100 kyats for the entire line if you want to ride in the non-AC carriage, and 300 kyats for the AC. We bought AC tickets, but I think you’ll do better buying the non-AC if it’s not that hot. It was right smack noon however in one of the hottest times in Myanmar when we got there. And to illustrate just how hot it was, as much as we felt like dropping dead on the pavement due to the heat and exhaustion, we didn’t dare to because the temperature of the ground was bound to be worse. When we finally spotted the train beneath that bridge that took us back to memories of reading 1Q84, we couldn’t be any happier.
We only did 5 stops on the train as we didn’t have enough time to spare. We even had to forego going to Feel Myanmar Restaurant, which I had been eyeing since I started reading about the local fares. We went down a station near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda (8000 kyats, free for locals) and proceeded there as our last destination in Yangon. The stupa of Shwedagon is visible from afar within the city and like other Buddhist temples, shoes are removed as a sign of respect. The temple was huge and glaringly plated in gold. There seemed to be more local people than tourists, which was great. I wondered though if they didn’t have to be at work at that time because it was just around 5 in the afternoon then. After Shwedagon, we went back to Agga Youth, took our free bath and bade the courteous and hospitable staff goodbye.
The taxi from the city to Aungminlar Bus Station took us more than an hour. The bus station was more far-flung than I had imagined from the map. On that note, I had booked 2 out of the 3 bus tickets we needed online before our trip. Given our time constraints in our schedule, it was a good and reliable decision. However, booking there itself would cost only roughly half of what’s online. The bus stopovers had become one of my favorite moments over the course of our trip as it was an opportune time to eat local fare. I was never disappointed, and in fact one of the best meals I had there was in a stop between Bagan and Inle Lake. Local food was not astounding, and I can only describe them as homely close to the heart. They seemed to be a fusion of Thai and Indian cuisine, which was not surprising given their geographic location. Oddly however simple, I loved their food. Their sauces were usually a very oily and mild version for curries, a lot of peanut and fish sauce for their noodles. Cilantro and chilis were a staple, haters beware.
We woke up in Bagan the next day. The driver stopped the bus unceremoniously and one simply figured out that you were wherever you wanted to go. It was also perhaps because I got the Normal option. Our experience was quite different for the last VIP bus where JM and I met the Myanmar girl that amazed us. Upon alighting, men (mostly half-naked) started swarming us. Again as with any country, they tried to charge us 20,000 kyats for the ride until New Bagan. Since I had asked Ostello Bagan how much the rate really is, I attempted to bargain to 8,000. The guy who cornered me wouldn’t budge and the other taxi drivers knew how to respect each other, so I proceeded to get another guy who offered a horse cart at 8,000. It took us 4 times longer than if we got a cab, but the sun was barely up then so the ride was breezy. Bagan was very different from Yangon. Stupas were far more common than people. The land was sandy and dry, and the town itself lulled you into a slower cadence. Upon reaching Ostello, we dropped our bags and rented e-bikes (which basically were old Japanese scooters, 3000 kyats for one-seaters and 5000 kyats for two-seaters) and proceeded to look for breakfast. We went to a local place that the map in the hostel listed as a “very good tea shop”. The food was good but not great, and JM remarked “kung ito na yung very good nila, ano pa yung iba?”. When we passed by that shop again later on, I realized that the place was named “Very Good” in fact. The misleading name gave us a good laugh. After breakfast, JM explored on the e-bike and I decided to stay at Ostello to continue reading on Aung San Suu Kyi and sip on more cold fruit shakes. The hostel was very dainty and there was a lot of free seats. The place was run by an Italian and the staff were very warm and helpful. Frankly, driving the e-bike also frustrated me, which was why I took a pass from going with JM. As much as I’d like to point out that the brakes weren’t working well and it was difficult to maneuver, I probably clearly just lacked experience on scooters/motorbikes. JM returned at noon and we proceeded to look for lunch. My fears soon took their form and while trying to run the e-bike at a sandy path, I accelerated by mistake, mishandled the wheel and successfully flung myself off the moving seat. Good thing I had a helmet on as the shield cracked instead of my face. I got a deep cut in my toe and a huge bruise that spanned half of my leg for the following 2 weeks. I gave up trying to look for the restaurant by the river and we drove to the nearest restaurant instead which proved to be a good decision. As JM said, “buti na lang nangyari yun no, at least nahanap natin to”. I smiled halfheartedly for though I was still shaken, the food was indeed really good. We had local curries, stir fried vegetables and a good 600 mL of cold Myanmar beer each. The place was quaint and the owner was nice. He kept refilling our plate of peanuts to apologize that the cooking took a long time. Puppets hung on the wooden ceiling and flowering plants decorated the place. Upon going back to the hostel to check-in, we took a shower and celebrated at the sight of beds.
As with any trip to Bagan, both the sunset and the sunrise are the moments you’ll never want to miss. Taking a photograph of the horizon with silhouettes of the stupas and pagodas outlining the skyline is a beautiful souvenir, alongside actually watching it. It’s good to ask for directions for temples with a good sunset or sunrise view as the temples are usually unnamed and deserted. What’s even better is if you have more than 2 days in Bagan to afford you the luxury to explore more temples and not flock to the common ones. Our sunrise temple was quite an experience as JM proposed that we get a bigger e-bike and I could ride at the back. It was pitch black when we left at 4am and the street lamps barely lighted the path. It was terrifying and fun for the both of us, though I didn’t dare laugh too much while she was driving as I didn’t want to distract her from driving. We couldn’t find the temple we wanted to go to at Old Bagan, but a good Samaritan brought us to an unnamed temple where we had it all to ourselves – a contrast from our sunset experience where the temple we went to was swarmed with fellow tourists. After the feat, JM was quite scared from driving the both of us further so we agreed to get separate e-bikes once again. The rest of the day, JM spent on the e-bike, and as you might have guessed, I spent walking around town and finishing my book. We also bought additional books about Myanmar from a local bookshop. The old lady manning it was so pleased we came back as promised that she gave us free bottled waters. That was 600 kyats saved. At that gesture, JM was compelled to get 2 books instead of 1. We caught a night bus to Inle Lake at the end of our 2nd day in Bagan.
We arrived at Inle Lake at 3 am and proceeded to Song of Travel. They offered day accommodations at a good price (6500 kyats) and the dorm was actually good. Each bed had a curtain and the shower cubicles were clean and new. Inle Lake is best known for the photographs of fishermen paddling with their foot and carrying conical baskets. Sadly, this practice is no longer done by the locals and though we will spot a fisherman seemingly doing that, it is only for tourists’ sake and much like our own Ifugao in Baguio, done as a way to earn money. We booked our boat tour at the hostel for 15,000 kyats each (I was totally sold by how they described their tour), which later on we discovered was quite a sham since you could split a 15,000 boat between 6 people. I knew that beforehand since I actually did research on it, but unfortunately I got carried away by the words “unique”, “customized”, “cannot be replicated”, etc. It was alright anyway as we made friends with an English girl, a Spanish couple and a large Vietnamese group of travelers who just met at an online travel forum. The boat trip started at around 6 am. Inle Lake was much larger than I had imagined. It was bordered with mountains on the side and both dotted and rimmed with villages, often on stilts on the water. What was most astonishing too was the “Floating Gardens”, where people dredged soil from one place and piled it into columns in another place, and planting vegetables like tomatoes and gourds on the lake itself. It was interesting to see the farmers tending their gardens on boats. Though the water wasn’t exactly clear, the people did their laundry and bathing in the lake itself. Even the tap water was from the lake, as brown water started running when I tried washing my hands at one of the stops. I saw water pumps and water lines in some villages, though because people barely knew how to speak English, I couldn’t ask how the water was, or if it even was, filtered before being distributed. I could only surmise that garbage collection was non-existent and so human waste probably goes to the lake as well. It was interesting how the people lived not just by the lake, but on the lake as well. Town borders were demarcated in the water by wooden gates passable by one boat at a time. And though cleanliness billboards were posted at regular intervals, most boats were motorized and powered by diesel. I was at first alarmed why nothing is being done yet to stop the lake from being polluted by the motor fuel, but I caught myself realizing that Myanmar’s democratic government is just about starting. A lot of places had regular power disruptions and tap water was not potable. Local TV shows reminded me of Philippine entertainment in the 90s and drivers drove haphazardly on the road. Shopping malls are not yet a thing, but a few fastfood chains were already present. Despite this, Facebook and sleek smart phones were everywhere. The internet was clearly the fastest moving equalizer, and so was KFC.
We left Inle Lake a little bit drunk. We only spent 15 hours at Inle and as we got to the bus station early, we went to a restaurant across the road for our last beer in Myanmar. It was only 1800-2500 kyats for their giant amber bottles, so it was a cheap place to be an alcoholic.
Our trip ended at Yangon again, where I took a cab to the airport while JM stayed on for another day. I don’t think we spent enough days at Myanmar, there was clearly so much more landscapes that it offered and culture to be discovered. As it was also the first time I had read more in-depth prior to going to a new place, it was fascinating for me to trace the places as I had imagined reading them, understanding what the NLD meant to the people, and why the military regime existed and persisted despite the terrible humanitarian acts they did. I’ve corrected my wrong notion that all people in Myanmar are Burmese, just as not all people in the Philippines are Tagalogs. Though I cannot claim to have fully grasped the Myanmar zeitgeist, I can say I’ve gained a notch deeper of understanding for the Jewel of Asia.
Here’s a rough budget breakdown of the prices at that time for anyone interested.
April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment
There’s still a fire in my heart, my darling. But I’m not burning for you.
March 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
Ask me to define romance, and this will be one of my answers.
March 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
The sun glazed down on everything as I held up my hand to hail a bus. Though it could have just been any other day in this place I had grown both distant and accustomed to, there was something ethereal about holding sheets of paper from Kazakhstan with Assel’s handwriting. I held on them tightly as the bus dragged the wind against me. It’s been awhile since I last went to the post office. For the sake of recognizing this memory, I confess that being in love is harmful to my writing. On the other hand, the
search and loss loss and search of it does wonders. It magnifies emotions and turns platitudes to wisdom.
I had sent a letter to Assel shortly after coming back from my year-end vacation. The created reality of the “new year” helped me break away from the doldrums. Along with that, I sent a slow trickle of other long overdue letters as well. There’s always something beautiful about reading posted letters. Just like how we see the light of stars that had long gone – reaching our eyes at a time past when it appeared, but nonetheless a sign of its existence. There is something resplendent in the desynchronization of the space-time of the sender and the recipient. Here she was talking about a celebration she looks forward to, and me realizing that the said celebration was in fact yesterday. Here she was talking about looking for a job while me proud of the fact that she told me a month ago that she’s found one. Here she was telling me how surprised she was of the news of my failed conquest of love, and me slowly becoming indifferent to it. And just how physicists solely rely on electromagnetic waves to learn of celestial objects light-years away, we are sometimes just as dependent on words. I’m happy I’ll be stashing in another envelope in my letter box in my dorm. I’ve collected 2 shoeboxes-full now since moving to Singapore. The magnitude surprises me not because I never expected I’d receive as much, but because knowing how slow mail arrives, I have not been aware of how fast time had been running. The idea that I’ve only a year til I hopefully finish PhD excites me (and scares me). Will I still be in this place then? Will I miss it? I wonder.