Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Cave of Sittanavasal Hill - Monks' Retreat at the Fringes of Pudokottai, Tamil Nadu (India)

Somewhere in nowhereland called Trichy in South India, I decided to head deeper into the desolate plains 38 kilometers by bus to Pudokottai. Pushing the so-called envelope, I hopped into another bus and traveled 20 kilometers further. I was forewarned by my readings never to head into Sittanavassal alone. There were anecdotes of muggings on solitary visitors and these fleetingly gave me goosebumps. However, goosebumps never stopped me before. That late afternoon, I found one of the last buses bound for Sittanavasal for the day, albeit my last chance to discover for myself a road less taken in that area.

I wasn't going to town. But to an outlying cave turned into a temple.

It was late. The sun had graduallly slid in the horizon; its existing light providing a hypnagogic overlay in the surroundings. I asked the driver's assistant to inform me when I am in the area already. Then I hopped out of the bus and found myself morbidly alone on a steppe with nothing but shrubs, rice paddies, a pond littered with lotuses, and from a distance a hill with a cave - the Cave of Sittanavasal Hill.

I walked up the hill to find a cave where meditating monks take shelter. There was no elaborate temple to speak of. The famous Sittanavasal Jain Temple is located elsewhere at the town proper further north. This was just an empty cave on a considerable elevation, with a breath-taking view of the green valley below.

En route to the cliff, I heard voices. I realized I was not alone. I had mixed feeling about this, anxious even. They could be the heel and anti-heroes I was duly warned about - and I could be in trouble! Or they could be hospitable locals. I crossed my fingers. And guess what: six Tamil students were on their way to visit the cave temple. I gainfully acquired 6 new friends and protectors who acted as though I was a guest in their own abode. In principle, I was. More than anything, I was thanking the heavens to be in their kind company in the midst of the distant heath.

"Sittanavasal", the conspicuously tongue-twisting term, is a word play of a Tamil word that meant "abode of great saints". Sittanavasal Cave - aka "Arivar Kovil" - has a long and rich history behind it. Try 7th century, when it had been ascribed as a Jain Temple; a marbly rock west of the stony mound, excavated in a bluff. The monks (with nothing but their robes) would sit, cogitate and sleep on the slippery floor of the cave - to meditate, pray for enlightenment and attain nirvana. Unfortunately for me, the cave was deserted at the time of visit. I couldn't get near the interiors said to be inundated with fresco-secco art. There were protective bars probably meant to discourage prospective vandals.

The hike up the hill wasn't a walk in the park. In no time, I was drenched in my own perspiration. In contrast, my new found friends didn't even break into a sweat. How embarrassing!

There were minor concavities and colorful altars of elephants, horses and goats nearby. The sprawl of the fields yielded not a single dwelling. The place felt like a "wild south" if there ever was one in India. By the time we got back to the deserted highway to wait for our bus, the last few gasps of sunlight have but dissipated into the darkness.

I rode back in introspective silence towards Pudokottai to catch my night bus back to Trichy. There was something immensely satisfying with what just transpired. As an added bonus, the guys - who were still practically strangers - decided to pay for my bus fare. For all intents and purposes, I am far from being a pauper, but financial capacity hardly plays into the hospitality of people or their generous culture. How's that for an all-inclusive adventure? How lucky could I get?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

View from the rocky cliff - the western plain of Sittanavasal Hill.

Well polished stone beds or Ezhadippattam (aka Jaina beds) used by Jaina ascetics. There are Tamil Brahmi inscriptions (as well as vandalisms) written on these rock beds. On one of these beds, sallekhana - "fasting unto death" - has been performed. Ouch.
My protectors, guide and friends from Pudokottai.

The climb up this slippery, uneven hill to get to the westward cave.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

On a Slow Boat to Dallah (Myanmar)

It's a 10-minute boat ride from the Pansodan Road jetty in Yangon (Rangoon). This takes you to a small village called Dallah in Myanmar.

While there's nothing to see in Dallah, but for a small temple and the ramshackle eateries by the riverine bay, it's the very short ferry ride across Yangon River that takes the cake for such interest. Foreigners need to show their passport to secure a $1 ticket at a ticket booth solely servicing foreign tourists. Otherwise, its just a measly 30 kyats ("chats") for the locals. A dollar is equivalent to 975 Myanmar kyats.

On board, there are children's seats you could rent for 5 kyats but who would bother? There are ambulant vendors too. I just walked around, checking out the scenario around me. Yangon River doesn't feel any different from the more substantial Ayeyarwady River, Burma's major riverway, also spelled "Irrawady", "Ayarwady" or the Hindi term "Irawati". It takes the color of mud, carries similar influence, and is a considerable lifeline for people living near the banks.

Red fishing boats waited just right across in Dallah. It somehow suggested a sudden halt, like "Stop - there's nothing further!" Thirty minutes later, I was back in Yangon. Back in a land where time stopped ticking 30 to 40 years ago.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Shops at Mactan Cebu International Airport Pre-Departure Area (Updated August 2014)

Mactan Cebu International Airport’s (MCIA) domestic predeparture area has been sanitized. Those tacky “stalls” that used to hinder manual flow right in the middle of the hallway have been removed paving to more seats. Those little shopping stalls once competed for space, giving the atmosphere its unnecessary clutter a la tiangge, and when you’re flying out of town, you don’t want this chaotic surrounding. Most modern airports in fact prioritize a relaxing atmosphere over exceeding commerce.

Of course they have to do something about the congestion at Gate # 5 where I usually embark out since this gate hosts most Cebu Pacific flights to Manila and Davao. Sometimes, Kalibo-bound flights find their way here instead of the more central gates 1 to 4 at the main hallway. Gate # 5 has nothing in terms of shops or conveniences. It’s really just a waiting area.

 At the main hallway, there’s the Tablea Chocolate Cafe, just across Fiesta Shop, bunched up with Tubo Cane Juice (try their Ginger Mansi concoction; grande costs PhP90); Fraiche Deli (which sells sandwiches, try their chicken sandwich); and Bo’s Coffee (for your caffeine fix). At the other end of the hallway, there’s “Gourmet” restaurant, bordered by shelves selling watches, books, brass handicraft, tech gadgets and yeah, the “Illy” coffee brand.

“Fiesta” mixes souvenirs, handicrafts and Island Souvenir shirts, which have hiked up prices. Less than a year ago, you could get shirts for P200, now the cheapest will set you back by P360. Some sale season will offer P199 shirts.

Right after security check, there’s a Potato Corner (selling flavoured French fries); Crave Burger offers gargantuan burgers; Dunkin’ Donuts; Zubu Chon (try their slow cooked adobo, aside from their main staple); Tsim Sha Tsui brings a taste of Hong Kong’s chaotic district with their regional gastronomy; District Emporium sells local products and souvenir items. There’s another security check counter beside a watch store called Watch N See (who buys watches at the airport? I’d probably be surprised to know the answer). Finally, there’s an AC bar-cafe called The Enclave – Cigar Bar and Wine Lounge,  just beside “Gourmet” restaurant near the toilet, at the right wing of the hallway, near Gate 4. A Massage Corner stands beside a boarding gate, their therapists are mostly females (not blind masseurs).

There’s an obvious rise of the backpack crowd transiting in Cebu. In one of my arrivals from Bacolod, I saw 2 dozen French tourists at the arrival lounge. An Italian pack is boarding for Puerto Princesa. Of course, Koreans (a very welcome population in Cebu) crowd through the city, not to mention the Taiwanese, but they’re almost an inherent transient population of the city. Cebu might as well be called Koreatown. The country seems to be catching up as a favorite among the new breed of travelers. 

Though I do not actually favor sharing my country with tourists (surprise!), these tourists are nevertheless very welcome. In the last 10-12 years that I have been traveling all over, very few seem to head to my country, and I prefer it that way, to be quite honest. Ours was a country that never relied heavily on foreign tourism. At least not the way Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam do concerning tourism and the inflow of cash to the state financial coffers. But the trend has swung towards the rise of this transient set. For some reason, new age tourists have gradually discovered the country. You sometimes wish you could turn back time but then were headed towards universal mobility. That isn't so bad, I tell myself.

Terminal fee has been pretty much incorporated when purchasing your ticket so you don't have to prepare your PhP200 for that. Manila airports have done the same although Davao and Bacolod airports still collect terminal fees after check-in. The pre-departure hall does not have money changing counters or ATM machines so make sure you do your financial requirements before checking in. There are several ATM machines at the Departure Hall.

While I write this, a couple of blond backpacking ladies occupy 2 benches all for themselves. They’re the scruffy looking ones, the ones who seem to have crawled out of a hole, with matted hair and crumpled shirts. This set of crowd is becoming more familiar. I probably look like them whenever I am in one of my long haul trips outside my country, but as God is my witness, I try to look a bit more presentable.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

A taste of Hong Kong at Tsim Sha Tsui.

As of February 2015, this "Candy Corner has opened at the corner hall near "The Enclave".

A shop selling french cakes was there last March, but couldn't find it anymore this August.

Other shops found at the Departure Hall:


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Demolishing the New Frontier Theater (Cubao, Quezon City) - End of an Era

In 2011, an article written by Tina Arceo-Dumlao for the Philippine Daily Inquirer laid out big changes happening at the Araneta Center, scheduled to "play out" in the next 5 years. Then today, this sight took my breath away. They're finally demolishing Cubao's New Frontier Theater.

New Frontier was once the country's biggest cinema sometime in the mid-80's. In fact, most major cinematic events outside the Cultural Center of the Philippines or the Film Center would be held here. Sharon Cuneta premiere nights were a dime a dozen here. The cinema used to approximate the "wattage" of movie stars, thus the Megastar was home here. New Frontier was inaugurated even earlier than Cuneta's rise to stardom - 1968 to be exact. What followed thereafter was an onslaught of cinemas: Remar, Coronet, Sampaguita, Cubao, etc.

The cinema hall's fate until now could be a metaphor about rises and falls. Where is Sharon Cuneta now, besides ungracefully dealing with her family's bashers in social media? Or you could "extend" the thought and consider a career rebirth - eventually. Unfortunately for the hefty actress, it's not going to happen under TV-5 because, obviously, the "kapatirans" haven't really soared.

Fast forward to the new millennium. For years, New Frontier has been a derelict establishment right in a bustling commercial hub. It has always been there occupying prime space.

The plan, according to the 2011 article, was to sort of reinvent the theatre; to breathe a new life to it. Since it has hibernated long enough, this news is very welcome. Check out the artist's sketch for what it was to become - but this was 3 years old! I do hope no one has changed his mind since then.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Gili Islands: Making the Lombok Dream (Indonesia)

I had to fly to Bali then to Lombok for the possibility of visiting one of the three Gili Islands which is closer to Lombok by boat.

"Gili" means "island". The etymology is even used in Maldives through a local island called "Villingili" or island village - thus calling it "Gili Island" seems redundant. Wouldn't it mean island island? Located at the northwest coast of Lombok, getting to the Gilis was iffy at best, with the same degree of difficulty as going to Batanes at the northern end of the Philippine archipelago. Several transfers will cost you more than necessary - and the temperament of Lombok strait was unpredictable. However, the promise of natural beauty (supposedly "Bali without the crowd") is excruciatingly inviting, thus the islands beckon to the spirit of the adventure seeker.

Gili Trawangan is the biggest, most outward and most popular, with new, spiffy resorts dotting the circular rim of the island. I thought it would be less populous and less touristy than Bali. It wasn't. Tourists have come in packs! Truth be told, something inside me felt deceived. But I was among those who came, after all. And somehow I knew I should have chosen Gili Meno or Gili Air (the smallest of the three).

Party. Chill. On an island that might as well be party central like Boracay or Bali. I hired my ride to circumnavigate the island and it was done in half an hour. There was an endless array of resorts and obviously more tourists than locals. They were barefoot or wearing flip flops and oblivious to my ruminations

I have thought of the Gilis for three long years. Let's just say the visit felt like coitus interruptus. ;)

This is the Eye in the Sky!  

Friday, July 18, 2014

Bugsy Bon Appetit at a Cambodian Countryside

Think of a bug! Then eat it!

Beetle, weevils, cricket, praying mantis, dragonfly, grasshopper, cockroaches - they are fair game among Khmers! After all, these bugs have exoskeleton that could be crunchy, nutritious and tasty after a bit of oil, garlic, onion, pepper. On a bus ride midway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh at a place called Kampong Thom, the birth place of Khmer Rouge war criminal Pol Pot, our bus stops at a countryside market.

This was being sold by the side walk. Care for a plate? Vinegar or soy maybe? A deep fried arthropod-eating enthusiast shared with The Cambodian Daily, "It's a bit salty, sugary and sweet." Since forty percent of Khmer children under 5 years have stunted growth, and 11 % are "acutely wasted", this new-age source of nutrients is being looked into. Isn't that alarming? These edible insects are cheaper than chicken or beef, but they are believed to be ideal supplement to ensure a more balanced diet. They can provide nutrients. Somehow, it makes you wonder if Pol Pot actually ate the "wrong kind" of bugs that drove him to lunacy. So mad that he almost killed majority of the Khmer population during his reign of terror.

At the market stalls, I clicked away not even giving the idea much consideration. Personally, I'd gladly do away with those nutrients if they come from crawling, slithering creatures. It's like reading about how "urine" can prevent cataract from some medicine shaman from an ethnic tribe. Baloney, really. Would you rather have a stench-heavy pair of eyes?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Palawan Beach in Sentosa, Singapore

You can visit Palawan in Singapore. Palawan Beach is one of the few (three?) beaches in Sentosa Island in Singapore. I love this island because trams and buses take you around for free! Where in the Philippines is local transport free? We all work hard, earn enough, get harassed by the Bureau of Internal Revenue to pay more and more taxes with its arrogant and holier-than-thou dwarfish chief, only to have our Senators, Congressmen and elected officials pocket them. Sigh.

The more popular Palawan, of course, refers to the Philippine island province of some of the most dreamlike beach scenarios in Asia; a place that French naval explorer and conservationist Jacques Costeau once labelled as "the last frontier"; a place teeming with natural beauty.

Singapore has to be careful though. China just may lay another preposterous claim that they own it. A couple of months from now, this delusional communist country may have a new territorial fantasy called Nine-Plus-Three Dash line that shall include everything in the Pacific, including the Earth's core!

And if you were in Pluto, you should have heard of the new maps released recently by these Chinese trolls that's actually called ten-dash line! Are these idiots brain challenged? Or just plain opportunists? Go figure!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Window Shopping at the Grand Duchy, Luxembourg

Upon arrival, I spent four hours of stroll in the Grand Duchy. From Avenue de la Gare, I saw shops having weekend "solde" (sales) that even the "libraires" (book shops) were piling up books. The "mousels" (bars) had neon-lit signs with "bufferding" on display. The main shopping street is found along Avenue de la Liberte (above) which hosts a fascinating view of the bridges (pont passerelle). One thing noticeable in this capital is the big volume of banks scattered all over the place. Can you imagine the flow of money through this small European capital in Luxembourg?

Imelda Marcos, the Napoleses, and most of our Philippine politicians and their family would be so thrilled to spend our hard-earned taxes here!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Philippine Connection and El Escorial, Spain

El Escorial is a monastery, a royal palace, a museum, a beautiful library and a maze but what strikes me is its underground pantheon, a series of hauntingly sedate chambers consisting of twenty-six marble sepulchers which house the remains of the kings and queens regnant of the Hapsburg and Bourbon dynasties. Situated at the foot of Mount Abantos in Sierra Guadarrama, the site is almost desolate and wind-swept, with patches of forests all around the green hilly terrain.

I took the bus from the Moncloa station in Madrid because the bus drops you right in front of the complex. Train would have you ride another bus otherwise. The surrounding area is the Valley of the Fallen. The name alone fires up your imagination, right?

The official name is the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de Escorial that came into being during the reign of 16th century's King Philip II after whom the name of the Philippines was derived. Spanish explorer Ruy L√≥pez de Villalobos used the name Las Islas Filipinas ( Philippine Islands) in honor of the then Prince of Spain during his expedition to the Philippines, originally referring to the islands of Leyte, and Samar. Even in the lesser crannies of Spain, there is a Kevin Bacon degree of separation. 

These days, Spain seems like an unfriendly nation towards its former colony. And these days, there's not even a sense of brotherhood between the two nations. But then what is new? Spain ruled the Asian country for 333 years - count that! - and looked down on its locals as "indios". If Solomon Northup was "12 Years a Slave", what is that beside a harsh 333 years of condescension and near-slavery conditions

But "fight, conquer and destroy" isn't exclusive to Spain's demeanor towards nations that it historically sought to own, like the Philippines. Remember what it did to the "pyramids" that used to proudly rise in Lima, Peru? They're almost totally decimated but for a few.

El Escorial is 45 kilometers north of the capital Madrid.

This is the Eye in the Sky

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Colors and Hospitality Spilling Over Bacolod City Baywalk

It was not until 3PM before the relatively new City Baywalk could welcome visitors, but I was already in the area at 2. I've had lunch at Ted's in SM Bacolod, climbed the Pope John Paul Monument (which is really a multiple story building, i.e. a "tower" more than a monument). Just a block away is one of the city's latest attractions, the Baywalk, which is a perfect place if you require fresh breeze in a well appointed seaside promenade.

I peeped through the gate and a guy saw me. He asked where I was from. "Far away," he smiled. Without much ado, he invited me inside. When he saw that I took tentative steps, he prodded me to move around. "Pasok ka. Punta ka doon." ("Come in. Feel free to roam.") He was pointing at the breakwater where the ocean meets the concrete. Not only was I allowed inside, I didn't have to pay the P10 entrance fee!

Thank you, Bacolod! I take my hats off to the hospitable folks I've met during my visit. What's a test of a sincere welcome is when I don't even have to ask, yet I am ushered in. Now isn't that classy?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Selfies in the Maldives, Sunsets in Maafushi

Maldives - I was taking a few selfies in the resort island of Biyadhoo (South Male Atoll) when a Pakistani came up and offered. "Can I help you?" "No, I am fine, thank you for offering," I said. "No, I saw that you were struggling. Give me your camera," he insisted. Six pictures later, I shook his hand for being generous. I wanted to say "no" so much because I did not need others for selfies. Selfie nga eh. But he was being very kind I had to oblige - and pose six times while he succinctly directed me like it was some assured, albeit professional photo shoot. Odd circumstance. Crazy world, but in a positive way.  

Later that day, back in my island in Maafushi, I barely caught the sunset. My room was about 30 meters from the beach. I scrambled to check out the kind Pakistani's photos of myself. I hated finding out that my own selfies were better than what the gentleman took. Haha. But it was all good. Nothing is lost in any kind deed.  

This is the Eye in the Sky!