Wednesday, December 12, 2012

monsoon watch

I am fully preparing to jump into a monsoon in two weeks’ time.

That is to say that I will be traveling with sixteen fellow backpackers and one Calvin Sun, whose rousing story and headstrong travel philosophy – “monsooning” – were recently featured in USA Today. The trajectory of this particular monsoon will take us from Odessa, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland over five days. Destinations include Chernobyl and nearby Pripyat, an ICBM nuclear missile silo, and Auschwitz concentration camp. Highlights include travel by sleeper train for four of the five nights and average temperatures in the 20s, sandwiched by 19+ hours of transcontinental travel. In typical Calvin fashion, this torrential downpour commences on New Years Eve – the proverbial cherry on top, in the form of a giant LED-and-crystal ball dropping in New York City.

In my excitement, I have told a multitude of people about my upcoming adventure. Some widen their eyes in shared excitement; others drop their faces in confusion or disbelief. (I also realize that some in the former camp are only feigning interest to mask their sympathies toward the latter.) And yet, no matter the judgment, the question remains: “Why?”

Most times I answer simply. “Just to travel,” I might say as I shrug my shoulders, relieving them of the more involved response, the one I quietly think back to in that moment – the one I regard as perhaps the time that led to the unfolding of the event in question.  


I peeled my sweat-stained skirt from where I had been sitting on it. Then I peeled my bare limbs from the leather seat to reach my crinkled baht to the chatty taxi driver. I recall these terribly mundane details because they are paired with the memory of the sudden onset of a terrible sinking feeling. Perhaps it was the ominous line of people wrapped around our destination. It could have also been the documents that seemingly all of said people were holding. Documents that my travel partner Ryan and I didn’t have. We had just left Ko Phangan for Bangkok to apply for an express visa into Myanmar. To add anxiety to ignorance, it was rumored that there was a limit on how many visas would be given out per day (or it could have been that this was visibly documented, I really cannot remember now). Flying by the seats of our pants had worked out nicely for me and Ry since the start of our Southeast Asian trek, which is why we hadn’t thought twice when we’d booked our tickets the night prior. Our flight to Myanmar’s former capital was set to depart in just over 24 hours.

I met Tiger Fang in this line (yes, that is in fact his real name). Tiger, a New York City transplant from Hawaii, was there for the same reason though he allotted more time for the gamble with 48 hours to spare. He was easy and interesting to talk to, and doubled as a welcomed distraction from my foreign fretting. As the story goes we were all awarded our visas later that afternoon and the three of us rendezvoused in Yangon two days later. From there we moved at a dizzying pace through temple ruins in Bagan, rural outings round Inle Lake, and back again (ending in one of the strangest nights out in my life).  

Making new friends. Bagan, Myanmar (March 2012)

I struggle to describe Tiger masterfully to those I tell his story to. Tiger was the embodiment of “in a New York minute.” He planned to plow through a number of Myanmar’s principal sites in a matter of a few days (for reference, Ryan and I had allotted two weeks for an almost identical itinerary, half of what had been strongly recommended by a fellow traveler). Tiger walked fast. Tiger talked fast. Ordered and ate fast. He had lived a lifetime of adventure in the 24 hours since we’d last seen him in Bangkok, a lifetime to include a forgotten tuk-tuk ride through the city and an erratic phone video of him eating scorpion from a street peddler with a ménage of Germans. He was up for sunrise boat tours and down for sunset bike rides. He all but demanded activity (including rounds of 20 Questions to liven up our walk to dinner). In truth, Ryan and I were all the better lackadaisical travelers for it.

Tiger and a new friend. Bagan, Myanmar (March 2012)

Although the vigorous tempo seems intrinsic to Tiger, he attributed this style of travel to his friend Calvin, who had inspired the itinerary for his trip (which also included micro stops in Hong Kong and Singapore). “Buffet style,” he drew the picture: just a quick sampling of places because, as Calvin reasons, you can always go back after you see what you’re drawn to. Calvin had already taken groups to Iran and North Korea, Tiger informed us. He was planning to do Cuba over Thanksgiving weekend. And he scheduled all of this on breaks from med school. Even as I was undertaking my own adventures, I remember feeling envious of such an intrepid and enterprising spirit.

Sunrise boat tour. Inle Lake, Myanmar (March 2012)


Eight months later I found myself living drastically different from the days of travel in which I met Tiger. This departure came in the form of a new "real" job, a fruitless apartment hunt, and tangible responsibilities. It was on one of these days that I came across the name Calvin Sun on Tiger’s Facebook page. I recognized it easily.

Calvin had posted a link to his blog Monsoon Diaries. I clicked. I read. I rejoiced in being told I was wrong – apparently you don’t need a lot of time or money to travel. I didn’t have either, not after traveling for four of the past ten months and working for minimum wage to enjoy Park City during the others. I was some kind of vagrant (my parents' worst nightmare). As for time, I solved the vagrant problem the only way I knew how. I got a job. Since the day I accepted the position I had feared it meant that the days of listless travel were behind me (or at least on hold indefinitely, which felt unsettlingly similar).

Not ten minutes later I found myself sending Calvin a message asking if there was room on his next trip.

Over the next few weeks I corresponded with Calvin to discuss concerns and logistics. It took me some time to finally commit to the trip, but I always came back to Calvin’s position during our first conversation: The breakneck pace didn’t matter. Nor did any “superficial” discomfort from the sleeper trains or frosty weather. We were young. And by definition we could withstand. I faintly remember Tiger making a similar argument. And besides – didn't we owe it to ourselves to proactively seek exposure to context beyond our every day?

Perhaps the most remarkable consideration concerning Calvin’s compelling argument to travel is that there is no compelling argument from Calvin. He does not push unwilling souls to take the plunge. Instead he inspires by example, moving along his (loosely) planned route on his own accord and, much like the force of nature for which his travel approach is named, leaves you to (re)act as you see fit.

I couldn’t be more excited for it. I have always wanted to go storm chasing...  

See you all in the New Year,


Yangon, Myanmar (March 2012)  


Friday, May 4, 2012

"no dry, no balls"

[Note: I wrote this post in mid March but never got around to publishing it because I couldn't find time to upload accompanying photos. With a bit of encouragement from friends at alumni weekend - and now that I have returned to a land of high speed internet - I decided to add photos and publish the post as is. Northern Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia stories to follow in the next few weeks.]

15° 00 N, 100° 00 E

Hello, how are you tomorrow?

I suppose the right thing to say (to those of you in the States) would be, "How are you yesterday?" since I am about 14 hours ahead, however "How are you tomorrow?" is something the local guys in Railay yell to unsuspecting passersby for a laugh, and I have grown to love the phrase. The question never fails to result in a confused tourist (myself included), as does the other urgent exclamations "Somebody is looking for you!" and "Your back foot is chasing your front foot!" It is just one of the ways the locals makes light of the fact that tourists have taken over their island, and is an indication of their spirited nature in general. 

Ryan and I have been traveling for two weeks now and have been having an amazing time in Thailand. After an easy midnight meeting at the Bangkok airport (Ryan flew in from Salt Lake City and I flew from Manila), we traveled the next morning to Ko Phangan island by plane, bus, and high-speed catamaran. We spent about a week in mellow Ko Phangan before taking a catamaran, bus, mini-bus, and long tail boat to even mellower Railay, where we spent four days. We returned to Ko Phangan for a tattoo appointment in Haad Rin and spent two days there eating at our favorite places one last time and saying goodbye to the friends we had made. We are now in Bangkok to apply for a visa at the Myanmar embassy.

Though everyone can relate to the difficulties in finding a "good" travel partner, I must say that I'm really fortunate to have Ryan along this trip. Ryan is unconditionally patient, positive, sociable, adaptable, and open to the world. As such, he inspires me to behave the same. I met Ryan only a little over a year ago and started to get to know him last July before I left Park City. Somehow the universe aligned to enable us both to be on this adventure. I cannot be more thankful to have someone to share these experiences with (you would all agree that turning to a friend during an awe inspiring moment is much more satisfactory than the lone mental note), and - as reluctant as I am to admit needing it - to have someone to help keep watch over me. I had no idea before embarking on this journey just how sketchy it would be to travel through Southeast Asia on my own (though the worried looks on everybody's faces should have been some indication).

So much has happened over the last two weeks that it's hard to fill you in on it all, but here are some of my favorite highlights...

Day 26: Sri Thanu, Ko Phangan
Remember our new German friend Christian? We saw him at least once each day we were in Ko Phangan, usually for a meal, and loved getting to know him and his yogi friends. Christian has all kinds of crazy life stories, my favorite being his tales of travels to Mexico when he was 19. I've come to call nights with him "wild card" nights (in the most excellent of ways), since Ryan and I never know what to expect when he invites us to hang out.

Perfect example: On our second night in Ko Phangan the three of us were out to dinner when Christian ran into his friend Katarina. Katarina was just finishing her meal as we were walking in but stayed to catch up with Christian. Christian met Katarina, who is from Argentina and has an enticingly sexy accent, during his first trip to Ko Phangan. Unfortunately the circumstance that brought them together in the first place involved vying for the same bungalow that a senile old lady had absentmindedly promised them both. Katarina ended up living there and Christian ended up taking a trip to Myanmar instead, which he loved and has now convinced us to do, so all worked out. Anyway, Katarina had just begun a course on tantric after finishing a second level month-long yoga course. So, in between usual restaurant lingo like "I recommend the dish with cashew nuts," and "Check, please," the three of us heard an introductory crash course to tantric - suppressing ejaculation in order to recycle life energy; the belief that life energy is lost during both female orgasm and menstruation, making tantric doubly important; the difference between male and female orgasm patterns get the drift. The conversation seemed usual and nonchalant to Christian and Katarina. I, on the other hand, sat amusedly across the table from Katarina and tried my best to ask thoughtful questions without reverting back to the awkward time I learned about puberty in middle school. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Christian and a new friend ...not Katarina

Day 28: Ko Phangan
We signed up for a group tour through Ko Phangan that included the following stops: Muay Thai training, a Chinese temple, snorkeling, elephant trekking, archery, a viewpoint of the coast, ziplining, and an herbal sauna. While I loved each of the mini adventures, I'd have to say my favorite part of the day was when our guide Snake came over with his FM radio during some down time and asked if I wanted to hear some pop(ular) Thai music. We sat there, one headphone bud in each ear, and he told me stories of his faraway love, a young Swedish girl he met on one of his tours and magically ran into again at the Full Moon Party, and his dreams of teaching guitar in Sweden (he has an awesome tattoo of Elvis on his chest).


Snake the tour guide


Day 29: Haad Rin, Ko Phangan
Ah, what to say about the infamous Full Moon Party? Well, we got to Haad Rin at about 11 PM and left after the sun came up at 7 AM, the party still in full swing. In between those hours was a dizzying mix of DJs, dancing platforms, body paint, neon, fire dancers, a huge double jump rope lit on fire, an enormous water slide, sand, and sea. Add to that equation pouring rain at the peak of the night; we had no idea what was rain, sweat, spilled drinks, or ocean water. Wild wild wild. People were out of their minds in revelry. Then sunrise came, revealing the straws and empty buckets lining the beach and people dry humping in the ocean surrounded by five others peeing mere feet from them. It was time to go, and we were thankful to be on the west side of the island (Haad Rin is located on the south side), away from the bumping beats and smell of stale liquor, piss, and salt water. It may not have been the most savory of experiences but I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat, simply for the opportunity to witness thousands of people from all over the world interested in nothing else but a good time by the sea, under the light of the full moon. (You can watch a short video on my Facebook page

Day 30: Sri Thanu, Ko Phangan 
Christian invited us to join him to watch a mystical dancing performance, the end product of a three-month goddess retreat exclusively for women. Ryan and I were less prepared to walk into that performance than we were to witness the insanity of the Full Moon Party. I can hardly explain it. To begin the evening, the performers were displayed in the center of the room, acting as live portraits of gods and goddesses. The living dioramas consisted of groups of three goddesses surrounding one god, fully outfitted and acting their parts, with intricate arm motions and their tongues sticking out. The audience was invited to participate, walking up to the gods and goddesses with offerings and showering them with flower petals. The women then went through a series of bellydancing performances to tell the story of The Seven Veils, each representing a level in the descent to the underworld.

Day 33: Railay Beach, Krabi
We went out to sea with a diverse group of travelers for instruction on deep water solo. I loved trying this type of climbing because when you're tired or can't go up any further you just let go and plunge into the cold ocean (amazingly refreshing in the Thai-high temperatures and humidity). We took a boat to a few different stops, including a place for cave exploring and a pre-prepped plated rice lunch on the beach.

Ry taking the plunge

After a full day of climbing we invited the people in our group for "a beer." That one beer turned into many. Since we had two men from Singapore, a Swedish couple (from the small town where the author of Pippi Longstocking lived), an American couple, and a German couple in our group, we more or less had "cultural lessons" at the bar. Each pair taught the others how to say "Cheers" in their native tongue. My favorite is from Singapore, "Yam seng," where everyone holds the first word as long as they possibly can ("Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam! Seng!"). As you can imagine, the Singaporean cheers gets rowdy as the rounds add up. The title of this post also comes from something they say in Singapore - "No dry, no balls" - meaning if your glass isn't dry, then.... We also took turns explaining and playing a drinking game from each country. They all loved "Vroom vroom err." Alas, the hangover the next day was extremely painful, but totally worth it.

Day 35: Railay Beach, Krabi
We decided to try some sport climbing on the huge rock faces and boulders on the beaches of Railay. After all, Railay is world famous for its climbing spots. We were joined by our new friend Helen and an adventurous American girl named Amber. We met Helen the day before as we lay in the outdoor common area of our hotel, dying from our aforementioned cultural lessons. Helen, who is a nurse from Norway and on her third solo trip through Southeast Asia, was equally as hungover from her own escapades.

Though frustrating for me at first, sport climbing was incredibly fun (Ryan killed every route offered to him by our guide). Our day was made when the guide made good on his promise to take us on an extra stop. We entered a dark cave where we climbed over rocks and walked up bamboo ladders and rope ties (made a bit more challenging with only two flashlights for five people). What we found on the other side was ...magic: a moonlit view of the coastline 16 meters below us, and Mars visible in the night sky. We repelled out of the cave into the muddy jungle, where we walked for another 30 or so minutes in pitch black. Since it had just rained, we were greeted by a second showering of rain water whenever we tugged too hard on a tree branch for support. A cold beer and a hot shower were more than welcome after the long, awesome day. We talked late into the night with Helen about life and travel. As a parting gift, Ryan gave Helen his Tucker Max book since she was near finished with her's. I can't wait to hear what she thought of her new fratravel entertainment.
Day 39: Bangkok
After a rough day going around Bangkok with an ornery tuk-tuk driver, Ryan and I stopped into an ice cream shop for a treat. Aside from having the best homemade ice cream I think I have ever had, this ice cream shop was also a wondrous reprieve from our humid, hostile day thanks to Mac, the ice cream server. With just a few samples generously doled out, Mac seemed to make the stressful day melt away. A man came walking through the ice cream shop a couple of times and Mac introduced him to us as the shop owner, Song Sit. Song Sit told us that the shop was having a special that day: free Hoegarden beers with the purchase of ice cream. Suddenly our day was looking up. After a few minutes chatting in the ice cream shop, Song Sit said he wanted to invite us into his personal shop next door.

We walked over to another place I can only describe as, well, magic: a room filled with thousands upon thousands of items adorning tables, displayed in glass cases, hanging from the ceiling, mounted on the wall - all things Song Sit had collected from all over the world. The amazing thing is that by no means did the room feel crowded or overwhelming. Each item had its perfect place. What's even more amazing is that each item had its own story that Song Sit could share - where it came from, who made it, what its significance was.

In addition to owning the ice cream shop, Song Sit works with Burmese refugees who have crossed the northern Thai border. He speaks in a wise, easy manner that makes you feel like you are in a room with the Thai Mr. Miyagi. Sitting there in this awe-inspiring room filled to the brim with stories, drinking Belgian beer with an ice cream shop owner while listening to his favorite Neil Young (yes, Neil Young) songs, was easily one of my most enjoyed moments on the trip. Before we left Song Sit had us choose between two jars, shaped and painted as owls, for a parting gift. We chose the one to the right (because of its funny look on its face) and each walked away with a "grandpa Buddha." Song Sit told us a bit about our new little stone buddhas, adding that it would protect us along the rest of our way long as we did not let it fall below our waistline.

To end with, I love being here. I love throwing off my flip flops before entering shops and homes; Thai style seating on cushions on the floor; "take a book, leave a book" signs at backpacker hotels; saying "Hello," "How are you?" and "Thank you" in Thai; getting to know tour guides, boatmen, restaurant staff, and others who are traveling; the endless array of characters and funtivities; riding a motor bike round to no destination in particular; spicy Thai dishes and the plate of cool cucumbers and green beans on ice as a counterbalance; and waking up in the morning and deciding whether to stay or if it's time to go.

Rest assured, though, home is home and I miss you all.



Sunday, March 4, 2012

"playing in the river with my caribou..."

13° 00 N, 122° 00 E

15° 00 N, 100° 00 E

Sawatdii kha,

Hello from Thailand! Ryan is off getting a massage (well deserved and necessary after 40 hours of travel in 48 hours) so I figured I'd visit the internet shop to wrap up my trip to the Philippines. I never thought I'd tire of $7 full-body massages but after four massages in as many weeks, I'm starting to feel a bit gluttonous ...for now.
Day 20: Bayombong
As I mentioned in my last post, the final destination of my Philippines trip was Bayombong, the capital municipality in the province of Nueva Vizcaya. My dad grew up in Bayombong until he left for university. It is also where my mom took leave from her station in Basa Air Base to give birth to me. 

My mom, dad, brother, and I arrived in Bayombong early in the morning by bus and took a couple of tricycles to my Uncle Oscar's house. Uncle Oscar, my dad's younger brother, is the one of four siblings that decided to stay in the Philippines. I was surprised to find an almost identical resemblance between him and my father, though ironically Uncle Oscar looks about ten years older. Although my uncle speaks little English, he made sure to tell me several times that his heart was happy to see me. I hope I was able to get across that I felt the same. His wife Mirna cooks for a small eatery right next door to their home. While the "adults" caught up on their respective goings on, I enjoyed watching the different customers - school children, university students, small families, and men on motorcycles - come by the window to order their breakfast.

Day 21: Bayombong 
Family friends were kind enough to spend they driving us around Bayombong. We drove through the university that is currently driving the population and commercial boom. My dad explained that when he was growing up a river used to flow right through the land where the university now sits. I loved to hear him recall how he used to catch spiders and fly kites by the river. As the eldest child he was responsible for caring for the family caribou. He pointed to where on the university grounds he and his friends would bring their caribou to pasture. At around 10 in the morning, he remembered, the caribou would get hot and restless. The children would then walk the caribou to the river to bathe, and would themselves take their bath. My dad laughed aloud when he recalled that the children would use the caribou as makeshift humps, splashing and playing water games.

"I never imagined, as a little boy playing in the river with my caribou, that I would make it to the United States," my dad said. Looking around his small town in the country side, I'm not quite sure how he found his way to the U.S. either, though I can tell you it was not without its setbacks.

We also drove to the hospital where I was born, Veterans Regional Hospital, similar to a county hospital in the States. 

Day 22: Bayombong
Throughout our week in Bayombong we paid many visits to relatives still residing their or in the surrounding area. My dad's aunt, Ason, cried tears of joy when my dad walked through her doorway. Ason spent most of her life working in Saudi Arabia as a nurse, sending wages back home so her children could attend school.

My cousin Darryl, Uncle Oscar's son, brought out a photo of my dad's parents. It was another "first" of images I had not yet seen before. I smiled to see a hint of myself in my grandma's photograph.

Ryan and I made it to Ko Phangan yesterday evening and have already met some really great people. Our new friend Christian, a German man visiting Ko Phangan for attempt number two at a month-long yoga course, is three for three with good recommendations. Last night he took us to an eatery called Mama Pooh, where I had easily the best meal (mixed vegetable tempura, pad thai, spicy papaya salad, and Chang beer) I've had since the beginning of this trip. This morning Ryan rented a motor scooter for the duration of our stay and we zoomed off to have breakfast at the coffee shop Christian recommended ("Puts me to shame," Ryan admits), and now Ryan is at the massage place that Christian frequents. I should get off the computer so that we can explore our island destination, but I'd like to leave with something that Christian said during a conversation he had with our taxi driver/resort owner Olan last night:

"When you recognize that the ego is not the center of everything, it is the beginning of something."

Sending love,


Friday, March 2, 2012

all these places had their moments...

13° 00 N, 122° 00 E

Hey, everyone!

I decided to take momentary retirement from writing in Tagalog after my brother informed me that I spelled a word incorrectly (one of four attempts) in my first post. Shoot. Though I have been able to understand most of the conversations around me, the error is an accurate reflection of my struggles to speak Tagalog. Imagine the surprise on new acquaintances' faces when they ask me a question in Tagalog and instead receive a response in a stumbling combination of elementary Tagalog and "Californian" English. Sometimes when I am completely caught off guard or the pressure is on, as seems to be the case when I meet family members I haven't seen in twenty-plus years, I can muster little more than a desperate stare to communicate my lacking ability. I probably spoke better Tagalog as a three-year-old before leaving for the States. It is both embarrassing and humbling to experience such difficulty with my home language. 

I have come to the end of my tour through the Philippines. For the second half of this trip my family and I left the beach resorts behind and got down to my purpose for being here - to see where I was born and where I grew up for the first three (almost four) years of my life, and to meet family who had last known me as a toddler excited to move to some placed called America. The last two weeks have been a welcome sigh of relief, as I finally started feeling connected to the Philippines. I had spent the first half of my visit feeling very detached and unable to identify with the people or places I was seeing. Guilt ensued from the flat feelings regarding what should have been a triumphantly sentimental return to the Homeland. I realize now, however, that although I found our island destinations to be breathtakingly beautiful, these places were never a part of my family's existence here. So, I was more than happy to visit places of my past, less the glamor but infinite times more magnetic.  

Day 14: Manila - Baguio City
My family and I left Manila in the morning to make the drive to Baguio City, where my brother and older sister were born. I was born in Bayombong and spent a short time in Basa afterwards, but grew up mostly in Baguio before my family moved to the United States. Baguio, a beautiful city in the mountains of Luzon (at an altitude of 4,900 feet), is called the "City of Pines." With cool temperatures uncharacteristic of the country, the city is officially known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines. Although the drive should have taken about five hours, we reached the city at nightfall due to traffic in Metro Manila and road construction along the way after recent flooding. 

Day 15: Baguio City
In the morning we visited the first house we lived in in Baguio after my mom, a military nurse for the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), was transferred from Basa Air Base. My parents still own the house, though it is currently being rented by a family from Korea. We also drove by the second house we lived in in Baguio, a quaint little house in the Navy Quarters. I loved to listen to my parents and sister point out little spots to tell stories. This is the playground you used to play in... This is where Jan skinned his butt standing on the pegs of Leah's bicycle... This is the pool where you almost drowned... 

My very favorite place to see was the church where my mom and dad got married. My parents left most of our photo albums behind when we moved to the United States. The albums were stored in my aunt's basement and were either lost or destroyed shortly after. I have never seen even one photo from my parents' wedding day so it was really special to have the chance to visit this church. 

We spent the afternoon driving to various tourist sites in Baguio, including Wright Park, Mines View Park, the Mansion (the Philippine President's summer home), and Session Road.

Day 16: Baguio City
We paid a visit to the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), a training institution modeled after West Point. As we walked the beautiful grounds watching cadets perform PT and hearing faint sounds from the practicing marching band, my mom shared stories of attending cadets' formals and the like while she was studying in Baguio to become a nurse. My mom's first husband, Captain Rolando L. Jimeno, was a PMA cadet when she met him. Capt. Jimeno died piloting a helicopter for the Philippine Air Force on February 9, 1981 - three days before my sister Leah's second birthday. He was 28; my mom was a widow at 26. I wondered what she was thinking as I snapped photos of my nephew, who has a love for anything with an engine, play and pose by a model of the same helicopter Capt. Jimeno piloted. Before we left PMA we stopped at the memorial for departed soldiers bearing his name.

Day 17: Baguio City - Manila
My dad and I caught the end of the foot parade for the Panagbenga Flower Festival before we left Baguio for Manila. 

On our way out of the city we stopped at the viewpoint on Kennon Road to have one last look at the beautiful mountain city where I spent my childhood. It occurred to me that while Baguio is a far cry from wintery Park City, perhaps it was my early years here that set the stage for my love affair with the mountains. 

I will have to write about the next stop, a visit to where my dad grew up and my birthplace, Bayombong, on the next go 'round. Right now I am going to spend my last day in the Philippines with my mom, dad, and brother. My mom and brother are heading to Hong Kong in just a few hours.  

Tonight I leave my family behind to head to Bangkok to meet my friend Ryan. He is en route from Park City as I write this. From there we are headed to Ko Phangan for the (in?)famous Full Moon Party. Our plans are completely in the air after then; with seven total weeks to explore Southeast Asia I'm sure we'll figure something out. I promised that we'd go cliff jumping (or similar activity) within the first week of our trip, so we'll see if I can make good on that promise...

Thanks for staying tuned. 

All my best, 


Monday, February 20, 2012

ready, set, travel

13° 00 N, 122° 00 E

Kumusta kayo?

I hope you're all doing splendidly. Today is the first "idle" day I've had since the beginning of my trip. To be honest, I've been sitting here in the hotel coffee shop for a while now trying to figure out how to start this blog and what to say about the trip thus far. Alas, I'm at a loss for words. I think I need to accept that it will be some time before I can fully process everything - what it means for me to be here, twenty-one years after my parents chose to leave and start a "new life" in America; the different places I've seen and the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I've had over the last two weeks; as well as what still awaits over the next two months. For lack of being able to articulate anything with real depth, here's a recap of my trip thus far...

Day 1: Los Angeles - Seoul - Manila
My mom and I arrived in the Philippines after a thirteen-hour flight to Seoul and another two-hour flight to Manila. I got my first look into the country's psyche within minutes of our arrival. Filipinos take the idea of "what's mine is yours" to a whole other level, and also hold familial obligation in high regard. I knew that we would be staying at my dad's nephew's second home for a few days but was surprised to find his driver and maid/cook waiting for us at the airport. They were to be on "loan" to us for the week, a gesture I understood and appreciated but nonetheless found to be very awkward.

Manila is a strange city in that half of it is very new - huge, expensive condominium complexes in the midst of being erected alongside shiny shopping centers and American chain restaurants - while the other half is in decay, sad and ramshackled. What makes it odd is that by no means are the two halves segregated. It's as if someone took a city from 2012 and a city from the 1970's (or earlier), mixed the parts together ...and dropped it in the middle of a jungle. The disparate cityscape is a tangible reflection of the socioeconomic state of the Philippines in that a middle class is hardly in existence here; you either have money or you don't, and poverty is the more rampant of the two.

Before dropping my mom and I off at LAX my Uncle Joey had made a comment that I would get to see "Manila, where four lanes turn into eight." No kidding. I quickly grew accustomed to other vehicles cutting us off every few seconds and staring at automobiles veer within mere millimeters of ours, the drivers seemingly unphased. It felt like being in an ongoing game of Chicken, except that all of the other drivers lacked the fear factor. Traffic congestion has gotten so horrendous here that the city has enforced a coding system. Each vehicle is outfitted with a sticker with a serial number. On a given day of the week you may be barred from driving if your vehicle's sticker ends with a particular number. "Hustle and bustle" has never been so apparent or literal, with men, women, and children alike in the middle of the crazy roads and roundabouts, in between said (non)lanes selling cigarettes, food, and other goods to passersby.

My brother had already been in the Philippines for two weeks. As we waited in the middle of town for him to meet us, I took a walk around. I was taking pictures of a little shanty town when I was approached by a group of little boys. My older sister had warned me that children go around begging for money, but I quickly realized that these boys simply wanted me to take their picture. I took a couple of shots and showed them on the screen. They giggled uncontrollably and one little boy teased his friend saying in Tagalog, "Wow, I never knew how ugly you are!" I turned to continue my walk but within a few seconds the boys had brought some friends to get their turn. My brother, who was arriving by taxi, said he almost missed me because all he saw was the swarm of children who were now in a full uproar over my camera and the instantaneous reflections of themselves. I took the moment in, reminding myself to be thankful for things I've now come to expect, like photos from a digital camera. Who knew having one's picture taken could bring so much wonderment? The little boys reminded me that it should.

Day 2: Manila
As I mentioned, my brother had already been in the Philippines for about two weeks prior to my arrival. Typical of my brother, within that short time he found himself mingling with the young artist/expatriate circle of Manila. We were invited to an event at the local art museum honoring the late J Dilla, legendary hip-hop artist and producer. His friend DJ was hired to paint a mural of J Dilla during the event which was later auctioned off. I was still jet lagged and didn't feel much like making conversation, so I sat quietly on the side and watched him work.

Day 3: Manila
My older sister, Leah, arrived to join us with her husband, Kyle, and my nephew, Elijah. Shortly after we were also joined by her parents-in-law, Maggie and John. For those of you keeping count, we now had a traveling group of nine, three named Jan (me), Jan (my brother, pronounced Jon), and John (my sister's father-in-law). Needless to say, some aspects of the ensuing trip were a bit trying and confusing.

Day 4: Manila - Panay Island - Boracay
Our first destination was the island of Boracay, widely recognized as one of the world's best beaches. My parents joked that this is probably so because it takes some effort to get there. From Manila we took a plane to Panay Island, which provides the shortest route to Boracay. From the Caticlan Airport on Panay Island we took a "multicab" to the port so that we could take a "pump boat" to Boracay. From the shore we took another multicab down the main road in town to get to our hotel.

Thankfully, the tourism board of the region provides guides to take you from the Caticlan Airport to your destination in Boracay. Our guide, Ni Chi, related that she was just recently "hired" for the position. She then related that it was actually her late father's job and she more or less inherited it when he passed away. She explained that her position was a coveted one, to have a steady job with the government, and that openings only came by death or similar situation. The job keeps Ni Chi away from her children in another region for weeks at a time but she could not be more thankful to have the means to support her family. One day one of her children will fill the position.


The long travel day was worth it, to say the least. The moment I stepped onto the beach I felt this instantaneous feeling of perfect calm envelop me, as if for a moment in time the world stopped then resumed moving with a new whispered tone. It was one of the strangest sensations I've ever felt, both peaceful and a bit jarring in how quickly and entirely it came on, contradictory as that may sound.

Day 5: Boracay
Weary from being on the move, we spent the entire day lazing on the beach. I lost count of how many rounds we spent swimming and playing, eating and drinking, then falling into short naps.

Day 6: Boracay
Well rested after our lazy beach day, we had the energy and curiosity to see what the rest of the island had to offer. We took a multicab to a viewpoint of the entire island. We also couldn't resist trying out the "Zorb Park." I don't know where people come up with this stuff, but Zorbing is basically crawling into a large inflated ball where you can either slosh around in water or be harnessed to the walls, then rolling down a long, bumpy hill into a pool of water. My sister and I did it together and screamed and laughed so hard I was brought to tears. For lunch we went to the local outdoor marketplace, similar to Pike Place Market in Seattle. There is a place called Mica's Kitchen right across from the market where they will cook your newly purchased items (be it prawns, clams, or pork chop) for a small fee. Of course, we couldn't help but spend the evening back on the beach, which had the most beautiful sunsets.

One thing to note about Boracay is that the landscape is also poignantly indicative of the blaring gap between rich and poor. Imagine the most pristine beach you can conjure in your mind, with white sand as fine as baby powder, clarion shades of tropical blue, lined with a few bars and lounges sparkling and eager to serve. The street directly behind said establishments, however, is instead lined with decrepit homes and small businesses desperate for patrons.

Day 8: Puerto Princesa - El Nido
The Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan was recently named one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature. To get there we drove for about two hours up a winding mountain dirt road then took a pump boat to get to the mouth of the river. A guide took us into the Underground River in a small boat and gave command of the spotlight to my dad. It was nearly pitch black in there. The stalactites and stalagmites were absolutely beautiful. On the other hand, the 40,000 or so bats were creepy. The guide assured us that cold droplets from the roof of the cave were simply water droplets... it was the warm splashes that you had to worry about.

After our river adventure we drove five hours to our next destination, the town of El Nido. What we didn't know is that the hotel we booked online was on the other side of the island, inaccessible by land. There is something to be said about traveling the vast ocean on a small pump boat in the dark of night. I am awe of the boatmen who spend their day to day navigating the seas by experience alone (even moonlight was scarce on this night). The "hotel" (actually a group of standalone huts lining the private shoreline) is run by a generator, which meant that electricity was only available from 6 - 11 PM. 

Day 9 & 10: El Nido
We spent the next two days island hopping, taking a pump boat to nearby snorkeling spots, hidden lagoons, caves, and other sights. The first day was characterized by unrelenting rain, though none of us really minded since we were bound to get wet at some point anyhow. Snorkeling in the pouring rain is an experience I'll never forget. We were treated to a completely different climate the next day, with clear skies and bright sunshine. I ended each day with a cool shower, a banana pancake, and a cold drink.

Day 11: El Nido - Puerto Princesa - Manila
We had to get up at 4:30 AM to make the five hour drive back to Puerto Princesa for our flight back to Manila. I more or less overlooked the electricity factor the evening before and paid for my lapse of judgment in the morning, fumbling around with my headlamp to collect my belongings. I was happy to come away with only one stubbed toe. We boarded a pump boat and were off ...until the boat skimmed a rock and the propeller went kaput. Groggy eyed and delirious, my exhausted body veered in two directions - I shot straight up and my heart sank - when one boatman stuck his head underwater and exclaimed to the other, "Na sira!" My understanding of Tagalog is elementary at best but even I knew that to mean, "It's broken." In the end, as all things go, everything worked out. The boatmen more of less performed a miracle (according to John, a contractor) and we were able to watch a beautiful sunrise. Laughing and making light of the situation with my brother at the back of the boat while being momentarily stranded in the middle of the ocean in pitch black conditions - with an alert three year old and my sister's mother-in-law praying feverishly -  is another event I'll likely never forget.

I am extremely thankful to have the opportunity to be taking such an incredible trip. I am also really grateful to start my trip off in the Philippines, my place of birth, and to share my first time experience with the rest of my family.

For those of you who stuck through to end of this post, I commend you. I'll try to write again soon so that the next post is not as cumbersome. Love and miss you all.

Ingat kayo,