Friday, March 30, 2012

Getting away from it all to talk about it all

Today, one of the two friends who came along with me to Sri Lanka left for Manila. He was supposed to leave last night, actually, but we were all having so much fun that we found a way for him to stay one more day. But tonight, he really had to go, as he was catching a flight out of Manila tomorrow night for another Asian city.

Yup, it's an overnight flight for him. And from the time he arrives in Manila to the time he has to take another flight out of Manila on another trip (not related to Travelife), the time constraint is 90 minutes to get his baggages, get out of immigration, find his driver, get another luggage full of new clothes from the driver, drop off his Sri Lanka baggage, and check in again at NAIA for another flight.


I so hope he's able to do this, as I've sent a large oil lamp I bought in Colombo home with him. I don't think he would like to take this heavy lamp on another trip. We'd gone to this arts and crafts shop in Colombo, you see, and I'd seen this lovely lamp that Sri Lankans and many Indians as well place at the entrance of their homes and light up to welcome guests.

It's really beautiful and I've always wanted one, after seeing how it can make a home so pretty -- both the ambassadors of India and Sri Lanka have one in their homes in Makati.

I'd seen this lamp already last year on my first trip to Sri Lanka, but I decided not to buy it then as it's made of brass and really heavy. But now, here was my friend with the empty luggages just waiting for my shopping stuff, offering to carry anything and everything home for me.

"They can dismantle it and I can stick it in my luggage. That's why I came here with an empty suitcase." he'd said. That made the issue to buy or not buy a lamp a no-brainer. Out came the credit card.


Today we're about five hours away from Colombo, however, and the three of us had lunch at the Jetwing Sigiriya resort, which is the other nice boutique hotel in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. We eat at our very nice hotel in another location every night, but for lunch we go to one of the other fancy hotels in the area just to see what the others are like.

Jetwing Sigiriya is a luxury all-villa eco-resort. Its main building, which has a restaurant on the second floor with a nice view of Sigiriya itself, is very relaxing indeed. Over a delicious lunch of Sri Lankan curries, served family style, we had another long lunch with non-stop laughter and teasing -- and some serious talk as well.

When we weren't teasing the La Sallite, we were talking about life and work.


"What's the difference between a blog and a magazine article?" One of them asked me. Lots of people think they're the same, after all. For me, the blog is like a diary so it's very casual in style and free-for-all in terms of topics.

But a magazine article is much more formal and it requires more discipline. For example, I hardly ever edit my blog entries, but I'll look at an article I've written for the magazine maybe 20 times before considering it done.

Many words which are used liberally in a blog should also never make it to a magazine -- or at least not to Travelife Magazine. For example, I use words like "posh" here, and liberally sprinkle entries with pretty mundane words like "good" or "very." I would almost never use such words without proper reason in a Travelife Magazine article.


Of course the teasing never stopped, and especially not the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry teases. In fact, I was rather shocked that the teasing continued until the very last minute, in the middle of nowhere in Sri Lanka, when Friend A got into the car that was to take him on a 4.5 hour drive to the airport.

Friend B and I had gone to say goodbye to him, you see, and they were still teasing each other until the last minute for saying goodbye.

And perhaps the most interesting part was that our guide and main driver got into the act as well, so that effectively everyone ganged up on Friend A, the lone La Sallite.


Then tonight, the two of us had dinner at our hotel and our guide joined us. Over more Sri Lankan curry, we listened fascinatedly to his tales of life in Sri Lanka in the past decades. This country, you see, has had a pretty violent history because of fighting with the Tamils in the north until just a few years ago, and it pretty much scarred the country.

There was real fighting, lots of attacks even in Colombo, and assassinations left and right. So many top government officials were killed by the Tamils over the years. Now the war is over but the country faces another set of political challenges.

Friend B and I smiled to ourselves as the events he described sounded so much like the Philippines 30 years ago. "I'm glad to know we're not alone in our troubles," I said. Of course we aren't as all countries have their own problems and there's no perfect, problem-free one. But the recent history of Sri Lanka sounds so much like our own past.

"That's what happens to countries where the majority is an uneducated and impressionable population," my friend said.

So I began yesterday reluctantly with politics (see my previous blog entry) and ended it also with politics -- and how ironic that all these conversations were taking place in the middle of a forest on a mountain surrounded by a beautiful reservoir so far from anything that we would call civilization. I had to get away from it all to talk about it all.

Best wishes for a wonderful weekend from all of us at Travelife Magazine.



Thursday, March 29, 2012

A wake up call I didn't really need

So it's 430 AM in the middle of nowhere in Sri Lanka and my mobile rings, waking me up from what is supposed to be a deep slumber as I was completely exhausted yesterday.

It was my new friend (a.k.a. the frustrated Political Science Professor) who likes lecturing me on what's wrong with the Philippines on speaker phone as he's driving from one point to another on the other side of the world.

He's usually too busy at other times to either think about the Philippines or to call me.

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I think he forgot I was in Sri Lanka so he'd been calling as if I was in Manila. a

7 AM in Manila -- the equivalent of 430 AM in Sri Lanka -- is as good a time to talk me as any, when I'm in Manila.

I'm awake and I'm not yet at work, so I'm still not thinking about a million things at the same time. But stupid me. I'd been so sleepy yesterday that after posting a blog entry, I'd literally fallen into bed and I'd forgotten to put my phone on silent as I usually do every night.


So ring, ring. My phone does a musical jingle at 430 AM!

And now here I am awake when everyone else is asleep, and I thought I'd better just put my waking hours to good use by recounting our conversation.

This "Political Science Professor" had been the topic of conversation yesterday at lunch here in Colombo, after all, since he and this friend who's now accompanying me to Sri Lanka both went to Penn, and the latter's been trying to pry the identity of the former out of me for a couple of days now.

"Everything I told you is coming to fruition," he said, with a hint of an I-told-you-so, and again without a hello or an "It's me."

For all I know, he could have been talking about the success of Travelife Magazine (the Philippines' leading travel and lifestyle publication) or our upcoming dinner in Vienna. But I wasn't going to be that lucky. It was another long-distance political discourse at an ungodly hour in Sri Lanka.

"Isn't everything just getting a bit ridiculous?" He asked me. I didn't really know as I've been studiously keeping away from the newspapers. The front pages are a mishmash of people's vested interests so I'm not sure what's true and what's made up anyway.

"And we're referring to..." I asked feebly. I was so not my usual sharp self at this early hour.


"You know what I'm referring to," he said. "They're dissecting his life, getting his children into the picture, going back ten years and looking into every single thing he did just to be able to get something -- anything -- on him in terms of dirt. Next thing you know, they'll be trotting out a jilted girlfriend from college or a driving violation from 20 years ago."

He continued: "Personally I think he's a pretty normal guy who's far from perfect. But he's not a criminal or a corrupt person who's done something so bad that so much of government resources has to be trained on him. He wanted to make some money on investments just like everyone else; he probably didn't take his tax returns too seriously on certain years, and maybe used his influence to get a better discount on some real estate purchases."

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He wasn't finished, adding: "But if you knew someone high-up in the real estate business, wouldn't you try asking for a larger discount as well? This is a pretty normal thing for people to do. Some lily-white holier-than-thou people may think it's not ideal, bit I don't think an inaccurate SALN or haggling for discounts are impeachable offenses."

Finally, I just had to ask him: "Do you actually know the guy?"

I certainly didn't, but he was defending the guy as if they'd been family, friends or neighbors.

The reply came back back quickly: "Not at all. But I really feel bad when someone's being so blatantly harassed and bullied. It's just not right. Everyone's human and we all have some skeletons in our closets. But a skeleton in the closet doesn't automatically make a person a criminal. No one's completely black or white -- most are just human."


I sighed. I was climbing Sigiriya Rock in a few hours and I so badly needed my sleep, and now I had something heavier than an SLR and a bottle of water to carry with me up the mountain. Sigh. The problems of the Philippines again.

He then asked me: "Did you read Bobby Tiglao's column? Or Amando Doronila's column? These are some of the most thorough analyses I've seen so far on this very sorry state of bullying."


What was he thinking?

Of course I haven't read them because I'm in Sri Lanka thinking about Buddhist temples, ayurvedic massages, luxury hotels and shopping for interesting accents for my home.

I don't read the newspapers when I'm at home, I stopped reading most of them since they began printing fiction as fact to suit their purposes.

So I'm certainly not going to be reading them online here in my corner of paradise.

I've got better things to do and they're all not related to politics in any way.


Besides I've been trying to explain to him how politics in our rather surreal environment depresses me, but this fact never seems to sink in.

"Read it. Now. For the next time I talk to you," he said. Then he added: "And write about it in your blog. People need a wakeup call about this."

"Yes, teacher," I replied. I almost added: "And, by the way, I'm not one of those who need a wakeup call at this hour."

But I decided not to say this as he was already pretty fired up as it was.

Then, when I put the phone down, I googled the articles in question, and that put an end to any thought of sleep. A very early good morning from an island paradise in the Indian Ocean.


Long lunches and practical jokes in Sigiriya

Hello from a luxury hotel in the middle of a jungle and a lake, with monkeys just outside my window. It's been another really fun day here in Sri Lanka for us, beginning with a long drive, a lunch full of (again) philosophical conversations, a visit to the Dambulla caves at twilight, and a complete success of a practical joke.


We'd started from Colombo mid-morning and it had taken us a good 4.5 hours to get to Sigiriya, to have lunch at The Elephant Corridor, perhaps the best boutique hotel in the Sigiriya area. The idea of this pretty comfy design hotel in the middle of nowhere was quite amazing, and the glassed-in restaurant on the second floor provided a very nice view from afar of Sigiriya. The perfect setting for lunch and we had the place to ourselves.

The menu at the Elephant Corridor was all Western, for some reason, and I was so in a curry mood still, in spite of already having curry morning, noon and night in Colombo. However the guys happily ordered grilled steaks and I finally chose a meal of vegetable tempura with garlic noodles.

"Whatever are garlic noodles?" I asked the waiter. But there was a language barrier here so he couldn't really explain well; but I decided to go for it anyway. It was so good that I ate everything on my plate.

As usual, the three of us laughed so much throughout lunch. We talked about everything possible, including some very tweetable Tweets about love, heartbreak and cliches from movies. Then one of the guys asked: "So who's this guy in that blog entry '4 + 1 equals 45'? Do I know him? Solve the puzzle."

He was referring to a guy I'd written about who likes to lecture me about the sorry state of Philippine political affairs. I'd written in the blog that this guy had gone to Penn and this friend who'd come along to Sri Lanka had gone to Penn as well.

I just replied: "Just like lots of other puzzles in the blog, I can't tell you."

The guy said: "For all I know, he's already been to my house for dinner." Obviously he's had lots of Penn friends over to dinner in his pretty huge house. Perhaps. I certainly wasn't saying.

Then he continued: "So what were you thinking about when you were here last time?" Again, this was a reference to a previous blog entry. But I only shook my head and shrugged. He persisted: "Was it about the magazine?" Well, that much I could tell him. I replied: "Nope, not about the magazine."


Purely by coincidence, I have one Atenean and one La Sallite with me, and they began a pretty enthusiastic school rivalry thing at lunch today. Of course my sentiments on this matter are pretty clear, so the La Sallite was by himself at lunch today. Basically, we blamed everything that happened or didn't happen on the La Sallite, including the fact that it rained and that a rainbow showed up and then suddenly disappeared when he stood up to take a photo of the rainbow.


Wow, this is a replay of last year, I said to myself and then to them. Last year, I was in Sigiriya as well with three pretty rabid Ateneans and one La Sallite, and of course the La Sallite was left to fend for himself for much of our ten days in Sri Lanka together.

Meanwhile, the rains made the climb up to Sigiriya pretty slippery, so we decided to postpone our climb to tomorrow instead, and to see the Dambulla Caves nearby, which are also a UNESCO World Heritage site. We took so long at lunch that by the time we got to the caves, it was 6 PM and light was disappearing fast.


But, as the things to see are all inside the caves, it really didn't matter whether we went after dark. And now I realize that it actually made the visit really special. First, we had the caves to ourselves, and this was a pretty surreal experience to be able to see and appreciate all the paintings on the walls and the statues from the 1st century BC in total isolation, sans the crowds. How wonderful.

By the time we finished the last cave, it was pitch dark outside and we had a 15-minute climb down a mountain in a drizzle to get to our car. Fortunately the guide brought a flashlight but of course it wasn't really enough light. So we walked down in quite a dark atmosphere which made the three of us think of a horror movie or some ghost stories.

We even closed the lights completely for a few minutes and tried to walk down the mountain. Foolish, I know, but we just felt like doing it a couple of times, just for the surreal effect. We're all Manilans after all, so we hardly ever get an opportunity for total darkness in the middle of nowhere.

One time, I closed the flashlight again; and when I opened it, there was a stray dog right next to one of the guys' legs. Uh-oh. We certainly didn't close the lights again after that.


Then came the best part of the evening. One of the guys actually was supposed to leave tonight as he's flying out of Manila again the day after tomorrow. But we were all having so much fun that he suddenly didn't want to leave -- and it didn't seem to matter to him whether this meant risking his 2nd scheduled flight out of Manila on Saturday. So at 7 PM -- not very long before his 1 AM flight, and we were 4.5 hours away from Colombo -- we started calling the airlines, airport, and travel agencies to try and get him re-booked for tomorrow instead. He really wanted to stay at least one more day.

Our guide was on the phone for most of the time with a travel agent in Colombo. And when he finally got off, he had a sad expression on his face. He said to the guy supposed to leave tonight: "You really have to go, unfortunately. And there's a train straight to the airport that'll get you there in time for the flight."


We all looked at each other. A train straight to the airport from where we were in the middle of nowhere in Sri Lanka? Not even in 21st century Japan did they have such a thing, but now here was our guide saying that it could be done. I was already on Facebook when all this was happening so I wasn't really paying attention, but there were sad faces everywhere and my friend asked: "Is there really nothing we can do?"

The guide shook his head. Meanwhile, my other friend -- they didn't really know each other before the trip, but now they're pretty good friends -- said: "Okay. If he has to go, let's bring him to the train station at least..."

So we all rose up to see him off, although I was planning to just go until the hotel driveway as I was completely exhausted. My friend who was supposed to leave us tonight was literally dragging his feet.

But when we got to the driveway, suddenly the guide turned around and said: "It's just a joke. It's all been fixed and you can stay."

I laughed so hard at the cleverness of it all. We'd been teasing and joking all the time here in Sri Lanka, and now our guide was getting into the picture as well. And all I can say is: He'd better watch his back tomorrow because my friend's out for some revenge on all of us...



Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shopping with guys in Colombo

Yesterday was a wonderful but exhausting and busy day. My two friends and I went through my quite extensive list of things to see and do on this trip to Colombo; fortunately we have the same general interests and they have lots of patience. So we saw all the cool shops, restaurants and places of interest and did a bit of shopping, and just so much talking and laughing in between.

We talked the whole day when we weren't concentrating on admiring something or trying to decide whether to buy something or not. In fact, lunch today was rather surreal because after a morning of sightseeing and shopping around the district of Colombo called Colombo 7, which is basically like their Makati, we had Indian and Sri Lankan food at the Taj Hotel and our conversation over curry was pretty deep and philosophical for the middle of the day, especially after a couple of hours of shopping for brassware and silverware.


What fun it is to shop with two guys. First, I had sounding boards on everything, and they certainly had lots of opinions. Then I had someone to help me carry my bags afterwards. One of the guys is going home a day earlier and he purposely brought an empty bag just for my purchases, so that I would have more luggage allocation. How nice is that?

"I love having both of you on trips," I teased them. But it's true. We worked pretty hard, but we also had so much fun. At any given time -- except at the very end of the day, when we were all just simply exhausted -- one of us was teasing the others, so it was a constant battle of wits and jokes.


Meanwhile, Colombo is just wonderful. For some inexplicable reason, I feel so happy to be back here in this beautiful country after 11 months. I know it a little better now compared to last year, and in between my first trip and now, I've made many Sri Lankan friends, so I feel pretty close to the country. That makes all the difference, and it makes me feel like a real traveler here rather than just a tourist.

At the same time, the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka never fail to amaze me. They're not only visually stunning sites, but they're also amazing from a historical perspective. The more I read about these sites, the more I'm impressed with the depth and sophistication of Sri Lankan culture for 2000 years. Few places in Asia have these many amazing historical sites within such a small island.

This is all for now. Gotta climb a mountain in a few hours...



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Just landed in Colombo

Good morning from Colombo, where we landed about 90 minutes ago after a pretty long flight that took us first to Kuala Lumpur for a ten-minute change of planes, and then it was another 3.5 hours from KL to Colombo.

I'm here with two friends who are going to help me with my magazine project, and so far, so fun. We've been laughing a lot and thinking about all the crazy things we're going to do. I sat with one of my friends in an empty row of the plane and towards the end of the flight from Manila to KL, we began talking about what we wanted to do in Sri Lanka.


At the beginning of the flight, I just didn't feel like talking to anyone as I needed major de-stressing after a pretty hectic few weeks. So I spent the first two hours just catching up on the Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine and a couple of other international magazines that help me keep up with what's happening in the world. I got so engrossed that I didn't even open my Mac.

Then, when I'd sufficiently relaxed, my friend came over to sit with me and we started talking about Sri Lanka and also about life philosophies in general. "I'm terribly busy but I really wanted to do this trip," I told him. "I want to just forget a bit about work and try to focus on the now -- to experience, observe and savor every detail of the trip so I can get the full-on experience." That's a real travel experience.

He agreed. "Let's live it to the full," he said. "Let's do crazy things. Let's make sure every moment counts."

Where was that bottle of wine when we needed it?


My other friend who completed our party of three to Sri Lanka was seated elsewhere, but when we got together in the van upon arrival, he too seemed game to try anything and everything. How nice, I thought. I have the perfect companions for the trip.

With luck, we're going to be riding elephants, chilling out by the beach with talks about life and life philosophies, climbing Sri Lanka's most famous mountain, and also contending with monkeys coming up to our porch in this beautiful hotel in the middle of nowhere that I've been wanting to stay in for the longest time. Now I'll get my chance as I got us booked there from tomorrow.

I'll also get to climb Sigiriya finally.

"Did you do it the last time?" One of the guys asked. I shook my head. It had been hot and I'd elected to go shopping for sarees instead after taking all the photo ops from the bottom. It was the guys who went all the way to the top.

"That's why I'm going to do it this time. I've always regretted not doing so ever since," I replied.

One of the guys said: "You were just waiting for the right company to be with you in Sigiriya."

Perhaps so. Because so far were off to a pretty promising start.



Monday, March 26, 2012

Comfort food at The Visayan Room

Tonight I set aside work on the eve of my departure from Manila to have a delicious sayonara dinner with my good friends at The Visayan Room, which is the Visayan food dining venue of XO46 along Valero St. in Salcedo Village.

Andrew Masigan, the businessman and brains behind XO46 and The Visayan Room, had been talking about doing a restaurant focused on Visayan food for some time now.

"There's really no serious restaurant for Visayan cooking," he told me sometime last year, when he was still thinking about The Visayan Room. Since then, he and his wife Sandee, along with XO46's Chef Christian Kalaw, have done their homework religiously and put together a menu of serious Visayan food.

They made numerous research trips and food-tasting trips all over the Visayas in search of the best the region has to offer, and from there they put together the menu of The Visayan Room.

I happened to be in Cebu one time last year, at about the same time that they were on one of their food research trips; and we'd all had a big tasting dinner in one of Cebu's best restaurants. They ordered a feast even after they'd already spent the whole day visiting all kinds of restaurants in Cebu -- from the fanciest places to the dingiest holes in the wall -- just because they felt they needed to sample anything and everything that was delicious and Visayan. The only requirement was that these places served really good Visayan food. As long as the food was good, they were a go.


And talk about serious eating here. Throughout dinner, these guys did nothing but compare notes on the food, and compare it to food they'd eaten elsewhere as well, and also review the kitchen and restaurant operations. That's how serious they were -- and are -- about doing Visayan food as well as possible.

It's not just about research either. Andrew's mother is a Visayan from Dumaguete who loved to cook so Andrew really grew up in a household that ate good Visayan food everyday. His grandmother was also an excellent cook.

He recalls: "I still remember how my Lola Carmen would spend hours preparing jewels of kakanin for the family."

Coupled with the kind of meticulous research they did to put together the menu, and their desire to really create Visayan food that Visayans and other Filipinos as well can be proud of, the result is a winner of a restaurant. It's just had a soft opening so not too many people know about it yet -- so go and be among the first to try this great new place out.

The Visayan Room is not very big, as it's almost like an annex to XO46, which serves more mainstream Filipino food; but it's done up very nicely in a mixture of traditional and also stylish contemporary interiors, so that the effect is attractive and inviting.


The food is wonderful. Some dishes come with a twist -- they have a linguine in a batchoy sauce, for instance -- while others come as pure as you can get them: old-fashioned cooking with authentic ingredients. Either way, everything is good although I'm not sure if it's good for your health. Filipino food almost never is good for your health, and few good things are really good for you.

But the food's delicious. As Andrew himself says: "It's really honest cooking without the usual pretenses. Everything's as authentic as can possibly be."


Dumaguete Express
(Mixed seafood with spicy coconut sauce)
Lapu-laapu, mussels, shrimps and squid simmered in coconut milk,
laced with chili and spices

Cebu Lechon Belly
Slow roasted succulent pork belly stuffed with local herbs
and basted with oil and local sea salt

Apan Apan
(Sauteed swamp cabbage with shrimp paste)
An Ilonggo favorite, it&s crispy kangkong
sautéed with bagging and chicharon

La Paz Batchoy
Another Ilonggo favorite, it's egg noodles
topped with generous servings of chicharon, toasted garlic
and roasted bone marrow -- plus slivers of lechon.

And just in case you want to observe Lent properly and still eat well, The Visayan Room has a host of Lenten specials that include:

Ginataang Langka
Young jackfruit stewed in coconut milk
and flavored with shrimp and dried fish

Kinunot na Lapu-lapu

Pinaasim na Tilapiang Malutong


Food aside, I had a really nice and relaxing time just catching up with old friends before getting on a plane for my next destination: Colombo! I've been there, and I've done that, so I don't know why I feel this way; but I'm really excited to visit Sri Lanka again tomorrow.

Good night for now. My next blog entry will probably be from somewhere along the Indian Ocean, perhaps with that whisky in hand and another epiphany somewhere up in the air...

Le Grand Tower
130 Valero St., Salcedo Village

Tel. (02) 553-6632