Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sashimi and tempura for lunch. And about a spur-of-the-moment trip to Russia, flying into Moscow and taking the train to St. Petersburg.

Over a sashimi and tempura lunch the other day, living a #Travelife, someone and I talked about traveling to Istanbul for a weekend, as well as an upcoming trip to Russia that involves flying into Moscow and then taking the high-speed train to St. Petersburg.

The idea to visit Russia and to include the Baltic states as well in one go came out of left field, but it was perfect timing so you might call it Fate. I'd quickly looked at my iPhone calendar and realised I was free for the two weeks in mind.


I'd actually set aside these two weeks for a possible trip to Africa, but suddenly Russia beckoned invitingly.

"Life's short," I said. "Let's go. Why not."

Have passport, will travel, after all.


And Russia holds a very special place in my heart as I've studied as much as I can about its history with great intensity.

In fact, on a two-week break in Tokyo last March, my bedside reading material was an excellent biography of the enigmatic Catherine the Great, one of the greatest rulers of Russia.

I've read much about Catherine the Great, of course, as well as of Potemkin, the young, brash and ambitious soldier she raised to greatness. There is a very good biography of Potemkin by the English historian Simon Sebag de Montefiore which I highly recommend.


Last March, reading about life in Imperial Russia and about the most amazing rise of Catherine the Great in a biography by Robert Massie made me yearn for Russia again.

Catherine the Great was the only daughter of a German prince of a minor duchy and a rather bland but ambitious woman slightly above him in the social hierarchy although half his age, and she'd had the most ordinary of royal upbringings in a quiet fortress town.

Against all these odds that destined obscurity, her mother had managed to somehow broker a marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, who was also German. So from commonplace minor royalty she embarked on her rather difficult destiny as tortured daughter-in-law of a fickle empress, to neglected wife of a weak and mentally unstable czar, before finally becoming a powerful empress in her own right. If anything, this story taught me a lot about personal discipline and self-control.

I even brought the biography of Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
on the bullet train to Osaka

Rereading the tumultuous life of Catherine the Great was so fascinating I could almost not bear to put the book down. Or leave Tokyo without finishing it. So I finished this 600+ page book in two weeks -- yes, even while hosting about a hundred friends in Tokyo for Easter break and living a #Travelife.


And that certainly put me in the mood to return to Russia.

On my last visit, we'd sailed straight into St. Petersburg for the Russian White Nights and anchored right off the Hermitage so I could see the Winter Palace and the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul while having coffee on the terrace of the boat.

One night, we even took a private tour of the Winter Palace after it had officially closed for the day and the crowds had gone home. There I was in a long gown with a flute of champagne in hand, strolling through the Hermitage and our group enjoying it all to ourselves. Then afterwards we sat down to listen to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic perform some Russian musical masterpieces in one of the rooms of the Hermitage itself, amidst some of the most precious art paintings in the world.


This time around, I'm still thinking of what to do on this rather extravagant mini-break to Russia -- I am flying way more than halfway around the world, after all, for a mini-break -- living a #Travelife.

There's a hotel I really want to stay in and a fancy restaurant I so want to try in Moscow. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, I want to return to Tsarksoe Seloe and to Gatchina. I'm quite excited, actually.

But this is still so many months and at least a dozen trips away in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful #Travelife.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

White strawberries from Japan for dessert. And about political gossip at a cocktail party and a dinner tonight.

I was only away for a weekend in Tokyo this time around, but I realized I missed Manila a lot today, on my first day back in town, living a #Travelife.

It started with a very nice lunch, full of lively conversation and good food, that ended with some white strawberries from Tokyo for dessert. I'm not allowed to blog about this lunch, for some reason, so all I can say is that I had fun.


Then tonight, I went to two parties.

There I was at the Raffles Hotel early in the evening to attend a cocktail party hosted by the Ambassador of South Africa for the celebration of South Africa's Freedom Day. Attending this and seeing the giant videos on the walls of the ballroom with images of beautiful South Africa made me remember every single trip I have made there.


There have been many trips to South Africa now, but still the first one is etched most in my memory, ironically a trip with the same person I had lunch with today.

I can still feel that mixture of wonder, excitement and happiness as I opened the French doors of my hotel room and stepped out onto the balcony at the lovely Westcliff in Johannesburg on my very first morning in Africa, checking in quickly after an overnight flight to Joburg from Hong Kong.

I remember this feeling as if it was only yesterday. I can still smell the crisp air and I can still recall everything I saw from the balcony as lions roared in the distance.

Scroll down to read more about the Philippine presidential elections... 


Of course, there was lots of talk about the upcoming Philippine presidential elections tonight.

Not a few ambassadors at this cocktail party told me that they had just filed their reports on the elections to their respective governments. Hearing about the information they sent to their respective countries actually surprised me because it seemed as skewed as the biased coverage of some media outlets.

I almost said to them, at this cocktail party: "Looks like you've been watching a lot of television and reading the biased newspapers, instead of putting your ear to the ground."


Then I hurried over back into the villages to attend a sit-down dinner hosted by a well-liked ambassador for his good friends. 

The dinner included three very clued-in and well-known political observers, so of course we talked politics with gusto.

For these three locals, none of them Duterte supporters in particulars, the Duterte win is almost a shoo-in because his lead is just too big -- they feel that the massive machineries of two of the other four candidates will still not be able to generate a win against this big lead.

"The anti-Mar sentiment is so strong," said one gentleman. "I hear the same thing everywhere - people are voting 'anyone but Mar.'"

He also likened Duterte's popularity to the popularity of former President Joseph Estrada. "Except that this time, Duterte has support across the board from all classes, including the A and B classes."

Another one said: "The Roxas camp is campaigning on continuity. They just don't get it. It's exactly more of the same that people don't want. So much of the Duterte vote is about wanting change, and so much of it is also a protest vote against the status quo."


This is when I heard the very interesting news that many of the FVR men are behind presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte's campaign, and that some of Manila's top businessmen are actually quiet Duterte supporters.

And the best news I heard tonight came from someone who knows everyone in Manila. He said: "At the Makati Business Club lunch today, someone whispered to me that if Duterte wins, he will ask Gilbert Teodoro to join his cabinet."

I almost jumped up from my seat when he said this, as I think Gilbert Teodoro would be a great asset to any cabinet.

And with that very nice thought, I happily ended just another interesting evening in my never-endingly eventful #Travelife.

Simple and delicious sushi in Shibuya. And about the financial crises of the last 30 years.

Quite appropriately, my last evening in Tokyo for this trip, living a #Travelife, was a sushi dinner at one of my favourite neighbourhood joints with some of my favourite people.

In our table on Monday night were three owners of very successful companies and two others were the CEOs of some of the largest financial firms in Japan.

As this is the First World, too, everyone mostly made it on their own with lots of hard work, smart strategizing and good luck.

It's not like in the Third World where so many people get to call themselves CEO by inheriting Daddy's company and then attending board meetings and signing checks.


Work aside, we have lots in common so it's very comfortable to be around them, and the conversations are always incredibly fascinating.

Interestingly, we all eat at pretty fancy restaurants with other people most of the time -- and we're all dressing up and dining out practically every night of the year.

But when we get together, it's always a dressed down dinner at a rather anonymous little restaurant serving simple but good food.

In fact, I was the last one to arrive on Monday night and they'd teased me that I'd dressed up for the occasion although I'd really just put on my favourite coat dress from the fashionable Rue Majorelle indie designer boutique in Marrakech over a Gap flannel shirt and some slim black pants.

Scroll down to read more about good sushi in Shibuya... 


But our dinners together are always around the neighbourhood in restaurants bordering on nondescript. One time recently it was to a crowded little bistro in Shibuya and still another time it was to an equally crowded tiny restaurant that served Japanese home-cooking.

Both not my first choices, but then I'm never there for the food anyway, when I'm with them.


This sushi place we went to last night is quiet but very good. It's frequented mostly by regulars -- no walk-in strangers carrying the Michelin Guide around here -- and the taste is very understated, the prices reasonable.

Monday night's conversation focused on a top Japanese haute couture designer who tells the fortune of his clients, ghosts in hotels around the world, cutting-edge companies in Taiwan, a weekend in New Orleans, a building someone should have bought in the commercial district of Niseko, and why it's so much better these days to just stay in hotels than to maintain weekend homes.

In other words, just another wonderful evening in my never-ending #Travelife.