Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Discovering Coron

Despite the bad weather. Michael and I spent a weekend in the secluded island paradise of Busuanga, the largest island of the Calamian Group of Islands  lying between Mindoro  and mainland Palawan. Our Busuanga contact told us that the sea is always calm in this part of the Philippines, perhaps because of  the island's unique position.  

Landing on Busuanga island is like being welcomed into a lush Australian savanna.  Shortly after we get off the Cebu Pacific propeller plane  and ride the van  to Coron town, we realize why. Riding with us is Raffy, who works with the  local tourism authority. He tells us a very interesting tidbits about his hometown and hands us a map of Busuanga.

The Busuanga airport is situated on the vast tracts  of land comprising the  Yulo King Ranch, purported to be the largest ranch in Asia. The estate was said to be confiscated from the Yulos by a former dictator who brought in and propagated carpet-like Australian grass to feed the Australian Brahman cows that roam freely in the ranch. The ranch has since been sequestered by the  government and is currently  run by Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries as a nature reserve.  

The municipality of Coron  is a 45 minute-drive from the Busuanga airport, which is said to still run on generators, because of the lack of electricity in the area. The very comfortable and scenic ride costs us Php 150 each.  Once in a while, we chance upon herds of  Brahmans harmoniously grazing side by side, unmindful of the  egrets playfully landing on their backs. There are local cowboys too, but they don't dress like John Wayne here. 

Coron is a coastal town, with a population 30,000, where everybody has a welcome smile. Locals wave and smile at us as if we were close friends. We are informed that the town proper and Coron island are two different places. Coron town is the main town south of Busuanga, while Coron island is a 15-minute boat-ride away from town and is known for several World War II Japanese shipwrecks.

We check in at the highly recommended Amphibi-ko, a quaint bed and breakfast facing the ocean, which boasts of free wifi connection, a Japanese restaurant, a gym and for the adventurers,  land and water sports vehicles. Owned by a Japanese who married a Filipina, Amphibi-ko presently has only 2 rooms and more still under construction. We are welcomed by  Ina the front desk manager and we find out that we are the only guests there.  After showing us our rooms, she hails a tricycle for us.

We take a 5-minute ride around the busy town plaza and then dropped by one of the small cashew stores in town.  Coron is known for its delicious  cashew nuts. We learn later on that the  hardy cashew plant is one of the few plants that thrive in Coron's acidic soil. Although there seems to be a lot of arable land in municipalities of Coron and Busuanga, we found no rice fields, which is peculiar for a Philippine province.

The crew in Golden Harvest Cashews ushers us into their small store and asks to try breaking apart a cashew nut by using this specialized cutter. I almost cut my fingers as I yank the lever to cut the cashew nut in half. Once cracked open, it is then sorted by hand, before it is roasted in garlic. We bought 250-gram packs for Php 100. They are also gracious enough to hand us 4 saplings of cashew plant for us to bring home. We learned later on that it takes at least 15 years for a cashew plant to bear fruit.  We sample the naturally sweet and crunchy nuts as we head for our next destination--Maquinit hot springs. 

Before that, our  thoughtful tricycle driver Mang Ed, with his sound system blaring classic Filipino hits, takes us on a detour to Nueva Street, to buy us  tickets for the spring. He asks us to buy here so we can get the local rate of Php 50 each, instead of the usual charge of Php 100 at the resort entrance.  It was a bumpy 45-minute ride. On our way to the hot springs, we notice that the soil here is rocky and reddish in color and reminding us of our trip to Spain. The volcanically heated spring is located on the foot of a hill partly hidden by mangroves that faces the open sea. We reach the place near sunset, which turns out to be the best time of the day to visit. This attraction is open until 10 PM. 

When we arrive, we see couples, families, both locals and tourists enjoying the warm water. We also see a lady in crutches dipping her injured feet into the small pool near the entrance. The 33 to 40 degrees C water must be therapeutic too. There are two hot pools near the spring and both cascade down into a larger pool. Water from this large pool, in turn,cascades down to the ocean.

I am quite surprised by the hot water that greets me at the large pool but pretty soon my body adjusts to the temperature. It is  a very relaxing dip. I will not forget the view as I floated lazily from the pool.  Michael and I take advantage of the healing properties of this sulfuric water by dunking our faces into the cascading mini-falls that divided the two pools. Instant sauna and facial! When we  alight from the springs, we do feel an improvement in skin texture. 

It is dark when we board our tricycle, but for the other guests at the springs, the party is just starting. Some have brought food and drinks bought from the local sari-sari (convenience store) store that sells goods  imported from Manila and thus the high price. Our tricycle gets stuck in the red mud and Michael goes down to help our driver carry the vehicle up a slope. That's when we realized why they charge  Php 150 per person for this trip.

Although it rained the whole night as we slept cozily in our room on stilts at Amphibi-ko, we are greeted by the  early morning sun! The weather is perfect for visiting Coron Island, with its unique rock formations, caves, and dive sites. We join another Filipino couple from Manila along with Kiko, our boatman,  and two others. The view is breathtaking. I am almost disappointed that my DSLR cannot completely capture all this beauty. 

Kiko first takes us  snorkling at the Skeleton Wreck. Almost just 20 meters from the shore, the skeleton wreck is one of the Japanese warships sunken by the American troops in World War II. Since visibility was good this morning, the haul of the ship can be easily seen. It does look like skeleton with jagged edges jutting from the sides. Then, there is the teeming wildlife--corals, colorful fishes and other marine life. And this is just the first stop. I momentarily lose interest in the wreck when I realized that some soldier might have died there and turned to chase the fishes instead. As I swimming with the fishes,  a boatman rowed by our boat. It is from the local Tagbanua tribe and he is the caretaker of the site. The Tagbanuas  have  ancestral claim of the island. They been assigned by the government  to monitor each tourist attraction in Coron and are authorized to collect fees from every tourist for the site maintenanc. We are asked to pay Php 100 each to view the Skeleton Wreck. Mang -- also gives us an impromptu  language lesson. I learned that fish in Tagbanua is "Iyan." 

Tired from snorkeling, we find ourselves docking on the pristine white sands of Island 91, called so because high school batch '91 had their reunion here. Michael and I  are both overwhelmed by the crystal clear water. The water was almost transparent! As I swim, I see white fishes, no make that translucent fishes, playing close to the shore. A school of them found lunch in what seems like a small white octopus which they are nibbling with delight. 

Soon, it's our turn to have lunch. Kiko and his friends, who went to the market for us early this morning,  have prepared a delicious meal consisting of rice, fresh broiled fish, roasted pork liempo, Maya-maya fish broth, bananas and mangoes. I kid you not, it is one of my most memorable meals.  I almost never want to leave this idyllic island. 

Next stop is the Twin Lagoons. We arrive at this cove fronting a small natural opening. We are pleasantly surprised two see at least 5 vessels filled with local and international tourists. And this is supposed to be off-season. Since the small entrance renders it impassable, Michael and I swam to the entrance. Some tourists brought kayaks and inflatable rafts. As we go deeper into this big lagoon which is surrounded by emerald-colored hills, we notice that the water is less salty and  smells  stagnant. There are also pockets of cold and hot water intermingling. We swim far into  to the edge of the lagoon only to discover that it opens to the wide into ocean. We feel like we were tricked to enter the small entrance for a Php 100 fee when we could have entered from the other end, but I guess there's no thrill in that.  It was a beautiful stop nonetheless. 

Michael and I were the last ones to go up the boat. A few minutes later we were going down to explore the Kayangan River, acclaimed to the cleanest lake in the Philippines. A Tagbanua named Jason met us and he showed us a map of the lake, which is bordered by the limestone cliffs. We were told that we can only travel up to the small lake near the entrance. The big lake is located deep into the mountains where birds nest and is thus a protected sanctuary. An entrance fee of Php 200 is collected to help in the preservation of this nature wonder.  To get to the small lake, with visibility up to 15 to 20 ft., we had to climb up a steep incline. After a  challenging 15- minute climb, we reach a clearing that faces a lonely cave. It gives us a great view of the ocean.  

Catching our breath, we go down the slope to reach the beautiful lake below.    Since it rained the night before, the lake is swollen with water and it overflows to the bamboo walkway. The water is not as clear as we had hoped but we did see green swordtail fish swimming  by the bamboo planks.  Some families chose to have a picnic there. I just hope they will be careful with their trash. We linger there for a while, tasted the cool fresh water and just took  in splendid view. 

Our last stop for the day is Siete Pecados Marine Park, which is Spanish for "seven sins." It is a group of seven islets surrounds an extensive coral reef. Even before we could dock, the caretaker of this attraction hurried to us in his small banca. His name is Agapito. He seemed sad because the rains have made the water murky.  We chose not to feed fish from the comforts of the boart, instead of diving into the water. Our boatman Kiko, a Coron native who used to worked as a fastfood crew in  Makati City, catches an angel fish with his bare hands. The reef is obviously teeming with marine life. He shows the fish to us before promptly throwing it back to the ocean. 

The sun is almost setting as we docked on the pier. Lined up on the dock are different resorts. We also see a new  hotel and boardwalk rising up. Things are coming up for Coron.

After freshening up, we walked up a flight of stairs to find Tapyas Road which leads up to Mt. Tapyas and it's famous lookout point. The big white cross at the top of 210-meter mount beckons.  At the foot of the mountain are three boys selling cold drinks. Erwin, Emil and Eli decided to accompany us to the top. It takes exactly 718 stair-steps to get there. There are benches and railings for rest stops along the way. Emil impresses us by using the steel railings to propel himself up. Michael challenges the boys to a race to the top. Not even one-fourth of the way, he stops and laughs at his foolishness, while the kids zoom past him, without even looking back. Erwin, who is carrying a heavy cooler filled with drinks, reaches the summit first and gazes out triumphantly at us. It took another 15 minutes for us to get there. The magnificent view makes up for the tiring climb.  Michael and the boys have a bonding session, while I enjoy the sights

It was dark when we decide to go down. Since the lights were damage in the rain, we go down in total darkness, glad to have the boys for company.  We are  impressed by the politeness and helpfulness of these three pre-pubescent boys.  We notice as we are going down that each takes turn in carrying the heavy cooler. Without even saying a word, one takes the cooler from the other. They do this everyday to earn their school allowance. We reluctantly say our goodbyes at the foot of Mt. Tapyas and we promise to send them pictures of our time together. 

Hungry after a whole day of adventure, we walkup to a fishball stand to sample their fishball, kikiam and gulaman. The fishball vendor Nino is a Manilan who used to work in Mandarin Hotel, Makati. He decided to settle in Coron with his family. He likes the simple life here, he says. 

As we set out for Amphibi-ko, fat droplets fell from the sky and suddenly it was a heavy downpour! Fortunately, a tricycle passes by, saving us from getting completely drenched. We boarded the tricycle,  giggling like teenagers. The perfect end to our Coron adventure.

Estimated roundtrip airfare from Manila: Php 3,000

Estimated cost for a 3 days/ 2 night stay: P2,500 

Island Hopping tour: from Php 1000-1500 

For bookings and inquiries, contact 888 Ticketworld: 

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Dream Wedding Venue

Discovering Splendido was one of the highlights of our 2008. After getting engaged on 168 (January 6, 2008),we excitedly took a trip to Tagaytay to scout for a wedding venue. Since we both love the outdoors, we planned on having a garden wedding. I particularly wanted to get married in a lush garden fronting a sprawling golf course. We looked at possible venues the whole day, but were not quite satisfied with what we found.  
As we were driving back to Manila at dusk, a thought popped into my mind. Out of the blue, I blurted out to my fiance, “Sa Splendido na lang tayo (Let's get married in Splendido).” At that time, I didn't have an inkling what Splendido looked liked or if it was even open for weddings. The last time I saw the place was in 2004 when it was under still construction. At that time, some friends and I just happened to pass by Splendido on our way to Batangas and we parked near the sales office to stretch our legs. That was my only encounter with the place.

 It must have been It must God whispering a wonderful secret to us for the very next day, I surfed the net and was all too delighted to find that Splendido is actually a golf club and, more than that, it is fast becoming a popular wedding destination! I called their trunkline right away and reserved a date even though we haven't seen the place.
And when I asked if we could have a wedding on the golf course, assistant marketing supervisor Noel immediately informed us that they actually have a nursery just right behind the golf course where we could have the wedding.

The Splendido nursery is an elevated diamond-shaped garden beside a man-made lake. To go there,you have to walk or drive a golf cart through a path that would give you a stunning view of the greens. Then, you go up a flight of thoughtfully placed cobbled stones steps. The view is simply breath-taking. It was the perfect place for us--large enough to accommodate our 250 guests yet small enough to get that intimate feel that we wanted for the ceremony. Really a dream come true!

Another revelation was the food! Not only was it reasonable, it was a heavenly fare. Later on, I found out that the kitchen is headed by Chef Ed Quimson and Chef Tristan Bayani two of the most promising chefs we have in the country. When we requested for a customized menu to fit our budget, they gladly gave in. To be practical, we decided to get mini-cakes instead of the usual wedding cake with only one edible layer. Splendido's pastry bar baked such deliciously decadent and eye-catching cakes for us that made us wished we took a second serving during the cake-cutting.

During the course of the preparations, we called on Noel, Jonna, newly appointed marketing supervisor Cherry and restaurant supervisor Bomel time and again for changes and what-have-yous, and they were very accommodating. Noel was always on hand to answer questions. I appreciate how he listened and answered questions when my mom checked out the place two weeks before the ceremony. When I asked Cherry for help with the VIP place cards, she volunteered to do it for us, even though it wasn't part of the package. Bomel with his bubbly personality is just so conscientious and passionate about his job. He took very good care of us during all our meetings and went out of his way to grant our every request.He made us feel confident that everything would work out well on our day. I'm so glad he personally drove my wedding cart to the ceremony.

Our wedding day was such an answered prayer and a dream come true. A few minutes before the ceremony, it actually drizzled. Guests had to be transported back from the greens to the club house. Dark clouds loomed directly ahead and some of our guests and sponsors panicked. Despite the gloomy scenario, the whole staff believed and prayed with us that the weather would clear. A few minutes later, our prayers were answered. Not only did we have our wedding at the Splendido Nursery with nary a hitch, God even gifted us with a glorious sunset as the ceremony concluded Moreover, there wasn't a drop of rain the whole night as we partied away during the reception.

It's been a year since our October 2008 wedding. We still reminisce about the whole experience almost every day and we can't stop thanking God for Splendido. It's a place we know we will always come back to.

We received this note from Splendido's CEO last Oct. 8, 2009:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hong Kong's Sampan Ladies

In HongKong's waterways, sampans, which literally mean "three planks" in Cantonese, still flourish as both a mode of transport and, for the economically-challenged, a modest abode. During a recent trip to Asia's frenetic shopping capital, I was amazed to know that old women navigate the waters in these sampans to eke out a living. With the strength and agility of men half their age,they deftly maneuver the wooden boats in an area dotted with fishing boats and yachts, to the delight of tourists who go along for a ride at a hefty HK$50. Once the water is calm, these ladies unveil the goods and souvenirs covered by colorful blankets and get ready to earn additional bucks from their passengers.

Sextuagenarian Mrs. Pik, shown in picture number 2, has been navigating her sampan for years to help augment the family income. The reason most sampan navigators are women, I was told, is that men are out fishing at sea.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Fun in Malaysia

Photo: Fun in Malaysia with sister Christine! (5-16-05)

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Memories of Oxford

Spring, England. I am on a bus bound for Oxford with 19 students from the different Manila universities. Having barely slept from the 13-hour flight, my colleges, I sit quietly beside the window, clutching a blue demin backpack containing a few essentials, a new hallmark diary and two favored Nikon cameras, filling my vision with sights of greens and small country houses, dreaming of the adventure that awaits as we neared the prestigious town, which is to be my home for a month.

I am a born wanderer, and this is not my first time in England. I was in London a year ago with my family for three days during a Central Europe sojourn.

Photo: Oxford University

As the bus enters the town, I am pleasantly surprised to discover that Oxford, 50 miles northwest of London, has none of the somber drabness of the English capital’s skyline. Oxford at first glance looks like a friendly small town straight from the medieval fairy tales.

The bus makes its way through the edge of the town, and my eyes are bombarded by line upon line of well-trimmed Georgian houses, gleaming in the morning sun. The bus stops at Wosley Hall, in front of a newly renovated, three-story Victorian house. A well-placed placard outside the building announces that we are in front of the UTS school of English. We all rush out and are suddenly overwhelmed by the cold that greets us despite the sun’s rays.

A balding man comes to meet us, introducing himself as Luke, the school administrator. He tells us that we Filipinos must have brought the sun with us. I am to discover that we, by some rare coincidence, have truly done so. Just two days before our arrival, it was snowing here.

After a test in English proficiency, we are called out one by one outside to meet our host families. Tomorrow, we go back for our first day of class. I meet my foster mother Valerie, a tall woman, in her forties with short red hair. Beside her are two smiling girls in their teens. They introduce themselves as Victoria and Samantha.

Together, we try to carry my 2-ton luggage down the steps of the Wosley Hall. We board a local red bus. I am treated to the sight and sounds of a city built almost 10 centuries ago. As we near the city centre, the small stone houses give way to big limestone structures with oval-shaped wooden doors. These structures are the colleges, libraries, museums and student residences that make up the Oxford University. There are 36 colleges in all at Oxford, dating from almost every century, superb examples of the work English architects dating as far back as the Renaissance.

Technically, there is no campus that can be labeled as the ‘Oxford University’ because in a broad sense the ‘University’ as Oxonians know it, is an umbrella organization that comprises all the colleges and teaching institutions. Alongside these majestic structures is a sprinkling of small, quaint stores: bookshops, salons, bread-and-breakfast cottages, and boutiques. The blend of grand and rustic architecture is charming.

As we move away from the centre, another aspect of Oxford presents itself. Like a beautiful painting, the Oxford countryside appears before me. I see a field of yellow flowers. The girls promise to take me there this afternoon.

Photo: My Field of Yellow Flowers

All four of us push the luggage up the inclined plane to 20 Mather Road, a small terra-cota country house with a small garden up front, bordered by a low stone fence. As we enter the door, I am greeted by Benjamin, a friendly black Labrador--the family pet.

The house is small but cozy, well lighted, decorated with family pictures, painting of dogs and stuff. In the center of the living room is a fireplace. My room, which is nearest the stairs, is a simple white corner complete with a wooden bed, a study and a walk-in closet, its door doubling as a full-length mirror. Beside the window, on the edge of my fluffy is an accordion-looking metal contraption, which I discover is a radiator, to keep me warm during the crisp spring nights. For many days, I shudder at the thought of touching it for fear that I might get electrocuted. I discover later that it is run by coal.

“You, all right, Jenny?” Valerie pleasingly asks in a sing-song manner as she ushers me to the kitchen where Victoria is preparing lunch with a big table knife. Lunch is a 2-ft. long baguette, chopped into pan de sal sizes and garnished with tomatoes and cheese. I glumly wonder if I will be eating the same hard, tasteless bread for the rest of my stay. To help the bread along, Valerie gives me a cup of tea mixed with milk and honey--my first real English beverage.

The afternoon is spent with Vic, Sam and their neighborhood friends, the youngest barely 5 years old. They take me to the barn to show me the chickens, the goats and those gigantic cows. Peter, the youngest in the bunch, excitedly points them to me, babbling in incomprehensible English as he does so. Before we go back for dinner, we traverse a small stream, and cross over a wooden fence, with me logging breathlessly behind, to reach the promised land--the field of yellow flowers.

Photo: Sam & Benjamin

The kids tell me that this plot of land is co-owned by the people who live in the area. The flowers are actually mustard plant flowers. I linger a while enjoying the view, feeling a little foolish that I left my camera behind.

We eat dinner at half past five, too early for a Manilan a like me. I wonder if the food will carry me through the night. But seeing the size of the platter makes me change my mind. Valerie serves me shepherd’s pie, which is not really a pie but mashed potato mixed with beef and peas. The serving is so big that I gulped down two pitchers of water. Dinner in England is called tea time. “Will you come home for tea?” I remember Valerie asking before I left with the kids this afternoon.

At the dinner table, Victoria invites me to watch a football game in the village green. Football, the American counterpart of soccer, not rugby, I discover, is the country’s favorite sport.

At six, Valerie’s husband Nick, the splitting image of Victoria, comes home. He greets me politely and disappears to the living room to catch the World Cup.

When the girls and I set out for the village green at seven, the sun is still shining brightly. There I meet some locals who keep addressing me as “the student” No one seems to mind my being Asian.

The next day I wake up to the sound of birds singing. I force myself out of bed. I have to get ready for school. While finding my way to the correct bus stop, I see students, attired in classy Oxford suits, male and female alike, hardly losing an inch of poise as they rushed to their respective colleges on bicycles. I guess the bus fare is just too expensive for someone living on school allowances.

A ride to the city centre from our place costs roughly about fifty pesos. Lucky for me, I have my bus pass, which is fully paid for by the school.
Puffing up the steps, I beat the school bell. The school is full of students of all colors: Asians, Caucasians, Hispanics, all here for one purpose: to learn English. My module includes Business English, rhetorics, English drama and English culture. I find out that Filipinos are highly regarded at UTS for their skills in English. Thus, in the mornings, we join the advanced classes. And in the afternoons, we get to mingle with students from other countries. The classes are quite light. The teachers are mostly Oxford students who wanted to earn extra money.

Photo: An English Tower

Classes end at 3 o’clock. Students are free to pursue their own activities after school. Still, the school organizes parties, sport fests, barbecues and other fun activities for the students. For my first after school activity, I join an Oxford treasure hunting trail. The trail takes my trail partner Maureen and me to the famous sights in Oxford: the Sheldonian Theater, where they hold the university’s opening ceremonies each year; the Christ Church, one of the oldest colleges; Oxford’s very own Bridge of Sighs, which connects two adjacent colleges; and the famous Bodlean Library, a old dome-like structure so high-tech it uses conveyor belts underneath the ground to transport books to the 36 colleges.

The treasure leads us to a 15th-century pub inside a narrow passageway. We turn a corner to find Sarah, the treasure trail master, drinking wine under a cherry tree with pink flowers in full bloom. We join her and collect our prize--gift certificates from the local HMV record store.

Every day for a month, my calendar is full with school, social activities and out-of -town excursions. One spring night, our teacher in rhetoric takes us to watch a formal debate by the Oxford Union. On May Day, a national holiday for the Brits, when they loosen up and do crazy things like jumping over the bridge, my classmates and I go punting on the River Cherwell, to get a view of Oxford from the waterfront. On Fridays, my Filipino collegues and I go to the theatre, ironically to watch the latest American movies, which cost us about 135 pesos.

Photo: Punting at the River Cherwell

As Oxonians love hanging out in the pub, we also go pub-hopping to try to “inhale” some local culture, but it can prove to be quite dangerous for a person like me who’s allergic to cigarette smoke.

But what cherish most about my stay are the times I spend alone, getting lost in the nooks and crannies of this fascinating little town. In Oxford, every corner brings a wonderful surprise. One minute I am buying some toiletries at a modern supermarket in the main street and with a turn, I am transported back to the bygone times, as I walk down the cobbled steps and find myself in front of a 16th century Anglican church.

And I love shopping in the City Centre:browsing through the old bookshops, scouting for dresses at the local boutiques. Things are not exactly cheap in this town. Everything is taxed. Resourcefulness helps a lot. I, for example, discover a bookstore which sells a complete volume of Charles Dickens’ works for only 99p or roughly 45 pesos. For clothes, I go to the children’s section, the only tax-free section, and buy clothes for 13-15 year olds. One schoolday, I rush to the stores to buy a 450 peso black dress that I wear to a formal affair that same evening.

Photo: Kite-flying at University Park

On days I get sentimental, I visit the parks. The University Park is one of the most famous in town. On my first week in Oxford, I go on a picnic by myself. I see students playing Frisbees, young children flying kites, couples strolling hand in hand.
Much of my memory of Oxford is warm because of my host family. From Valerie, I discover that most Oxonians are middle-class working people, with hardly anything to do with the university. In fact, a lot of them could only dream of getting an Oxford education.
Most people go to work after they finish middle school.

Nick and Valerie, who take in foreign students to augment the family income, are no different. Nick works as a glacier, fixing windows and glass panels for a local company. Valerie prefers to stay in the house to look after the children. But at lunch time, when Vic and Sam are in school, she volunteers at a school for disabled children.

Valerie and Nick are simple, endearing people, who enjoy gardening, watching BBC documentaries and soaps on the “telly." One Saturday night, I am amused to find them in front of it, catching lotto results. They tell me they buy lotto tickets every week and pushes me to try my luck. A Pakistani woman won the grand price the week before. Their suggestion makes me wonder if I am not actually talking with a Filipino couple disguised as middle-class European.

Photo: Carousel Ride in London

One crisp night a week before my departure, Nick prepares a barbecue in my honor. He tells me he would have ordered Chinese take-out except that it would have been too expensive.

I feel guilty. Some nights when I crave rice, I go to the Chinese restaurant in front of the MGM theatre to for some “real” dinner before I go home. I am humbled by their simple lifestyle. A lot of the things I do back home will be deemed too luxurious by this family that comes from the richest of the first-world countries.

Nick takes out the chicken and the marinating sauce. He begins to marinate the chicken as I ask him what he thinks about the royal family.
“We basically don’t care about them,” he plainly replies with losing his trademark politeness. “We think they are snobs. And they waste the people’s money.”

Then, he goes on to explain to me how to cook the chicken. I trail behind him as he goes to the backyard to build to build fire. After half an hour of fanning the flame and treating the chicken with Nick’s special sauce, the three of us sit there relishing the food, with Nick occasionally feeding Benjamin some chicken bones. The sun has finally set. As I sit there taking in everything, I hear some familiar childhood tune playing in a distant. Nick tells me it’s the ice cream man.

One again I find myself back on the bus, this time to leave the charming town that was my home for a month. As we travel to the airport, I get a last glimpse of the rows of houses that line Oxford. Then it appears before me again--the field of yellow flowers--my field of gold. It does not look as splendid now as it did on the day I arrived, for spring has slowly given way to summer.

Still, I feel a tug at my heart as I watch the remaining flowers gracefully sway with the summer breeze, somehow orchestrating a farewell dance just for me.

My wanderings always leave me a little weary and blaĊĦe. But not this time. Oxford has been most worthwhile. (1995)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Faces of an Old Empire

Russia. Everyone in the train held his breath as two tall and acerbic Russian officers entered the coach to get our passports. Outside stood two equally imposing Russian guards armed with rifles, each followed by mean-looking police dogs. We were on the border separating Finland and Russia for the last leg of our tour. Travel guides back home informed us that the trip to the former Soviet Republic could prove to be perilous. The group before us lost their belongings to looters posing as guards. This was common in a poor country trying to outgrow its communist roots. What drove us to continue the journey was the promise of an opulent past embodied by majestic cathedrals and palaces that abound in the old empiare.

I was not disappointed, for in Russia I saw grandness and splendor unlike anything I had seen in Europe. Cathedrals with colorful facades and golden domes proudly dominated the smog-laced skyline. Paintings, sculptures, and relics by the most prominent artists in the world adorned Russian museums. Impressive palaces carefully preserved through the years bested the grandest in all Europe.

In St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, I frolicked in palace grounds decked with life-sized statues in gold, peeked into grand ballrooms done in intricate golden floral patterns, and wandered in sitting rooms with wall-to-wall paintings of beautiful Russian women also framed in gold. It was as if gold was the most abundant resource of the country.

Surrounded by such magnificence, I couldn’t help but weave fairy tale dreams about the luxurious lives of the former czars who once occupied these palaces. Yet once I stepped outside, I was greeted by reality, and it was no fairy tale.

In the streets, I saw poverty and misery etched in the ashen faces of the people I met: a forlorn young gypsy girl begging for food as she clutched his sleepy baby brother outside a five-star hotel; a despondent old lady trying to peddle Russian dolls to uninterested tourists; a pallid young man staring blankly at the passing cars as the bus he was on slowly inched its way in the Moscow rush-hour traffic. I had never seen this kind of hopelessness. And it stared back at me everywhere I looked. It seemed like the people in this country never learned how to smile.

Looking at them, I could only feel deep disgust for the inefficiency of the former system and the avarice that possessed those ghosts in the golden houses who once ruled their land. (1996)