“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
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Japan: Autumn Leaves and Nosebleeds

The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama, Kyoto

The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama, Kyoto

Tourist Spots are like Alcohol. The worst ones leave a bad taste and the best ones keep you asking for more. Not that I know much about wine, but for me I’d never think twice about coming to Japan the same way I won’t refuse another glass of Martini.

Unfortunately, the signs didn’t look good even before my trip began. It started with one innocent sneeze while I was still packing my things then soon came that sneeze’s brother, sister, pet dog, and before I knew it was the whole family. I had the feeling that the stars and galaxies conspired that day to align themselves in the sky and jinx my trip.

It’s easy to say it could have been worse…until I forgot to bring my tripod.

As usual, this Japan Trip was primarily business with me just making extra arrangements to stay longer so I can go around. Now that I think of it, having the trip partly business and partly sightseeing painted to me a more complete picture of the Japanese way of life. For three days, me and my colleagues went to this factory to witness a new equipment that our company bought undergo a series of tests. This gave me a chance to see the famous Japanese work ethic which blew me away.

In the factory, there was this guy who manually recorded the test results for us every 5 minutes for the entire day during our 3-day test. In those 3 days, I’ve never seen anyone show such enthusiasm and pride in the face of an obviously boring and repetitive task. I was impressed how this guy never even once faltered as he timely and carefully read each instrument and wrote them down in his paper. And when he is not doing that, he goes to his computer to encode it so he can “Work on other things after the test” as he says. What’s doing the same thing again and again for 3 days anyway? It still doesn’t make someone superhuman but what if that person has been doing that job for 15 years? Now that is something. To be fair, this guy was also in charge of setting up the whole test which entails configuring all the equipments to match the conditions set by customers like us.

I can recall countless other examples demonstrating how the Japanese put so much Passion and Respect in whatever they do. From the lady behind the counter at McDonald’s who greets us with the same lengthy speech every morning to the guy serving us doing his best to explain what is in our Ramen every evening, Japan’s work culture was like everybody else’s work culture shifted to high gear. At some point I remember telling myself how I wish this culture was contagious so I can bring home some of it.

Our booking for this trip was nothing less than a challenge as well. As our main destination was Ritto, Shiga which around 20 minutes from Kyoto, our travel agent must have had the impression that flying us through Tokyo is a good idea since they sound almost the same (Tokyo and Kyoto). Unfortunately they’re far from close so we had to ride the Shinkansen…Unfortunately 

A view aboard the Nozomi Line Shinkansen

A view aboard the Nozomi Line Shinkansen

But of course, I couldn’t just pass through Tokyo without looking around. I managed to squeeze in a few itineraries in the morning the day before our group headed for Kyoto.

The Statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya Station in Tokyo

The Statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya Station in Tokyo

A typical scene in Tokyo's Akihabara District

A typical scene in Tokyo’s Akihabara District

The tree-lined path leading to the Meiji-Jingu Temple

The tree-lined path leading to the Meiji-Jingu Temple

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Barrels of Sake wrapped in straw offered to the Meiji Jingu Shrine

Barrels of Sake wrapped in straw offered to the Meiji Jingu Shrine

The Fornt Gate of the Meiji Jingu Temple

The Fornt Gate of the Meiji Jingu Shrine

Seeing the Shinkansen for the first time stirs up a childish awe far from what you’d feel when you see Europe’s TGV or ICE. With a fuselage resembling Donald Duck, it was like a Disneyland train ride on steroids. However, despite being more technologically advanced, the Shinkansen (Nozomi Line) is slower on the tracks than its Euro counterparts at least for the Tokyo-Kyoto route.

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Let’s leave that statement as it is we don’t want to be talking about System Reliability, Track Design or Motor placement here do we?

On reaching Kyoto Station, I was surprised to see that it was just as hectic perhaps even more than Tokyo Station. Having arrived on a Sunday afternoon, I saw several Japanese ladies in their elegant Kimonos out and about the Station. Later I learned Japanese women wear their Kimonos as men would wear their Tuxedos whenever they attend significant gatherings.

The Internet offers vast amounts of information on what places to see in Kyoto. My bag was literally bursting with brochures and maps I printed out in advance as I tried (sort of) planning my sightseeing itineraries in Kyoto. However with my nose acting up and the cold weather not on my side, I had to trim down my list.

There is no way I am taking Fushimi Inari Taisha off the list and it was the first spot I went to just in case I can’t get enough of it in one day. It was an advantage that I was still adjusting to the new time zone that I always woke up early in Japan. There’s almost nobody around in the temples early in the morning so I didn’t worry about Photo Bombers in my photo and by the time I was done and already leaving, I was Photo Bombing other tourists’ photos.

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I definitely had my fill of Torii Shrines because the place was so full of it. Apparently, the eye-catching orange shrines are donated by Japanese businessmen to pray for wealth to Inari – the God of Rice among other things. Besides the shrines, statues of foxes or kitsune can be seen everywhere. The kitsune are considered as messengers and commonly depicted biting a key to unlock the rice granaries. To simply put it, donate a Torii, be kind to the Kitsune and hopfefully you’ll get yourself a rice granary. Well…something like that.

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Next Stop was the Nijo Castle. To me, the highlights of the castle were its amazing autumn foliage, unbelievably manicured gardens and its inspiring lagoons. Of course, there is the Castle but since they don’t allow photography inside, tourists tend to just breeze through that part and spend most of their time in the gardens. What I remember about the castle interior though is that the wooden floors squeak. According to the guide, these floors are actually called “Nightingale Floors” because they were specifically designed to squeak not in an annoying tone but somewhat resembling birds chirping. It was very convincing especially when groups of people walk on the nightingale floors as the squeaks sound as if a group of birds were playing outside the windows.

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Last on my list was Arashiyama to see the Bamboo Forest. Although it might sound strange to include the Bamboo Forest as part of my itinerary when there’s plenty of it where I came from, this was entirely different. Back home that is Philippine Bamboo, what they have here is Japanese Bamboo get it?

The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama, Kyoto

The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama, Kyoto

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And like I said earlier, being early to places like the Fushimi Inari and the Bamboo Forest makes a big difference because your photos can be easily bombed with tourists. Also, never forget to bring your tripod because cold mornings and low light don’t mix well.

There’s more to Arashiyama than just the Bamboo forest. By midday, the place was buzzing with businesses catering to tourists selling anything from Cakes to Trinkets and even Mushrooms. Rickshaws are also everywhere in Arashiyama and the drivers are friendly too. They do not hesitate to give you a small bow even if you just cross glances.

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The Tenryu-ji Temple grounds are among the best places to enjoy the autumn leaves in Arashiyama. Actually, it was a bit late since it was already the first week of December nevertheless, the leaves were still impressive. The Temple itself and the Sogen Pond are among its highlights and are said to be one of the great examples of Zen Architecture.

Tenryu-Ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Tenryu-Ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

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After the Tenryu-ji Temple, I decided to walk further towards Togetsukyo bridge. Here, Mt. Arashiyama and the Oi River provides a wonderful backdrop for doing just about anything. The road running parallel to Oi River was also lined up with Rickshaws waiting for tourist patrons. Everything seemed to be in order and despite of the volume of tourists, cleanliness was impressively maintained. A Tourist Trap in its negative sense was far from the impression I got of Arashiyama.

My flight home was through Kansai Airport in Osaka so I hurriedly went back to the hotel after finishing Arashiyama to get the rest of my bags. Osaka was not very far from Kyoto so I chose not to ride the Shinkansen. This time I got on the Haruka Express which was a flat nosed train and looked more muscular compared to the Shinkansen. The ride to Kansai Airport was smooth and quiet all throughout. After a short nap, I spent the rest of the trip reviewing the photos I took. It was a proud moment for me as I realized that a few days ago I was only looking at these places on the National Geographic website while now I’ve actually been there and I have my own photo to prove it.

Probably that comforting thought and the Zen Gardens taking effect were the reasons I wasn’t sentimental about leaving this time. But I am definitely coming back.

Who knows?

Cherry Blossoms?

An Unfinished Business – The Makiling Botanical Gardens

It will almost be a year now since I first went to this place and I’ve been wanting to come back ever since. Although this forest is brimming with tales of the supernatural where unsuspecting visitors could wind up lost for days, I managed to come out unscathed. Maybe it was the stories but shooting alone here was nothing less than surreal. It’s not difficult to imagine fairies and ethereal beings appearing in the steps or a windblown sound calling your name coming from the far distance. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience and a true shooting challenge. I remember how the sound of the birds can be heard all over the place when you first arrive and how later on you will forget when everything became silent. Was the forest striking a pose? or was it pondering what to do with us measly outsiders. I was on the edge because of the place’s legend and it won’t take much to throw my thoughts to full blown fear, I had to carry on because I’ve  never been to a place with such mystery.

 

It was only this month that I was able to drag myself and my wife to come back. The last I was here, the river alone consumed most of my time and prevented me from venturing out further than I originally intended. Taking photos along the river was a challenge in itself as you scamper for the best angle you can think of and then there’s the rocks that you have to step on to. There’s also a multitude of opportunities with the insects living on a world of their own. I never would have realized this if not for my wife who’d occassionally sit down to observe them.

Not only did we enjoy taking photos while we were there, we also enjoyed the time just being together and not being bothered by anything. I recall the tranquility of the place seemed to amplify our conversations as if they were echoing in a dream. Some may find it romantic, some may find it eerie but I found it nostalgic.  Although I can’t exactly tell what compels me to come back again and again, it could be the scent of mystery in the air or the thrill of conquering my fears.

…or was it the sound of my name blowing in the wind?

The Makiling Botanical Gardens is approximately an hour and a half drive from Manila.  The Gardens is within the grounds of the University of the Philippines Los Banos and has an entrance fee of Php 20.00.  Legend has it that the Spirit of Mariang Makiling lures outsiders to the depths of the forest confusing them until they lose their direction for days.  The well-known cure for outsiders experiencing this was to remove their clothes and wear them inside-out.

Missing Mycaela

It’s been a while since I last posted. It’s not that it was a dry spell for me between those periods but it was actually the opposite. A couple of long travels here and there and some revisits to old sites and cooking were among the many things that occupied me.

But the truth is… I am suffering from a case of Writer’s Block eversince.

For the past weeks I’ve been trying to get the creative juices flowing but I was unsuccessful. Trying to figure this out, I realized that there was no way I can get the old momentum back with such emotional load inside me. The first phrase that came to my mind was “to unload” but that is not what I really want because no matter how difficult this is for me, I will never give this away because I know the only way memories will remain with me forever is for me to cherish both the smiles and tears that came to our lives.

I was thinking of “sharing the load” perhaps and tell you the story about what happened.

As you may know, me and my wife are married for 8 months now which basically means barely enough time yet for a baby to be arriving. However, my sister who was married 5 months earlier gave birth to a beautiful baby girl a few days after me and my wife were married. For a few days, our honeymoon plans were stalled as I attended to my sister and because we were so excited about the baby. Mycaela Amber or “Plum Plum” as she was called was my first niece and the first grandchild in our family. For me and my wife, we saw Mycaela as if she was ours. It was a very long time ago when our household was once reeking with our childish shrieks and squeals. As me and my sister grew up those noises eventually faded and was replaced with the monotonous of grown-up voices. Everyone had best wishes for Mycaela’s arrival and we were so eager to be with her as she goes through her toddler years.

For 6 months, our family was all about Mycaela. My work schedule became more bearable as I eagerly waited to get back and visit her, my wife who wasn’t a whiz on carrying babies became such an expert as she like my mother and father were guilty of monopolizing playtime with Mycaela.

Conversations once dominated by “what-I-want’s” and “what-I-want-to-do’s” were replaced by “Mykaela-needs…” and Mykaela-must-have’s”. Not so long ago, everytime I go to malls, my eyes were instantly fixed on the latest gadget while now my eyes playfully trailed on stuff toys and trinkets wondering if they will bring a smile on Mycaela. It was amazing to realize how something inoccent as a baby can turn our lives around at the snap of a finger while for years we’ve consistently failed one New Year’s resolution after the other about being more selfless and less materialistic.

I never thought that the words “All good things come to an end” had so much truth in them at that they can happen even in the most unimaginable of circumstances. When it did happen it was so tragic that it felt like our hearts were shattered a thousand times over.

On August 27, 2012 Mycaela the angel that she was made her way back to heaven and left us beyond sadness, struggling to understand that it was God’s will.

Plum Plum knew it wasn’t her time yet to have an ice cream so she pretended having one in her hand.

Plum Plum loved mirrors. She always breaks out a laugh when she sees her reflection.

Here’s PLum PLum with my dad. They bonded well together.

At the back of my mind I felt how this event was so unfair that something as innocent as her deserved this. I was consoled when somebody told me that Mycaela could be having a hard time herself right now letting go of us because she knew she was going to a better place – a much better place than where we are right now.

I was not wrong when I told my sister that Mycaela was a Gift from God because she blessed our lives and changed it more than we could ever imagine. She showed us our Hearts and taught us that it can be broken whoever we are or whatever we have. She taught us Love knows no bounds and that Life is finite.

Most importantly, she thought me that when answers to questions begin to lose meaning and everything else fails…there is Faith.

Plum Plum loved our sofa. Here she was a bit anxious with my wife showing her an iPhone

Finding the “Sense of Place” in Singapore

With some stroke of luck, I was able to get my wife to tag along during my business/vacation trip in Singapore. Me and my wife decided not to schedule other travels this month since the rainy season has already started and because we wanted to prepare very much for Singapore. From the countless stories we’ve heard from friends and relatives, we were convinced we could face some steep spending there so we thought our wallets and credit limits could use some rest and make sure they are in the best shape when we trot around the Lion City.

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel practicing the Light and Sounds Show for the coming Independence Day celebration

Indeed, Singapore was brimming with sights and things to do and to say that it is one great travel destination is an understatement and something sort of like re-inventing the wheel. We know a lot of friends that have gone to Singapore telling tales of the wonderful locations they went to and the irresistible shopping deals they came across with and that helped us to realize that we didn’t want the stereotypical Singapore Trip but instead we wanted the well-rounded experience – we wanted to find the “Sense of Place” in Singapore.

The countless choices of places to go and things to try out will totally disorient anyone upon setting foot in Singapore City. In our case, we found it best to really identify first what we wanted – a gameplan of sort and work our itineraries according to that. Without any debate, me and my wife agreed that we prioritize the “Cultural” rather than the “Urban” Singapore experience. We thought that it’s the fusion of different cultures that makes Singapore the unique and vibrant city that it is and we were not disappointed going down that route.

The three major cultural groups in Singapore are comprised of the Chinese, Indians(Tamils) and the Malays. Although Filipinos are scattered everywhere like we always are anyway, we didn’t make it along with the big three. We chose to visit first the destinations representing these cultural groups and if we are lucky to have time to spare, we can go on and see the Urban sights of Singapore.

Fortunately, Singapore’s public transport system is well designed and very practical that there is no landmark that you cannot reach without any or the combination of the MRT or the Public Bus. In Singapore, unless you are the anti-social type or have money to spend you can forget about the Taxi. When me and my wife figured out how to go about the city hopping in and out of the different MRT lines, there was no stopping us where to go next.

Having booked our accommodation at a hotel in Little India, we decided to explore this side of Singapore first. Our first stop was the Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple that is not very difficult to miss with its colourful and intricately carved murals covering the temple domes. Nearly reluctant to enter the temple premises and just contenting ourselves to admiring the temple from across the street, we finally went in when we found others tourists entering the temple without any problems. Yes, shutterbugs we may be but being a place of worship, we were very careful not to upset the locals. Ironically, when we entered the temples we even found a small group conducting a photography walk inside the grounds.

The locals were generally shy and it was difficult to chance upon worshippers praying in front of their Gods as they tend to finish their prayers quickly when they know somebody was shooting at them. After several attempts I felt not to disrupt the locals any further and just leave them do their prayers peacefully.

Time passed by quickly in the temple and after some Street Photography along Serangoon Road the next thing we knew was that it was already dark. We detoured from Little India and decided to take dinner first and since most of Little India’s temple won’t be any good in the dark, we went to Marina Bay afterwards.

The Marina Bay Sands hotel did not disappoint as we nearly drained our camera batteries shooting long exposure shots of the bay and the Hotel from every angle imaginable. Minus the view, the Marina Bayfront at night is not far from what you’d see in the Philippines. Every now and then you’d see some love-struck couples lost in their bubble, some anonymous guy snoozing away in one of the benches and some avid health buff going for a night run. The nightscape around the bay was just spectacular that after having our fill of the Marina Bay Sand Hotel we walked further hoping to get closer to the gleaming Fullerton Hotel and the Singapore Omni-Theatre, Esplanade Theatre (which looks like a thousand miniature Sydney Opera Houses by the way) and the famous Merlion Statue. Unfortunately, we found that the Merlion Statue was under makeover and was covered with tarpaulins and scaffolds. We were a bit disappointed having to miss this iconic landmark in our trip but as a consolation, we stumbled on another Merlion statue in our second-to-the-last day in Singapore at Sentosa Island although this one didn’t spit out water but looked like it wanted to munch on tree leaves.

We headed off for Chinatown the following day looking for the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which was packed with visitors and locals when we arrived. Later, we found out that some kind of religious convention was happening on that day which was very fortunate for us as numbers of monks in orange robes and maroon sashes flooded the place. I realized this was were the monks we’re seeing in the MRT were going to.

Besides monks some devout local parishioners (I believe) were in their black robes and participating in the event as well. Not really understanding what’s going on, I think they were chanting a repeating prayer in unison something similar to how Catholics would pray the Rosary. Despite of the event, tourists were still everywhere and like us admiring the whole celebration at the same time discreetly taking photos inside the temple.

Right there, it was easy to realize the many obvious as well as quirky differences between the Hindu and the Chinese Temples. But in any case they all deserve respect and that’s what we tried as much to do.

After the Temple, it was the bustling Chinatown Street which we had to tread on midday. Too bad, the red Chinese lanterns dotted on the streets would have been a pretty sight in the evening. But anyway, It was an interesting walk still as you find out stores selling nothing but Hello Kitty stuff, antique shops selling “rare” stones, curiosity shops where you can get your name engraved on a grain of rice, even an authentic Tin Tin store and of course – Chili Crab restaurants.

Me and my wife didn’t get to try even a tiny bit of Chili Crab in Singapore first was because we just recently ate crabs before coming to Singapore and next was I didn’t want to be bothered by high blood pressure during this trip. Yes, spoil sport I admit but I’ve tasted quite a lot of Chili Crabs in the Philippines and impressive as its reputation might be, I was pretty sure the Chili Crabs in Singapore at most will just be a close permutation of the ones I already tasted. Besides, we had to be on the go and had a lot to cover.

some Temple at the peaceful Chinese Garden

Another scene at the Chinese Garden

Don’t worry, just because we didn’t have the appetite for Chilli Crabs on this trip doesn’t mean we didn’t splurged on food. I’ll be preparing a separate blog for our food escapades. Hint: I left for Singapore 73kg and returned to Philippines 76 kg.

The next day our stop was the Malay Heritage Town. Of the two previous cultural districts we’ve been, the Malay district was the most quiet and orderly to be honest. But unlike the two, the Malay Heritage Town had fewer landmarks but some construction going particularly on the Malay Heritage Centre and the Arab Street tell that they are not left out by the government and will soon be bustling with visitors.

The Sultan Mosque was the most prominent and imposing landmark upon reaching the heart of the Malay District. The golden dome and the artwork surrounding the temple windows unmistakably reflect the Muslim heritage of the place. Together with the clothing styles of the locals in the area gives you the impression that you are in a totally different place.

Sultan Mosque

Since getting to Singapore, I’ve been admiring the meticulously adorned windows and verandas on old houses. I’ve read before that the government exercises an active role in preserving these old houses despite allowing them to be opened for businesses. Even signboards, I learned have controlled dimensions to promote the visual appeal of the old houses. This is one among many things our country can pick up particularly the current situation in Batanes where the old heritage houses are steadily becoming outnumbered by more updated houses. How I wish I could have gone up to one of the windows of these houses to see up close the details.

The subsequent days had our sightseeing mellow down as I went on to attend my original purpose of travel to Singapore which was to attend a Training Course. My wife had to continue with the sightseeing by herself which led her to the Singapore Botanical Gardens and back to Chinatown to buy some trinkets to give away when we go home.

A Gazebo at the Singapore Botanic Gardens

The Old Hill Street Police Station was converted to an eye-catching Art Building

inside Fort Canning Park

We felt we’ve seen the major landmarks representing each of the Cultural groups in Singapore and decided we can set aside our final day in Singapore in Sentosa Island. But before going to that, we had to drop by the Gardens by the Bay which just recently opened a few days ago.

Coming out of the Bayfront Station, we saw the “Supertrees” ominously standing up from beyond the Dragonfly Lake. It was still a few minutes past sundown so the sky still had some bluish hue on it and the Supertrees were not yet fully lit not making for a very interesting scene. We decided to enter the gardens through the Dragonfly Bridge and made our way to the Supertree Grove. By that time it was already dark and it was the Supertrees time to shine.

Nothing like we’ve seen before or even heard of, the carefully designed fusion of metal, lights and vegetation really lived up to its hype and probably more. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the backdrop also added an extra punch to the already stunning view. Right there it was time to set-up tripods and we contented ourselves with long exposure shots. By the time we were finished shooting, the ticket booth that allows you to go up the bridge joining the Supertrees was already closed but the awe went on as the light show which they call as OCBC Garden Rhapsody started . Soon we realized our vantage point from one of the benches was not bad after all.

We had our dinner at the Peach Garden Noodle House which served the best tasting and most enticingly plated Hor Fun I had so far. After that, it was time to head back to Little India for a well deserved rest.

We were down to our last full day in Singapore and surprisingly our energy levels were still high. Not minding the sore foot from all the walking we did or the disturbingly bloated feeling from the eating binges, we headed on to the Harbourfront Station to make our way to Sentosa Island.

It was raining heavily when we arrived at the Harbourfront and we had to spent around an hour strolling around the station Mall before starting to look for the Cable Car Station. It was very hot and humid totally unnatural considering it just stopped raining but we managed to find the Cable Car station and were soon headed to Sentosa Island. The cable car had an Angry Birds theme at that time and was very apparent with all the stickers and advertisements plus the large Angry Bird stuff toy passengers can cuddle.

This time, we did not have any particular destination in mind so we just let our legs decide where to go. Eventually, we reached the Merlion Plaza where we saw a gigantic statue of the Merlion. I thought it was a fair enough consolation for missing the original Merlion at the Marina Bay. Next stop was the Resorts World Sentosa where the well-known Universal Studios is located and the Maritime Experiential Museum.

This innocent looking area is a treasure trove of gastronomic proportions. All of the famous hawker stalls in Malaysia are represented inside this foodcourt presenting endless choices of authentic Malaysian and Fusion cuisine.

Again, time went by so fast and soon it was sundown. We would have gone to see Siloso Point and the beaches but our old friends who live now in Singapore began texting starting to look for us. It was a great experience to say the least and it was true that one day is not enough in Sentosa Island.

Our final day in Singapore finally arrived and we strangely find ourselves less cheerful than in the other places we’ve been to. We thought it was clearly a reflection of what we felt and that is wanting to stay longer. We were like kids let out of the playpen arriving in Singapore and we did enjoy every moment of it. This time pulling the plug was not as easy as Puerto Princesa or as waving goodbye to Paris. Singapore was different and diverse but it was easy to be accustomed with.

It was like nursing a hangover returning to the Philippines looking at the skyscrapers and wishing they could be a bit brighter and the skyline a little more exciting. But this is where I live and this is where I belong. I shouldn’t be hung-up with wanting to stay in another country but I should be proud to be able to get there and back to tell the story.

But what makes me prouder?

After some haggling with the taxi driver and as we spiralled down the interchange, Traffic greets us. Taxi driver responds sounding off his horn in succession, Jeepney cuts us from the right, Motorcycles on the left, peddlers on the sidewalk and pedestrians everywhere.

I knew I was right where I should be…I was home.

“Beep beep beep beep
Dadalhin ko kayo kahit saan
Beep beep beep beep
Dalian n’yo, hindi pa ‘ko nananghalian” – Juan dela Cruz Band

Life in Mono and Random Thoughts

Color is among those things in our lives that is easily taken for granted. Its significance is often lost as our attention is drawn towards its superficial qualities rather than its very essence. Color – its abundance or lack of it are like Apples and Oranges and are entirely worlds apart.

Recently, I was rummaging through the photos I’ve collected and I was surpised how some photos I used to ignore suddenly unfolded with different character when they were converted to monochrome. I was surprised how turning to monochrome allowed me to see the others things that were going on in the photos. When I first captured these photos I felt that there was something about the scene but I just wasn’t able to figure out what it was. With too much information, I was easily overwhelmed and failed to realize the beautiful converge and divergence of lines, emotion and most importantly context.

This brings me into thinking how life is for people who are color blind. Are they less fortunate or is it us? Do they get to stop and smell the roses while we remain lost and amiss from too much stimuli around us? Or maybe it shouldn’t be thought of as a disadvantage in the first place. Life in Color or without may never be a question of reality as I’ve always thought that for us individuals, Reality is relative because reality is what we see and interpret through our senses which can never be identical. Similar but still not identical.


“I find hope in the darkest of days, focus on the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”
– Dalai Lama

Paris in a Heartbeat

Paris has always captured my imagination and for the longesst time I had been content in experiencing it only in movies. I never expected setting foot in Paris in my lifetime and for the lack of word to describe it…to be awe struck by Paris is like a pinch of an understatement.

It was work that brought me within “arm’s reach” of Paris and a little bit of luck that gave me a window of opportunity to get there.

I was sent to do some work in Oberhausen, Germany which had me entering Europe through Amsterdam and passing through Dusseldorf, Germany. Amsterdam would have been a handful to go around already with all the canals, quaint houses and the “vegetarian” cafe they’re famous with but I never had the chance to go around because of the limited time I had. Going to this trip, I was actually set in going to Rome if I ever had the chance as it has been a dream destination for me like Paris. I was even practicing a bit of Italian on the flight to Amsterdam and was reading a travel book to give me an idea where to go which was informative but unfortunately had too much information that in the end it felt like I don’t need to go there anymore. A good lesson for other travellers – never ever read too much travel books because they might just drown out the excitement of travelling.

My business in Oberhausen went on as planned for the first few days but an “unfortunate” delay required me to stay longer than planned and consequently left me with the whole weekend in Europe to myself. Sounds too good to be true indeed but I was never a travel bug before so it took me quite some time to muster up the courage to get myself to explore Europe.

My hotel in Oberhausen was a few minutes walk from a nearby mall where I went to after office hours on that Friday. Being in Europe at the waning months of the Northern Solstice, I had more than enough time to ponder where to go. I was unresolved between going to Munich, Amsterdam or Paris and mot importantly I was also trying to figure out how to get there. Flying will definitely eat up my time as I have to shuffle between airports and baggage counters and security checks so travelling by train was the best option. Finally, after finding a tourist information office I was able to get information from some English speaking folks who showed which bus to ride going to the train station. The bus ride by the way was something worth remembering as until now I’m still at a loss figuring out how should have paid for the fare. Was I supposed to use a pre-paid card? Should I have bought tickets at a booth somewhere? Should I have paid the driver or was it free anyway? I thought it was the latter which surprisingly nobody noticed until I asked the driver before I got off. With the language barrier to our disadvantage, the driver didn’t understand that I was trying to ask how to pay for the ride. He just instead insisted that I unboard the bus which I embarassingly did.

Awe began began sinking in the moment I reached the Oberhausen Train Station. It was so huge considering the train stations I’ve been to before but the best thing I liked in that station the same way with the rest of the European train stations is that you can pay for your tickets by credit card no matter how short your destinations is which was good for me as I was trying to save the cash I had which was already not that much as I had already been in Germany for a week already.

ICE Train bound for Cologne at Oberhausen Hauptbanhof

The trips on the schedule board informed me that the train directly leaving for Paris has already left earlier which I would have caught if I didn’t spent too much time earlier collecting the courage to step outside Germany. My best option was to go to Cologne and find another train from there. If I remember it right, Cologne was about an hour from Oberhausen on an opposite direction going to Paris which meant that I will pass again Oberhausen on the way to Paris.

Dusk at Cologne Hauptbanhof

If there was one thing I’d never forget about Cologne is that it is so COLD there. The moment I left the train after arriving at Koln Hauptbanhoff, I was already shivering. Everyone except me didn’t seem to mind the temperature but I tried to appreciate it. I just thought you’d never get this temperature in the Philippines unless you find a way to stick yourself inside the freezer. The temperature became bearable however when I started walking and taking photos of the place. Not only does the Northern Solstice resulted to extend periods of daylight, it also cast a mysteriously wonderful tone in the sky.

The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) is not difficult to miss when your in Cologne and I spent a lot of time scouring its perimeter for the best view and even had the chance to get inside. If I only had my tripod along with me I could have made better interior shots.

Details in Facade of Kolner Dom[/caption]

Relics at Kolner Dom

The two towers flanking the Dom had a somewhat gothic style which I thought resembled but on a smaller scale the towers of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Spain. What draws one’s attention in the Dom is how it was built with astonishing detail. It was truly a feast to the eyes and It won’t come as a surprise for people to stand still for minutes just digesting the details in the Dom’s exterior.

The Cologne Cathedral at night

The streets of Cologne were also a sight to behold as the cobble stone streets stretched everywhere. Together with the outdoor cafes and probably post World War II sculptures everywhere, the mood set here was for real.

I believe, the Cologne I saw was just the tip of what the City holds as there was the Great St. Martin Church, and Cologne City Hall that I didn’t get to see.

When daylight finally gave up, I found myself a suitable hotel to stay for the night and tried to get some sleep before catching the train for Paris early the next morning. As I was lying in bed that night, I noticed how police sirens dominated the air for rest of the evening. I finally dozed off thinking how the sirens were so alike with the police sirens in the car chases in the Jason Bourne movies.

At around 1AM in the morning, I woke up, checked out of the hotel and walked my way to the train station. As I have done numerous times the night before, I asked one of the ticketing agents one last time to confirm that all I have to do when my train arrives (my train was an ICE train by the way) is get in and I will be given my ticket and pay for it inside the train. Very convenient but risky as I was prepared to pay by credit card only and I didn’t have enough cash with me to pay in case the card is offline. Fortunately everything went well.

The train had sporadic moments when it runs at top speed which you’ll never notice until you look outside the window. To give you an impression of the speed the train was going, at its top speed, the power poles will appear like a continous blur instead of intermittent diagonal lines sweeping by we are used to seeing. It was an exciting sight for the first few minutes but will give you headache if you stare for long. The passengers inside were relaxed and very casual. When the train stopped to pick passengers on Brussels, a group of middle-aged women boarded with picnic baskets and drank champagne inside the train until we reached Paris. Of course I had no idea what they were talking about but whatever it was, they seemed to have a good time. As if the ride wasn’t impressive enough, I was surprised to find that all chairs had power outlets that passengers can use. I was able to recharge my laptop and upload the photos I already took just to be sure I don;t run out of memory space in my camera in Paris.

I would have stopped by Brussels when we reached there but I decided to skip it when I heard the announcement on the train telling the passengers to watch out for pickpockets. It was actually not unusual knowing where I came from but I thought I am not in the best position to take the risk knowing I’m halfway across the world from home.

Finally at around 9AM in the morning, our train came to a halt at Gare du Nord. As it slowly crawled to the platform, I was fixated looking through the windows trying to bring myself to believing that this is Paris I am now seeing. Instinctively, I tried to look through the skyline hoping to get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower but it is nowhere to be seen. I thought right away that Paris must be so huge.

Alighting from the train, I quickly went to the ticket booths to secure a ticket for my trip back to Oberhausen for the following day. Unlike the trip that got me to Paris, I was able to get a ticket that will bring me directly to Oberhausen. With ticket secured it now time to see Paris.

Looking outside, I immediately saw the countless outdoor restaurants with all their fancy signages. The streets were not as wide as I thought and indeed compact cars where everwhere. It was a busy Saturday morning in Paris with people coming in and out of Gare du Nord mostly tourists just like me.

I tried to find a tourist assistance station looking for a city map I can use. Being able to find one, I saw that Paris Nord was located a bit far from the major landmarks of the city and considering the traffic situation in the streets, I thought I’d use the subway. The subway was quite a challenge to figure out as there were so many platforms and were located at various locations levels throughout station.

My destination was to get off at St. Michel and from there walk towards the Notre Dame Cathedral and see the views of the River Seine and work my way to the Eiffel Tower.

St. Michel was packed with tourists and just as tourists would do, they made a background of every angle of St. Michel. That day, tourists outnumbered the local people by a large proportion and that made me feel comfortable to just keep my camera hanging on my neck as I walked around. Unlike Cologne, Paris was warmer but still a bit chilly just enough to make me keep my jacket on. Actually, for the rest of my brief stay in Paris, I never had to remove my jacket. Besides the bust and train rides I made, I must have walked around 5 kms in Paris without breaking a sweat. Really great climate.

From St. Michel, I made my way through the bridge – Pont St. Michel then stopping buy to buy souvenirs at the stores lining up Quai du Marche Neuf. Every few minutes or so, ferries will pass by the Seine River loaded with tourists. You can tell the nationality of the tourists by the flags waving on the ferries on some. Other ferries were more elegant having tables on their decks with passengers having wine and brunch. At the banks of the river, you can see mostly locals hanging out and chance by a few couples kissing in that very cinematic Paris kind of way.

The Fontaine St. Michel which has stood in its place since 1860

Fontaine St. Michel depicts the timeless battle between good and evil

At the end of Marche Neuf, if the Notre Dame Cathedral which was also filled with tourists. At its front, you’ll see long winding queues of people wanting to get inside. Birds were plenty and some tourist kids amusing themselves by getting covered by birds perching on their arms and heads. Numerous bronze statues were also scattered everywhere with the distinctive greenish-white hue of Copper Oxide on their surfaces.

Overlooking the River Seine

Instead of going inside the Cathedral, I went to the Crypt (Crypte Archeologique du Parvis de Notre Dame) below the front lawn which showed various Roman-like burial grounds and structures built in the city ages ago. Mostly ruins, the literature and maps show how Paris through the centuries developed to the city that it is now. At some point in its infancy, Paris resembled something like our Intramuros.

Notre-Dame Cathedral was breathtaking at all angles and I spent just the same time at its back lawn as I did in the front. One amusing thing at the back lawn is that speakers were hidden in the plants playing French tunes. I’m just not sure it it was harpsichord or violin but it was very romantic. I actually saw several newlyweds walking along Quai de’l Archeveche and Pont Saint Louis complete with their wedding suit and gown and their photographer just shooting as they trot along and kiss as if the entire city was their ballroom.

The Notre Dame Cathedral

Moving on, I went back to the subway and headed for Champ de Mars – Tour de Eiffel which will take me to within vantage point of the Eiffel Tower. As I walked along Quai Branly, inching closer to the Eiffel Tower I felt the excitement build its way finally coming to its plateu when I finally reached the foot of the tower.

Tourists were everywhyere but that wasn’t enough to spoil the mood of the place. The City had so much for everyone that congestion didn’t seem to be a problem as people’s attention get divided between the finely detailed carousel at Promenade Quai Branly, the amazing statues lining up Pont d’lena and the enticing Palais de Chaillot looming over the distance.

The Eiffel Tower viewed from Champ de Mars

The massive legs of the Eiffel Tower has elevators that take tourists to the tower’s mid and top levels. The line stretched to forever that day so I thought that getting to the top will take up a lot of my time.

The open area behind the Eiffel Tower was scattered with tourists, newly weds and souvenir hawkers which I think were mostly South Africans. These hawkers were quite persistent and would go their way to speak a few words in various dialects just to get attention. At first they thought I was Indonesian which was pretty close for a first guess.

Making sure I never miss out any angle of the Eiffel Tower, I took photos from different vantage points. One thing I noticed having seen the tower for real is that at its first level names of what seemed to be famous Frenchmen are written all around the tower. I’ve never seen this detail before in any photo or replica which made me appreciate more having seen the real thing.

I never felt that I’ll have enough of this famous landmark and although I’ve shuffled twice or thrice between Mur de la Paix and Quai Branly already, I still find myself in awe with the tower. As I took more notice of the trees and signages of Av. Joseph Bouvard, I found out that tomorrow Sunday will be the closing leg of Tour de France as the riders finally reach Paris. Riders were actually filling up the avenue staging their sort of advance celebration of Tour de France.

Knowing that this will be a big event, I thought that I should change my schedule and depart earlier to avoid the congestion from the people coming in on Sunday. Therefore, Instead of leaving Sunday morning, I must leave this same day. Disappointing as it seems, I believed it was the best choice for me as right after buying my departing ticket at Gare du Nord hours ago, I noticed that my credit card went offline which considerably damaged my chances of finding a hotel for an overnight stay. Adding to that, who knows if I’d ever find a hotel room with so much tourists in Paris at this point. I realized that not only were tourists flocking the city for its sights this weekend, they were also anticipating the final leg of the Tour de France.

It was only around 5 hours ago that I reached Paris and now I have to plan on leaving already. Breaking a heavy sigh, I told myself I better get moving then and make the most of the sights on my way to Gare du Nord.

I found myself walking the length of Av. de la Motte-Picquet passing by Musee de l’Armee, Place de Invalides, and Historial Charles de Gaulle. The streets these time had less tourists and the whole mood was much calmer. Place Invalides’ gold plated dome, gray slate roof, classical architecture and manicured lawns at the center of the Avenue was just an amazing sight.

I continued walking the other direction reaching Quai d’Orsai and the lavishly decorated Pont d’ Alexandre. Probably one of the most impressive bridges in the city.

Lavish Lamp Posts lining out Pont Alexandre III

At this point, it was already starting to drizzle and it was raining when I reached St. Michel before descending to the subway that will take me back to Gare du Nord.

In the same way love stories with sad endings end with rain, The whirlwind that brought me to Paris and what seems to be a sliver of time I spent there ended up the same way. Looking beyond the rain clouds, the sun glimmers behind assuring that the rain will come to a pass but not after it has washed of its streets of my footprints.

I know I did my best and covered as much as I could and even if we only shared a heartbeat, the memories will be forever.

Paris, je serai de retour!

My Sweet November and getting Cross-Eyed at Sonya’s Garden

I was down to my last weekend in the Philippines before flying back to work for the next 4 weeks. Being on this set-up for quite some time now have made me realize the value of time especially how it drastically appreciates when its less and how it is neglected when there is plenty of it. This actually should not come as a surprise anymore because everything else behaves the same way like – Love, Happiness and Attention or something more earthly like Food and Money.

I can think of several movies whose plot revolves around people making the most of their limited time. Sweet November is one of those movies which although I only managed to watch in fragments conveyed enough emotion for me to keep it in my Unforgettable Movies List. I am surprised to find out that the lead actors in that movie were nominated for Worst Acting Roles in a 2001 awards. I thought the movie had decent acting job or maybe the plot itself was so emotionally alluring that I didn’t notice their acting.

So, for my last weekend for the month of May, me and my wife decided that we go on a somewhat mellow exploit as our “Sweet November”. Sonya’s Garden in Tagaytay was in our sights because of its accessibility and the curiosity it has spurred on us for quite some time already.

Unlike my wife, I’m not really being a big fan of raw vegetarian food in which Sonya’s Garden is known for but we were excited to spend nice quiet time and see what the Garden really is about.

On the way there, we encountered a heavy rain which reduced to a drizzle when we finally arrived. The cold climate of Tagaytay combined with the humidity of the drizzle made us feel like waking up in the wee hours of the morning but it was actually around past 3 in the afternoon already.

After finding a parking spot, we walked to the front desk of Sonya’s Garden anxious of the entrance fee that awaits us. To our surprise, one of the employees at the front told us that there was none. Fees are only charged to specific services so unless we’re content to just hang around the place then there is nothing to worry about.

The flowers of Sonya’s Garden were indeed impressive and the whole place was as peaceful as what we were led to imagine from advertisements and discussions by other visitors. The rain earlier proved to be an advantage as the overcast and slightly gloomy sky further added on to that “cozy-sleepy” atmosphere.

And like sprinkling salt and pepper to a dish, the drizzle was just enough to put an extra touch to the flower photos we were able to snap.

We had a great time taking photos of flowers that I almost got cross-eyed. Unlike landscape photos, taking flower photos present a unique challenge as you have to deal with close subjects which usually cannot be properly judged by the camera’s Auto-focus System thus, you have to rely on Manual Focus and spend longer time peering through the viewfinder.

Depth-of-field also plays a crucial role in flower photos so it is best to take photos of your subject at various aperture values and compare them later.

We spent around 3 hours at Sonya’s Garden before we decided to leave. Since we were craving for something deep-fried like KFC, we thought we’d give the veggie food a pass for now.

How to get to Sonya’s Garden – From South Superhighway exit Santa Rosa and turn right towards Tagaytay. Upon reaching main Aguinaldo highway, turn right toward Nasugbu, Batangas. Go past Tagaytay Rotonda and proceed for 10km. After Splendido Golf course and Sunrise Hill make a right turn on the Buck Estate. Drive for 2km and watch out for Sonya’s on the left side. Use the first gate and drive towards the end of the driveway and make a right towards parking lot.

Sonya’s Garden also provides Bed and Breakfast and a well frequented Spa. for those interested to take on the complete Sonya’s Garden experience.

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