Monday, August 08, 2005

Land of Smiles

I once remarked on the grace and charm of the Thai women, a remark that got me in a bit of trouble.

After three months in country, my opinion of the local women hasn’t changed, and I find that my opinion has long been shared by the local men as well.

I had dinner once with one of my more senior colleagues, and a couple of his Thai female friends. Both ladies were in their fifties, divorced, working, with children in school or already in workforce.

One of my other friends described one of his co-workers, a lady our own age, from a well-off family, well-educated, and quite well-built, who just filed for divorce from her husband.

The common thread among those three women was a husband who just couldn’t seem to be one, who had one or more current relationships with other women, or who just simply packed up and ran off with someone else.

It’s a story you can hear just about everywhere, from the girl who clerks the convenience store nearby, to the waitress in my favorite bar. I heard it often enough that I thought to find a couple of interesting facts:
  • The national divorce rate hovers around 50%, and, as earlier implied, either spouse can file for divorce.
  • Only in 1937 was it declared illegal for a man to have more than one wife on record. I phrased that statement in that particular manner because the Thai are said to never really have had native words, and hence concepts, that distinguish polygamous and monogamous relationships.
There is a local, if archaic, tradition that a man who maintains multiple relationships is said to be successful and prosperous. That concept is certainly not unheard of in the Philippines.

I can only imagine what relationships in Thailand can be like prior to marriage.

While I admit these things don’t paint the most complimentary picture of Thai males, or of men everywhere, I have been told that Thai females may have their own colors to show.

For having an affair, the more contemporary term is gig. People in a relationship may opt on occasion to step out of the normal bounds and have a gig with another party. It may be one time, or a ten year, multiple-entry arrangement. And women may be just as likely to have one as the men.

While these may be more attributed to the present Thai youth, I imagine that the former husbands of those older ladies had to run away with someone, all those years ago.

Before one gets the mistaken impression that all Thai relationships are one national merry-go-round, I would like to point out that I have met Thais who do have faithful and meaningful relationships with their partners.

But all of the things above did surprise me at first. My initial impression of Thailand was of religious devotion and adherence to tradition, as indicated by all the intricate temples and the pervasive and deep respect for the Royal Family.

This just shows all that can be hidden behind a smile.

Real Beauty

Bangkok is a city of slim young people. It can be a real task to find a person under 40 with a paunch.

I first thought that it had something to do with their diet or eating habits, like a predominance of vegetables or spices.

My first month living and working here completely dispelled those notions.

At the Chatuchak weekend market, there are stalls that sell whole deep-fried pig skin, a golden brown hide, from hind legs to snout. I’ve been told that it’s a delicacy common to Chang Mai in the north.

At almost every street corner, there are vendors selling freshly fried or grilled food off a cart. At midday or the late afternoon, locals gather around to pick from barbecued pork, squid, or sausage, deep fried fish balls, and chicken or pork with noodles.

And at work, just about everyone has some snack or two or three lying around their desk or tucked into some drawer. These aren’t celery sticks with vinaigrette, but chips, sweets, or pastries. And they would be eaten. Late in the day, workspaces would have used saucers and forks placed on the side, with a few crumbs sprinkled around.

As for the spices, the local cuisine at its most fiery just matches that of Indonesia. After six months in Jakarta, I failed to notice any widespread outbreak of anorexia.

One of Scott Garceau’s more famous X-Pat Files articles mentions that Filipinos love to eat. Well, the Thais don’t seem to love it any less.

Which brings us to the mystery of where all those calories and saturated fats go? I use the same restroom as they do, and I don’t hear anyone tossing into the toilets. Apparently, they are a not culture of bulimics.

And to top it all off, the results of a consumer survey commissioned by Unilever indicated that 47% of Thai women thought they were overweight. That only way that statistic would make sense to me was if the 53% that thought they weighed correctly were the Bangkok residents, while the 47% was remaining Thai population.

That statistic does show up in the local expression of Unilever’s worldwide campaign for real beauty.

Originally, I thought that this was the ideal promoted by Unilever, until I was informed that the tagline read as two options: Flat? or Flattering?

Even then, their other posters did reflect what seems to be average size, or lack of, of the typical Bangkok female.

My female friends who in Manila would normally fit into medium clothes sizes are handed large or even extra large outfits.

Even the men are not exempt. In the clothing stores that cater to young Thai males, pants in sizes over 32 inches are unusual. The uniforms of the local police are quite fitted, as are the military dress of the ROTC cadets.

Perhaps it’s all the European visitors.

Or perhaps I should just leave well enough alone and just recognize that some designs are not meant to be deconstructed, but just accepted.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Form and Function

I love playing sports, though I’d never consider myself truly athletic. I have friends who just need to watch a particular move being done once to be able to do it themselves. This could be a volleyball spike, a tennis serve, or a basketball baseline drop-step pivot and lay-in. I myself take a while before I can consistently get the result I want.

This terribly frustrating waste of time, also known as the Philippine political crisis of the moment, is certainly one reason to escape to sports. What did get my attention is what is now proposed as the acceptable solution, changing our country’s constitution to allow for a parliamentary form of government.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the form of government. What I do find wrong is in how it is paraded about as the true solution to our nation’s ills, so much so that our country’s sitting president wishes to leave it as a legacy.

The first of the parliamentary government’s much touted advantages is the selection process of the chief executive.

This process involves only the members of parliament, which ensures that the chief, the prime minister, as well as those participating, are all capable representatives of nation. Popularity with the dumb and ignorant masses will no longer be the foremost criteria.

Corollary to this is the speed and efficiency at which chief executives can be placed and replaced. There is no need to wait for six years to replace an ineffectual one.

It’s not like our previous performance in selecting a president was all that bad.

We, the people, have only been playing at the independent republic game since 1945. From then until 1986, all the presidents have been professional politicians. Some were better than others, until one emerged who stood out from all the rest, Ferdinand Marcos. His academic and political achievements were truly stellar, and arguably surpassed any previous president.

In Marcos’ two decades as the leader of our nation, however, the image of the politician was so blackened and tainted that the next two presidents were a housewife and a professional soldier.

The next one was Joseph Estrada, who possessed both overwhelming popularity as an actor as well as two decades of experience in government. His term was cut short with charges of directly accepting bribes and pocketing government revenues, supported by various witnesses and documents. These charges, and the evidence supporting them, are unmatched for any Philippine president.

The next election pitted another massively popular actor, though with no experience at all in government service, against the incumbent president, a career politician. Unproved allegations of massive electoral fraud aside, the nation selected the politician, Gloria Arroyo.

I believe that we, as a nation, have managed to apply critical thinking in selecting our chief executive. When we, selfish elites and ignorant masses included, did have to choose between popularity and experience, we went with experience.

Other advantages will be from a unicameral legislature elected locally.

This means that instead of bills getting tossed between a Senate and a Congress, proposed legislation will be discussed and passed into law by a single body, a parliament.

Each member of the parliament will be elected by the registered voters of a particular congressional district. Even with a manual vote count, elections would now be concluded in days, the present time it takes to declare winners of congressional elections.

I see this as so inappropriate, as such an about-face for us, on so many levels.

My first objection is fairly straightforward. Even with the ever-present investigations in aid of legislation, our elected representatives can deliberate and pass legislation within a year from it being filed. A more recent, if controversial, example is the Expanded Value Added Tax. While this has proven to be more of an exception, that it can be done shows that there really isn’t any critical delay caused by the system of legislation itself.

My succeeding objections are more subtle, but involve issues that deeply affect our long-term performance as a nation.

The present requirement for a national election for the president and members of the senate guarantees that, every three years, would-be leaders of our country actually have to show awareness of all parts of the country.

Prospective national leaders would be disinclined to think of the country simply because it would not be necessary to win the hearts and minds of all far-flung regions. It would not be necessary to visit them or even know their names. Once the parliamentary elections are done, only the elected representatives need any convincing. And it can all be done in the urban comfort of the capital, the imperial Manila.

The national elections are also the time that we all come together and participate in something that directly affects the entire nation. In parliamentary elections, representatives are elected by region or district. Voters would be less inclined to have an idea of the nation as a whole, since our actions would affect only our individual locality, not the entire country.

When a Manila magazine condescendingly refers to people from Cebu as new to the big city, I don’t believe that this is the time to give people one less reason to think beyond their immediate vicinity.

My final objection is that switching away from this would take away our personal right to directly elect and participate in selecting the chief executive and the senior legislators. This is a right we have always had since our country’s independence.

For our impoverished countrymen, this clearly means the loss of one right.

For our elite, their access to the wealth and resources required for winning elections would allow some influence on selecting the chief executive. What they would lose is one true sense of the environment in which we live. This is the sense that all votes are equal, even if the environment, the distribution of wealth and resources, is inequitable. Insulation from the realities of our landscape results in less-informed decisions. Continually successful and lasting organizations, as those controlled by the elite, demand the opposite.

In short, I see this move for a parliamentary system as a solution to a problem we don’t have and a source for even worse issues going forward. One doesn’t improve performance by changing the rules of the game. So I’d rather we just continue playing the game we’re already in, and just improve the normal way, with practice and experience.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

In the News

I love reading the newspapers, anywhere I am. Over the past year, however, I found myself preferring one newspaper over another. Among the reasons for my change in preference is the method of reporting.

The recent events in the Philippines have provided a fertile ground for news reporting. All the best and the worst seem to be filled with passionate intensity, and we can read all that in the papers.

Take this excerpt from the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 30, 2005.
President 'exiles' her husband
By Christine O. Avendaño
Inquirer News Service

The President did not say when or where her husband would go or how long he would be away. But she said that as a wife, she was "grateful" to him for making such a "sacrifice" to allow her to go about serving best the nation.

Ms Arroyo blamed her political enemies for deriding her husband, even on his
contributions to his pet projects such as health care and sports development, in
order to "distract" her from implementing her reform agenda.
Quotation marks around statements normally signify exact references from an information source. In this case, it would be the President of the Philippines. In modern composition, placing quotation marks around words is one tool to indicate a sense of irony or insincerity. It’s not uncommon to see conversations where one party raises both hands and hooks two pairs of fingers downward while speaking a word or a phrase.

An example is a question on whether this “journalist” trying to “report” the news “accurately”?

Take this version of the event from the Philippine Star
Mike A goes into exile
By Aurea Calica
The Philippine Star

"For my children and granddaughters, missing their doting father and grandfather
is their small contribution to rebuilding our society. As a wife, I’m grateful
to my husband for his sacrifice. My family will miss him terribly, and I ask for
you to help pray that we remain strong as a family," the Chief Executive said.

She did not say where the First Gentleman would be relocating or how long he would be staying abroad.

Mrs. Arroyo said her husband "will leave to remove these distractions and doubts from our people," comparing him to a "Caesar’s wife" who must not only be incorruptible but also appear to be incorruptible.

She complained that her husband’s "contributions to health care and sports development have been the object of pillory, especially by my political enemies, who have been trying to distract me from fulfilling my reform agenda as president."

This above is a more conventional use of quotation marks, quoting complete lines from the subject’s statement. Of course, even this can be subject to misinterpretation depending on the narrative the quoted statement is placed alongside with. There’s always the common complaint about things being taken out of context. But entire statements can more often convey more accurate and precise meaning than a single word.

Once can also be unduly influenced by the adjectives, or the repeated use of related adjectives, in a narrative. Again, we can take samples from the recent headlines.

Susan ready to replace GMA
By Christina Mendez
The Philippine Star 06/30/2005

An angry Susan Roces yesterday declared her readiness to lead the country and
replace President Arroyo if she decides to step down from office.

Roces also rejected Mrs. Arroyo’s apology to the nation and demanded her resignation,
calling it "the most honorable thing to do."

Angry Poe widow calls on Arroyo to resign
Susan Roces ready to join protest rallies
By Fe B. Zamora
Inquirer News Service
Editor's Note: Published on page A1 of the June 30, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

A combative Susan Roces yesterday demanded President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's
immediate resignation, saying it would be the "most honorable thing" the latter
could do.

"The gravest thing that you (Ms Arroyo) have done is that you have stolen the presidency, not once, but twice," Roces said in a fighting speech at a press conference in the historic Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan.

In the second excerpt, we can find the similar words angry, combative, and fighting. The first is in the title line and the next two are in each paragraph. It should be safe to assume that the writer intended to make a point.

My own point is that I prefer my news to be delivered straight and unembellished.

Without picking any political stand, I truly dislike texts identified as news reports that indicate a certain slant in the item being reported.

My reason is simple. I prefer to form my own opinion, so I’d like the event to be reported clearly and simply.

I do understand that a journalist has to distill a particular event into a form that fits neatly and concisely in a few columns. I wouldn’t want a newspaper filled with interview transcripts. Admittedly, a newspaper that prints the transcripts of the phone conversations could probably assure itself of the sale of a few copies.

But I do prefer a newspaper that ensures that its balanced news is clearly and only that, and not mixed up with its people's views.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


A friend of mine and I were walking along one of the side streets of Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. We were looking for a quiet place to drink. Admittedly, the area was more renowned as a haven for tourists looking for a good time and not for its tranquility. We walked past bars with girls clutching at our arms, asking us to come in. One petite little thing almost managed to pull my friend of his feet, which led to suspicions that it wasn’t a petite little girl holding on to him.

We walked a bit faster after that until we found a relatively quiet establishment. There were a couple of girls sitting outside, minding their own business. No bright neon, no raucous calls of welcome, just a simple sign hung over a brown wooden door. A smaller sign on the door indicated it was a private club. We entered nonetheless.

As we entered, we were greeted with the proprietor of the establishment with a smile and a question, “First time here?”

We nodded and said yes. He motioned us to come over. He handed us a black leather menu booklet and said “Here’s what we do here.”

Once we started reading the menu, it was immediately apparent that food and beverages were not among the house specialties.

The opening lines read “One man, two women. 3000 baht.”

After that were some simple statements on the do’s and don’ts. Other details related that members were entitled to better rates and priority to the rooms and girls, but non-members were more that welcome.

The closing lines were “We do not normally serve alcohol. First timers may have a drink. This establishment is not for drinking. It is for pleasure.”

As we looked up at him, his smile broadened and he began to add more detail. “One man,” he started, raising his right hand with one finger extended up and then pointed at each of us. “Two women,” raising his left had with two fingers extended. While it did seem to be clearly spelled out in the menu, I can only suspect that previous first timers may have expressed some disbelief. Or upon perusing the menu, might have gotten greedy and wanted more.

He went on. “All our women are lesbian bisexuals. They come with vibrators and,” gesturing around his waist, “strap-on dildos.”

As he said that, I wondered where all that equipment was supposed to go. I stopped that train fairly quickly, as the thoughts made tracks into places I never figured were meant for tools.

He must have noticed something in our faces, however, and he said “Now you see why we’re so famous.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that.

Encouraged, he pointed at one half of the counter opposite the bar. “The girls on that side take one,” hand to his mouth, “two,” hand to his crotch, “and three,” hand to his backside. He pointed to the other half of the counter and went on “The girls on that side take one,” hand to his mouth, “and two only,” hand to his crotch. He crossed his hands in a negating gesture and finished with a motion to his backside and a wagging finger “Not three.”

With the printed documentation and the personal instructions, I must really assume that he has had trouble with people not complying with the procedures. At that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see diagrams and multilingual warning labels.

He closed his spiel with “Just tell the girls what you want and they will do it. And if for any good reason you aren’t satisfied, it’s free,” spreading his arms wide in welcome.

I did feel that his engaging greeting deserved a courteous response, but I could only come up with “We’ve heard a bit about this place, but this is more than we thought to expect.” The last half was certainly true, and my friend, while at a loss for words, nodded in agreement.

He nodded appreciatively and waved at a pair of free seats, “Please just wait for a few moments while the rest of the girls come back from their earlier appointment.”

My friend and I exchanged glances and he answered “We’ll just go outside and have some beers next door.”

The proprietor graciously smiled and replied “Of course, please take your time.”

My friend and did go to just go to the bar next door for a couple of beers. We didn’t go back to the club. We even went on to another place for some late night seafood. Several times during the evening, we just shook our heads and laughed. Whatever that place was others, for us it was an affirmation that by one standard at least, we were nice guys.

Monday, May 30, 2005


How is it that my undershirts are so spotlessly white whenever I take one from the closet? They certainly aren’t always that way when I take them off after a long day in a humid climate.

The answer to that is something I usually can't ask my friends. A lot of them fall into two out of these three categories: unmarried, living with their parents, employ domestic help. Due to these things, the question on clean laundry would most likely draw blank looks.

There is no social custom to live independently in the Philippines. Filipinos don’t have to move out and find their own place once they hit 18, as American mass media seems to indicate as prevalent in their society. The Filipino income level isn’t even the dominant factor. While certainly living at home is a real cash saver, many still live with their parents even if they can afford not to. It’s not unusual for the families of married children to live in the same household as one of the couple’s parents, as long as they can all fit within the walls.

An interesting consequence is that a lot of Filipinos remain unacquainted with the worries of running a household until later in life. With the relatively low cost of labor, a significant number, not even only the wealthy, can hire people to take care of those worries for them.

It is only now that I, after a year of living away from home, can come up with some items that I would always want in my home.

Olive oil
The question of the best cooking oil is perhaps one of the most debatable. There are professional lobbyists in the US slugging it out for corn, canola, and palm oil producers. It’s olive oil for me. I love the flavor it imparts to meats and sauces and it’s expensive enough that I’d have to avoid fried foods. It’s even socially acceptable to go for the extra virgin.

Caldereta or Nilaga
Whenever I need to prepare a meal from scratch, any of these two dishes would be at the top of the list. The first reason for this is that my culinary skills are quite limited, and the list of dishes doesn’t go far past those two. The second is that they’re a great balance between ease of preparation and nutrition.

Imagine, all one has to do is:
Sear the meat.
Boil and let simmer.
Cut up the vegetables then go on with your life for the next couple of hours.
Go back and toss in the vegetables.
Get the table ready. Turn off the stove and serve.

As a bonus, these dishes even taste better each time they’re reheated.

Dental floss and mouthwash
There is always something in there. Try flossing everyday for a week and you’ll see.

All-fabric bleach and stain remover
When I first started living away from home, I never failed to visit my folks on the weekends and likewise never failed to drop off the clothes that I have given up on getting spotless. Now that I’m in another country, that is unfortunately no longer a realistic option.

Thanks to the marvel of the Internet, The International Guild of Professional Butlers, and others, I am now wiser in the ways of laundry. I always thought my deodorant had something to do with it.

I’m sure that when I truly have my own place, without administrative services or landlords who I can bug about the lack of hot water, I’ll be able to think up other things that should make up my home.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


As I was having a tasty dimsum lunch with some friends from the office, one, John, mentioned that the TV news was so agonizingly irritating those days. At the time, it was the nonstop live coverage of the Pope John Paul II’s funeral. A few weeks back, it was the courtroom, press room, and bedside battling of the Terry Schiavo case. The first was dead and the second was just about. Couldn’t the world news move on?

At that point, James, one of my more sensitive companions, looked up and around, and mentioned that if there was something certain draw a bolt or three of vengeful lightning, it was the lack of sympathy around the table.

Two thousand people died on Nias island, near Sumatra, during the earthquake a week back, the day after Easter, John pointed out. Tens of thousands more were in dire straits, from that disaster and the one that hit the day after Christmas. That was where his sympathies lay.

This discussion didn’t go much further, though we all did agree that the news stories were unlikely to change in the coming week as well. There’s the papal election to look forward to.

What did go a bit further a day or two after was a discussion on our beliefs. Ash and I were in our work area as John dropped by, and the subject of religion came up.

John, an Englishman who also grew up some years in America, Australia, Belgium, and Canada, described himself as agnostic. He didn’t reject any belief or religion, correctly pointing out that atheists have to believe in religion first before disavowing it. He just hasn’t answered for himself the question of the existence an all-encompassing benign force.

I said that for myself, I chose to believe that that force does exist, that it makes sense for me for that force to exist.

Ash, an American of Egyptian descent, and a Muslim, was not always comfortable discussing religion. As the saying goes, you’re sure to offend someone.

I myself find it fascinating and enriching, especially with those not of my background, nationality, or belief.

John added that if there was one religion he does find attractive, it is Buddhism. He admires the simplicity and individuality of the concept of oneness, of accepting your place within the myriad facets of the universe and seeking balance and perfection. He went on and said that he never found Christianity as he knew it to be at all attractive. The churches he grew up with as a child all seemed so dark, cold, imposing, and uncomforting.

A church in Bergen, Norway
Posted by Hello

This was not the first such description I’ve had of the typical European churches. I have a friend who spent some time in Bergen, Norway. His words and images of plain stone, black iron, and ravens in the graveyard hardly overflow with warmth.

One of the temples in Ayuthaya, Thailand
Posted by Hello

I can compare those to the monuments to Buddha I’ve seen in Ayuthaya, Thailand. The vision of graceful structures reaching for the heavens, at once so solidly rooted to the ground while part of the sky, is for me a complete architectural expression of spirituality, devotion, and life. Ayuthaya was once a city filled with such monuments. I can only imagine those others I still hope to see, Borubodur in Indonesia and Ankor Wat in Cambodia.

I do hope to see the Vatican someday too, of course.

And that brings us to the second point. The Roman Catholic institution is quite singular among the major religions of the world today, in terms of history, scope, and structure. This is taken as a matter of course in the Philippines, where the presence and influence of the Roman Catholic Church abounds.

The country has no legal divorce, and is said to be one of only two such countries in the world. Men and women may put marriage asunder in other places, but not in the Philippines. And that was an ideal upheld by most of the people, an ideal natural and just. I myself may not completely agree, but it was something that was certainly willing to live with.

To people of other countries that I’ve talked to, that a marriage contract cannot be dissolved is a thing almost alien and unimaginable. The way it was described to me, a marital relationship is nurtured and sustained alongside the ever-present option that it may be ended.

That this particular subject can be so absorbing simply stresses the reality that with their overarching presence, Christian institutions, Roman Catholicism foremost among them, can easily seem so distant from Christian ideals. A recent example is the distance between the finely-attired princes of the church gathered in Vatican City and the desperate, huddled survivors on Nias, Indonesia. This problem isn’t limited to Christianity, of course, as the current reputation of Islam in the non-Islamic parts of the world can attest.

With the potential disparity between an institution’s interpretations of an ideal from an individual’s, I can understand why a person would choose a faith that gives more emphasis to the individual. Faith, after all, does begin there. I met a Swede who did convert to Buddhism. I have friends who have opted to leave Roman Catholicism for Protestantism.

There are also those who had never really considered themselves as part of any religious institution and up till the present have not chosen any particular faith at all. Instead, like John and a few others I’ve met, profess to believe in and abide by a set of values.

I do call myself a Roman Catholic, though I admittedly do not believe in or perform all the required doctrines and rituals. And though I do have my own personal disagreements with certain things in the Roman Catholic institution, I don’t feel any need to give up believing in it, either for a more straightforward form of Christianity, another religion, or for a set of simple values.

This may seem to be a fairly naïve belief, considering that, like many people from the Philippines, I was born into this institution. I was raised and schooled on it and in it. I’d like to think that now, after discussing this with others with different beliefs, that I have some awareness of the available options. I know I can just take the institution and all it entails as a gift, or I can opt to trade it in for something simpler, or something else entirely.

I already do agree with the basic values that the Roman Catholic institution is founded upon. I think they’re fairly close to the values professed by my friends with a different or even no particular religion.

While I do appreciate the comparatively simpler nature of other faiths, I choose to see the Roman Catholic institution as more than a gift. I see it as a true treasure steeped with history, philosophy, literature, and, at least according to the type of Catholicism I was instructed and believe in, free will.

Of course, the institution, throughout its history, was not always represented ideally, intelligently, or even morally. The Protestant Reformation did start form the excesses and abuses of the Catholic Church. In the Philippines, a recent example was when a Catholic bishop named the accidental death of thirty-odd children as God’s punishment for government-sponsored family planning education. That particular pronouncement would not have been called enlightened even in the time of the Reformation.

Ideals interpreted through human limitations unfortunately won’t always be ideal. But through its history, the Catholic Church has itself reformed, grown, adjusted, and accommodate. The ideals can shine through. At its best, the institution itself can be a breathtaking and brilliant monument.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

This is 15-Minutes: The Mightier Pen

A friend of mine wrote about writing stories based on our friends. The catch is that it has to be written in fifteen minutes or less. Why not?

For this one, the rules followed were:
The basic plot was thought of beforehand.
Spelling and basic grammar was corrected after.
No rephrasing or rewording.

Fred awoke to the needles of morning light piercing into his eyelids. He took a deep breath and groaned out his futile denial of the day’s arrival.

He sat up on the bed and reached for his pack of cigarettes on the window sill. He lit up, took a long drag, and watched the smoke snake its way through his exhausted vision.

He felt so tired. What time did he go to bed, he unsuccessfully tried to
recall. It wasn’t like he was out all night. Not last night at any rate. He just dropped of his girlfriend Shannon at her place then went on home.

He had a deadline to meet today with his editor. The old man was waiting for a chapter on mysterious deaths. Fred just wrote something about a couple found dead after watching a complete Star Trek series. One of his friends, Chris, a real Trekie, just got a batch of DVDs. So Fred just wrote off that.

He winced as his phone rang. He felt numb shortly after. Chris and his wife were found barely alive in their den, almost dead from asphyxiation.

The cigarette dropped to the floor unnoticed.

Not at all original, but I think I'll do this more often.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Child's Eyes

Last weekend, I went to a mall close to my apartment. I meant to just get lunch and a haircut but I found myself in a small music store. This store is one of a rare breed here. Bins full of pirated music and movies crowd the floors of a mall just next door. It's no wonder at all that stores selling original music get crowded out.

The ones that do survive are quite selective in their merchandise. They can't hope to break even on sales of original Avril Lavigne and Jennifer Lopez albums.

I was in no hurry, so I decided to stay and look over all the albums they had for sale. It was a small store, with only a couple of small racks for CDs. It was then that I noticed something odd about how the items were arranged.

Elvis, Eminem, and Enya.

George Thorogood, Fleetwood Mac, and Hoobastank.

The other rack was for live recordings. I noticed some of Peter Frampton albums mingled with a couple from Portishead.

Yes, they were all arranged alphabetically by artist.

There were more that a few that I wasn't familiar with. But for the ones I was familiar with, I knew that in their own time and in their own niche, they stood out.

It was truly amazing to see them all together. It's not a sight I would have seen if the store had a larger collection and, consequently, its items were arranged by genre.

I managed to pick out what I wanted, Joni Mitchell's Hits and Paul Simon's Graceland.

I may just go back for George Thorogood and Pink Floyd.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


A nationally stereotypical scene at a bar with an international crowd could go this way.

A group of friends are sitting around a table, trading tales over mugs of cold beer.

It's the Australian's turn, and he starts out with One time, my mates and I went out drinking.... The word pints, plural and never ever singular, and the statement We're not sure how we got there, really. would be somewhere in the story. Possibly more than once.

The Italian, just back from the men's room after fixing his hair, finds himself without a seat. It had been taken without a word by the Chinese guy over in the next table.

The Englishman checks his watch and decides it's time to get a curry. He calls over the Filipino waiter.

The American asks for a cheeseburger and is apologetically told that this establishment does not have cheeseburgers in its menu. Aggravated by the Indonesians chain-smoking behind him, he bitterly questions the place's legitimacy and decency.

The Egyptian didn't make it to the bar. He got delayed getting out of the airport due to some very thorough questioning by Immigration.

The friends pile into a cab later in the evening. Thankfully, one of them manages to give intelligible, if alcohol-tinged, directions to the Indian driver.

No thinking individual should stand by stereotypes. On the other side, it's easy enough to see how they can be sustained. Just try keeping up with Aussies in any bar in all the world or watching the Italian national soccer team during the World Cup qualifiers. And there's always Lucky Plaza.

I've managed not to have been recognized as a Filipino. I was in a suit and tie and I wasn't serving the drinks and appetizers. The ideal would be if we can be equally known for manning desks and cleaning toilets, with both diligence and dignity.

Well, there is no reason to abandon all hope. It was fish and chips before curry, and convicts before alcoholics.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Interesting Stories 1

One of the more unique dazed and confused stories I've heard:

A friend of mine used to work with a mining company. They had a project in a remote location in Laos, fairly close to the Thai border.

While their living conditions were comfortable, the only available comforts that didn't involve driving several dozen kilometers through dense vegetation were what could be had in the camp. After-work activities settled into a routine of gathering together with his mates and applying generous volumes of alcohol to numb their sense of boredom.

One evening, one of the guys whipped out a batch of cookies. These were goodies he baked himself, and liberally laced with weed he likewise hand-picked.

My friend decided to play safe and only consumed half a cookie. Within the half hour, he thought it prudent to lock himself in his room. He spent the rest of the evening trying to convince himself that all those shifting colors and sliding movements weren't all that bad.

He managed to stagger out into the fresh air the next morning. He spied the camp medic, one of his companions the previous evening, hooking himself up to a bag of IV fluid. It was an effective way to quickly rid yourself of a hangover.

As it turned out, the two of them got off comparatively lightly. A bit later in the day, they watched as another of their companions shuffled back into camp, half-dressed but fully-packed. He thought, the previous night, that the bad men were attacking and out to get all of them. His immediate thought was of escape. He awoke in the sunshine, alone and out in the jungle, with a backpack worth of canned beans and tools.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


One of the most pleasing stories I've read lately was of the Frieder brothers. They were Jewish-Americans who ran a cigar factory up till the outbreak of World War II. They managed to arrange for the migration of about 1400 fellow Jews from Nazi-controlled Germany and Austria. This is a familiar story and theme.

I admit to growing up not thinking highly of my homeland’s own story. I could attribute it to a number of reasons. For example, I believe it would have been difficult for even the most dedicated and motivated teachers to substitute pride and accomplishment for the fear and discontent of the early 1980s . There was the material we had to learn from, books printed on recycled paper, filled with mostly dry and completely un-dramatic text. Pictures were seldom available.

Against a backdrop of slick, lavishly illustrated encyclopedias and magazines featuring America, Europe, Japan, and others, the stories of my country seem to easily fade into a drab and monochromatic echo of sorrow and loss.

I like to think that I did manage to avoid the sense of hopelessness and self-loathing that seems to come too easily when my country’s own history is concerned. The things that help are stories like that of the Frieder brothers.

The Frieder factory was in Manila, and the migration was with the knowledge and consent of the President, Manuel Quezon.

A whole lot has been written about the motives and roles of the players of that story. Certainly, the focus changes with each of the different accounts.

What remains constant is that at one point in our history, we performed an act for no real gain. We performed an act for a group not of our race or religion because, among others, such things didn’t really matter to us.

This was a time when the wealthier countries, the United States included, refused such acts, simply because those things did matter.

I would have liked knowing these things when I was younger.

But I am glad to know of these things now. I am glad to know now of our stories, filled with independence, maturity, and unique generosity.

Singapore's Chinatown Posted by Hello

Saturday, March 12, 2005


I spent an hour in my Singapore hotel room trying to figure out where to go. It was my first time there, and I only had a day. The only information I had were from the brochures and maps I picked up at Changi airport.

One of the brochures had a quote from Rudyard Kipling on "The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it."

I found that to be an odd quote, because no scent stood out from the airport to my hotel room.

Anyway, the brochures I picked up seemed to focus on three areas, shopping, restaurant and bar locations, and man-made parks. But I was going to be there for only a day, and I was looking for a uniquely Singaporean experience. I feel that malls and bars aren't the places for that experience.

I settled on going to Chinatown and eating at one of the areas featured in the guide book. There were a couple of spots on the map marked as places of interest, so I was looking forward to seeing a few things right after eating.

Sure enough, the place was teeming with locals. Well, with Chinese, anyway. I thought that boded well.

I queued up at a busy stall and got myself something popular, sliced fish with noodles. Simple, but certainly hot, fresh, and fairly filling fare. I washed that down with a local specialty tea and milk cocktail, teh tarik. It was wonderfully refreshing.
While eating, I spotted one of the places of interest marked on my guide map. It was a building right across the street, with a sign that read Urban Development Authority.

I found, to my interest, that there was a small museum. To my disappointment, it was closed.

Oh well, there was another place of interest close by, only a block away. I walked for ten minutes to only find that the only thing of interest was a complex of restaurants and bars.

I gave up at that point.

I just hopped back on the train and met up with a friend and his family. I spent the rest of the afternoon up to the early evening hanging out at their place. That I truly enjoyed.

I spent less than twenty-four hours there, but I can't help coming to the conclusion that the only truly interesting thing there may be the people. I didn't get to converse to any while I was there, so I'm just guessing.

These were the people who were tossed out of the Malaysian Federation. These people, the Singaporeans, managed to make quite a living for themselves. In their own little island with no resources but a harbor and willing people, they built one of the wealthiest economies in the region, both in terms of national product and per person.

The spirit behind that was probably dirty, sweaty, and smelly. The spirit behind that deserves a memorial other than the antiseptic Orchard Road corner Patterson.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Love Is All Around

The reactions from people who hear it for the first time range from morbid curiosity to outright disgust. The stories start out with teller asking questions like "You mean no one's told you what they do? You really have no idea?"

I'm talking about the Korban, the ceremony performed during the holiest of Islamic holidays, the Eid'l Adha or Hari Raya Haj.

The ritual involves an animal, traditionally a sheep, but goats and cows are fine. A few guys hold the animal steady. Another guy goes up to it, gives it a drink of water, and then slits its throat.

This is the point where the storyteller would get reactions like "Really?", "Wow!", "Sick!" And the narration would go on because, as the teller might say, "Wait, there's more."

The scope of this ritual can be quite amazing. This ritual isn't just one animal sacrificed in a mosque for all the attending worshipers. Each fellow, or each family, as much as possible, should perform the ritual. In predominantly Muslim communities, in the days prior to the holiday, it wouldn't be unusual to find virtually herds of goats tied or penned around apartment buildings or houses. Communities with more stringent regulations on storing livestock, such as Singapore, import the animals just in time for the holiday instead.

On the day of the ritual itself, in the right neighborhood, you could see the streets darkened and dimmed with blood. Butchers would be going around, cutting up the freshly-slain carcasses. The skins are hung up on lines or walls to dry.


Not an uncommon reaction, one might imagine. What holy festival must be celebrated with such evident and widespread death? What enlightenment can be found here?

The story can stop at this point. The deepest reactions have been drawn out from the audience. What else does one need to know about such a religion?

What needs to be known is that the ritual is to commemorate a story of self-sacrifice.

“Really? Sounds like that story of Abraham about to sacrifice his son.” This is what the ritual is all about.

The flesh from the animal is to be given away to the needy. The butchers go around and neatly and properly apportion the meat.

In places where Islam is less dominant, such as the US, an acceptable practice is to go to a slaughterhouse and buy some fresh meat. That gets to be given away as well.

Even with these details, it may not be easy to get past the gore. The blood can leave too black a mark. But perhaps that is the intention. Such stark portrayal of sacrificing a part of ourselves for something greater, and to give a part of ourselves to those who need it, is not meant to be forgotten.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Our Food

When talking with people from other countries, I've noticed that one thing consistent was that they've not come across a Filipino restaurant, or if they have, it was one patronized only by Filipinos, and they've only eaten there because a Filipino invited them over.

This is a contrast to the Philippines, which has popular American, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Persian restaurant chains. There are even more nations represented by specialty establishments. I've come to the conclusion that eating something new is higher on the Pinoy priority list than sharing with others the things we eat.

If I were to open a restaurant in another country, or have a stranger try out food that I think is quite Filipino, these are my choices.


Chicharon – We can go with the wonderfully meaty chicharon Cebu, or chicharon bituka or bulaklak, which impart such a unique texture to the palate

Sisig - Crunchy and succulent all at once

Kinilaw - With an island country, take your pick from tanigue, swordfish, tuna, or even sea urchin. You can even toss in bits of kambing or inihaw na baboy.

Mushrooms, lited, or squid a la pobre - The garlic-laden gravy hissing and steaming on a hot plate


Adobo - Regular or tostado. For places with sensitivities to pork, e.g. Jakarta, Rhiyad, etc., kambing is a more than capable alternative for baboy

Caldereta - Lean chunks of beef or goat stewed to tender perfection in a rich sauce filled with chorizo de Bilbao, potatos, and bell peppers

Nilaga or bulalo – Our esteemed food critic Jet may not favor consommés or the like, but there is more than a bit of charm to the beef's subtle flavor, peppered, with a hint of onion and ginger

Tinola - Even more delicious with a native chicken

Bangus, squid, or tilapia - Charcoal-grilled and stuffed with chopped onions, tomatos, and ginger

Sinigang - The sour sampaloc is such an amazing complement to fresh bangus, hipon, or baboy
Kare-kare – I don’t really like bagoong myself, so I can’t properly appreciate this dish, but with its tasty peanut sauce and chunks of beef and lamang loob, I just can’t leave it off the list.


Monggo guisado with bits of tinapa

Side dishes

Taba ng talangka
Enseladang mangga
Itlog na maalat with kamatis


Puto bungbong
Buko pandan
Panyo-panyo pastries from Bacolod

Leche flan and halo-halo are fine, but they aren’t particularly unique.

Alcoholic beverages

San Miguel - Pale Pilsen, Light, Cerveza Negra. If only they still made Premium.

Tanduay - Superior or the recently introduced Premium

I'm sure there are a lot of local liquors out there that can be recommended, the drinks in clay jars that stay in the earth and are only dug up on special occassions, but I haven't been fortunate enough to try any.

I have tried good lambanog, but it just lacks the refinement for more formal social gatherings.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


The subject came up on our first week in Jakarta. "You know," my colleague said, "I just haven't gotten a sense of the local beauty."

He was an American of Egyptian descent. He spent almost all of his professional life in the Middle East. North America, the Middle East, Western Europe, this guy has been around and has seen all sorts of attractive women.

And now, Southeast Asia.

My own travels are nowhere near as extensive. But because of where I grew up and the few foreign countries that I have seen, I like to think that I too have had the pleasure of seeing different kinds of pretty girls, in different places.

Before I left Manila, I was told not to expect much in the way of good-looking females. Even female friends who had been to Jakarta said that. The few beauties that were there were reportedly hidden away like precious valuables.

After three days in country, I was starting to think that they were all right. That I shouldn't expect and the ones worth seeing were well and truly kept out of sight.

Then the subject came up. Apparently, I wasn't the only one getting concerned.

We've both recently been to Bangkok, so that's where we got to start talking. We both agreed that the Thai capital was a virtual confectionary for the eye-candy connoisseur

While comparing, he said that it looks like Indonesian women seem to have more personality. We both paused and looked at each other for a bit. "We've been here too long."

I said that we should plan a trip together to Bangkok, just for a weekend. We may need a refresher on how pretty girls are supposed to look like.

The locals don’t have any problem becoming attracted to one another, I imagine. There are over 200 million of them.

I guess people in this place were not meant for us to look or leer at. Good for them, maybe.

And perhaps it’ll turn out to be good for us as well. At the very least, it’s another thing to look forward to when going back home.