Monday, March 8, 2010

Words a guy never wants to hear...

"I thought it would be bigger"

I think that I'm pretty lucky and have seen some amazing sights during my extended vacation. I might not be doing a hardcore backpacker-style trip, but I've still been taking in new sights and sounds. One thing though that strangely keeps happening to me is that I get to a certain well-known spot and think to myself "huh, I thought that would be bigger".

This is not to say that these attractions aren't stunning, breathtaking and everything you wanted it to be, but still... just not as big as I thought. Here are the three that elicited that response.

The Taj Mahal

Oh the Taj Mahal, the ultimate monument to undying love. When I made the exclamation of "I thought it would be bigger" my travel companion looked at me, laughed and asked "well, how much bigger could it be?" Good point. This was when I realized that the mythology of the Taj Mahal is what made it so huge in my head. You always hear so much about the Taj Mahal; the architecture, the history, the Diana-visitng-alone story and most recently the scene from Slumdog Millionaire.

Naturally, it's the destination for all who visit India. So despite the crowds, the touts and the long lines, being able to sit in the gardens and admire the extravagant tomb is worth all the effort. Everything was beautifully proportional and it really is a sight that you shouldn't miss. Do I now think it should have been bigger? Not really. It's quite perfect the way it is.

The Sydney Habour Bridge

I grew up spending many a summer in San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. The iconic red suspension bridge was unforgettable and I recently realized that it had become my basis for all bridges.

One summer my Mum decided that she needed to get the kids out of the house and so we ended up walking the Golden Gate Bridge. It took us about two hours, and so from that experience I thought that the Sydney Harbour Bridge would be the same.

Although it wasn't nearly as high or span the same expanse, it still pretty damn cool. For me, it will always be associated with the 2010 new years eve celebrations. Without a doubt, the fireworks that are shot off the bridge and off barges in the harbor are the best new year's fireworks I've ever seen. You can't look away because you're afraid you'll miss out on the next spectacular display. I'll also never forget sitting on a curb at 1am waiting for the bridge to open so that we can walk home to North Sydney and upon reaching the first tower Risa exclaiming "P*ta! We're only at the first pile-on?!?!" Hmm...not so small at 2am.

The Sydney Opera House

Similar to the Taj Mahal, I think I had just built up the Sydney Opera House to be gigantic in my head. It has iconic status in the pantheon of architecture and the story behind its build is equally impressive. Soo many years, an overinflated budget. Those project managers must have been pulling their hair out!

The Sydney Opera House is massive and I bet it feels even bigger when you go inside. Unfortunately, I didn't get to catch a performance of some sort while there so I had to admire from the outside. The sails are indeed spectacular regardless of which side you're looking at it. It's also amazing looking at the details of the opera house. Back in Manila, Risa and I watched a documentary on the opera house and we were even more amazed with the structure. If only we had known about the details before.

As a final note, although I found these structures smaller than expected, the details that were present in all the structures more than made up for that. So there you go, the very big also has the very small.

Nothing but amazingness.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Boracay Baby!!

The beautiful Boracay white sand beach. Left to right: Chino, Risa and Migs.

A bit of background: Boracay is known in the Philippines as an idyllic paradise island with a beautiful long stretch of powdery white sand and calm, turquoise sea. Legend has it that if it wasn't for  tiny sand fleas that reside on Boracay, Imelda Marcos would have claimed the tropical paradise in her infamous "Mine-ing" period. In the last 5 or so years, Boracay has become THE destination spot for city folk looking to escape the blazing summer heat of the city but still party it up in style.

Personal background: Last time I was in Boracay was in 1999 on my senior beach trip. For my friends with whom our shared history starts in 1999 or later, that beach trip has now joined the ranks of legend at our high school, ISM. Our graduating class is known as the class that wrecked it for all the subsequent years. What did we do? We acted like typical 17 years and had some fun on the longest party strip in the country; we partied like it was 1999.  Oh, did I mention we weren't supposed to do that and that our chaperon decided to be an asshole and rat us out when he looked the other way with other years? Details.

Scene of the 1999 crime. Well, we stayed here, the drinking was elsewhere.

Anyway.... moving on....

Current day: The balikbayans (me and Migs) needed to go to Boracay. You can't not see it. Plus, it had been almost 11 years for me and Migs had never been. Risa and her bf, Chino, had been lots of time but were always up for a beach trip. Seriously, how do you turn down a beach trip? You don't. So we picked a weekend, looked into and booked our flights, found a place to stay and got excited. We planned where we wanted to eat (good eats down on the island) and what we want to do. We wanted to go Zorbing (get in a human hamster ball thingy and go down a hill) but it didn't quite make it.

 Requisite cold San Migs.

So what did we get up to? A lot of sunning ourselves on the beach, swimming, drinking fruit shakes, boat rides and general beach bummyness. The sand is everything it's cracked up to be, soft, powdery and luscious underfoot. There were times that we were walking up the beach that I would drag my feet as I walked just to fully engage in the tactile sensation of the sand.

Prior to going to Boracay, my sister had warned me about all the development that had taken place on the island. What used to be a chill, beach resort of an island is now an hip and happening party destination. I didn't quite understand what she meant because I feel as though for as long as I can remember, people have been saying how developed Boracay has become. This time it's different. Boracay has a STARBUCKS right on the beach. It looks exactly as it would in the city, except that you can sit on the sand with your double shot mocha latte no foam. Yeah. I know. Also, you have your choice of Pinoy pizza chains: Yellow Cab or Shakeys. A shocker but kinda amusing at the same time.

Even with all the crazyness, Boracay is still awesome and we were lucky enough that we didn't stay in the main thoroughfare. We stayed in the area known as "Station 3" at the southern tip of the island. No one from Manila stays in that area it seems. Pinoys prefer to stay around Station 1 and 2 in the top half of the island. Our area was mostly Europeans and backpackers. It was definitely nice being able to partake in the island crazyness when we wanted and then retreat to our little nook of the beach.


Tough life. Napping in a hammock at the resort.

Sunset paraw ride. We brough a bottle of wine and passed it back and forth as we sailed along.

Look at those posers! This is us looking happy on the "big boat" before our "Ikot Boracay" adventure. That story will have to be it's own post.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A little bit of history, Celdran style

(Carlos Celdran starting the tour)

I first heard about Carlos Celdran about 6 years ago when I was home for what I like to call my "quarter life crisis break." All I knew about him was that he was some guy that lead entertaining, animated tours of Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila. I thought to myself "Awesome! That's something the city sorely needs" but stopped short of hunting him down and going on a tour myself. Over the years, he's become quite the local celebrity. Everyone knows about Carlos Celdran tours; my sister's friend had it as a pre-wedding event for her out of town guests. Now that I'm home again, I was determined to finally go on one of his tours and experience it for myself.

Because Carlos' tours are about two hours long and he does two in a day, I had to get up pretty early on the Sunday to make it out to Intramuros. My touring buddy? Migs Roxas, childhood friend that is now living in Sydney, Australia. He was in Manila from Sydney for an internship and he too figured that some culture would do him some good. So off we went, the transplated Pinoys to revisit our history. Joining us on the tour was a delighful mix of locals, foreigners (white people) and balikbayans (people like me and Migs). Risa has told that he is now featured in the latest edition of Lonely Planet Philippines which has for sure added to his popularity.

 (The Balikbayans)

At this point I should note that I did take a Philippine history class in high school. However, it is more from my own love of the subject matter rather than an inspiring teacher and stimulating class that I remember a lot of what he told us. So I am not completely ignorant, but I'm also a geek, love history and love seeing how people tell stories.

Back to the tour. We stated off in Fort Santiago with Carlos telling us that the tour is what you would call "a history lesson for people with ADD". He started using our language as a metaphor to show how mixy-matchy our actual culture is. Some of our words are indigenous Filipino, more Malay than anything else and only refer to certain aspects of life. Mostly, the non material things like the sky, spirit, heaven, stars.... Any Spanish words are related to things, pencils, chairs, clothes. American words? They're all brands. Filipinos call toothpaste colgate and film (when we used to use film) Kodak. His fave example is that when Pinoys want to take a picture, we can "kodakan". It's the same principle as when we now say "I'm googling him." The brand name has become a verb.

I loved that he started off the tour with an examination of language. Perhaps it's because I've always living in multilingual environments, with multilingual friends, or perhaps it's because I've spent the last 10 years of my life in Quebec where language is a polarized and highly politicized topic, but I completely, 100% believe that language is a repository for culture. Understanding how a language works, give you a lot of insight into a culture that are otherwise difficult to pinpoint.

Entrance to Fort Santiago. If I remember correctly, the Spanish Conquistador is on his horse ready to kill the Muslims.

From that point, Carlos took us on a tour of the history of Manila starting with the Spaniard finding the little nipa huts and the small Muslim village ruled by Rajah Sulayman and how the islands became Hispanized, or more like, Catholicized. Through to the end of WWII when everything changed. The most intriguing stories were probably the years after the turn of the century until WWII. The "golden years" of Manila, the years when she really was the Pearl of the Orient.  The images and stories he told are all ones that I've heard, but can't really imagine anymore. It just seems so far from the world we know today.

The standout part of the tour was when we were switching over from the Spanish period to the American period. Carlos follows what is known as a Revisionist telling of Philippine history. He does not follow the standard Agoncillio telling (a standard textbook that every Pinoy kid has probably read) but rather take the more Western approach to Philippine history and doesn't consider June 12, 1898 as independence day, but rather looks at July 4, 1948 ('46?) as our independence day.

Why is this shocking to me? Well, because I'm not sure how many of the Filipinos know that our date of independence varies depending on this historian you read. As Filipinos, we are told that we won our independence from the Spanish through the Revolution in 1898. This is the date that is widely celebrated and this is the date that you are supposed to know. The rest of world's historians see it as a Revolution, but also considers that the Philippines was sold to the Americans as part of war payments for the Spanish loss in the Spanish-American war. All that to say, I wonder what the locals were thinking when he said that. He didn't make it a big deal of it and no one asked any questions afterwards.

All in all, the tour was awesome. He was entertaining and I'd tell anyone visiting Manila to go on his tour. Definitely entertaining and a great "Cliff Notes/ADD Kid friendly" history lesson. Next up for me? His Imelda tour!! Bell bottoms here we come!!

Group shot!!