Sugoi Japan!

I started watching “Terrace House” and I’m hooked. This is a Japanese reality TV show about six strangers living in one house as we observe how they live their daily lives. It’s a peek to Japanese culture and an analysis of human dynamics as you get to eavesdrop on the conversations of the housemates. Yes, it’s like “Big Brother” only better.

When I went to Japan for Hopes and Dreams for Miyako, I asked my friends there about the show but it seems like it’s not as popular.

Japan and its people are fascinating. The maze-like train lines which are always on time; quiet and polite people almost dressed alike, keeping to themselves; bento boxes, ramen, and soba; vending machines on every corner; realistic looking fake food displays in front of restaurants; kawaii (cute) stuff and cool inventions only the Japanese could think of; minimalist and compact rooms; and the list just goes on.

We went to Shibuya which was teeming with tourists and locals alike. Finding your way around Tokyo can be overwhelming. It’s a good thing I could simply rely on my friends who did all the navigating.

We mainly had to be in Miyako, a refreshingly small city located in Iwate Prefecture of Tohoku. Those who are into fresh seafoods could eat all the sashimi they want. The place is famous for its salmon.

We stayed at Guest House 3710 (Minato), a hostel type of accommodation. I though it was cool that this is managed by a group of young friends who have been supporting Miyako after the 2011 tsunami.

A tour at Taro Kanko Hotel, a disaster memorial, made me realize how fleeting life can be and it was sad to learn how everything – homes, material possessions, even lives can easily be taken away by natural disasters like the tsunami. The tsunami reached the fourth floor of the six-floor hotel and only the structural foundation remains of the bottom two floors. Japan experiences a lot of natural disasters but I appreciate how resilient its people are.

I’ve been exposed to Japanese culture through exchange programs and opportunities of visiting the Land of the Rising Sun. And now I’m starting to understand the fascination. Whether brought about by the proliferation of anime, an influence of novelty-seeking experiences, or due to Japan’s version of Hallyu or Korean wave, Japanophile (appreciation and love of Japanese culture) will definitely grow. Japan is sugoi (amazing) after all!

 

Guten Tag, Berlin!

I knew it was going to be cold. I didn’t realize it was going to be freezing cold. I had to navigate my way from the airport to my destination. And considering that I have a terrible sense of direction, plus the wind started blowing that I barely noticed the snow falling, it was such an adventurous first day for me in Berlin.

I didn’t mind it at all. The cold, I mean. I was just happy that I got to be in a new city, in another country on another side of the world. The locals are generally pleasant helping me with directions and all. Strangers say hello to each other here and I think that’s nice. If you do that in the Philippines, you’ll get a “Do I know you?” stare.

I went to Berlin to participate in the UNESCO Creativity Workshop on Toy Design and Inclusive Play. We were housed at Pfefferbett Hostel which is a part of a former brewery complex. This complex with artsy and cool-looking buildings was where the workshop was held.

Most of my time was spent at the workshop but I managed to go on short walks and got to see touristy spots like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the East Side Gallery (the remaining part of the Berlin Wall now covered with paintings from different artists), the Berlin Cathedral, Alexanderplatz (a large public square), and the Holocaust Memorial.

As someone advocating for ecological agriculture, I was glad to witness thousands of protesters at the “Wir haben es satt” (we are fed up) Demonstration where farmers and consumers stood up for
low-impact farming, animal welfare, climate justice, and good food.

I also enjoyed the nature excursion at the Müggelturm in southeastern Berlin. I like how “green” and eco-friendly Berlin is.

A friend and I talked about considering to live in Germany or another country in Europe where winters can be miserably cold. I decided it would be nicer if it’s warmer. And I thought, us Filipinos are much happier because of all the sun we get in a year.

But Germans are happy, too with their rules and structure (a local said so), efficient trains, lots of green spaces, bike lanes, beer, soda water, and currywurst (fried pork sausage seasoned with curry ketchup).

When visiting other countries, you normally hear of stereotypes which can be true but these don’t have to be necessarily a generalization. One of which of the Germans is their tendency to be uptight and too serious. On the contrary, those that I’ve met are actually warm and friendly.

That, to me is the beauty of travel. Breaking stereotypes and gaining a better understanding of different cultures. And realizing we’re one humanity after all.

SenseCampPH and Sustainable Travel

It is unfortunate that the only way to escape from our stressful busy lives and to re-connect with nature is when we visit places like Mount Purro Nature Reserve. Yet it’s a shame how a lot of tourists are obsessed over the Instagrammability of a destination. No wonder we face issues like overtourism, pollution, and commodification of culture.

There should be a better or more sustainable way for tourism. This very theme was tackled during the SenseCamp 2018 organized by MakeSense, which is a two-day event that included discussions on various facets of sustainable tourism, different workshops, advocacy and awareness building, and opportunities for networking (Read about last year’s SenseCamp here).

In the said event, Alo Lantin who loves telling stories through photographs, reminded participants to travel beyond social media – to genuinely wonder, to be authentic, and not to fake experiences. Alo’s message is also perfectly captured in his favorite quote from the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Melody Melo-Rijk from WWF-Philippines also talked about their project, “The Sustainable Diner: A Key Ingredient of Sustainable Tourism.” As discussed, one can be a sustainable diner by eating local, trying plant-based dishes, using reusable utensils, and not wasting food, among others.

TJ Malvar, who helps manage the camp’s venue, Mount Purro, said that their goal is to be a truly sustainable travel destination. He admits that there’s a lot of work to do but the key is balance of the triple bottom line – profit, people, and planet.

We normally think that when we take care of the environment, we are saving the planet. But in reality, we are doing so to save ourselves. When we travel, when we see the world, may we appreciate it and make an effort to protect it so the future may also have the opportunity to see and experience these places.

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The SenseCamp Participants (Photo by George Buid)

 

 

Fun Taiwan!

Have you noticed how everyone seems to be heading to Taiwan?

Well, thanks to the visa-free entry for Filipinos which started in November 2017 and was extended to July next year, a lot of Pinoys, myself included, took this chance to visit the country (a shout out to my friend who practically planned for everything!).

We stayed in Taipei in an ultra chic and modern hostel, the Taiwan Youth Hostel conveniently located near the train station. This made it so easy to go around the city; considering, too, that they have a very efficient transport system like any other highly developed country. Plus it’s worth mentioning that Taiwan is PWD and pedestrian friendly. There are also bikes which you could rent, with corresponding bike lanes. Makes you want to cry when you compare everything to the Philippines.

We availed of day trip tour packages (book through klook or kkday) which led us to usual touristy places – the Rainbow Village and Gaomei Wetlands in Taichung, the Yehliu Geopark featuring rock formations, Shifen Village, and Jiufen.

It was nice to learn about the history of the Rainbow Village, how former soldier Huang Yung-Fu painted houses to save them from demolition.

Seeing people release sky lanterns along old train tracks at Shifen was amusing but I was a bit concerned about pollution. Well, at least there’s an effort to make this cultural activity a more environment-friendly one.

Riding one of the fastest elevators in the world to get to the top of Taipei 101 may be overrated. But it was still quite an experience to have a bird’s eye view of the whole of Taipei.

If you’re into cultural performances, catch a show at Taipei EYE for authentic traditional performing arts.

But the best part for me is the variety of Taiwanese cuisine you can try and enjoy for a reasonable price. There’s beef noodle soup, tofu (not the stinky one for me, please), dumplings, pineapple cake, bubble tea, and the list just goes on.

It’s no wonder why so many people are wanting to go to Taiwan which has so much to offer – the scenery, the food, the people. It sure is fun in Taiwan.

 

 

Negros, beyond the City of Smiles

Bacolod, known as the “City of Smiles” is the capital of Negros Occidental. Tourists would normally go on a food trip as part of their itinerary to sample the namit (delicious in Ilonggo) dishes the place offers.

You can have dinner at Aboy’s Restaurant, a turo-turo style resto famous for their grilled seafood; have chicken inasal at Chicken House for lunch; and have desert at Calea Pastries and Coffee.

“The Ruins” tagged as “Taj Mahal of Negros” is a must-see tourist spot in Talisay. You can sip your coffee while gazing at the lit structure providing a mesmerizing view at night. Don’t forget to take the obligatory table top reflected shot of this once great mansion, burned down during the World War II (to prevent the Japanese from using it), the fate of a lot of the mansions all over Negros.

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Just 30 minutes away from Bacolod is Victorias City where you can find Peñalosa Farm. At the farm, you can learn about organic farming and eat organic meat and vegetables.

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Travel back to the past as you visit Hacienda Santa Rosalia, a sugar plantation located in Manapla owned by the Gaston family. Built in the 1930s, the Gaston Mansion survived the forces of war and nature. The Chapel of the Cartwheels is situated near the ancestral home. This non-traditional church is made from cartwheels, plows, mortar and pestle, and broken pieces of glass. The church aims to make the Catholic faith more local and more accessible. The Hacienda Crafts Factory is also in the area, where world-class craft and woven products are made, providing livelihood for the locals.

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Bacolod is the usual travel destination in Negros but explore the rest of the island and you’ll be happy to see that there is more beyond the City of Smiles.

 

 

Anyeong, Korea!

 

 

Back in 2005, as part of a cultural exchange program, I was able to set foot on Korea for the first time. Since then, I’ve been wanting to go back to the land of oppas and k-pop.

The problem is, for most if not all of my travels, they’re organized by someone else. I don’t initiate it myself. They plan everything, book the flight tickets and all, and I simply tag along. Imagine my surprise when out of nowhere, I got invited to participate in the Organic Foundation Course. And the venue was in Korea! I mean how awesome, right? Talk about the universe conspiring to give you what you earnestly hope for.

If not for this opportunity, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go to the countryside, to the beautiful Goesan County, and experience its fresh air, catch a glimpse of cherry blossoms, and eat tasty organic food.

Of course, I was able to explore a bit more of the capital, Seoul. I went to the usual touristy places – Insadong, Namdaemun Market, Gyeongbukgung Palace, and Cheonggyecheon Stream. It’s so convenient to go around with the city’s efficient transport system.

I climbed 291 steps to marvel at the nightscape of Seoul from Haneul Park located on top of a hill which used to be a landfill.

I also went to a jimjilbang or a bathhouse. It was very relaxing. You have to know that in jimjilbangs, you must be completely naked, but this didn’t faze me at all. To be honest, it actually felt liberating, no pun intended.

Kamsamnida to my Korean friends who were the best babysitters, kkk (hahaha in Korean). Thank you for touring me around and stuffing me with all these amazing Korean dishes which you should try – bulgogi, haejangguk (amusingly, known as a hangover soup), kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), mul naengmyeon (noodles in ice soup), tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), and dak galbi (spicy chicken stir fry).

Now I should decide where to go next and hope for the universe to once again conspire to bring me there.

Wanderings in the Kingdom of Wonder

It took us around five hours to get from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh by bus. Upon arrival, one thing I noticed is how organized the land use planning of the city is. We saw a lot of Lexus cars and we found out that it’s easy to buy them here because it’s also easy to get a loan. The locals constantly complain of the traffic jam but it’s nothing compared to EDSA traffic in Manila.

We got to go the main tourist attractions, the Royal Palace and the National Museum. We also went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school used as a concentration camp. A sad reminder of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge nevertheless an important way of keeping us vigilant to never allow such thing to happen again.

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National Museum

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Royal Palace

From Phnom Penh, we traveled to Sihanoukville to attend a reunion for a youth program I joined five years ago. We then headed to Siem Reap via Phnom Penh to explore their famous temples – the Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Angkor Thom (also known as Tomb Raider, thanks to Angelina Jolie’s movie with the same name). It’s amazing how these structures stood the test of time. Though overcrowded with tourists taking a gazillion of photos, your visit to Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without going to these sites.

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Angkor Wat

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Bayon

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Angkor Thom / Tomb Raider

Going around Cambodia is very convenient with its tourist-friendly transport. You can choose to ride their sleeper bus or van that has regular trips. They even have Uber for tuk-tuk called PassApp Taxi.

Payment is also not a hassle as they use US dollars alongside the Cambodian riel. There are no coins. The Cambodian currency is usually meant for anything less than a dollar. It can be confusing and amusing how you pay in one currency and get the change in another but you get used to it eventually.

St. Augustine said that the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. I’m quite fortunate to have the privilege of reading more than just one page. I consider myself a passive traveler. Usually someone else would organize all the logistics of a trip and I simply tag along. The destination is secondary to me. I mostly go on these trips to enjoy the company of friends, meet people, get immersed in a different culture, and learn and experience something new.

Looking forward to the next chapter of the book!

Re-visiting Vietnam

“It’s better to be a foreigner in Hanoi. When they learn you’re from Ho Chi Minh because of your accent, they charge you more.” Interestingly, there’s this apparent north-south divide in Vietnam.

Funny how conversations can range from guy stuff to serious topics like this one during drinking sessions. I find the drinking culture of Vietnam pretty unique. It’s all about service they say. So don’t be surprised when the waiters or waitresses would keep on refilling your drink and replacing the ice. Their “beer chow,” or food taken with drinks or “pulutan” in Filipino, is meat with generous helpings of vegetables. And they end the drinks with a dessert of fresh fruits! For the record, I don’t drink so I just helped myself with all the food. I love how every meal here is not complete without greens and herbs adding rich flavor to every dish. I hope they maintain this and not give in to the invading fast food culture.

It’s been five years since the last time I was in Ho Chi Minh. Now, you can barely see the “old” Vietnam as it’s transitioning fast to the western way of development. It’s sad how we set that as the standard.

Coffee shops are everywhere and there used to be no Starbucks anywhere but that’s no longer the case. I noticed how they use a lot of plastic cups and straws and these drinks are further placed in plastic bags. It’s no wonder how Vietnam, like the Philippines, is one of the top plastic polluters in the world.

We visited the usual tourist spots – the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, Ben Thanh Market, and some museums. I truly enjoyed Ho Chi Minh’s organized chaos of shops and motorbikes here and about. I couldn’t get enough of the affordable, healthy, tasty food. And the best thing was really embracing and learning more about Vietnam and its culture through conversations with locals and being hosted by our Vietnamese homestay mom, Mommy Helen.

Cam on (thank you), Vietnam for another memorable experience!

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Commune with Nature at Mount Purro

Go on a hike and enjoy the air’s freshness of the forest.

Savor the generous helpings of freshly prepared healthy dishes (you can request for vegan/vegetarian options, too!).

Sleep in cozy kubo-style cabins and let the sound of crickets and the flowing brook serve as your lullaby.

Take a dip in the pool.

Bond with your barkada in the game room.

Meditate and have your reflective moments in nicely decorated huts.

All these you can do at Mount Purro Nature Reserve.

If you’re looking for a quick getaway and escape the hustle and bustle of the city, then this place would be perfect. Sounds like a promotional campaign but really, if you’re into nature and trees, like me, you’ll appreciate Mount Purro which is located at Barangay Calawis, Antipolo City, and is about an hour and a half away drive from Quezon City. It started as a reforestation area now it boasts of facilities and activities suited for everyone.

Truly, we always go back to nature for healing and rejuvenation. I just wish we could bring more of nature, greeneries, and trees to the city so we don’t have to go somewhere else to escape the concrete jungle.

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Legazpi Weekend Getaway

“How can something so beautiful turn out to be destructive at the same time?”

This was what came to mind when I first saw a glimpse of Mayon Volcano as the plane descended at the Legazpi Airport. The volcano, completely visible except for a small patch of clouds covering the top, took my breath away.

According to Wikipedia, Mayon is the most active volcano in the Philippines erupting over 51 times in the past 400 years. The most destructive eruption was in 1814 that buried the town of Cagsawa. Aside from volcanic eruptions, Albay is also frequented by typhoons. But the province is a model for disaster resilience and zero casualty for their impressive disaster preparedness efforts.

Arriving so early in the morning, I got to walk around Legazpi, also known as the “New Albay,” which is reminiscent of a quiet, sleepy town but contrasted by a cluster of malls in the area. It was around 6 AM and all the shops were closed and most activities were centered in the market nearby. For me, Old Albay District had more charm with its old structures, quaint cafes, and hip and modern restaurants.

As a first timer in the place, having a perfect view of Mt. Mayon was the goal. For this attempt, we went to Daraga Church, Cagsawa Ruins, and Camalig (where Japanese war tunnels and the chocolate hills of Albay are located). Too bad, the volcano was not at all sociable and hid behind a veil of clouds the whole time.

Despite, this, we comforted ourselves with Albay’s one of a kind culinary offerings – traditional Bicolano dishes from Waway’s Restaurant which used to be a turo-turo (eatery); Bicolano fusion options from the famous Small Talk Café; and sili (chili) ice-cream from 1st Colonial Grill which also offers other interesting flavors like kalamansi (lime), malunggay (moringa), and tinutong na bigas (burnt rice).

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The following day, we got lucky as Mayon finally displayed a full view of it’s perfect cone, its unbelievably symmetrical conical shape. What better way to enjoy Mayon but through an ATV tour with Your Brother Travel & Tours. For someone who doesn’t drive and can’t even ride a bicycle for the life of me, riding the ATV was a lot of fun as we threaded through rocky slopes, a river, and long and winding roads.

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Legazpi is definitely a must-visit place. You get to go sightseeing and do fun activities, you’ll enjoy the food that will surely satisfy your palate, and you’ll revel in Mayon’s grandeur. How about that for a quick weekend getaway.