Sunday, March 30, 2014

Babuyan Island as Stuff of Legends

I was ecstatic when my driver pointed a hazy patch of land mass rising above the eastern sea. This was in Batanes during a day tour. Was it just another partially inhabited island?

Lo and behold, it was the main Babuyan Island, a “concept” that has always intrigued me. This goes to show how mundane things can make people happy, it’s silly! As a child, I’ve always been fascinated with Babuyan Island (Isle of Pigs) – Social Studies, History, Philippine Geography; they all kept mentioning this archipelagic smattering of islands. But no one seemed interested to show how it looked, or how people lived there, if there were any. Today it had a “face”.

Babuyan Island is triangular in shape and is filled with volcanoes – 4 or 5 in its small size measuring 13 by 10 kilometers. My driver mentioned that it was a part of Aparri, and subsequently, Cagayan. Tita, my guide, also mentioned that people from Babuyan have absolutely no means of livelihood, except fishing. The island is supposedly heavily forested, but vegetables and crops don’t favor the volcanic soil. Most of the island is “steep all around” so it’s like visiting an extra-terrestrial terrain. In its southern tip is an islet called “Pan de Azucar”. Bread of Sugar? For an island's name? No kidding. How does one get there from Batanes? Try an 8 hour ride in a small, rickety fishing boat. You have to have steel-belted resolve to brave the Balintang Channel. No electricity, no signal, no “life”? But hold your breath, the 2010 census records a population of 1,423. Imagine that!

Photo is an aerial shot showing Smith Volcano (Mount Babuyan) courtesy of wikipedia and flickr's Bing Ramos. 

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Visual Poetry at the Royal Botanic Garden in Melbourne, Australia

I didn't expect much from the city's Royal Botanic Garden. But it was one of my favorite places in windy Melbourne. Australians have a penchant for using the term "garden" when they more appropriately deserve to be called a "park". And doesn't this look like a painting?

Maybe sometime in the past, royals used to roam here and maybe not. Located in the south banks of the Yarra River in the suburb of Cranbourne, the garden sprawls into 38 hectares of landscaped gardens. Checking the map, it seemed far from central Flinders Street Station so I rode the bus to get there. Then I leisurely walked right back to the city.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spectrum Restaurant: Delectable Dining at the Fairmont and Raffles Hotel

Heard about Fairmont Hotel, the relatively new 5-star hotel in Makati that's paired up conveniently with Raffles Suites. When the opportunity came to pick a celebratory place for my family, I didn't hesitate booking at the Spectrum Restaurant located at the 1st floor of the hotel complex.

While the buffet table is probably half the spread from other hotel buffets, the selections are exquisitely planned and delectably salivacious, and if you think I am writing in cliches, you'd be very wrong. In this restaurant, quality trumps quantity.

With a thematic mantra of "Simply Life", the atmosphere is sedate, relaxed, sophisticated, warm, and far from the circus demeanor familiar in many hotel restaurants, at a price you'd expect from a 5-star hotel. What's better, their staff are attentive without overbearingly obtrusive. It is not cheap, but this is a place for special occasions, like family gatherings or romantic dinner dates with milestone moments.

Ala carte dining is open from 6 AM to 10 PM. There are breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets with corresponding rates (P1,450/P1,800/P2,120 or P2285 for Friday and Saturday dinner). Children 5 years old and below get complimentary plates while 6 to 12 years old pay 50% the regular price. Beverages excluded from these rates. A soda drink will set you back P150/order/person. Do they offer senior citizen rates? Yup, 20%... and that's huge savings. Sometimes, credit card promos offer 20% discounts as well. Call and check before hand. Call 555-9888 ext. 6840 or email at Call between 9 AM and 10:30 PM. Otherwise, no one answers your call.

Fairmont and Raffles is located beside Landmark in Makati and you can head to the basement for parking. Validate your parking ticket at the restaurant so you don't pay for parking.

I have been to a good number of buffets in the metropolis. This is easily one of my favorites.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Hotel front desk

Now allow me to show a photo of the men's lavatory. Ain't it so cool?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

From Madrid to Manila, Juan Luna's Spoliarium Mesmerizes

It was the real thing! Juan Luna's "Spoliarium" was hanging on a wall in Madrid's Museo del Prado which is among Europe's Top 5 must-visit museums. This took me by surprise because how could a prized masterpiece hang far away from its country of origin! Madrilenos were lucky to see this jaw-dropping masterpiece, and I felt privileged to have seen it in Spain. Fast forward to 2014, during a visit at an ancestral house in Silay, Bacolod, the owner relayed an anecdote about Spain returning the "Spoliarium" to the Philippines.

Madrid's Museo del Prado
What's more surprising was how they transported it back. Because of its huge canvas, they had to cut the whole piece into several squares so they could fly it back to Manila. Are masterpieces really turned into jigsaw puzzle pieces for transport? The practice seems ridiculous.

Two weeks later, during my very first visit of the National Gallery in Manila, it was a surreal experience to finally see the "Spoliarium" gracing a whole exhibition hall - right where it belongs!

The Spoliarium was Juan Luna's submission to a national arts competition in Madrid in 1884. It won the first of three gold prizes; also won by another Filipino painter Felix Hidalgo ("The Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace"). Spoliarium took 8 months to finish and uses the Roman slave gladiators as Luna's subject, a metaphor to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

But what I couldn't help thinking was how small the world has become - and Madrid, Manila and Bacolod have linked up in less than six degrees of separation. Isn't that simply amazing?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Swimming in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan royals used to bathe here, the Kuttam Pokuna, a royal bath in the sacred, ancient city of Anuradhapura located 205 kilometers north of the capital Colombo. Though mostly set in ruins, the place is surrounded by monasteries, while the residential areas are littered with dogs roaming the streets. I know because I almost became dog food while trying to look for my planned hotel which I never found. The tuktuk driver offered his house at a much lesser cost. Of course that could have been a ploy - not finding the hotel - so I'd grab his place but it was a long ride from Mihintale (the birth of Buddhism in Sri Lanka) and I was tired and didn't want to waste more time.

I wanted to soak in at the royal baths only to find out it had been conquered by algae.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lost in the Maze at the Hampton Court Palace, England

When I visited Hampton Court Palace, I didn't know anything about the maze. What interested me more was its previous inhabitants: King Henry VIII who separated from the Roman Catholic Church because the church wouldn't allow him to divorce his queen Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, the temperamental queen successor who refused to be submissive to the head-strong king. Ironically, Boleyn was eventually beheaded.

The story here isn't about the royals but my foray in the palace's maze. It was at the tail end of my visit and I had a train to catch back to London. And by Jeeves, I started palpitating when I couldn't extricate myself out of it! Well, I did - eventually, or I wouldn't be writing about it here. It contains half a mile of paths so that can't be a walk in the park, can it?

Hampton Court Palace is located in the lovely Middlesex county at the outskirts of London. The point being: if you don't have all day to find your way out, try not to get lost - or at least, allot adequate time.

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Friday, March 14, 2014

Red Lights of De Wallen in Amsterdam, Netherlands

It was a bizarre experience walking along De Wallen in Amsterdam. I didn't realize then that "red light" was a literal description. In fact, the world would have to thank Amsterdam for the term "red light district". With some 300 room cabins on display, in several narrow streets, the district is a sexual paradigm. But what actually shocked me was the presence of esoteric practices: all wrinkled-out grannies trading their flesh and sex with - hold your horses - animals. It was a proverbial row of shops in a mall meant to satisfy sexual desires and fantasies.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Thanaka and Men in Tachileik, Myanmar

A well traveled American girl once argued with me, saying that the "thanaka", a cosmetic paste applied on the face of many Burmese, is exclusively for females. I disagreed because I saw several men wearing them during my Burmese travels. I even asked them about it. Why they use it: 1) cosmetic reasons - culture has them believing that the thanaka lends them more beauty the way make-up and lipsticks do; 2) they cool the face, like mints; 3) they can function as sunblock; 4) they are believed to promote smooth skin and prevent pimples. The active ingredients are courmarin and marmesin. This paste is made from ground bark and you'd easily see the plant sold in sidewalks.

The American girl wouldn't budge of course and I wasn't in the habit of convincing her. I didn't really care what she thought. You see, you can be a seasoned traveler and still be ignorant of the things around you - and it's not going to be worth anything to me. But if she saw this Tachileik boy wearing his thanaka, what would she think? Probably he's a girl? ;)

Tachileik is a border town in the Shan state of eastern Myanmar and is quite far from Yangon or its capital Naypyidaw. I crossed Tachileik from Mae Sai, an "eccentric" northern Thai town. But that's for another story.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Playing House in Trowulan, Indonesia

It was a production number to get to Trowulan, once the capital of the Majapahit empire in 14th century Java in Indonesia. A commuter bus took me here because no tour agencies offered trips from Surabaya (Indonesia's 2nd biggest city) which is one of the very few cities in the world I have vowed never to visit again - mainly because I got harassed by a security officer at the airport (from a sea of Muslim passengers deplaning, I, probably the lone Catholic in the plane, got picked for his merriment).

Trowulan was interesting. Not a lot of foreign tourists get here. I hired a tricycle-cum-tour guide (straight from their museum) to visit 6 or 7 ancient temples and ruins. In one of such places, I encountered these cute little ladies playing with mud cakes, as though they were baking. "Can I join you?" I smiled. And they laughed. I was welcomed, and got handed the green cup. If only those "candies" didn't look like turds. :)

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

China Beach in Da Nang, Vietnam

At a secluded spot in China Beach, in central Vietnam's eastern seacoast of Da Nang, the country's third largest city, I found these huge circular bowl-shaped fishing boats one lazy Sunday morning before flying back to Kuala Lumpur.

I was standing there looking at the rush of the waves when a friendly local gentleman in his mid-30's came to chat. He nonchalantly told me how these seas and the nearby islands are being owned by China. As much as I try to avoid discussing "politics" and territorial issues, I could not ignore the issue completely because it is close to home. Like the Philippines, Vietnam is scratching its head uncomfortably because China is muscling its way to "gain" sovereignty to what clearly isn't theirs. I joked that they should change the name of "China Beach" before China starts having their ridiculous ideas that the beach is China's by virtue of its name, the way they spuriously believe that all of South China Sea is theirs (and they even have magical maps and historical anecdotes to prove these). What can small, powerless countries do to avoid these territorial intrusions and fight against bullies? You can't help but wonder.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Boat Lady in Pokhara, Nepal

I was in Pokhara, a sleepy town near the Indian-Nepali border when I caught this boat lady lost in her own thoughts. Pokhara is a gateway to the base camps of Everest but sometimes you feel so isolated from the rest of the world here. It has this end-of-the-world atmosphere that makes it so special. I must have stared at this lady for 15 minutes before I saw movement. The heavenly Phewa Lake provided the backdrop to this scene. What could she be thinking? A child who needed feeding? The laundry left at the clothesline? The sari she wanted to buy from a shop she earlier visited? Those pesky tourists who steal photos when she's most vulnerable?

This is the Eye in the Sky!