Saturday, May 30, 2009

Remembering Mang Sulping and His Eglise Saint-Sulpice (Paris)

Some years back, I got stranded in Madrid, but under dire circumstances, it became a blessing disguised as a ruse - to teach me a few things. The situation allowed me to roam the Iberian lands while I re-processed several visas (Schengen, Denmark, UK). I had the privilege to get acquainted with several Filipinos who embraced me whole-heartedly. I’d wake up in the morning with home-cooked Pinoy dish laid before my breakfast table. I’d find delicacies and “gifts” waiting at my room. As weeks stretched by, I was inundated with stories of heart break, of longing, and of broken dreams. I was humbled.

Facade of Eglise Saint-Sulpice. This photo only courtesy of and minuk.

One gentle soul was a guy everyone called Mang Sulping (aka Sulpicio). Along with other “problematic” cases, Mang Sulping inhabited the OWWA center in downtown Madrid. During lazy moments, the old man of 72 would find his way beside me, regaling me with stories – epics of his past. There would be unwelcome anecdotes of his trysts with men (he was gay), but these were mostly told when he forgets himself. Most times, these stories were his chronological adventures from being an assistant chef in Paris, although details were sketchy why he was reduced to washing dishes and taking out the trash. Just as several Pinoys living in Europe, life was never easy for Mang Sulping. For one, he wasn’t exactly middle-aged when he started his so-called adventure.

“There was nothing left for me (in the Philippines),” he recalled. So he would rather seek the greener pastures of a very alienating foreign land. “But things are looking up,” he would smile. He told me that in a couple of months, he would get a call that would have him earning again. He would flash an earnest smile, his eyes closing into a delightful slit, his voice brimming with excitement. I was hopeful and glad for him. But another OWWA habitué, Aling Lydia, would whisper: “He’s been saying that for a year now.”

This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's beckstet.

I cannot exactly recall how he came to Madrid. Paris is a long way from Spain. I just recall a couple of nights before I headed back to London (via Paris). He knocked on my door and we sat in front of an old television. He would annotate about this TV host (presenter) and some other guests, as I obediently waited. I knew he wanted to tell me something. He moved closer to me, and tapped my knee. The grey hair on his head glistened like fruits of wisdom. “You know, when I first stepped into Europe, the first place I wanted to visit was a church named like my name - Eglise Saint-Sulpice (St. Sulpice Church). Things happened and I never got around to visiting it. But I vowed that if I ever make something of myself; that if I ever find happiness, I will find my way back to thank God. But I was never able to set foot at my church.”

Then he continued, “When you get back to Paris, will you please visit St. Sulpice, and please say a prayer of thanks for me?” I nodded and something in me stirred. Before I headed back to my room, he joked, “One day, you will write about me.”

A few days later, as my Rapido train ended a 14 hour journey at a Montparnasse station in Paris, I deposited my backpack at a hostel, then began the search for Eglise Saint Sulpice. It wasn’t hard to find. I remembered walking through the Garden of Luxembourg then asking a jovial police man, who directed me around this fashionable neighborhood until I finally found the late-baroque church, cordoned by a Visconti fountain at its façade.

Unlike the “more popular”
Notre Dame Cathedtral, there were no crowds – and every corner of the interiors was mind-numbingly impressive. I sheepishly stepped inside. This disarming beauty took more than 130 years to finish. And sometimes you feel so insignificant when surrounded by immense beauty. I am far from being the most religious person in the world, but I do believe. I believe without a doubt in my mind that when I pray, somebody hears, and sometimes, little dreams turn into reality. As I looked around me, I knelt and offered my thanks for whatever it was Mang Sulping was thankful for. For happiness? Who knows. Who can decipher the keys to happiness? I was awash with emotion as I realized the gravity of realizing someone else’s dream. It felt like such a privilege.

Little did I know that Paris’ 2nd biggest church (the Catholic religion doesn’t allow more than one cathedral within a city – thus the grandeur of St. Sulpice cannot be named as a cathedral) would later become more popular through
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Upon my return to London, I sent Mang Sulping a postcard, telling him of my visit to his church.

I never got a reply.

Sometimes I wonder what has become of Mang Sulping.

And though this isn’t a popular daily tabloid, nor an autobiographical novel, I have finally written about Mang Sulping as he prophetically told me.

Mang Sulping, I wish you happiness wherever you are.

The pulpit. This photo only courtesy of gryffindor.

This photo only courtesy of and olivier ffrench.

This photo only courtesy of and Mr. Jean Ruaud.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Myanmar from the Top of the World - A Road Trip

There are places in the world where comfort won't take you.

My friends always kid me about my travels; that I choose rough and tumble over comfortable travel. But if comfort was my goal, I wouldn’t even have to leave the “comforts” of my room! I will grow a tummy and sport a beard and pick my teeth while watching dvds in my temperature-controlled room.

Yangon - a city living with the past

My travels have made me realize what a charmed life I’ve had. I am in fact a prince in my own little world; in my third-world existence. But there are places in the world far from the comforts of life as you know it - surreal places.

Like the back of a motorbike, with a gush of wind blowing against my face, combing my hair in bellows and random directions. I never ride motorbikes in my country. It is such a misplaced thought.
Like the humps at the back of a camel (see photo way down below).

Like the top of a minibus, with cargoes and men surrounding me. (below)

My seat up there...

A road trip outside Yangon (the former capital of Myanmar) – 2 hours of unbridled adrenaline rush – at least, for me, it was – didn’t prepare me to be sitting on top of a mini-bus. I was initially indignant about it. But minutes later, I clambered up the rails and plopped comfortably at the roof of my vehicle. I held tight to the side rails, almost crushing my fist with the gravity of a powerful grip. But as the vehicle slid past people, places, and anonymous temples and life at a distant corner of the world, I relaxed. I even managed to carefully take snaps from where I was – from the top of my world.

There are new places that a cloistered life won’t take me, and from such a vantage point at the top of a rundown minibus, I see the world in a different perspective.

National Highway, Myanmar

The countryside reveals places not in guidebooks...

Unnamed temples by the road side.

Toll gate

A scene at a rural market near Taukkyan. Notice the men wearing those skirt-like longyi.

Thanaka painted on children's faces... An american lady argued with me regarding the use of thanaka. She insisted that it was exclusively used by females - supposedly to make themselves beautiful. THIS photo is proof that she was speaking based on hot air! To think she supposedly went around the country! Either she was dreaming while going around or she closed her eyes most of time while visiting! Thanaka has several uses: cosmetic, cultural reasons and comfort - they feel cool to the face (like how a menthol feels in your tongue). They also protect the skin against the harsh sun.

So if you are reading this, I enjoin you to travel! Get out of your comfort zone. Step into anywhere new, exciting, peculiar, strange and unnerving. There is a huge world out there waiting for you.

Meander a curious corner of the world and see it like an
Eye in the Sky.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Nyaung U Township Bagan - A Scene at a Restaurant

Burmese meal. Don't be surprised when ordering just a single entree then getting all these side dishes along. Everything is part of your Burmese gastronomic experience. And they like them sour - not chilly! Which is fine with me!

Cute 2 year old Burmese child playing with a straw. There is still window time left to cure his gaze deviation.

Characters: A tall blond British girl and her backpacking posse of 4, me, a Burmese family of 6 (a 20-something girl who waits at the tables, her sister who helps serve the orders, an 8 year old boy and his 2 year old brother who’s sucking on a straw-string, a septuageranian lady and her even older husband)

Right after deciding on a Burmese meal, I entertained myself talking to the children. The older one was provoking the cute, albeit strabismic 2 year old. He kept pulling on the string that the toddler was playing.

There was sheer delight on the table as my full-course Burmese meal started to arrive. I knew I ordered a single entrée, but plate after plate after plate of side dishes queued in front of me. This was going to be a feast.

Enter the
white mafia. What an endearing British girl, with her Irish mates, I mentally noted. She started to stand and began checking out the graduation photos on the wall. This has been a characteristic feature of the Burmese countryside. Business establishments decked with graduation and family photos – like they were personal mini-museums.
British Girl (BG): Is that you? (She talks loudly to one of the Burmese ladies, as she points to the latter’s graduation photo. She enunciates every syllable, making sure she gets heard and understood.) What de-gree did you fee-nish?
Myanmar Girl (MG): *&^%* (I couldn’t hear her well, as she was speaking with the faintest voice.)
BG: Oh. You’re ve-rry ve-rry smart! How many de-grees did you fee-nish?
MG: Two. (She sheepishly tugs at the her long hair and looks behind her, to where her sister was sitting.)
BG: Aww. You’re ve-rry ve-rry pretty. You are ve-rry ve-rry wit-ttee.
Me: slurppp…. munch … munch…. (Thinking, what an adorable british girl giving these locals such superlative compliments)

BG sees the elder woman walk through the door from the backroom. She raises her voice to include her in the conversation.
BG: Are you their sis-terrr?
Myanmar Grandma (MG): I am grandmother.
BG: Awwww. You look so young! I thought you were their sis-terrr! (She looked 70. The younger ladies looked 20! They grinned at her thick douche of compliments.)
Me: Slurrppp… slurrrpppp… slurppp….. (Though I was obviously enjoying my feast, my digestive constitution was acting up differently. I was feeling the bolus of masticated food churning back up… refluxing!)
BG: Is he your son? (She points to the 2 year old, as she talks to the grandma. At this point, their grin seemed to have slipped into perplexity. If she said she was the girls’ grandma, that would make the 2-year old her great grandson, wouldn’t it?)

As if slapped with a judicious case of misplaced flattery, the Burmese family retreated to their backdoor.
BG flips her ponytail and heads back to her table where her mates sit wide-eyed and mum.
BG: Is our order ready?
Excuse me if I barf!

Being friendly doesn’t mean you have the license to cajole and patronize the locals. Ignorance of the English language after all does not constitute stupidity – or there would be millions of stupid people walking all over Europe. Sometimes, a simple smile is enough to let them know you mean well. Otherwise, sheer garrulousness sans deliberation will only spotlight your imprudence.

This is the Eye in the Sky summoning my digestive tract back to its normal peristaltic movement.

Display items. They have the cola equivalents: Max for Coke, Quench for Sprite, Crush for Royal Tru-Orange at just 300 kyat a piece (sometimes even just 200 kyat). Since a government agency owns these local cola plants, they made the likes of Coke and Sprite rather expensive - at 800 to 1,200 kyat a can (no bottles - so no contest at all!). Coke in can will fetch a minimum of about PhP35 or more. Personally, it was hard to get myself to buy anything that I know is 50% cheaper back home... so Quench and Max were fine with me. They almost taste the same, but being a Coke-lover, come on...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Shwedagon Pagoda and Alienation in Yangon Burma

Spires and stupas of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon skyline. This photo only courtesy of Jean-Marie Hullot.

Shwedagon Pagoda grounds. This photo only courtesy of flickr's MikeRussia.

Shadows and lights. This photo only courtesy of dwstein.

Night time awe. This spectacular photo courtesy of dr. sithu win.

At a travel forum prior to this travel, I mentioned that if there was only one place to visit in Myanmar, Bagan and its temples would be the no-brainer. Another traveller agreed but he would have to add the Shwedagon Pagoda if there were only two places to visit.

The Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon) is Myanmar's most revered place of worship. A $5 foreigner's entrance is all worth it. From atop the mount, there are temples all around. It's easy to get humbled by the grandiose beauty of this sacred paya. Of particular interest to buddhist followers was a temple section where prayers, incense and flowers were offered. It was an octagonal (8-sided) temple. Each side represented the 8 days of the Burmese Buddhist calendar - where Wednesday is further subdivided into two separate days: Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon, don't ask me why. You needed to be aware of the particular day you were born so you can make offerings on that side of the temple. This is supposed to dispense blessings and luck. I was born on a Thursday (I checked beforehand), so I just offered a silent prayer nearby since I couldn't find my specific side of the octagon. Everything was written in Burmese.

Needless to say, the view of the city skyline was awe-inspiring.

I was also missing a good bit of civilization - of an email acount that has all the complete features - instead of the very basic wap-based skeleton; I missed the beep of my mobile, or withdrawing money from ATM; abusing the endless possibility of my credit cards, and of course, directly sending and receiving messages from family and friends. I miss the smell of my car, my room back home, and the frosty cineplex of Manila or Bangkok. It can feel a bit constricting; alienating, like being in Pluto with "Clouds Across the Moon" blaring at a nearby speaker.

I will be hopping with glee once I step into Suvarnabhumi.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sunset in Bagan and Bupaya's Pineapple-shaped Temple

Bupaya Temple in Old Bagan. This photo only courtesy of

Bagan's temples. Just a few of the 2,000+ temples in Bagan. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's MurrayJ3.

I knew I had to hire a horse-drawn cart for another ride on my last day in Bagan.

If I gave up too early the first time because of the harsh sun, this time I made the decision to start my temple visits at 3:30 PM. My main destination was a temple beside the Ayeyarwaddy River - and the sunset view of the spires. I needed the illusion of water. Bagan was just too hot and too dry during the summer. Though I have compromised my budget by taking another round with the temples, a visit from Bupaya Temple made it all worth the effort and money! There is nothing like a pineapplie-shaped temple gleaming furtively beside a wind-swept river. From the distance across the river was a sand dune, blowing grains off like sand storm - it was fascinating. It seemed I was the only one to notice this. The riverbank was dotted with long boats lazily parked at the jetty down below, floating calmly over Ayeyarwaddy's strong current.

When the sun started to set at the horizon, Bagan's skyline turned luscious orange and hues in between. There was nothing like ambient light - the existing light before darkness enveloped the sun-kissed terrain - to stoke my imagination.

It was beautiful.

And this is the Eye in the Sky in absolute awe.