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Bitter-sweet memories August 9, 2017

Posted by globejam in Denmark, Uncategorized.
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cranberry juiceWhen Matt moved to Denmark, the thing he pined for most was his church. It had been the centre of his social life back in Madras and he missed the weekly sermons, the choir practice and the company of his friends. A devout catholic, he appeared to suffer from extreme withdrawal symptoms every Sunday.

After watching him fidget around for a couple of weeks, I suggested he find a local church he could attend instead. I also helpfully pointed to a church close to our house, observing how it was empty all the time and should provide him with all the peace and quiet he required. Matt however, was not looking for peace and quiet. He was not interested in just any old catholic church either. He wanted an Orthodox Syrian Catholic church, preferably filled with Orthodox Syrian Malayalees, or at least, a congregation that he could identify with.

My suggestion to look for a substitute church was, however, not entirely lost on him. So, over the next month or so, Matt left home Sunday mornings to check out churches around Copenhagen looking for people he could gel with. Thankfully for him, quite soon, he found a Russian Orthodox church which he felt was very similar to his church back home. He told me that he did not understand the sermon as it was mostly delivered in Russian or Danish, neither language he could understand, but nevertheless, he felt connected and that made him happy.

A new routine set in after that. Every Sunday, Matt would get up early, dress up in his finest and go to his church. He would return in the afternoon in time for lunch, most often with a fellow congregation member in tow. Over the next few months, I met a steady stream of colourful characters from all walks of life, whom I would never have crossed paths with if not for Matt. One such fine character was Mr Beraki who eventually became a regular visitor until one fateful day.

Mr Beraki was an Ethiopian. Unable to take the long and protracted civil war in his home country, he had somehow wound up in Denmark where he had been welcomed as a refugee and given asylum. At one of the transition camps, he had met and married a fellow refugee from Russia. At the time he first came to our house, they were waiting to get their permanent residence permit in Denmark. While that process was going on, Mr B made himself useful by teaching engineering drawing at a school nearby.

Most Sundays, he would accompany Matt to our house. Like Matt, he was also a man of few words and they would just sit together in companionable silence for a couple of hours before he said his goodbye and left. We would, of course, invite him to join us for lunch, but he always politely refused. Each time he came home, he would come with one of his children, every time a different one, and each one cuter than the previous. I lost count of how many children he had, but I am sure it was somewhere between quite a few and far too many. The typical, impolite, insensitive Indian that I was, I asked him once how they managed to afford looking after so many children given his meagre refugee support payments. He politely answered, in a disarmingly candid and surprisingly dignified way, that more children meant more allowance from the Danish Government and so having more children actually helped them! I wondered aloud how the Danish government felt about that point of view, to which he nodded sagely as though he was ready to consider their opinion too.

Since he became a regular fixture who consistently refrained from sharing our lunch, we made it a point to buy different fruit drinks and punches to serve him and such of his children old enough to drink them. Some of the juices we liked ourselves, but there were quite a few that were always too sweet for us. Having tasted rye bread  and gammel dansk, both unpalatable to the unaccustomed, we just decided there was no accounting for taste and left it at that. One drink that we found too sweet even by “Danish” standards was the cranberry juice. That tetra pack had languished in the fridge for a few days untouched after the first syrupy sip.

When Mr B came next with his eldest, a boy of about 12, Matt must have thought that was a good time to reopen the cranberry juice. He filled two tall glasses for them while the two of us had our lunch, all sitting around the table. Mr B took one sip and then did not touch his glass again, while his son smacked his lips and emptied the entire glass in one long slurp. Matt, the attentive host, refilled his glass with more juice which also disappeared just as quickly. In retrospect, I don’t quite know what was going on in Mr B’s mind, but after a while he obligingly nudged his full glass towards his son. Not requiring another invitation, the kid finished that drink too.

Only after the kid had polished off the last drop of his third full glass did Mr B casually remark that the pack had the word “Koncentret” written on it. Matt, despite not understanding a word of Danish, very dismissively responded, saying “That’s just Danish for juice. It says the same on the pack of orange juice I have for breakfast”. Not wanting to argue, Mr B nodded his head noncommittally and gently also pointed to the small print below and said “It also says here to mix one part of the concentrate with 5 parts of water”.

The import of that statement struck us simultaneously. No wonder the drink had been so cloyingly sweet! Matt burst out laughing while I turned to look at Mr B’s son who had finished nearly a liter of concentrated cranberry juice under the watchful gaze of his father. There he was, sitting rigidly upright, his eyes glassy and his lips smudged a bright scarlet. Combined with his porcelain skin and mop of black curly hair, he looked like a doll on which a child had liberally smeared lipstick.

Matt reined in his laughter quickly while I struggled to put on an expression of adequate remorse. Mr B’s expression, however, never changed. He got up languidly, bid us adieu, took hold of his son’s hand gently and left.

We never saw them again.

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Am I evil? July 25, 2017

Posted by globejam in Travel.
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seatbeltI was booked on the last flight from Delhi.  Expected to leave at 21:45, it was already 30 minutes delayed.  I had been up since 5:30 AM that day and I was already dreading the prospect of landing in Chennai at around 1 AM in the morning.  The fact that I had watched Dunkirk the previous night added to my sleep deprivation and irritability. About 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time, they called us to board the flight and I was looking forward to getting a couple of hours of shuteye on the flight.

A drunk porrikki (riff-raff) and his wife boarded after me. As I took my window seat on row 22, the guy stood in the aisle, leered at the pretty air-hostess, pushed his boarding pass in her face and called her a thevidiya (prostitute, in Tamil).  I hoped she did not understand Tamil.

She kept a straight face and pointed at the seats next to mine, while I cringed and turned my head and stared out of the window. He sat down heavily next to me just as I pushed down the armrest firmly between us.

He reeked of alcohol. Maybe I smelt like that too, I thought, remembering the pint of beer I had just had at the airport. Aghast, I pressed my face even closer to the window.

Another air-hostess came along and asked the couple to fasten their seat belts. He did not seem to hear her while his wife perfunctorily threw one side of her seat belt on to her lap and promptly went to sleep.

As soon as the plane started taxiing, he got up to go to the loo. He was almost at the end of the plane by the time an air-hostess spotted him and shrieked him into the nearest seat.

During the next few minutes I heard the air-hostesses screaming at him to remain seated at least 4 more times.  20 minutes after take off he came back to his seat and plonked himself. He started dozing immediately, leaning heavily on me from time to time.

We went through some turbulence, and each time one or the other air-hostess would come down and ask them to wear their seat belts.  Despite several requests, the seat belts remained unfastened.

I tightened my belt, and fervently hoped for a fairly significant air pocket, so that he may hit his head on the ceiling, and with some luck, break his neck and die.

Am i evil?⁠⁠⁠⁠

No lady like her. February 5, 2017

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
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ravagedWhen my grandfather first met her, she had been, or so I’ve heard, luscious and wholesome, full of secrets yet craving to be explored, rich and giving, bursting with laughter and mischief, beautiful beyond belief and generous to a fault.

My grandfather, he was floored. It had been love at first sight! Never in his dreams had he imagined such a beauty would be his, so completely. She had not asked him of anything and gave him everything he asked for. Though he took all that he wanted greedily, he, nevertheless, had been grateful for the bounty and, when possible, had treated her kindly.

After his time, she passed on to my dad. He had grown watching his father partake of her largesse, and thus exploiting her came naturally to him. He was also used to her beauty and allure and did not think it was anything extraordinary. She still gave all that she had unstintingly and he took her for granted. He treated her with disdain, while continuing to exploit her generosity. Whatever she gave him appeared insufficient and he constantly went back to her asking for more and more. On her part, I guess she put on a brave face and continued to smile and be as loving and kind as possible.

In time, he too passed away and then she was mine. Her time with my father had divested her of her beauty. She had given her all till it hurt her and was still found wanting. All I saw was an old haggard woman, a beaten soul, maybe even a liability. Her ravaged body, I found distasteful. What did she have to give me, I wondered? Of course, that did not stop me from finding new ways of exploiting her. When I got bored I gave her to others and we all reveled in her distress. she was nothing but a whore well past her prime, used only because there was nothing else on offer.

I saw sepia toned pictures of her from her younger days and wondered if the one with laughter on her lips and mischief in her eyes was the same lifeless wreck in front of me. Seeing her from the glory days only made me feel cheated for she had so little to give now. The contrast was stark and I blamed her for it. Had she not promised us her bottomless benevolence? Did she not once behave as though she was rich beyond measure? Why had she become such an old hag, then?

I fretted and fumed and cursed her for her short-comings. I began to hate her and tried to take as much as I could out of her, even if I did not want anything. It was spite, I am afraid. But I could not control myself. She cried, but I was hard-hearted. “I never loved you”, I shouted at her. “You are just a worthless whore”, I screamed as I beat her black and blue. She bore it all stoically which made me hate her even more. If she had begged me and pleaded with me I may have relented. If she had stared back at me or had lifted her hand, even for self-protection, I may have hesitated, for she was still powerful enough to take me on easily. But she didn’t. And as I aged, I only became less caring, of her and for myself. What was the point of it all?

Of late though, I have begun to loathe myself. I can’t help but think that she had been beautiful once and if only I and my father and his father before him had been kind and caring she would still be just as resplendent as she had been then. But alas, our greed and short-sightedness had robbed her and in the process pushed us to penury. And for what, for another fix, another temporary high, just for a lark. I have now come to realize my own true nature. I am just a common pimp, an exploiter of the innocent, a rapist, and a cruel self-destructive psychopath.

Now my days are numbered too, my son and it is time I hand her over to you. I confess, she is in worse shape than when I received her. The scabs and the festering wounds, I gave her those. Some wrinkles she already had, but the warts and and the deeper grooves, all my handiwork. The white hair, the diminished vision, the anemia, the emaciation, the grey pallor, all my doing.

After my time, if you are anything like me, you might just think that the bitch is holding out on you despite having more to give. You will surely be revolted by her unrelenting ugliness and the stench emanating from her. You too may want to take her for every penny she has until she becomes completely incapable of providing for you.

But desist, my son, desist. Don’t judge her too harshly. Let me tell you, as my death approaches, as I look back at my life, I can see that the fault has been all mine and never hers. Under that loathsome exterior that we have given her, still beats a young heart. The comely, voluptuous, buxom lass is still there, bruised and molested maybe but with zest undiminished.

Treat her with kindness, give her back a little, give her some time and I am sure she will be back to her splendorous best. Be gentle with her, and in doing so, redeem us all.

And if you have it in your heart, forgive me. Please forgive me.

A little late May 17, 2016

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
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She was three days late.

Normally, Mala would not have been worried about it too much. At 54, she knew all there was to know about delayed periods and the associated feelings of anxiety, worry and hope. But this time, it was different. After a long time, she had had unprotected sex, and that too with someone other than her husband.

***
Several months ago, on a whim, she had sent a paper to the commonwealth association of primary school teachers on new ways of engaging children in schools in developing countries. She had not thought much of the paper herself and had forgotten all about it when she had received intimation that the paper had been accepted and she was required to come and present it at the next summit of primary school teachers to be held in London. She had also been pleasantly surprised to learn that it would be an all expenses paid trip, under some UNICEF scheme.

Delighted at the opportunity, she had made all the preparations and had left for London on a high fifteen days earlier. The conference had been a wonderful experience and she had thoroughly enjoyed her week in London. There had been well over 300 teachers from all parts of the commonwealth including 3 from India – herself, another lady from Mumbai and Abhay from Chandigarh – all first-time travellers abroad. They had stuck together and had hit it off well with Abhay being kind, generous and witty. Her paper had been very well received with especially loud applause and cheering from the tiny Indian contingent.

There had been time to see a bit of London as well and the three of them had managed to take a half-day tour on the open top bus and spend some time inside St. Paul’s cathedral as well. It has been a long time since she had been so happy.

The conference had thrown a large formal dinner on the last evening with caviar, wine and the works and she and Abhay had found themselves seated next to each other. The witty conversation, the excitement of the week gone by, and the wine had all made for a heady experience. Well after midnight, after the dinner, Abhay and she had walked back to their hotel two blocks away, holding hands and giggling like teenagers. Their rooms were on the same floor and they finally parted in front of her room, albeit a little reluctantly.

Back in her room, Mala had run a bath, hoping to have one last luxuriating bath before reverting to the bucket and mug that awaited her back home. She added the bath salts into the water and soaked in the warm water for a long time. Feeling refreshed, she had played with herself, the first time since she did not know when, and had ended up dozing in the bath in a dreamy post-climactic stupor. A little later, the water had turned cold and she had forced herself out of the bath, changed into her night clothes and surrendered to her warm and fluffy bed.

The next day, she had woken up fully refreshed, but with a heavy heart, for she knew that she had to catch the flight back home later that day. The week had flown past so fast and she was already feeling like she did not remember most of the things that she had seen and been part of over the last few days. With the bus to take her to the airport still a few hours away, and not wanting to get depressed, she had decided to make the most of the remaining time.

She had then had a quick shower and got ready to leave the room for a walk around the area. Wanting her morning cup of coffee, she had turned the kettle on, only to find it was not working. She had then gone over to Abhay’s room to borrow his kettle. She had knocked on his door a few times but there had been no response and finally just as she had been about to turn around and go back, he had opened the door, all wet from having rushed out of the bath, with just his towel wrapped around him. His hair had been all pasted to his forehead and he had had a large frown on his face. She had found that funny and had playfully tugged at his towel and he, in turn, had pulled her in to the room and before they knew what was happening, they were in his bed having sex. Both having been out of practice, it had been clumsy and rather quick but entirely enjoyable.

After a while, she had left him to get dressed and had gone to her room to re-apply her make-up and get ready for her journey back home, the coffee completely forgotten.

Back in the room, she had felt a little twinge of guilt for having cheated on her husband. But she had brushed it aside, glad for the experience, and flown back home.

***
And now she was three days late.

She decided that she wouldn’t worry much just yet. It might very well be the onset of menopause. After all, she was 54 years old. However, at the back of her mind, she could not help but feel maybe she was getting punished for her indiscretion. Yes, she had cheated on her husband Vikram, but it was not as though their marriage was a functioning one or that they cared much about each other anymore, she thought to herself, to assuage her guilt.

***

Vikram and Mala had been neighbours and friends before their marriage. When both families had started looking for spouses for their wards, the marriage broker had brought their horoscopes together. When their families had suggested the alliance to them, both had agreed readily.

Mala had always liked the sarcastic wit of Vikram and Vikram had always been happy to have someone laugh at his jokes, and though neither of them had actually imagined such an outcome, they were both quite happy at the prospect of being together for the rest of their lives. When people asked them how they had met, he would always say “Ours was a love marriage. Our families loved each other and got us married”.

Things had gone on well in the beginning. He worked for the railways and she taught at a school and though neither of them earned much, they were both content with their lives. The only issue was that there were no issues even after a couple of years. Mala had gone to the doctor and got herself checked and the doctor had been unable to find any reason why she should not conceive.

The doctor had then suggested timing their sex to coincide with her fertile period and she had shared this with Vikram. They tried this for a couple of months, but Vikram found it very difficult to perform when things were planned like this. He would sarcastically announce to visitors “I am like the fortnightly Guwahati express trundling into central station on time everytime”, leaving them wondering what he was talking about while Mala cringed in embarrassment and hoped that they did not get what he was saying.

A few months later, she had gently suggested that Vikram get himself tested. This had not gone down well with him and he had refused to go to the doctor. Finally, with no options, the doctor has suggested they try an in-vitro procedure. Vikram had reluctantly agreed and provided his sperms on request for around 6 months or so, all to no avail.

By then, for whatever reason, he had begun to feel that everyone, especially Mala, thought he was somehow defective and started to distance himself from everyone. One fine day, he had announced that he no longer found the plastic cups in the fertility clinics attractive and had refused to have anything to do with them again. From then, they had also stopped having sex totally.

In all other respects, they appeared a normal, typical, dysfunctional Indian family. Except that they lived more like siblings, always slightly annoyed with each other, but reconciled to living together, as pleasantly as possible, for the rest of their lives. They had, neither of them, ever been much interested or keen on anything and hence they motored along most amicably for the rest of their lives. As years went by Vikram became more sarcastic and Mala found it less and less funny, but none of it had ever led to any great deal of friction ever.

Of course, Mala secretly held Vikram responsible for their lack of children, though once in a while, she would concede that just maybe, her body was to blame for it.

***
After so many years of yearning to get pregnant, now she was three days late and hoping that she wasn’t.

Not wanting to go to the doctor just yet, she decided to go and get herself a home pregnancy test kit. As the pharmacists near her house knew her well, she was not too keen to go to any of the nearby pharmacies. Nor did she want to go to any of those near her school, lest one of her colleagues or, worse, one of the students saw her buying one!

She finally settled for some pharmacy half-way to school. Next thing that worried her was how to ask for it. If she went and asked for a pregnancy kit, would the pharmacist enquire as to who was going to use it? Would he ask “is it for you?”. What would she say then, she wondered. Would he look at her knowingly? Would he think she was a slut for having had sex at her age?. The questions jostled in her head like a bunch of boisterous children shouting “me, me, me!” vying to get the teacher’s attention. Two more days went by while she worked up her courage to face the unknown pharmacist.

Finally, she decided to go in and ask for 10 boxes. That way, no one would think it was for herself. And if anyone asked about whose name to put on the bill, she could just ask them to bill it in the name of Thirumala school of nursing, or something like that. That way they would think she was buying for an institution, she thought, pleased with her deception.

That settled, the next day on the way back from school, she got down mid-way and entered into the nearest pharmacy. The pharmacist, sitting back with his legs on the table, was deeply engrossed in some magazine. Luckily no one else was around. She cleared her throat to get his attention and, in a quiet voice, asked for a home pregnancy kit. He walked to the back shelf and while still keeping his eyes fixed on the magazine, felt around and took one box out. Emboldened by his lack of interest, she requested for one more kit. He fumbled around the shelf some more and then took one more box and plonked them both down on the counter and asked for hundred and fifty rupees. He had still not glanced at her once. Thrilled with the lackadaisical service, She gave him the money, and without bothering to ask for the bill, shoved the two boxes into her purse and left as quickly as possible. She was home about half an hour later than usual, but Vikram, who had also returned from the office by then neither seemed to notice nor care.

She went straight into the bathroom with her purse and opened up one of the boxes to find out how to use it. Unfortunately, the writing on the usage guide inside the box turned out to be too small for her to read. She put on her glasses and strained her eyes, but the letters only swarmed around like miniature ants. At her wits end, she then took her phone out and clicked photos of each side of the slip carefully and then enlarged them to see if they were in focus enough for her to read the instructions clearly. Thankfully they were and she put the box back into her purse and slipped out to her room to switch on the bright light and read them comfortably.

To be used first thing in the morning, the instructions stated. She would have to wait one more day! “That will make it six days late”, she thought, with the tension building up. “Wish I had someone to lean on”, she cried out silently in her mind.

Next morning, she feigned a headache and stayed at home. Vikram left at 8 AM as usual and immediately afterwards she took the kit and used it. There was only one line and not two. What a relief! She was not pregnant after all. Nevertheless, she decided to check again the next day.

Another day, another kit and the same result. “Two kits can’t be wrong”, she thought with relief, before promptly fixing an appointment with the doctor, just to be sure. Despite assurances that the kits were quite accurate and she should not be worried and that it is in all probability the onset of menopause, Mala had insisted on further tests and so, for everyone’s peace of mind, the doctor had suggested a blood test, which, she promised, was definitive.

Wanting to get over all this quickly, Mala went straight to the lab and gave her blood and paid for the test. She no longer cared what the nurse might think. She looked the nurse in the eye while giving her the doctor’s prescription and defiantly thought, ” Yes. I am 54 and I had sex and it was good. So what?”. The nurse on her part appeared as disinterested as the pharmacist.

The next day on the way back from school, she dropped into the lab and picked up the report and took it home. She stepped past Vikram with a “hi” and he acknowledged her with a grunt. She took the report and went into her room and read it. It was clear. She was definitely not pregnant. All the pent up tension evaporated instantly and the long held back tears gushed out. Then she heard Vikram moving about, and not wanting him to see her in that state, she quickly wiped her tears and came out of her room.

That’s when it suddenly struck her. She could never know motherhood in this lifetime. Though she had long reconciled to her fate, the finality of it all smacked her hard and a wracking sob escaped her and the tears started flowing again. Vikram said “What now?” with an exasperated look.

“I have hit menopause”, she blurted out, hoping he would say something kind.

“Great. I don’t have to buy condoms anymore”, he said, “We will be saving tonnes of money from now”.

Day 5 – Out with the butanding April 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
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Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.butanding-in-donsol-sorsogon-manila-philippines

First a quick introduction to the whale shark. The whale shark, locally known as the Butanding, is not a whale. It is, however, a type of shark, though not the Jaws variety. It is the largest fish still in existence and not surprisingly, given humanity’s cluelessness, not much is known about it. We know that it is a filter feeder, surviving solely on plankton (microscopic plants and animals) and is completely harmless to humans. As to how many are in existence, why they grow to such a size (known to reach over 12 meters in length and 20 tonnes in weight), where their breeding grounds are, how long they live, where they go, where they come from…, well, no one quite knows.

What we do know for sure is that adolescent ones, measuring between 5 and 10 meters come to the Donsol area, between January and May, as the region is rich in plankton during that period. Ergo our presence there.

Our second day in Donsol started early. Soon after sunrise, we reached the Butanding Interaction Centre to get introduced to our BIO – Butanding Interaction Officer. After that we chose our masks and fins and got into his boat for the 3 hour butanding spotting tour. The boat was a wooden craft with wide out-riggers giving it rock solid stability. The sky was clear, the seas calm and the water was the same temperature as the air around us. It all augured well for whale shark spotting. That most of us on our boat could barely swim, had never worn masks and fins, had never used snorkels and never jumped into the sea was all but forgotten in the excitement.

vista

The BIO helped us with our life vests. Mine was loose and I was worried it would slip out over my head as soon as I hit the water. However, there were additional straps that he threaded through my legs that held it in position. Unfortunately, it did not do too much good for my dangling scrotum, as it got crushed every time I straightened my torso. So much for intelligent design!
on the boat

Twenty minutes into the ride, we spotted a grey form just under the water. Our first butanding! The BIO said he would take us over it and screamed “Jump! Jump!”. Not thinking twice, I jumped in and so did my wife. She, being the more attractive of the two, the BIO latched on to her and dragged her towards the butanding, leaving me floundering in the water. Not knowing what to do, I held on to one of the out-riggers for dear life. I am sure I cut a sorry figure. My wife, though, had a good darshan and described the butanding in excruciating detail, all breathless and excited.

swimming in the sea

I am on the extreme left (orange vest). Just ahead of me is the BIO with my sister-in-law.

Hoping, I would get lucky the next time, I sat next to the BIO and tried to get pally with him. Soon enough the next butanding came our way and this time my sister-in-law jumped in with me. Well, she being the more attractive of the two of us… enough said. This time, however, I was determined to pursue the whale shark by myself, come what may. I swam behind the BIO and my hapless sister-in-law but by the time I reached them, the butanding was long gone.

“Third time lucky, third time lucky”, I chanted to myself, hoping there would be a third time. Thankfully there was and I was the only one who jumped in. Having no choice the BIO dragged me unceremoniously to where the Butanding was and shouted “See! See!”. I hesitated, never having used a snorkel to breathe before. Then I saw the look on the BIO’s face and I knew that if I waited even a second longer, he would grab me by the neck and dunk my head in. So, I took a quick deep breath and put my head into the water.

It was all so quiet, serene and other-worldy. The water was murky all around, thanks to the plankton, but right there, almost within my hands reach, was the butanding. It was like an open aperture picture with the butanding in sharp focus and everything else fading away and out of focus.  The butanding was coming straight at me with its mouth partially open. It was clearly visible, white spots, dorsal fin and all. It swam right under us and as it passed by, the BIO grabbed my vest and turned me around. I put my head down again, and promptly drank a few gallons of water,  having unfortunately let go of the snorkel. But I had got my 30 seconds with the butanding. It was totally worth it.

There was a 4th and then a 5th sighting and I jumped in eagerly, but failed to reach the butanding before it dived deep. The BIO was disappointed that I got to see the butanding only once, such was his commitment. After 3 hours, we came back to the shore, elated and wanting to go back again, but hopefully after learning to snorkel properly.

The rest of the day was spent basking in the glory of our outing with the butanding and comparing notes on each others’ experiences. Back at the AGM, we continued our observation of the youth brigade, purely for scientific reasons, I might add. Finally, unable to contain our curiosity, we sent our stickybeak to find out the antecedents of the group. She took the easy way out and enquired at the reception. They turned out to be traveling as a group on a tour arranged by a company called FreeNEasy. That explained a lot. Some of us made a mental note to check out the site later, though on my part, it was purely for academic reasons.

Later that evening, we went to a bar called Baracuda and had a few beers. It was a lovely place run by a Briton. The bar itself was built like a log cabin, on the beach facing the ocean. There was a power outage for a short while and the place became even more magical, if that was possible. We wrapped up the day with dinner which included Kinilaw – a raw fish dish that was delectable. Life was good.

The next day, we returned to Legaspi and flew back to Manila, our short trip to Bicol over too soon.

Day – 4 – Enchanting fireflies April 1, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
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Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Everything in the Philippines is understated. Nobody touts the Philippines as the greatest country, Mt. Mayon as the most active volcano, San Miguel the best beer, the beaches the whitest, or the island nation the safest. That’s nice and refreshing for someone like me, coming from a country that is forever taking credit for every little thing that is even remotely connected to it – be it references in history, India’s bio-diversity, Indian-origin people doing well in some part of the world or even Jonty Rhodes’ daughter.

However, the Filipinos did not tell us that Donsol was probably the greatest place to swim with the butanding (whale shark) or that the butanding tour would be a most extraordinary experience or that the firefly cruise would be unbelievably beautiful. And that I think is criminal.

Anyway, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Day 4 marked the arrival of the last component of our family puzzle. Having set aside what we hoped would be the highlight of the trip, we waited for her to come from Sydney to Manila, then to Legaspi and from there to Sorsogon, in time to join us on our journey to Donsol to see the butanding.

potted plantsWhile we waited for her, we walked down Magsaysay street to get a feel of the morning life in Sorsogon. It was clearly morning rush hour with tri-cycles and jam-packed Jeepneys scurrying about, some with people, with expressions that suggested that nothing was out of place, perched precariously on them. Along the roadside were shops, nurseries with lots of pretty plants, shops selling beautiful pots and even a specialty shop selling engraved headstones, all one next to the other. Were the plants and pots for homes or for the cemetery, we wondered.

We walked about a kilometer and back looking for a place that served breakfast. Not finding one, we returned to Fernandos and ordered their omelette. The spanish omelettes was fluffy and filling, and the coffee, though instant, was hot, aromatic and flavourful.

By the time we finished breakfast, the last member of our contingent arrived and we were ready to leave for Donsol. After an uneventful two-hour journey we reached AGM resorts by about lunch time.

AGM, at first glance, looked like a quiet, small beach resort with just enough rooms for the 12 of us. We thought we would have the resort all to ourselves. We checked in, had lunch and were thinking of jumping into their tiny pool when a group of over 30 youngsters landed up. From their accents, they appeared to be American or Canadian. A mixed group of girls and boys, not young enough to be a college group, nor appearing old enough to be a working group. All of them, bar one, were in good shape.  They checked in (AGM somehow had conjured up more rooms), changed into trunks and skimpy bikinis and came back to the poolside. Our group’s stickybeak and the rest of us, apprentice stickybeaks, watched and speculated while the lively bunch splashed around in the pool. A part of our contingent went to the Butanding Interaction Centre to plan for the various activities, while the rest of us enjoyed the view, the sunset being spectacular.

firefly watchingThat evening, after watching the Butanding interaction video, we went on the firefly tour. We took two boats, each with a guide and traveled down the Ubod river, also called the Donsol river. The guide quickly introduced the tour saying if we were lucky we would see three different kinds of fireflies that day, ones on the trees, ones in the water and those in the sky. I distinctly heard her end her introduction with “I will stop now with the introduction and continue later because I believe Indians are too lazy to listen to the whole thing”. My sister sitting next to me was not so sure, but then she has only one good ear, so I might have to go with what I think I heard. Though one cannot tar 1.2 billion people with the same brush, the cynical me was willing to admit that the guide’s assessment was possibly a close approximation, at least speaking for myself. That was the only rude thing we may have heard during our entire trip.

The firefly show was truly spell-binding. The females glowed steadily while the males flickered (or was it the other way around?). Sometimes, a whole bunch of them pulsated as one, to some beat that only they could hear, putting to shame the brightest of christmas decorations. While we were thus enthralled, some things started glowing in the water. It turned out that some of the plankton, the reason why the butandings come to Donsol, were bio-luminescent. The fireflies in the sky turned out to be the night sky. With zero light pollution, a new moon and not a speck of cloud in the sky, we had the greatest view of the milky way. It was unbelievable. We also spotted a satellite racing across the sky which added to the overall thrill. The guide salvaged herself by telling us that the trees on which the fireflies landed were the Indian almond tree. Our pride in India knew no bounds!

We walked back down the Donsol Pio-Duran road, had dinner at another resort and came back to AGM. The young group was nowhere to be seen. We hit the bed early so we could be up bright and early for the Butanding watching tour the next day.

Action in Stockholm March 29, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
2 comments

fuzzy-TV-thumb-500x343-7074One fine Sunday afternoon, Matt walked into the house with a spring in his step and announced “We are going to Stockholm!”. I was surprised. A couple of weeks earlier I had broached the subject of going to Stockholm or Oslo during the forthcoming long weekend and had gotten a lukewarm response. Later that week I had tried to kindle his interest with “Stockholm is supposed to be really beautiful this time of the year, with wonderful rivers and bridges”, and again with “The art museums are world class, you know”. Matt had not responded one way or another. Then suddenly it appeared that my hard-selling had worked after all.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I agreed readily. Then hoping he would thank me for the idea, I asked, “So what made you change your mind?”. Apparently it had nothing to do with my suggestions. He had called his mother over the phone on his way back from Church and she had told him that their Parish priest had asked Matt to visit his nephew Steve who was in Stockholm currently. Steve being a fellow parishioner and a childhood friend, Matt was very keen on meeting him again after a long time.

“Glad that you agreed”, gushed Matt, as though it was all his idea in the first place. “Steve is a great guy, you will like him and we can stay with him at his house”, he continued. Not too keen on imposing myself on a stranger, I expressed my discomfiture. However, Matt was quite sure Steve would be happy to accommodate me and asked me not to worry. Finally, after some back and forth, we decided that Matt would call Steve and explicitly ask if we could stay there before we took any further action. A couple of days later, I asked Matt if he had spoken to Steve but Matt was a little evasive, just saying “Don’t worry, I know Steve. I am sure it won’t be a problem”. I felt that something was amiss, but not wanting to probe deeper, I quietly booked a room in Stockholm, just in case. It proved to be a wise decision, as you will see.

Subsequently, we booked our tickets, by train and ferry from Copenhagen to Stockholm and set off that weekend. We boarded the train in the late afternoon and took our seats. The train went up north to Helsingør, the famous setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There, we had to cross the sea to reach Helsingborg on the Swedish side. We had assumed that we would have to disembark, get on to the ferry, get off at the other end and catch another train. However, it turned out that we did not have to move an inch. At Helsingør, to our great astonishment, the train got divvied up and loaded onto a ferry, with us and all the other passengers still inside. The ferry then crossed the Øresund, the strait separating Sjælland and Skåne, a distance of about 4 Kms in about 20 minutes. At the other end, the train assembled itself again and we continued onward towards Stockholm.

Though the sea journey was only 20 minutes, all the dis-assembly and assembly meant that the actual time taken for the crossing was closer to about 4 hours. So, by the time we were on the Swedish side, it had become late evening. We had something to eat and retired to our berths for the night. For someone used to the narrow Indian no-frills berths, the ones on the Swedish train appeared luxurious. Each cubicle had four berths and an attached toilet. Built for Danes and Swedes, the berths were easily 7ft in length and a good two-and-half to three feet wide. They had soft beds with deep blue upholstery, fluffy white pillows and even softer blankets. The train was practically empty so I had one entire cubicle all to myself. Matt, likewise, had a cubicle all to himself.

I closed the curtains and lay down thinking how wonderful and peaceful travelling by train was turning out to be in that part of the world. I wistfully thought how it would have been even nicer to have had my girlfriend with me there. Which got me wondering about how many Danes may have made love on these very berths while travelling from one country to another. Which of course led me to worry about body fluids and hygiene. Which got me bolting out of the berth. I jumped down, switched on the light and minutely examined the berth, the pillows and the blankets. Thankfully, there were no telltale blotches or stains and everything appeared to be every bit as clean as I had initially assumed. Banishing all thoughts of sex, involving me or anyone else, I climbed back into the berth and slept peacefully through the rest of the journey.

Early next morning, I woke up as the train entered Stockholm station. Matt was already near the door with his bags, all excited and raring to go. We got off the train and caught a bus to Steve’s house. On our way, the usually reticent Matt was uncharacteristically loquacious and gave me some background on Steve.

Apparently, Steve and Matt had been neighbours in Chennai and thick friends since their early childhood. They had gone to the same school and the same church and were both members of their church choir. They had been practically inseparable till their college days. Both families were devout Christians, with Steve’s extended family having a number of priests amongst them. Steve’s uncle was their parish priest and everyone, including Steve, believed that Steve would follow his uncle into priesthood. Many in the parish also secretly believed that Matt would also become a priest along with his friend one day. If at all there was a blemish in their friendship,it was that Steve’s family had the unfortunate habit of comparing Steve unfavourably to Matt on occasion. Steve, Matt felt, resented this a little, though apparently he understood that it was no fault of Matt’s.

As things turned out, Matt’s family was not keen on him becoming a priest, and shockingly Steve also had other ideas. Steve met a girl, fell in love with her, and promptly dropped out of his priesthood training despite strong opposition from family. Matt, the sensible link between Steve and the rest of his almost estranged family, was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing Steve back on track. The subsequent attempts by Matt had only resulted in putting a strain on their friendship and this had resulted in Steve moving away from Matt as well. Finally, Steve, unable to take on the mounting pressure, quietly gathered a few other friends as witnesses and got married to Marie at the local registrar’s office.

Steve’s family, having no other choice, had quickly accepted the situation and embraced Steve and his new wife Marie back into the family fold. Steve’s uncle, not wanting Steve’s association with the church to discontinue, had found him gainful employment within the church itself. This was how Steve now found himself in Sweden on Church business.

As for the friendship between Steve and Matt, it had not recovered fully from that episode, though they had continued to stay in touch sporadically. Matt was hoping that this trip could be that opportunity to rectify the situation that he had been longing for.

Needless to say, I worried about how their reunion might turn out and hoped that our reception would not be a cold one. I needn’t have worried. Steve turned out to be a friendly chap and his welcome was spontaneous and effusive. He hugged Matt tightly and wouldn’t let him go. Matt, not used to such overt expressions of affection, reciprocated hesitantly, but I could see that he was also greatly relieved and extremely happy with the profuse welcome. After a while, Steve noticed me, apologised for his lapse in hospitality, introduced himself as Matt’s best friend and invited me into his house.

He introduced me to his wife Marie, and then to his six months old daughter. Marie said “hi” to the both of us and went back to the kitchen. From the smells wafting from the kitchen, it appeared that she was cooking up a feast in honour of Matt’s visit. I made myself comfortable on their Sofa while Steve was bringing Matt up to speed on all that had happened since they last met. Matt was listening to him with rapt attention and one could see that everything was getting back to as it should be between two childhood friends.

While they were catching up, I took my time to give the place a once over. The house we were in was a study in contrast. It was one of a row of single storey, single bedroom tenements that had seen better days. The furniture in the hall consisted of a faux-leather sofa set with cracks in the upholstery, a small cane tea table with some nails sticking out, a wooden dining table with a tattered plastic table cover and four mismatched chairs. In the bedroom, I could see from where I was sitting, two mattresses on the floor and no other furniture. It was as though somebody had pieced together everything at a garage sale. However, there was also an extremely large, and clearly new television set connected to a dish antenna. In addition, a large bowl of fruits dominated the dining table, and the fridge, I noticed when Marie opened it to take something out, was well stocked with lots of meat and other good stuff. On the tea table were a lot of magazines including the latest editions of Time and Newsweek.

From overhearing some of the conversation between Steve and Matt, I gleaned that the church was paying for all this and it looked like, though the church didn’t care too much for appearances, it was making sure Steve and his family had all the creature comforts that they desired.

After a while, the little baby started crying and Steve went into the bedroom to make her sleep. Subsequently, excusing himself, Steve joined his wife in the kitchen, leaving us to amuse ourselves. I started browsing through the magazines while Matt grabbed the remote to see what was on TV. The remote was a battered piece of metal, probably having received rough treatment in the hands of the baby. Its battery cover was missing and the batteries were practically dead. It would work once or twice and then stop working. Matt would then slap it repeatedly and twirl the batteries to give it an additional two clicks of life. While we were thus engaged, Steve, being the good host, would peek out of the kitchen every now and then and try and engage Matt is some conversation.

All that unaccustomed talking must have tired out Matt. Soon he was lolling on the sofa with the usual glazed look on his face while he continued mindlessly changing channels. I watched him for a few seconds, happy that normal services had resumed and went back to my magazine. A few minutes later, my attention was rudely drawn by some moaning sounds from the TV. I looked up to see on TV two voluptuous women soaping each other under the shower. I quickly turned to Matt, who was as usual in some other world and hissed “Matt! Change the channel quickly!”. Startled thus, Matt jumped up like a jack in the box. He frantically pressed the buttons on the remote but nothing happened. Exasperated, he then gave it a hard slap. Too hard, unfortunately, for remote jerked out of his hand and crashed to the floor. The case flew to one side while the batteries ejected and rolled under the Sofa. Matt stood there transfixed in the middle of the room, with his mouth agape, looking alternately at me and towards the kitchen, while the moaning and soaping continued unabated. For once, I had my wits about me and I quickly jumped and pulled the TV plug out of the socket. Thankfully, Steve and Marie seemed not to have noticed anything and we let out a collective sigh of relief.

A few minutes later Marie announced that lunch was ready. Steve set the table and brought out a veritable feast, including rice, chicken curry, beef pepper fry, sambar, rasam and the works. I thoroughly enjoyed myself though Matt appeared a little preoccupied, probably still thinking about the near disaster. After lunch, while Steve and Marie were clearing the table, Matt thanked me profusely for my quick reaction. I brushed aside his compliments, saying it was nothing and that anyway we were all adults and Steve looked like a grounded guy and would not have made a big deal of it. Besides, I pointed out with a laugh, I had only switched off the TV and in all probability when they switched it on again, the same channel would be playing, and they would find out anyway. I thought he would see the funny side of it, but Matt’s face turned ashen. When I gently admonished him for making a big issue of nothing, he said that I didn’t know Steve and that he might tell the people in their parish back home that Matt watched such programs and tarnish his spotless reputation.

Though not entirely convinced, I tried looking for the power switch of the dish antenna to solve the problem once and for all, but couldn’t spot it. Matt in the meanwhile I noticed was getting increasingly agitated. So in order pacify him I half-jokingly offered, “Don’t worry. If he does go back and tell everyone, just tell them it was me doing the watching and not you”. Matt shook his head vehemently and stated categorically that he couldn’t possibly do such an awful thing as to put the blame on me.

Before we could contemplate the next line of action, Steve and Marie joined us in the hall having completed their kitchen work. “I hope you are staying with us”, said Steve. Now that I had met Steve, I was actually quite comfortable with this idea and was about to nod my head in the affirmative when much to my surprise Matt abruptly announced that we had already booked a room closer to the centre of Stockholm as that would help us see more of the city within the short span of our stay. Though disappointed, Steve was gracious and agreed that was also a good idea. After a few more minutes, Matt suggested that we leave and so we bid farewell to the Steves and left their place.

Once we left their house, not wanting him to get worked up again, I confessed to Matt that I had already booked a room in the heart of the city, just in case, and we could go there. He seemed relieved. As the evening progressed, Matt seemed to become more and more relaxed and he was back to his normal self by the end of the day. The rest of the trip turned out great and we returned to Copenhagen with wonderful memories.

A few years later, Matt got married. I attended his wedding reception and got introduced to his pretty wife. I asked if Steve was around, wanting to say “hello”. Matt informed me that Steve wasn’t there as he had not been invited. He further told me that they were no longer on speaking terms. “Just as I predicted,…”, he started, when his mother joined us. He stopped whatever he was saying in mid-sentence and introduced me as his close friend and ex-colleague. She hugged me affectionately and said it was good to meet one of Matt’s few close friends and asked me for my name. When I mentioned it, she turned to Matt and asked, “Is he the one who went to Denmark and Stockholm with you?”. Matt started saying “Yes…” and then looked guiltily at me. Having got her answer, his mother then glared at me and turned away as though someone else had caught her attention. Not wanting the embarrass Matt on his wedding day, I pretended as though I had not noticed anything amiss. I congratulated Matt once again on his marriage, wished the newlyweds all the very best and left.

But I knew that he knew that I knew that he had, after all, acted on my suggestion offered half-jokingly so many years ago.

Day 3 – To Mt. Bulusan and back March 21, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
3 comments

Part III.  You can read Part I and Part II here.

The vegetarians in the group definitely knew that getting food without meat and fish in the Philippines was going to be a challenge. But the fact that the Filipinos ate rice, upto 4 times a day, somehow seemed to lull them into a false sense of security. “After all”, they seemed to think, “if steamed rice is available, how difficult would it be to find some Sambar, Rasam or an equivalent vegetarian curry?”. The truthful answer is “Not easy, my friend, not easy at all”.

breakfastThe food problem came to the fore the day we woke up in Villa Amada. There was a brief knock on our door at six in the morning. Still half asleep I went and opened the door to find a pretty young thing sporting a dazzling smile with our breakfast. Two plates, each with a serving of rice, a fried egg sunny side up and two small sausages presented neatly. A typical Filipino breakfast served in the room because Villa Amada did not have a separate dining area. I quietly accepted the plates, thanked her and then placed the plates on the one tiny table in the room. Despite being a meat eater, I could not bring myself to eat rice and sausages so early in the morning. My wife, being vegetarian, refused to even look at the plate. The plates remained where I had left them, untouched till we checked out, at which point in time, having spied a train of ants converging on the plates, I moved them into the corridor.

In our defense, we had ordered only one breakfast and when they described it as eggs, sausages and orange juice, I had assumed that it would come with toast, butter and preservatives.

Filipinos do eat rice for practically every meal. Most often with some dry meat or fish by the side. And unlike us Indians,  they don’t need any curry or gravy to go with it. Once in a while, as a concession, they may have a few drops of soy sauce or adobo sauce to go with the rice. Not bad at all once you get used to it, but definitely not what an Indian rice eater would want.

Anyway, we made do with some peanut butter sandwiches that morning while we waited for a couple of more of our family members to join us in Legaspi (they flew in a day later, from Manila).

June, at the wheels of our van, arrived at 8:00 AM sharp as planned. We then went to the airport, picked up the new arrivals and drove on to Sorsogon City. We had not booked any rooms in Sorsogon city either, though we had checked the net and found 3-4 options. Not finding too many useful reviews on TripAdvisor, we hadn’t been sure about the quality of the accommodations available in Sorsogon and hence had decided to wing it.

fernandosThe one and half hour drive was pleasant and the gentle banter between the occupants of the UrVan ensured that we reached the outskirts of Sorsogon before long. Our first stop was a place called Fernandos. It was a budget hotel with decent reviews. We went in, found the place to our liking, and more importantly  found rooms available and checked in immediately. The rooms were clean and neat, the rates eminently affordable and the service, as usual, excellent. The hotel had a spacious sitting area with an adjoining garden abuzz with bees and birds which added a lot of character to it.

There was a nice pizzeria across the road and we hoped to grab a quick bite before heading towards Mt. Bulusan. The food turned out to be great, but the service a little slow so by the time we came out, more than half the day was gone. Nevertheless, we charted a circuit around Mt. Bulusan, the volcano that had erupted only recently, and set out immediately. We were told that we may not be able to go too close to the volcano due to safety regulations, but since we weren’t planning to, we were not too worried. We had two destinations in mind for the day, the Mateo hot springs and the Bulusan lake which was home to several birds including kingfishers, fruit doves, trogons, and hornbills.

mateo

Half-naked, and happy in the hot springs

We took the south bound AH26 called the Pan-Philippine highway and traveled counter-clockwise down to the Mateo Hot and Cold Spring Resort first. We paid a nominal entrance fee, hired a hut, asked for the senior citizen discount for the two senior citizens in our group, which we didn’t get as senior citizen discount were only for Filipinos, and got ready for the dip. There were 4 pools, one marked hot, another marked lukewarm and the rest without too much water in them. The one marked hot turned out to be very pleasant and the clean water was a pleasure to swim in. Even though the water was coming from somewhere under Mt. Bulusan, there was no smell of sulfur, typical of such hot water springs. It was with great reluctance that we came out of the water an hour later as otherwise we would not have been able to reach lake Bulusan before it got dark.

lake bulusanA half-hour drive from there took us to the beautiful lake Bulusan. The large lake is surrounded by dense jungle and is home to several colourful birds. Unfortunately, we had only about an hour of sunlight left, and much to our disappointment, could only manage to rush headlong around the short trail, with the diminutive guide setting a terrific pace, bent on ensuring that we went to the end of the trail and back before sundown. We heard a few bird calls, posed for photos on the yet-to-be completed canopy walk, and spotted one heron at a distance before it got dark and we had to move on, secretly promising ourselves that we would be back again soon.

We drove along the coastline, through Bulusan, Barcelona, Rizal beach, and Gubat back to Sorsogon city. Along the way we caught glimpses of beautiful churches but could not halt as it was already dark. We thought of stopping along the way at some restaurant for some fresh seafood, but were told that eating in strange places in the province would turn us into vampires. As it turned out, we did not notice any restaurants along the way, leaving the vampire story untested. We had also planned to visit the Panguriran beach and island resort, the photos of which had looked inviting, but due to the paucity of time we couldn’t. “Next time, then”, became the catch-phrase of the day.

porkchopsAt Sorsogon city, we found a nice restaurant that served Bicol express, another local specialty that we had wanted to try, while the vegetarians found some salads and veg curries to their liking. It was nice watching the vegetarians worm their way into the hearts of the hospitable chefs and get dishes to their liking.

The rest of us, a few San Miguels down, and after having demolished some succulent pork ribs, some squid and lots of adobo, were left wondering why there were no Filipino restaurants around the world!

Day 2 – To Legazpi March 18, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines, Uncategorized.
6 comments

Part II.  Read part I here.

legaspi_airport_panorama

Legazpi Airport.  Photo: Bhaskar Dattatri.

Philippines, surprisingly, is not on the tourist map. After having been there and back, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why.

When we first told friends that we were going to the Philippines, it was like playing a word association game. One set of friends raised their eyebrows quizzically when they heard about our plans as though to ask “what’s there in the Philippines that is not there in Phuket or Pattaya?”. The ones that regularly traveled on business scrunched up their noses and said “Traffic Jams”. The tourist-y kind nodded knowingly and enquired rhetorically “Boracay uh?”, as though that was the only option. Was that all there was to the Philippines, we wondered.

When we searched the net, again there were only 3 destinations that cropped up regularly – the terraced rice fields at Banaue, the beaches at Boracay and the island of Palawan, apart from Manila, of course. We dug a little deeper and found Donsol where one could swim with the whale sharks. The rest of the Philippines, if we were to believe what was, or was not, on the net, might as have been unexplored territory! So we rolled up our sleeves and went where no one ever goes – beyond page 10 of the google search results. That’s when we discovered Bicol.

Bicol had everything we wanted, from smaller cities, villages, lakes, forests and bird sanctuaries to beaches, scuba diving and whale shark watching. And volcanoes. Not one, but two. Not dormant, but active. Not just active, but gurgling and spewing. Mt. Bulusan, in the heart of Bicol region had last erupted on 23rd of Feb 2016, just about 10 days before our trip. Its gentle cough had sent up a plume of smoke and ash to a height of over 500 meters! A Filipino blogger called Bicol a hidden gem, and we were smitten.

The early morning CebuPacific flight from Manila to Legaspi city was uneventful. The flight, which was the second for the day in that sector, was full and we were among the few foreigners. No food was served, but the air hostesses sported genuine smiles. They also had a nice trick up their sleeve. Instead of informing us about all the sectors CebuPacific covered (as part of their marketing spiel), they conducted a short quiz with prizes for passengers who could name 4 foreign destinations of CebuPacific or 3 local destinations, etc. I thought it was a considerate and engaging way of disseminating marketing information.

Legaspi airport turned out to be scenic, tiny, bright and airy, and well maintained with an unhindered view of Mt. Mayon. Our 12-seater Nissan UrVan  was there waiting for us, with June at the wheels. We piled in and drove around looking for a hotel to stay in. After a couple of false stops we finally found a decent place with clean rooms in the heart of the city. The hotel, Villa Amada, was right above the 1st Colonial Grill famous for its Sili ice cream. Unfortunately, we missed having it. Very silly of us, I must admit.

legaspi_porkIt was past noon by then so we checked in and immediately went to a mall for lunch. Some of us went to a Chinese restaurant while the rest raided a pizza joint looking for vegetarian fare. The pork and broccoli dish was delectable. In the spirit of adventure and experimentation, I had a San Miguel apple flavoured beer for the first and last time.

legaspi_cagsawaAfter lunch we went to the Cagsawa ruins, the remnants of an 18th century Fanciscan church surrounded by paddy fields with Mt. Mayon as a backdrop. Mt Mayon, like most volcanoes, loomed over an otherwise flat landscape with just its tip hidden behind a tiny wisp of clouds. Very scenic and peaceful despite a number of fellow tourists, mostly Filipinos, milling around. We had buko juice (coconut water), bought and ate honey coated pilinuts, a local delicacy (melted in our mouth) and waited as the ladies browsed through each of the 20-odd almost identical shops with identical merchandise.  While waiting, a large group of friendly Filipinos wanted me to take some photos of them using 4-5 of their phones.  I obliged and answered their questions on where I was from.  One of them, a sailor, was thrilled to hear that I was from Chennai, India.  Apparently he had a lot of colleagues from Chennai.  He taught the others to greet me in Tamil and they all shouted “Vanakkam” in unison before departing.

From there we went to Ligñon hill which afforded a wonderful view of the city of Legaspi on one side and Mt. Mayon on the other. From the viewpoint we noticed a small airfield and wondered why such a small city had an airport and an airfield before we realized that the tiny airfield was the airport we had landed on earlier in the day. We also spotted a few birds including what we thought was a Philippine Bulbul, which sent our Filipina relatives into fits of uncontrollable giggling. Apparently, bulbul was Tagalog slang for a female body part. There was just so much to learn.

It got dark pretty early, by around 5:30 PM, and so the rest of the evening we spent walking around Legaspi city. We bought some fruits at the open market, ogled at the colourful jeepnies and scouted around for a place to have dinner. We were again surprised to note that we were among the few foreigners in the city that day. There were quite a number of money changers in the city which we initially thought was suggestive of sizable tourist traffic. However, we noticed that most of those transacting there were locals, so we guessed that these exchanges were mostly catering to locals to help them convert the foreign exchange coming from their expat relatives.

This was another observation that brought home the fact that Filipinos were unfailingly cheerful, courteous and kind not because the tourism trade demanded it, but because that is their true nature. That’s just the way they are.

How can one not fall in love with people like that?!

First impressions of Philippines March 17, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
19 comments

Part I of a series.

traffic_manilaI had had no plans for a holiday, definitely not one to the Philippines. But destiny had other ideas and there I was flying into the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on a bright Wednesday morning.

As I leaned over my wife and peered through the aircraft window, I saw the Pasig river and the much blacker San Juan river winding their way through Metro Manila. What appeared to be tin-roofed tenements on both banks reminded me of the slums near the Cooum. The houses were tightly packed interspersed with patches of greenery. I could not help but think that Manila could very well be a twin of Chennai.

The airport turned out to be not much bigger, but cleaner and brighter. More like the Hyderabad airport than Chennai’s, though definitely not like Changi or Heathrow. The airport officials like their counterparts around the world were grim faced and unsmiling. Just like in Chennai, the signs and directions at the airport left a lot to be desired and the airport security guards though better dressed, appeared just as surly and unhelpful as their Indian brethren. Consequently it was a good while before we could spot family members who had come to pick us up.

Having been ensconced in air-conditioning for over 12 hours, the heat hit us as we exited the airport. The temperature and humidity levels were almost identical to what we are used to in Chennai, though maybe the sky was marginally bluer and the sun a wee bit sharper. Luckily, we were back in air-conditioned comfort once we boarded the Toyota Innova that has come to take us to our accommodations.

The initial part of the drive from the airport reinforced the impression that Manila was just like Chennai. Construction of flyovers and subways appeared to be in full swing and there were mounds of construction debris piled alongside the roads. Thick and ugly strands of wires and cables hung between electrical post like last year’s forgotten festoons. The traffic was horrendous and progress slow. Pedestrians dodged traffic in their quest to reach the other side of the road. The same models of vehicles that we find in India, the Hyundai i10s, Innovas and Fortuners were vying for space on 2- and 4-lane roads. It was only the American style Pickup trucks, the colourful jeepnies and the auto-rickshaw-like tricycles that reminded us that this was not Chennai.

A while later we passed through the central business district, Makati. By then, we had begun to notice some significant differences.

Despite the heavy traffic, there was no honking. Our driver appeared unflustered and patient and stuck to his lane. When he did switch lanes, the other drivers gave way gracefully. Nobody swore or showed the middle finger. A few motorbikes weaved their way in and out of traffic, but otherwise everyone appeared disciplined in their driving and considerate to other road users.

As for the trash on the roads, apart from the construction debris, not much else was there to be seen. No pieces of paper or plastic bags flying around, no overflowing bins, and definitely no stray dogs running around tearing Styrofoam cartons apart. Manila appeared clean. Not clean like Singapore is, where there is always someone sweeping and swabbing right behind you all the time, but clean in a “people are naturally clean and don’t litter” kind of way. The heart of Metro Manila’s Makati region, where most of the larger banks and offices are located, had wide green spaces, neat tall buildings and looked almost as shiny and new as parts of Singapore.

Within an hour of landing in Manila, we realized that any resemblance between Chennai and Manila was merely illusory. Manila may be just as crowded as Indian metros, but it was leagues ahead of our cities in terms of cleanliness and civility.

The more we saw of Manila and the rest of the Luzon island over the next few days, the more visible these fundamental differences became. I tried to placate myself by thinking that India’s population pressures were the reason for the stark differences. However, a cursory search on population and demographics quickly blew this theory away. Though Philippines has one-tenth of India’s population, it’s land mass is also considerably smaller. so, in terms of population density, India and the Philippines are not far apart, India ranking 31st with 376 people per square kilometer while the Philippines comes in at no.34 with 359 people per square kilometer. So definitely, population was not the reason for the differences.

So what makes Manila cleaner and kinder? It could be the GDP and literacy levels. There is a yawning gap between the two countries with Philippines way ahead of us. Their GDP is nearly double ours and their literacy levels are well above 94% while we are still languishing in the mid-60s. Maybe the homogeneity of the population – culturally, ethnically and economically – helps. May be the government is more efficient.

Or, it could just be the attitude of people.