Friday, August 31, 2012

A great Friday brunch at the Four Seasons Amman

If only all trips could start out like this: After a great flight halfway across the world on Gulf Air's very spacious and comfortable flat bed, entertaining myself in between naps with WiFi in the sky, I woke up today at the Four Seasons Amman to a wonderful and extremely colorful breakfast, followed by a morning of spa treatments, and then an honest-to-goodness Middle Eastern Friday brunch.


More later on the great spa treatment I had today -- but let me tell you anyway that the Thai massage I had this morning was among the best I've had in a not-very-short lifetime of Thai massages in some of the best spas in the world.

It completely blew my mind. So much so that the massage had not even finished yet, and I was going over my schedule in my head, trying to figure out if I had another free two-hour period to squeeze in another Thai massage before flying out to Tel Aviv.


Friday is the start of the weekend in the Middle East, and all across the region, the Friday brunch is the high point of everyone's social life. People get dressed up and get together for a long and leisurely meal.

And there's no better place in Jordan to enjoy the fabulous Middle Eastern Friday brunch than at the Four Seasons Amman, the country's best hotel. Everyone social is here for a long meal with friends or family.

I walked into the brunch place to get a bite before heading out to start my tour of the city, and the restaurant manager walked me over to a long table in the middle of the room, simply heaping with seafood.

Next to it was a long counter with ovens, and on the counter were baskets upon baskets of all kinds of bread; while on the opposite side was a food station with soups and several different kinds of Middle Eastern dishes.

The restaurant manager said to me, quite proudly: "This is the Four Seasons Amman brunch."


I surveyed it. It was nice -- especially those mountains of seafood -- but I'd seen better. There weren't even any live cooking stations within vision. But I smiled politely at him anyway.

Then he continued: "And after you're through with these, you can go into the kitchen for the meal."

The kitchen? The meal?

Oh yes. I'd failed to notice that the kitchen door was open and all kinds of people -- including some children -- who were not in the hotel's uniform, were actually going in and out.


The Friday weekend brunch was actually happening inside the kitchen, as the hotel opens up the kitchen every Friday just for this.

And when I went in, boy, did a vision of food await inside. The hotel kitchen was lined with live stations on both sides, serving everything imaginable -- from Asian food and pastas to barbecues, Indian food and Middle Eastern food.

Each table has a bunch of papers with numbers, and you simply walk up to any food station you fancy and give one of the smiling waiters your table number. Within minutes, plates and plates of food will start arriving at your table.

There was even an elderly Jordanian lady making the fresh flat pastry-type bread that people in this part of the world eat with everything -- from dips over breakfast to grilled meats at dinner.

And around me are tables of women and men, enjoying their brunch; but almost all seated separately except those tables which are occupied obviously by families. This dynamics between men and women in this part of the world really makes for an interesting study, especially coming from an entirely different culture and way of life.

I'm always fascinated by the life in the Middle East, and this Friday weekend brunch -- a real institution now in almost every country here -- has just given me a better glimpse of the life and times here.

And now, I'm off to explore Amman and to have dinner with some new friends in Jordan. More on that later.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gulf Air from Bahrain to Amman, and a Four Seasons welcome in Amman

So I got to Bahrain in a pretty painless way, being one of 7 people in a Gulf Air flight in a pretty spacious cabin of 2 rows of flat beds, that's actually a space for 4 rows of business classs seats in other airlines. What a luxury -- I almost didn't know what to do with all that leg room.


Bahrain airport itself is pretty small but modern -- in other words, very navigable. From the airplane gate, I went straight to the lounge to chill before my connecting flight to Amman, Jordan. That's another great thing about this Gulf Air flight, if you're flying to Jordan: the waiting time is something like an hour in a nice lounge with good food. That's the quickest connection I've found so far.

At the lounge, I went to the salad bar and also tried a couple of hot dishes including an Egyptian dish and some other Middle Eastern specialties. There wasn't much time, though, as the connection was just over an hour. So it was a quick meal, a check on the Internet, and then I was off again on 2.5 hours to Amman.


As Bahrain-Amman isn't at all a long-haul flight at 2.5 hours, I was already steeling myself for one of those small planes where they take out a seat in between a usually 3-3-3 configuration and make it into a 2-2-2 configuration. In other words, business class is actually upgraded economy class. But as it's just a short flight, I tried not to make it matter to me, even if I do have this thing about space and seats.

Wow. Shock of my life but I had exactly the same seating configuration and seat kind as on the way to Bahrain from Manila on the long-haul -- which meant I had luxurious flat beds, an even more spacious cabin with a large galley, and quiet a sophisticated dining service.


The onboard chef poured tea out of a large brass kettle to start, and the meal was served by a British steward and two Filipina stewardesses. I was planning to make full use of that super flat and spacious bed with the comfy duvet -- this was certainly not one of those flannel shawl-things that lots of airlines try to pass off as blankets -- after dinner; but after I'd had another meal of Arabi mezzes and a fish dish with rice, I turned on my iPod to some music I liked and finished editing some articles to send these back to Manila in time for Friday work.

Pretty soon, we were actually landing. Those were the quickest 2.5 hours I'd ever experienced on a flight, especially while listening to George Michael's Fast Love on my iPod and thinking about a couple of things in my life.


Upon landing in Amman, I was the first one off the plane and my luggage was about #2 off the carousel. It took me 10 minutes to get through immigration and to the arrivals lounge where the Four Seasons airport representative was waiting for me, and he had a pretty nice Jaguar waiting to take me to the hotel.

The assistant manager was waiting at the hotel entrance and he took me straight to my room where lots of Middle Eastern goodies like baklava and pistachio nut pastries awaited me at the hotel, with a very nice card from management and a Dead Sea mud mask treatment in a bottle.

Talk about a warm service for my arrival in Amman, with all the nice and thoughtful details only the Four Seasons thinks of.

This is supposed to be the best hotel in Amman, and which is why I booked it for a solo few days in Jordan before meeting up with some people in Tel Aviv. What an arduous trek it is to get to Tel Aviv from anywhere in the Middle East, though; and I'm only finding this out now as I flew Rome-Tel Aviv the last time, and that was no problem at all. But that's another story for later.

In the meantime, I've booked some nice Dea Sea spa treatments this morning and arranged a private tour of the city in the afternoon after the city has cooled down a bit, followed by dinner with some new Jordanian friends in a traditional restaurant in the city. You'll hear all about my day later -- but first I have to get back to sleep at it's 3 AM where I am.

Good night from exotic Jordan.


On board Gulf Air from Manila to Bahrain and the Middle East

Hello from several thousand feet up in the air, on a Gulf Air flight from Manila to Bahrain. I think we're somewhere over the Indian Ocean right now, so it's about 4.5 hours more to go to Bahrain. And thank goodness for free WiFi on business class. I love it. I can work 24-7 the way I do when I'm on the ground.

This was how it used to be a few years ago, when airlines put WiFi in their planes. What a nice luxury that was to be stuck in the air for 12 hours and to be online shopping on Amazon for books and all kinds of stuff -- plus, working at the same time, of course.


I remember how I used to fly Tokyo-New York and be on WiFi the entire time, buying books and having them delivered to my hotel in Manhattan. Once I even ordered a pizza to be delivered to my hotel room just before landing at JFK, since there was a time I had my JFK landing-to-New York Palace Hotel routine down to pat. Then, suddenly all the airlines stopped this service and I missed this terribly, as WiFi on board certainly made those long hours more bearable.

Now, airlines are finally putting WiFi back on again.


How nice to be connected in the air again. Thank you, Gulf Air, for providing free WiFi for business class. I don’t know if this is a permanent thing for them, but I can tell you that most airlines that do have WiFi on board are charging fees for them. I think it’s something like US$20 for the flight.

Anyway, I thought I’d tell you about my Gulf Air flight experience from Manila to Bahrain so far. It’s my very first time on Gulf Air, actually, and I chose to fly with them this time to the Middle East because they had a schedule that was convenient for me and I was able to get their flight with the flat beds on business class.


There are lots of Middle Eastern carriers flying from Manila nowadays, but not all of them have flat beds. Or not all of their flights have flat beds. So if you’re a stickler for flat beds the way I am, it’s best to research in advance.

Well, this flat bed on the Gulf Air flight to Bahrain is positively amazing. I’ve seen every kind of business class by now, and I can tell you that lots of them aren’t up to par. Of course, there’s no perfect airline; but it’s a matter of choosing what you can live with and what you can't on a long-haul flight – whether it's the inflight catering, the seats, the entertainment system or the schedule.


The best thing about this Gulf Air flight is the bed and the spaciousness of the business class cabin. The cabin itself is like a private room as there are only 8 flat beds in this section -- that's just two rows of a 1-2-1 configuration in a pretty spacious cabin. Talk about peace and quiet.

And I was just thinking now that if seven friends and I were traveling somewhere on this particular flight, we would basically have the entire section to ourselves and it would be almost like a private jet experience. Or a family of eight persons traveling together, for that matter, would be able to take over the entire business class cabin.

Then there’s the issue of the beds. These flat beds are really spacious by anyone’s standards. There’s real privacy and comfort here compared to many other flat beds of other airlines, and the leg room when you’re seated is just king-size.

 I also love the very large table, which has enough room for a dinner service for two. Yes, if you’re traveling with someone, the other person can sit at the other end and you can enjoy a meal with a set-up just like in a restaurant without feeling cramped at all.

This space issue and the flat beds are the things I care about most when I fly. In this sense, Gulf Air wins lots of points with me. It’s not the newest plane in the world; but it’s a lot more modern and well set-up compared to lots of other carriers I’ve flown in this direction.


Food-wise, the meal is pretty good. There’s lunch and a light meal on this flight and so far I’ve had lunch. I have to be honest that it’s not the most amazing meal I’ve had mid-air, but it’s okay. I ate everything they served, and I usually don’t really even eat plane food.

Lunch, Manila to Bahrain

Smoked salmon salad with asparagus tips
Pan-fried tilapia with basmati rice
A selection of cheeses and fresh fruits
Pumpkin cheesecake with raspberry coulis

Light meal, Manila to Bahrain

Ginger and lemongrass soup
Fried canneloni with crispy salad and mango salsa
Fresh fruits

The entertainment is not video-on-demand, but they have lots of channels running a good selection of films and TV shows. I actually watched an episode of Gossip Girl because I wanted something short and sweet as I was planning to take a nap after lunch.

And, frankly, they have Internet! I don’t care about movies if I can go online and surf. So, again, they win brownie points from me, although Internet service is not throughout the flight since you can only get it when the plane passes an area of coverage in this instance.

For instance, I had WiFi over Bangkok, and then it disappeared over India, and then reappeared shortly afterwards, somewhere over Pakistan.


The service is very warm and attentive – much more than I expected, actually. From the moment I checked in to the time I got settled in my seat, the cabin staff was great.

Would I ride Gulf Air again? Gosh, I would ride them just for the WiFi, all things being equal; and these great flat beds just sealed the deal. Talk about a painless way to the Middle East.

Just another day in our never-ending Travelife, somewhere over the ocean on the way to the Bahrain, thousands of feet up in the air.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Chilean artist Claudio Bravo at Manila's Metropolitan Museum next month

This is a photo of a coffeetable book
with one of my favorite Bravo paintings on the cover

At the National Day celebrations of Indonesia tonight at the Makati Shangri-la, I had the opportunity to say hello and catch up with many friends I haven't seen in a while. I'd been gone for over a week doing a watercolor workshop in Kamakura, but it had felt like a really long time. Then, of course, lots of people -- particularly the foreign community -- were away for much of July and August as this is the summer break for them.

This isn't a Claudio Bravo portrait.
But it's certainly a nice portrait of
the people behind Travelife Magazine,
the Philippines' leading travel & lifestyle magazine. 

I bumped into the Ambassador of Chile, who coincidentally had just sent me an invitation to the opening reception of an exhibit by Chilean artist Claudio Bravo, at the Metropolitan Museum next month. The ambassador is very excited to have this major exhibition in Manila, and it is indeed a significant exhibition because of the talent of the artist and his connection with Manila society.


Claudio Bravo visited Manila in the 1960s and he painted portraits of many men and women in Philippine society. The portraits are quite compelling and striking, actually. I've seen photos of some of these portraits and I find them so fascinating.

Some of the people who painted included Imelda Cojuangco, Chona Kasten, Tingting Cojuangco, Gretchen Cojuangco, Elvira Manahan, Sam Eduque, Mercy Tuason, Evelyn Lim Forbes, and Imelda Marcos, among many others.

Claudio Bravo's other paintings are equally striking -- full of refined lines and also of control and mastery of technique. but also so alive with color and beautiful in composition. Most of his paintings tell a really intriguing story. If you like art, don't miss this beautiful exhibition of 37 portraits at the MET from September 18.

I'm including some paintings of Claudio Bravo that I like, in this blog entry. Most of these won't be on exhibit as the MET exhibit will focus mainly on the portraits done in Manila; but they will give you an idea of his talents and why I'm so fascinated with him as an artist.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The sweet and good life in Chiba, and EBTG

The day before I left Tokyo for Manila, I accepted an invitation from a friend to stay at his weekend estate in Chiba Prefecture, about 80 minutes from Tokyo and also about 80 minutes in another direction from Narita Airport.


It was a pretty interesting drive via Haneda Airport and the industrial suburbs next to Tokyo.  Everything was about gray and brown factories and smoke stacks, and bunched together they looked like a scene from a science fiction movie about the end of the world.

Then we made a left turn somewhere and then turned into the longest underwater tunnel in Japan that links Tokyo to this part of Chiba. Even driving fast, it's over 10 minutes under water on that tunnel -- so yes, it's pretty creepy if you're claustrophobic.

I'd never taken this way before, because I hardly ever go to that part of Chiba. In fact I hardly ever go to Chiba except to pass through to and from the airport. But this part of Chiba, where I spent my last night in Japan, is a mass of greenery right by the sea, and it's very far from most people's idea of what Chiba prefecture is.


My hosts for the weekend were a long-term hedge fund manager in Japan and his wife, who runs her own business. For some reason, lots of my friends in Tokyo are in the finance industry, and if you have any experience with this industry in Tokyo, you'll know that the hedge fund world is particularly populated by nice but incredibly competitive people who think they are super smart and far better than everyone else.

They usually are, by the way, because being a successful hedge fund manager in Japan takes brains, guts and lots of chutzpah bordering almost on megalomania. Almost everyone is a Type A personality so I have lots of experience with this kind of personality type.

Hedge fund managers often have a need to achieve, outpeform and out-anything everyone else. And they usually also have egos the size of small countries, but I don't mean this in a bad way. It's a necessity for staying power in this industry.

This is why they're good at what they do, because successfully running a hedge fund needs razor sharpness and a certain can-do-at-all-costs mentality. I also appreciate the fact that what you see is what you get. There's no hypocrisy or false humility here. In fact, there's no humility at all. Haha.


One hedge fund manager, for example, designed his own dining table for his weekend house in the Fuji Lakes area and then had it made somewhere in Southeast Asia. It was finished by the first week of December and just waiting in the factory for a shipper to get it packed and on a boat. This process takes a couple of months, door-to-door, of course.

But this guy wanted to eat on this very table he had designed by Christmas Eve, in his weekend house in the Fuji Lakes; and cost was no object. Of course, shipping it from Southeast Asia to the Fuji Lakes area takes even longer than just shipping it to Tokyo or Yokohama, so the odds were stacked up against him.

So what did he do instead? He had the table for 16 persons Fedexed -- or at least he used some kind of door-to-door courier service -- to Mount Fuji from somewhere in Southeast Asia.

Do you know anyone with enough chutzpah to get a very large dining table Fedexed? I Fedex papers all the time, but I'd never get a 16-seated dining table Fedexed. But that's a hedgie with an I-don't-know-the-word-NO attitude for you. And yes, he was eating on his table in his weekend house in Mount Fuji by Christmas Eve.


So when this hedge fund friend invited for a stay at his estate, I was expecting a pretty nice house. All the hedge fund people I know in Tokyo have great weekend houses, and many of them collect houses around the world like it's a Monopoly game.

They also buy vineyards in France, drive fantastic cars and have all the fabulous lifestyle accessories for success to compensate for a pretty complicated, high-stress, high-stakes life.

Lots of people have wow weekend houses and great lifestyles in the Philippines, too; but Japan is the most expensive country in the world, so here, wow takes on an entirely different dimension.


And what a weekend house it was. The main house was a centuries-old renovated farm house which he'd transported piece by piece from somewhere in Central Japan, and then he'd literally spent a fortune fixing the insides so that it had 21st century technology -- blinds, lights, heaters and coolers that all opened and closed with a remote control, and an amazing wine cellar, among many other things.

It was truly the best of both worlds.

Then he had a guest house put in the back of the property, also out of an antique farmhouse but smaller than the main house. This was where I stayed and it was wonderful.


And from a very large piece of land that was literally nothing when he'd bought it, he'd put in an all-season heated swimming pool, a tennis court, and hired a garden designer to create a garden covering the entire estate and a large waterfall on his property, complete with all the requisite lighting for the evenings, and foliage.

He'd also created a long driveway leading from the discrete electronic entrance to the house, and lined this with bamboo trees and antique stone lanterns.

The garden designer usually does the landscaping of luxury hotels; and for ordinary folks in Japan, it's unthinkable for this kind of designer to be doing private houses. But lots of hedgies do hire people like him for their gardens; and this guy hired him to create a garden and also a waterfall.

What a lovely effect it turned out to be, to have a private mountain with a bamboo forest, with two ancient farmhouses and an infinity pool on the opposite hill, and a waterfall and a bubbling brook in between. It was a scene straight out of Kyoto, except we were on someone's private estate in Chiba.

Then we had dinner, with organic rice, vegetables and meat from his own farm adjacent to the property. Earlier, upon arrival, I'd seen a rice field next to the property and I'd asked him: "Is that the neighbor's rice field?"

He'd replied: "Nope, it's mine. I didn't want the neighbor spraying pesticides on the rice field and having those pesticides coming onto my property somehow. So I'd bought the rice field from him to solve the problem."

Yes, that's a hedge fund manager for you. They think big, talk big and live big.


Then, over a very delicious dinner, he'd opened a bottle of wine for all of us. He said: "This is my wine."

I thought he meant that he'd opened a bottle from his collection, instead of opening the bottle I'd brought, which was a very nice bottle of wine, by the way.

It turned out to literally be his wine -- as in he'd bought the grapes from a merchant in Bordeaux and had it bottled, labeled and packaged and shipped to Japan exclusively for his own use, under his own label, as his own house wine for the weekend house. The wine had a label with the name of his estate on it.
Everyone joked that I should think about doing that too, for my own weekend house, which is nowhere near his in size and anything, by the way.

I laughed and said: "I think that, in my case, it'll be far easier to just buy five cases of some obscure wine from France and name my weekend house after it. Then I'll have some private label house wine, too."


The next day, we all went grape picking nearby, and so I'd come home to Manila with boxes and boxes of the juiciest grapes in the world -- and I'd picked them myself. Then after we'd finished picking grapes, we'd all gone back to the house and had a very nice lunch outdoors by the pool, with music from Everything But The Girl playing all over the property.

Yup, he'd wired his entire property -- no kidding -- so that there were speakers everywhere and you can hear the music from the house wherever you are outside, even by the pool or the waterfalls. It was fantastic, actually, but surreal -- especially since I just bring my iPod and speakers along if I want music outside.

What's on my iPod this week
to Amman and Jerusalem

I Feel Pretty
from Glee -- would you believe?

And then, all too soo, it was time to leave and head to the airport for my flight to Manila. It was back to reality. At least for a few days.

We're back on a plane and headed for Amman, Jordan for another never-ending round of a Travelife very soon. I'm flying halfway across the world for a dinner in Amman, a trip to Petra (finally!), and some R&R at a nice resort by the Dead Sea somewhere between Jerusalem and Amman.

Yup. Chiba, Tokyo, Manila, Amman, Petra, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Kota Kinabalu all in about a ten days. Just another week in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.