Thursday, December 18, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines part four: WATER

Finally, the last part of this Philippines series, and probably my favourite one!

After our amazing days in the jungle (really, I had the time of my life) we left Bohol island for a smaller island just east of it, Panglao, and from there, we took a small boat to an even smaller one, Balicasag. The boat was beautiful, slender and painted white, contrasting beautifully against the aqua-blue water. In the distance, we realised how small Balicasag was (actually, it's barely 1/4 square km!).

We loved the place. To start with, the one and only resort had big cottages, with AC! And had everything you needed for diving and snorkelling, as the whole area is a fantastic spot for both. Balicasag is a coral-sand island, which means no white, soft sand, but it also means there were tons and tons of interesting coral bits (including some beautiful red and pink ones), seashells, and even the occasional blue star-fish! Also, there was this beautiful tree right next to the shore and that, along with the sound of the sea and the placid weather, made for the most relaxing of views.

Of course, I can keep still only for so long, and soon I was getting my hands on some snorkelling gear! I had snorkelled only once in my life, long ago in Cancún, Mexico, and that had been nice. So I thought I'd have a similar experience. I was so wrong. It was far better. Far, far better! No more than 3-4 metres from the shore you were already seeing a number of beautiful fish! Just a bit deeper I was seeing clownfish protecting their anemones, schools of bright blue fish, fish with yellow and pink stripes, velvety black sea urchins with dashes of electric blue, blue starfish... every time I turned my head I went "ooh!" "aaah!" (having a snorkel mouthpiece wasn't what you'd call an aid to creative expression, either, lol).

Next day, I dragged my habib to snorkel with me. I HAD to share the marvels I'd seen! And I can say he was as amazed as I was. Mesmerised. What a different world, so arresting, peaceful, and so removed from the world of us land-dwellers... I couldn't contain my curiosity and, after leaving him back on shore, I ventured to the deeper part of the reef. Wow. I had thought what I had seen was incredible, but at this deeper, further area it was just so much better! The coral had grown HUGE, and into so many shapes! and fish everywhere! Of course, I was convinced my mission in life was to get my habib to see these wonders, too, and there he went, swimming with me far away from the shore, seeing anemones, long tubular sea slugs, more schools of silver or shockingly bright blue fish, comb jelly with iridescent purple or pink-orange spots (actually, we swam into a group of those, they were hard to see until you had them in your face, literally!).

The reef had a sort of cliff at one side, and there the water was such an intense aqua colour, so hypnotic... and even scary, as I kept wondering what could come from the depths without us noticing. Also, the reef was so tall in places I accidentally stepped on some coral. The coral was fine, mind you, but it practically "sashimi-ed" my foot and toes away! The cuts were so clean I didn't notice until we were back on shore! The experience was unlike anything I had seen or done, it was magic. It was profound. It left me longing for more.

I'm afraid my pics aren't that great but, 1. the camera wasn't that good either, and 2. I went crazy and used up all the film in the shallower part of the reef before discovering the wonders of the deeper side.

The end of our trip still had some surprises in store for us. The ride back to Panglao was rainy, but it was interesting to see the ocean change texture with the raindrops. Because of the rain and wind, the boat had to take a detour and drop us at a different part of Panglao, where we were greeted by an old church rising from the jungle next to the sea. Beautiful, and unexpected. We then took a car, drove back to Bohol, to Tagbilaran, flew to Manila and, next day, flew back home to Beijing.

I'm grateful for having discovered this beautiful country, a country which was one of the last places on earth I wanted to visit, a country which offered me one of my best holidays and which left me wanting to come back for more.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines part three: JUNGLE

After our first day, we decided to do some exploring. First in our plans (being also the most accessible place) was the town of Loboc, just 10 minutes downstream, to visit the San Pedro Church (built in 1608, but destroyed and rebuilt a few times, as is usual). This was one of the oldest in the island, and there is something definitely compelling about these weather-worn and partly abandoned structures that so long ago gave comfort to people in a completely alien place and terribly far from home.

We wandered around, enjoying the stark contrast of the European windows and angel faces with the surrounding tropical trees, until we decided it was time for our second foray: Bohol's Tarsier Sanctuary, near Corella town.

Bohol is so famous for its tarsiers you might almost make the mistake of deciding not to go see them (disregarding them as too touristy) or, even worse, see them at various (illegal?) places where the poor fellows are kept in simple wire cages. Even though it implied a much longer ride, we opted for a tarsier sanctuary, where these wonderful primates can live as true and rightful inhabitants of the island instead of as objects to attract tourists. We took a "jeepney" (a colourful jeep-cum-minibus) and, after a long and fortunately not so bumpy ride, we got off at the entrance to the sanctuary and, after a short walk, made it to the sanctuary itself. We took a quick look around the museum, and were later led to the protected area by a guide. The jungle was so dense inside! if we hadn't had a guide, even though the enclosure can't have been that big, I would have completely lost my way (and my habib!) after just a few metres; fortunately, the guide was not only useful to find the exit, but also to spot the tiny tarsiers. It was the first time I was so close to a primate in my life, and such peculiar ones at that! I had to keep catching up with my habib and the guide, it was so hard for me to stop looking at them, their huge eyes, (sleepy eyes, by the way, as they're nocturnal), their long strong fingers... I would have stayed HOURS just looking at one. Fortunately, the guide spotted not just one, but about FOUR of them!

Alas, we still had to find a way back home and, given the time (it was late afternoon), there was no transport on that solitary road! Fortunately we managed to hitch-hike with a man and his family to Loboc, and took a boat back home.

The next day proved as exciting as the one before (but this time we hired a car, 'cause we were going farther):

We drove to a viewing spot not far from Carmen town to see the most famous sight in Bohol - the Chocolate Hills, a group of over 1200 cone-shaped hills of about the same size. Here you can see them covered with green grass, but they turn brown in the summer, and that's the reason they're called "chocolate" hills. There are several theories about their formation. And they're completely unnecessary to appreciate the strange formations:

Afterwards, and hungry, we made a quick stop at a local market. And we had a good laugh, as the nice old ladies at a stand there were selling "puto", some sort of steamed sweet rice. As you might know, "puto" in Spanish means "faggot", and to ask the lady what she was selling and have her nonchalantly reply "Puto!" was absolutely hilarious.

On the way back home, we made another stop at Bilar town to see a butterfly sanctuary. Curiously, even though there were some special butterflies there, a number of other things got my attention, like real cacao hanging from trees! The driver got some down by throwing stones at it, and we got to chew the moist, semi-sweet seeds! Crazy! I also got to hold an ENORMOUS caterpillar, smell a plant whose leaves smelled exactly like garlic, and just look at a number of interesting flowers and insects (I have to admit I'm fascinated by nature, and animals in particular).

It was a good day. And to finish it off, while we were having dinner (at that restaurant a hundred and something steps uphill, remember?), I saw strange lights floating around the top of one of the trees... fireflies! There were some 20 of them, and their slow dance above the tree was bordering on the mystical. I was completely enthralled, because the whole setting made the spectacle sort of surreal. Of course, there was no way my camera was going to capture that, so here's just the tree:

The next day we set off for the third part of our trip: a small coral-sand island (tiny, actually) where we were going to simply unwind and relax. And snorkel. Like never before.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines part two: DARKNESS

After Manila, we left for an island called Bohol. At first, we felt we were facing a tough choice, there are over 7000+ islands! But the weather (we wanted to avoid ferries, as one had recently capsized because of a storm!) and the few available flights almost made the decision for us. And so Bohol, an island of what is know as the Visayas, and just south of Cebu, was the winner.

I had booked a hut (a "vipa" in the local language) next to a river, in the midst of the jungle in the interior of the island. So, after a short flight we arrived at the capital of Bohol island, Tagbilaran city, and took a car that drove us to a stop on the road. From there, you had to go down some narrow steps (how out of place our heavy luggage was, but I had had to pack for a 1 week official course!) to hop on a slender boat, and then have a 15 minute ride to get to the huts. Loved it. Both riverbanks of the Lobok river were thick with lush green vegetation, the river was calm, the weather was warm, but bearable. And we finally made it: Nuts Huts, a row of some 10 vipas, blending with their surroundings, right in the middle of the jungle and at the foot of the surrounding hills.

I have to admit I got so completely carried away and excited by the idea of living an adventure in the jungle that, to my habib's chagrin, I forgot to check some practical facts about the place, which started hitting us in the face one after the other: the need to drag the heavy luggage along a rough muddy and rock-strewn path up to the vipa, hoisting said luggage up the ladder to said vipa, realising said vipa had no AC, finding out the reception was up the hill (exactly 121 steps), along with the ONLY place that served ANY food, and that the only two ways out were either by boat or up an additional 157 steps to a 750 metre long muddy dirt road that lead to the highway, where you could wait for a bus. Luggage and clothing-wise, we were completely unprepared. Mentally, my habib was completely unprepared, as the picture my excitement had painted was way different from reality. Me, I was so thrilled I felt guilty! And my poor, understanding habib, after some deep breaths, let me have my cake and eat it, and we stayed. And I was happy. I was so happy to stay there.

Our first day we didn't get to do much, as it was rainy. But we simply lounged and watched the jungle around us, from the restaurant (more like a wooden veranda with tables, very simple, and relaxing!) up the hill; we watched how a strange fog thick as smoke would rise from the jungle itself right after the rain, and we saw a couple of gecko's climbing up one of the screens. Back at our vipa (called "Star Treck"!) we watched a couple of movies my habib had downloaded to his laptop; we sat right there, at the porch, together, with no worries in the world but watching a flick surrounded by trees, plants, hills and a river flowing ahead.

We figured we could do a bit of exploring the next couple of days (well, "we figured" means I had more plans than was humanely possible, and my habib helped me set my feet on the ground and take it easy, lol), so we went to sleep. There wasn't much left to do, either, as it was really dark and the clouds didn't let any moonlight through. After getting used to the unfamiliar sounds of animals around (and, one hoped, outside the vipa and not inside it), we had our darkest night ever. Ever. Both of us woke up at some point during the night. And you know how it's like: it's very dark, and you just wait for your eyes to get used to the darkness and start seeing something, right? I waited. And waited. And nothing. It was so dark I could not see my hand in front of me, or my habib next to me, or anything! And I mean nothing, not the slightest blur, not the faintest of the faintest of shapes, nada! It was weird, and exciting, since none of us remembered experiencing such utter darkness. Really, it made such an impression I've just devoted a paragraph to it, see?

The next couple of days were amazing. And, seeing how much I've written already (let's take this as the prologue to Bohol), I'll have to leave chocolate hills, tarsiers, ancient churches and butterfly sanctuaries for my next post!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

a trip to (WOW) Philippines


If you had asked me a month ago to make a list of ALL the places and countries I wanted to visit, the Philippines would have come last, with even a chance of not even being included in the list. I'm no beach boy, I've had my fair share of colonial architecture and Spanish heritage in Mexico, and top in my wish-list would be exotic and different destinations, not places with which we shared a colonial past.

So, when I was informed I had to travel to Manila for a week for work, I thought "Well, it's either now, or never!" So, I asked for a week off so we could travel around right after work. And we got a guidebook. And we found ourselves leafing back and forth, surprisingly overburdened with choice and unable to decide which of the 7000+ islands to visit. This promised to be one interesting trip, after all.



We spent about a week in Manila, because of my work. I disliked it, completely. Well, not completely, Makati, the part of town where we stayed, with high-rises, modern malls, green parks and restaurants was quite nice (though somewhat small).

Yet, once you stepped outside this new town, you faced a city that, personally, reminded me of the ugliest parts of Mexico City. It sounds horrible, but that's why I used the magic word "personally": it evoked very emotional reactions from me, and it was very hard for me to shake off the feeling that I was in the worst or most neglected parts of my beloved Mexico City (including the unfortunate activation of the fight-or-flight response, which was rather uncalled for in Manila).

Since we had Sunday off, we went downtown, to Intramuros, the old part of the city. And I felt disappointed. As it happens, a good deal of that part of town was destroyed during WWII, when the Americans were trying to kick the Japanese out. Some 150,000 inhabitants perished, and countless historical buildings were destroyed. We walked around the streets of Intramuros, dismayed at realising how much had been lost, how little was left, and how unattractive (from my point of view) it all looked. Unconsciously, I seem to have shot only the nicer places:

There was an old church, the San Agustín Church, and our guidebook mentioned its museum was interesting. Having no better plans, we went in. And the city presented us with its first "Aaaah" moment, a gorgeous baroque church with a wealth of treasures, like colonial religious statues and figures with real hair (eerie at first, then downright fascinating.), old dictionaries and grammars of the local languages written in old Spanish (you can't imagine how exciting that was for someone like me!), the 100+ year old gravestones of Spaniards and foreigners alike (a really moving discovery, given how really far from their birthplace were all these people, and how at home were they in Manila that they were buried there)...

It was hot, very hot, and the heat was trumping over our enthusiasm. Just when we were about to call it a day and leave, we found an entrance, a corridor, and being the curious person I am, we pushed ourselves to explore just a bit further, and made it to the choir!

The San Agustín Church was definitely the highlight of our visit to Manila. We tried visiting other places yet our impression was, mostly, a mixed one: amazement at what it must have been like, disappointment at what had become of them (through war, neglect, or both). And yet, as it seemed to be the city's style, quite a few pleasant and unexpected surprises arose here and there, like this shrine in Chinatown (another place with, at night, made me feel extremely , and needlessly, uncomfortable due to its resemblance to "bad parts" of Mexico City) which, from the distance and the way people prayed, definitely seemed like a Buddhist shrine, but which in fact was a Christian one!

Manila may have lacked beauty.

Manila may have seemed too religious to me. (Remember Makati, the poshest part of town? it's poshest mall had a chapel, and all the fashionable urbanites congregate there for Sunday mass, holding hands and singing. TV's got no less than 5 channels dedicated to Christianity. And the "religion section" of the bookstores could aptly be renamed the "christianity section", with a science section conspicuously lacking or microscopic at most).

But Manila truely compensated with the friendliness of its people. Since I am vegan, their friendliness and attention was tested again and again, and they passed with flying colours. Filipino fare makes liberal use of animals, and staff at restaurants always paid attention to my request to have dishes modified so they'd be vegan, even going a step further and alerting me if I was choosing something that contained animal parts or products and, the few times the cook forgot and did include something I wouldn't eat, they would apologise and replace the dish immediately without further questions.

Yet, like I said, and its beautiful and unexpected surprises and friendly people notwithstanding, Manila was definitely not for me, and I was really desperate to get away, so the very first morning after the course we set off to the Visayas, to the island of Bohol, for a week of adventure and nature! (which will be the subject of my next post, of course)

Sunday, October 19, 2008


The best birthday celebrations are those that extend over a number of days. Or, more precisely, that's how I like our birthdays! I mean, a meal one day, a visit to some place another one, a special treat or whim a different one... right? So, lucky for me, I managed to celebrate my 35th that way.

First of all, one of my best friends visited from The Netherlands! We met while studying at Peking University back in 1997-1999, and if I've ever had a partner in crime, that was her! And after almost ten years, here she was, with her daughter, in Beijing, on my birthday! One of the best gifts ever.

Then, with her, her daughter and the habib, we did one of my favourite things in Beijing - hutong exploring! Though the area around Houhai is pretty cool for this, the hutongs around Qianmen (前门) are are no less interesting. 

You can still find a number of old houses with their peculiar roofs and panel-like decorations... 

There is still a functioning shadow puppet theatre too! on Dazhalan (大栅栏) hutong! The Beijing Longzaitian Shadow Puppet Club-Museum (北京龙在天皮影文化俱乐部博物馆). Needless to say, these people are masters of their craft, their puppets are beautiful, and sitting in a dark room watching one of their performances in an old hutong is an unforgettable experience.

Another reason I enjoy hutongs so much: Beijing snacks. It's the best place to find these local delicacies! Like these red-bean paste filled sesame balls. I love these! The crunchy fried outside and the warm soft inside... amazing I'm telling you! And then you get to enjoy them while walking the all too lively traditional hutongs...

Another cool thing happened during the "festivities" - gorgeous weather! I'm pretty lucky mid-October in Beijing usually has very pleasant weather. And thanks to the Chinese government's efforts to have a pollution-free Olympics, we enjoyed not just good temperature, but beautiful skies. Which led to perfect sunsets. Ah...

And, naturally, no celebration would be complete without abundant delicious food in good company! We went to Pure Lotus, a vegan place that does a number of mock dishes. But believe me, they take this to a whole new level! Like, a fish dish may actually have skin that tastes and feels like real fish skin! And there's plenty of vegetable dishes that are not mocking anything. Plus, the food is simply absolutely delicious. By far my favourite restaurant in Beijing. 

And, of course, entertaining at home! Which is always such an event for us because, with all the moving around and leaving friends behind and making new ones and trying to get a new place to feel like home, is no easy task! But my habib and my dear friends, new and old, made that possible.

And to close the week-long feast, chilling out with my Dutch buddy at home, with a nice, big, foamy glass of Guinness! 

A very happy 35th birthday. With very dear people.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Beijing is so polluted that when it decides to offer crystal clear skies I can't help but stand mesmerised by the window, or on the street, watching the bluest of blues, sublime pinks, brilliant golds reflected on the glass of this city reaching for the sky. (as you can see, I couldn't help but trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to capture what I saw with my camera)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Harbin - 105 years later

(trip from September 30th until October 3rd, 2008)

Harbin (哈尔滨, Харбин), a town that at the end of the 19th century was no more than a fishing village, became at the beginning of the 20th a transportation hub between Europe and Asia, with the Middle East Railway linking the Pacific Ocean (Japan) with the Atlantic (Portugal). A cosmopolitan city, a centre for Russian power and Russian refugees, a city that fell into Japanese hands and then was retaken by the Kuomintang, Harbin is rich in history and traces of the past.

But it was not just the city’s history which made us decide to visit during the October holidays (nor the fact that flights and trains were booked full to about every other destination inside and outside China) but, most importantly, my personal relation to the place. Harbin, the birthplace of my grandfather, is the symbolic source of my fascination (bordering on obsession) with travel and languages. I did meet my grandfather, but I was too young to remember. But, in a way, that might have made his story the more compelling, as I did not have to deal with ordinary reality and could let my imagination run wild with images of his family emigrating all the way from Crimea to Harbin, his life in that Russian part of China before he left, as a young man, for Kobe, Japan, where he lived until the terrible quake of 1923, after which he and his mother, by chance, docked not in the USA, but in Mexico. Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, the many languages he was supposed to speak (though no one could agree on which ones they were), if this was not what originated my love for travel and learning languages, it certainly was rocket-grade fuel.

We spent three full days there, which is more than many people spend, since they usually go in winter for the Ice Lantern Festival, when the weather is a crispy -20 to -30 ºC.

We stayed at a hotel built in 1904, which was actually the Mid East Railway Hotel back then! And that was just the beginning of a long list of encounters with old buildings, not just along the pedestrianised Central Street (中央大街), but at many other places our guidebook didn’t even mention (fortunately, we got hold of a book specialising on old Harbin architecture). I must say, many of the buildings were either renovated rather simplistically, in an awful state of disrepair, or being used for purposes that seemed rather undignified, but all in all we relished our chance of an encounter with them.

We visited places of former and present worship: two orthodox churches, a Lutheran one...

... a Turkish mosque, a synagogue (which had become, to our amazement, a Café, and Indian trinkets shop, a wedding photo company, a pizza parlour and even a cheap a hostel!)...

We visited former residences and companies, some of them in jaw-dropping Art Nouveau style...

We visited old and dignified restaurants, abandoned or in use...

...where we would have, what else, Russian fare! including the borshch, pickles and bread de rigueur!

And we even made it to the cemetery, originally within Harbin but now some 30 minutes from the city, to try to find my great-grandfather’s grave (he never left Harbin). I checked every single one of them in the Russian Orthodox Section (despite his Jewish surname, he was married, and buried, by the Russian Orthodox church, so, there was no point in name-checking the Jewish graves in the Jewish part of the cemetery). His name wasn’t on any. There were quite a few mounds with rotting, broken crosses and faded signs, tombs long since forgotten and with no one left to care, tombs of people of little means and no family (like my great-grandfather), and chances are his was just one of those nameless mounds of dirt...

And so, with our eyes and minds full with yet another side of China that gave us more food for thought that we could digest, we left. I’m glad I visited Harbin, and that I visited when the weather permitted us to walk and explore at leisure; I’m thankful for all the surprises the city offered us, and I’m excited about having come full circle, where a part of it all started one hundred and five years ago.