Sunday, January 23, 2011

Searching for Manny Pacquiao

It was just something that needed to be done. Technically speaking it's not stalking, because I had no need to see the man in person, I just wanted to see what he saw, do what he's done, eat what he used to eat. I guess it's similar to how I used to sleep with my notes on my pillow the night before a big test, in the hopes that through osmosis something would rub off. As an aspiring amateur boxer, it only made sense for me to look for Manny's Manila.

As if it weren't obvious already, Manny the Pacman Pacquiao and I have a lot in common. We are within an inch of one another's height, and were born less than a year apart. And, without disclosing too much personal information, we weigh within 10 pounds of each other. And of course we're both Asian.

Manny, however, happens to be a world champion prizefighter in seven different weight classes.
It is easy to admire him, particularly if you are Asian. Though fairly small in stature for his profession, he has developed a style that takes advantage of his endurance, his conditioning, and his speed, all acquired through hard work and extreme amounts of training. He is dutiful to his family, supporting even his formerly-estranged father who secretly lived with another woman before being kicked out by Manny's mother. Pacquiao never insults his opponent in public, even after defeating them, at which time he praises them as worthy adversaries. And he implores referees to declare TKO's before he has to finish the job and send a guy to the hospital.

Manny's weaknesses are familiar too. Known for spending extravagant amounts on family and sycophants, he also gives huge amounts of money away to impoverished strangers who badger him at his house at all hours of the day and night. And of course, Manny has a bit of a gambling habit; his achilles is cock-fighting, and owns a cock farm that employs a battalion of handlers.

Manny hails from Mindanao, one of the poorest islands in the country with the highest crime rate, and the location of an on-going civil war. The son of seven children, he never attended high school having left his home in General Santos City to move to Manila at the age of 14 to alleviate his mother from the extra burden. He sold donuts for 10 cents a piece, bringing home as little as two dollars a day. Eventually he joined the Philippines Amateur Boxing Association, known for having produced 5 Olympic medalists since the 1960's. But life as an amateur boxer brought him little more than room and board. He was still a teenager when he began to fight professionally.

Manny has become a national hero in the Philippines, and as a candidate of his own party, the People's Champ Movement, as of June 2010, Manny Pacquiao is an elected Congressmen in the district of Saramgami where his wife comes from. It was his second run for office and rumor has it he may retire from boxing to pursue politics more seriously. As a Congressman he has co-sponsored bills creating hospitals and breast cancer centers, and curbing human trafficking.

On any given day in the Philippines, one can watch boxing on television. And on any given Saturday, a Manny fight will be aired. Mesmerized by his unique style in a fight against Clottey, a larger, more muscular Ghanaian fighter, I sought to watch his most recent match against Mexican-American fighter Antonio Margarito. I ask one of the staff at the computer center to help me download the fight, to which he says with surprise, "You have not seen it yet ma'am?"

Margarito had a height advantage of 6", a reach advantage of 5", and a weight advantage of 17 pounds. Margarito is blustery and bombastic in pre-fight interviews. In the ring, however, Margarito is pummeled to pieces like Goliath. Next to Manny's fists of fury, Margarito looks sluggish, like a staggering zombie. Margarito is able to land a few punches, and the extent of his power is apparent immediately, creating a welt above Pacquiao's eye within minutes. But it is nothing compared to the gashing wound under that of Margarito, landed in the first round. Well before the end of the fight Margarito's eye is swollen shut and Pacquiao implores the ref in vain to stop the fight. Pacquiao finishes all twelve rounds being almost ginger with his opponent in the last two; Margarito required immediate hospitalization and surgery afterwards.

Pacquiao's discomfort with the injury he imposes has been widely observed. It was during the De La Hoya fight that trainer Freddie Roach was overheard saying in Pacquiao's corner, "Manny, it is your job to knock him out." Similar reserve was noticed by professional spectators in the Clottey fight as well.

On Saturday I attend an an all-Filipino birthday party at Capone's, a uber-Manila-hip restaurant and bar in Makati, one of the most posh neighborhoods in the city. It's not difficult to find Pachiao fans here and I gain serious street cred for my recall of details from the Margarito fight. In exchange, I learn some more local lore. I find out at which church he prays and in which gym he trains in Manila before leaving the country for a fight abroad. I learn that he ate only rice and bok choi as an impoverished amateur boxer. I learn that he usually trains in the mountain town of Baggio, hometown of one of his close friends. I hear about the cock-fighting olympics happening for a week and that his cocks are competing. I hear that he plays basketball and shoots pool with equal talent. I hear that he has a resort in Boracay, and when he plans to scuba dive out of Legaspi.

So I plan a couple days paying tribute to who he is and where he came from. Whereas my first few days in the Philippines consisted cocktails and champaign at luxury hotels in the most sophisticated part of Manila, my last few days in the country are also in Manila, where my Manny tour takes me to see how the other half truly lives, works, and breathes. Without the guidance of a Lonely Planet or a human guide, I am relying heavily on my Filipina looks and my ability to read body language to keep me out of trouble. And of course my fists of fury.

I start the day off at church. Quiapo Church, located in Cubao, is awe-striking not for its architecture but for the sheer volume of its congregation. In a monolithic concrete structure with painted religious statues, there are easily tens of thousands of people present on this ordinary Sunday. Speakers and a jumbo-tron broadcast the service outdoors for those who cannot fit inside. There are simple but familiar statues of apostles and saints both outside. Most noticeable is the statue of Jesus, his skin as black as chocolate, and there are vendors selling similar likenesses. There is a line outside the door and around the corner of those wishing to view a statue of the Black Nazarene. The church itself is situated in a densely populated working class part of town, which in Manila can mean poverty still. Pawn shops are found in scores across the street from the church. The congregation is numerous and poor, and utterly devoted to the practice of their faith. It is easy to picture Manny here, a man who blesses himself with the motion of the cross, every round in the ring.

I wander down some alleys flanking the church which are chock full of street stands selling everything from religious icons to stereo equipment lying on cloths spread out on the ground. There is a municipal basketball hoop erected on a site where a building was razed, leaving debris and building material in piles along the sides of the court. Food carts sell grilled pig ears, liver, and other scraps parts skewered on sticks. A man sells green mango slices store in water. Again, I envision young Pacquiao here amongst the chaos, stealing some time to shoot hoops with the boys and grabbing a skewered snack when he wasn't selling sodas or snacks.

In the evening, I buy a ticket for the 2011 Slasher Cup, the international olympics of cock-fighting. I enter a packed arena, also in the tens of thousands. Coincidentally, the arena happens to where Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali had it out, the famed "Thrilla in Manila" fight. But today, the ring is filled with cocks being handled by their owners. Before the fight commences, each rocks the cock towards the other, restraining them at the last second. Based on this ritual, shouts and hollers erupt from the crowd, gestures are made and money is passed to various men in green striped shirts. It looks like it could be the floor of the NY stock exchange, but with some large roosters thrown in the mix.

The fight begins and the cocks flutter at each other. It takes about 10 seconds for one to get the better of the other, using to his advantage the blade attached to one foot. If the losing cock is not dead yet, the ref repositions the two birds to finish the fight. The birds are then removed from the arena, one dead one alive, and a man comes up a few minutes later with a broom and dustpan, sweeping up the stray feathers. This proceeds for hundreds of fights, and I see Manny's cocks compete, one of which leaves alive. After a half-dozen fights with intermissions, I have been eaten alive by fleas and take it as my cue to leave.

It is definitely one of the stranger events I've attended in my life. And, while I will gladly eat bok choi and attempt to emulate Manny in other ways, I'm not quite sure if the cock-fighting will be a repeat event for me. For Pacquiao, however, this is his world; throngs of Filipino men wagering on birds duking it out until the death. This is the entertainment he grew up with and one he even promotes as an adult.

The next morning, I schedule a session at Elorde Gym in Quezon City, where he trains regularly just before going abroad to fight. Again, I am in a poor, industrial town on the outskirts of Manila proper. And again, it is choked with traffic, smog-stained buildings, and thousands of people on their way to work, or peddling dry goods right there on the streets. I make my way to the gym, tucked away on the fourth floor of a nondescript building. In it are a few punching bags and a ring. Posters of Manny are abound and his autograph blesses one of structural columns. I hit the speedball Manny has hit, work the double end bag that Manny has worked. But I am out of shape after a month of walking around the Philippines and eating fried lumpias, and it shows after an hour. After my 7th round on the mitts, I call it quits. But I will never wash my handwraps again!

On my back to the hotel, I'm looking at the chaos and poverty flanking my air-conditioned taxi, the crippled beggars, and the vendors selling whatever you can think of for a nickel. I think about General Santos City, and how it is even more impoverished than Quezon, and I think about Manny still living there after all these years, albeit in an eyesore mansion, where he manifests his guilt through generous donations of cash and food to all who ask. When a storm hit Mindanao, he insisted on staying until the last minute, leaving only after being implored to do so by his trainer Freddie Roach. He also was reprimanded by Roach to resume his focus on his upcoming fight rather than the political issues that have befallen him as a Congressman.

As my trip comes to an end, I am reminded of how important it is for me to travel. I meet so many people from different walks of life, reminding me that all sorts of people in this world can connect. I see so many different things, reminding me how beautiful the world outside mine also is. And I see the lives of so many people, and am reminded that my own life is filled with so much choice.

For all intents and purposes, Pacquiao did not have the choice of starting high school. He took the options he had and worked like a horse. And, while I have no delusions of boxing grandeur in my own future other than entering a single amateur match, Pacquiao is a good reminder to me, and especially to his opponents, of the strength and power that comes from hard work, and that resulting achievement does not require a relinquishment of heart. I and millions of others look forward to watching his fight with Mosley. Go Pacman go!

Friday, January 21, 2011

In the Land of the Lotus Eaters

In the afternoon, they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All around the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

-Lord Alfred Tennyson
"The Lotus Eaters"

When I open my eyes I am staring at a bowl filled with water and floating flower petals arranged in patterns. There's a subtle perfume of chamomile in the air and I am lying face-down on a massage table, my head nesting on one of those lifesaver shaped contraptions. There is a woman massaging coffee grinds and virgin-press coconut oil into my body.

Barely four hours earlier I was finishing up an eight hour bus ride from Banaue to Manila, during all of which I sat upright with a red, moon-shaped, squishy pillow wrapped around my neck in attempt to prop my head up while I slept. The bus arrived in Manila at 4:00am. I quickly made my way to an internet cafe, groggily attempting to make new travel plans given the bad weather which spoiled a weeks worth of trekking and foiled my attempts to swim with whale sharks.

My first option was to board a plane bound for Palawan, a scuba diver's haven of an island. It is southward enough in this archipelago to reasonably deliver on the good weather. But it also means two hours of waiting for the airplane, then the ride itself, and then the transport to another town where the scuba magic happens. And of course there's scuba-diving itself; a fascinating pastime, but one that involves schlepping around a tank on your back and breathing through an apparatus that makes me feel like Darth Vader. And one I've already enjoyed on this trip just three weeks earlier.

In the past 7 days I had either flown or bused on 4 of them. So I chose option two. Very unlike me, but I couldn't help it. It was just a small blurb in my guidebook. It had me at "massage" and "rose petal body wraps." That's right--option two was a health spa resort. Sure, I'm a backpacker. But I'm a working backpacker, and I deserve this, I tell myself.

Based near Lipa, an hour and a half from Manila by car, it's called The Farm but don't think old MacDonald. Set on 48 acres, it is focused on health and wellness; yes, it's a little on the new age side. But if you're open-minded enough, you would agree that it is so in all the right ways. The soap, shampoo, and all spa treatments are prepared on-site with materials grown in their garden. A medical center is present for those intending to detox. Colonic treatments are also available. The restaurant serves only vegan food, 70% of which is grown on-site. The accommodations vary from comfortably rustic to outright luxurious, all with private bathrooms and air conditioning. Included with the room rates are a three course breakfast, free yoga classes, guided power-walks, and other love-boat meets new age activities.

When I read about The Farm online, I am weak, tired, dehydrated, and sitting in a hot internet cafe in Manila. They are having a promotion of about $100 a night for their most modest accommodation, and I take it as a sign.

I was definitely skeptical during the drive in, which passed through Lipa, a stunningly un-stunning town of commerce and industry, third-world style. We eventually enter a portal to another universe and arrive at an isolated 48 acre compound with massive trees and unbelievable landscape gardening. When we park, I half expect Tatoo and Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island to greet me with some eerily foreshadowing comment.

But with a little suspension of disbelief, I give in. And, by day two, I have enjoyed a full-body coffee scrub treatment, a full-body mud-mask treatment, with 45 minute massages in each. I have attended four and a half hours of yoga at their stunning, open-air covered zendo, overlooking their splendid property.

And I'm stunned by the food. I am a carnivore in the truest sense of the word, always ordering steaks still kicking. But for a variety of reasons, I've eaten vegetarian items at various points in my life. I'm open-minded enough to do it when needed, but also close-minded enough to suck in my protein the easy, dead-animal way when left to my own devices. And vegan, in my experience, nine times out of ten feels like someone is pulling a rope right through me. It may be healthy to have so much fiber, but I don't find it pleasant.

Well, usually. The Farm's restaurant, ALIVE stunned me with their coconut milk-based sauces, their dehydrated rehydrated red peppers, their sesame crackers, and their herbal tea made with greens from their garden. All this and a clean colon to boot.

During my stay, no detail is forgotten. With 25 accommodations, they have a staff of over 100. My first night there, I am one of three guests, and within a second of me taking a sip of water from my glass, it is refilled. Additional guests arrive the next day, and the rate slows down to two seconds. At the spa, there is staff to schedule me, to administer my treatment, to turn on the water for the shower, to prepare the tea after my treatment is complete. A bit of a change from the last three weeks of schlepping my pack like a snail laboring under its shell.

The Farm is dangerous. During my third spa treatment, (the full-body rose petal wrap), I contemplate extending my stay until I leave to return home, instead of spending my last few days in Manila doing some necessary errands. The scent of roses permeates my nostrils as I recall an episode of my favorite television show from the 1990's, Northern Exposure.

Northern Exposure was a series based around the main character, Joel Fleischman, a Jewish New Yorker, recently-graduated from med school, who pays off educational grants given to him by serving as the physician in a small town in Alaska. His leading lady is Maggie O'Connell, a bush pilot who grew up in a rich suburb of Michigan. He is the fish out of water and she is the neophyte Alaskan and the two are constantly in tension throughout the series until one of the last seasons, shortly before he leaves the show, when they finally consummate their romantic connection.

By that point, Joel has had a dramatic reaction and converts into one of Alaska's many extreme naturalists, living in the bush for months at a time off of natural resources. He finds a map that leads to a mythical city, and the episode takes becomes an allegory of a Greek epic nature. He drags Maggie along in the quest, and they find a spa resort amidst the cold and snow. They are treated with rose petals and champagne, saunas and hot tubs. They gaze longingly at on another and almost abandon their plans to carry out their mythical mission.

Eventually they pull away from the land of the lotus eaters to continue their quest, and at the end of the rainbow, it appears that the mythical city is actually New York glimmering through the trees, much as it does in Central Park. Joel attempts to take Maggie with him, but she lets him go alone and returns to her newly-created home of Alaska. Later he sends her a postcard of Staten Island with only the words, "New York is a state of mind."

A long time ago I moved from New York City to Alaska, and only recently left the Great Land for a whole new world in New Orleans. For many reasons, the show has personal meaning for me. And, while I am having rose petals blended with fresh aloe slathered all over me, I wonder, will I be able to continue on my journey like Joel and Maggie did? And when I see the end, will I turn back to Alaska or move forward with my life? At the risk of sounding like a yellow belly, I will admit here and now, that in the last 6 months, this last question has been a recurring one despite my verbal denials I've made to the contrary.

But then something strange happened in my third yoga class. It was about 7:30am in the morning, and it was warm and sunny, with a slight breeze. One of the resident peacocks came our way. In fact, he sidled right next to me, about two feet from my yoga mat, and just stood there, watching me, looking straight at me. All I could do was stare right back, not being exactly sure why. The standoff lasted probably four or five minutes, before he moved on and left the zendo, leaving the other yoga students unmolested.

They are strange looking creatures, beautiful, despite their awkwardly-shaped body completely unsuitable for long distance flight. The funny thing about peacocks is that they can eat anything, poisonous plants, and most notably, poisonous snakes. For that reason, they symbolize everlasting life in Christianity. And, with their beautiful feathers resembling eyes, they stand for omniscient perception, or wisdom, in Hinduism. In Buddhism, with their ability to eat poisonous plants and snakes, they symbolize the power of the bodhisatvas, who can endure temptation and pain that accompanies pleasure and bring nirvana to others with their wisdom.

In the jungles of poisonous plants, strut the peacocks,
Though medicine gardens of beauty lie near.
The masses of peacocks do not find gardens pleasant,
But thrive on the essence of poisonous plants,
In similar fashion the brave bodhisattvas
Remain in the jungle of worlds' concern.
No matter how joyful this worlds pleasure garden,
These brave ones are never attracted to pleasures,
But thrive in the jungle of suffering and pain.

- "The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, Dharmaraksita, as passed to Dipankara Sri Jnana [Atisa, 982-1054] and excerpted from "Symbolism of Animals in Buddhism," by Venerable Jama Choskyi.

I am stubborn. My family and friends would agree. Luckily, I haven't ended up in too much trouble relying on my own instinct and judgment. But short of trusted professors, I have a hard time listening to others who tell me what to do--that much is true. It is my nature for I was born in the year of the snake.

After the peacock cameo appearance, I collect my resolve, my backpack, and my credit cards, made good with the Farm, and prepare myself to finish up my journey. And despite my use of the epic analogy, the Farm has not lead me astray; in fact, these farmers have cleared my pores, de-cramped my backpack-weary shoulders, and scoured my colon. But it is time for me to continue on and do what I need to do.

Like Joel, I already have a glimpse of my future. I have been tasked with some exciting projects for 2011 at my new job, and I have decided to train for an amateur boxing match which should occur before the years' end. There are low-income houses that need to hit the ground, financing structures I need to figure out, sit-ups to be completed, miles to run with my dog, and bags to be punched.

It is time for me to finish up my trip and go home to New Orleans.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Listening to Country in Ifugao Country

Banaue, Philippines. Banaue is a small town tucked away in mountains nestled in one of the northern islands of the Philippines, on the same one as Manila. It is also the home of the Ifugao people, about 21,000 of them, one of the indigenous tribes of the country. Once known as fierce warriors and accomplished headhunters, the Ifugao have inhabited the hills in and around Banaue, living in huts perched above massive terraces they carved out of the mountain about 2000 years ago in order to cultivate rice. Connected by intricate irrigation systems using bamboo, the Banaue terraces were recently declared one of the eight wonders of the world by UNESCO.

Today, the terraces are still used to cultivate rice, but bamboo is replaced with plastic tubing, and huts are built from concrete and corrugated metal. Tourism also has brought change as a recent local commodity. Would-be trekkers like myself travel by the only means of transportation available, an 8-10 hour bus from Manila. Locals offer guided treks through the terraces and into nearby villages for days at a time.

When I finally arrive in Banaue, the landscape is magnificent. Broad steps are jutting from mud, lined neatly against one another forming levees and moats effectively irrigating acres and acres of mountain. I am eager to hike around. But as it had just days earlier, the weather thwarted my plans, and those of a few dozen other Westerners, clad in expensive gore-tex jackets (like myself) and wearing those goofy hiking pants with zippers at the knees (also like myself). Thick clouds of fog, and light but persistent rain made the possibility of trekking in muddy, steep terrain, and unpleasant one. At breakfast, the tourists were restless.

Having just come off a traveling tantrum involving whale sharks and a volcano just days earlier, I made a mad dash to exit tourist zone and explore the town on my own, armed with only my gore-tex jacket and the almighty ipod.

I wandered for about an hour into a contiguous village. I walked into an unmarked shack and watched a artisan carve a mask out of an empty coconut shell using a blunt chisel, a hammer, and his two feet, swollen with muscles.

I saw all sorts of houses, all perched high on the terraces, without plumbing or even doors, with only corrugated metal roofs and unenclosed cement walls as their protection from the elements. Despite the damp and the chill, children ran around barefoot. It was an interesting reminder of what can happen to a once-fierce society.

On my way back into town, I come across a crude, metal sign:

"Welcome. Matanglag bronzesmith shop, master of Ifugao Traditional Design in Silver and Bronze. 25M above."

Next to the sign is a set of primitive steps carved out of the mud with a few stones as footholds. There are no handrails, and become steeper the higher I go. I begin to dig my hands into the muddy roots on either side of the steps.

When I get to the top, I see only an outhouse, a chicken coop, and the backside of a cement-walled house. There is a clothesline in view and a few stray chickens. At this point I'm thinking there's some marketing work to develop here.

"Hello?" I utter hesitantly. Immediately, a woman comes out from the house, standing barely four feet tall with thick black hair framing her round face with a bowl cut.
"Yes, ma'am, come in come in," she says, seeming to understand the purpose of my visit. She ushers me to the other side of the house, which has no enclosing walls, windows, or doors. Along one side of the shack is a small glass jewelry case. On the other side sits her husband, perched behind a long wooden workbench with numerous tools on it. He is almost identical to her in appearance, except that his four front upper teeth are gone. He is busy working with an electric file. Their names are Roger and Luz Abul, and they are Ifugao. There is nothing else in view in the house other than a couple of large, simple, wooden chairs.

She motions me to the glass case, where there are about 20 pendants and a handful of earrings, all in bronze. There are only three or four designs, permutations of a circular shaped amulet that forks inwards. The pendants sell for $1-$5, but I like the only silver ring in the case, which sells for less than $20.00. I try it on but it is too big.

The story of the amulet is a peculiar one. According to Ifugao legend, a large gold version of the amulet fell from the sky in front of an Ifugao hunter who was resting in the forest at the time. He took it back to the village, the members of whom were unsure as to whether the omen was a good one. The tribe then conducted a sacrificial ceremony, offering up a pig as was tradition at the time. Based on a reading of the pig's bile by soothsayers, it was determined that the charm was a fortuitous one. Since then the amulet is thought to bring good luck generally, and fertility to women.

I liked the shape and also have a feeling that by the time I am ready for child-bearing, I will stand to benefit from a little extra help from the fertility gods, whoever they are. So I commission to have a ring made specially for me.

"Can I watch you make it?" I ask, having no plans until my bus leaves 12 hours later.
"Oh no ma'am, we bring it to your hotel and you pay then. It takes very much time," interjects Luz.
"Yes I'm sorry ma'am, I take very long time to make the ring," offers Roger.
Their English is quite clear, further inspiring me to hang out for a while.
"Well maybe I can just watch for a little bit?" To which they agree.

Roger pulls out a shiny lump of silver, and a crude, thin band, also of silver. He measures my finger and cuts the band. He then proceeds to place the lump in a metal tray, and take to it with a small blowtorch. He pulls out a metal mold and begins to form the amulet. I have never seen a process such as this before, and so I am inquisitive and start conversation. They respond shyly but with clear diction. I compliment them on their English, and they explain that in Banaue, the first outsiders they were ever exposed to were Western missionaries; thus many Ifugao speak English over Tagalog (the national dialect spoken in Manila), in addition to the indigenous Ifugao dialect. But evenso, I am impressed by their English compared with their fellow countrymen working at various tourist spots.

Roger and Luz are both Ifugao from generations back. He is a third generation bronzesmith, and before that, his people worked in the fields, like most Ifugao. He and his wife have a high school level education. Roger creates the molds for his jewelry himself, with "modern tools," which include the small, gasoline-powered blowtorch, and a circa 1960 Vespa-brand air compressor. His forefathers made the same molds using only clay and beeswax. The couple have four children, one of whom is studying to be a nurse, and another of whom is a law student. Their oldest son works as an engineer in Libya, and sends them highly-treasured electronics, including a cd player, a television, and a speaker. They walk 15 minutes into town to skype with him at the internet cafes. The youngest son is there, in and out, assisting his mother with house chores. He looks barely 16. While his law student son has learned to make traditional jewelry for extra cash, it appears that Roger will be the last Ifugao bronzesmith of his kind.

About twenty minutes of silence pass when Roger shyly discloses some precious information.
"I like American music," he says.
"Oh really? Who?" I ask, expecting him to mention Michael Bolton, Katie Perry, or some of the other musical geniuses I've heard blaring at the various bars, cafe's, buses, and karaoke joints.
"Hank Williams, Merle Haggard. Country music." He says, nervously.
"Really?" I am awestruck. "I love Hank Williams! I love Merle Haggard! I love all sorts of early American music!"
Roger looks up, "Yes? I play guitar and sing lots of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard in Baggio sometimes." Baggio is another mountain town, an 8 hour bus ride from there. But as a college town, it is infinitely larger than Banaue. I am stunned.
"At karaoke?" I ask.
"Oh no, no. There is open mic. Lots of people rock singing. But you know, I always get maybe the most applause with my Merle Haggard songs," he shares shyly. I look over at Luz who wholeheartedly nods her head. She starts humming "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
"Do many in Banaue listen to country?" I ask.
"Some. Well, not so many. Some," He says.

Roger explains that he began listening to Americana in 1973, coveting eight-tracks or bootleg tapes brought in from Manila. He tells me that once, he wrote Charley Pride directly because his material was unavailable in Manila. Pride responded in kind with an autographed photo and a record.

"You see, good music, the melody, is simple, but the words are good. Everyone can appreciate, even the younger generation," he explains.

I try to picture him sitting on a stage in a bar with a guitar, crooning Hank Williams, with his four missing teeth, and a smile instantly comes to my face. Luz wife puts on a Merle CD as Roger continues to work on my ring. She pumps it up when the compressor recharges.

"I think think, maybe "The Bottle Let Me Down Again" is my favorite. We discuss Loretta Lyn, the role of gospel music, and his conclusion that, "Hank Williams III is good, but Hank Williams II, not so good." I could not have said it better myself.
"I used to have to listen to a song, many times, before I could know the words. But now, my son just download!" He explains enthusiastically.

We pass a few hours like this, him huddled over his tools, me sipping an instant coffee carefully prepared by Luz. I flip through a book she shows me. It is spiral-bound and in it are downloaded pictures and short biographies of Merle, Hank, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Charley Pride, and others. Song lyrics are neatly typed, and each page is protected by a plastic sleeve. It was compiled for them by their son studying in Baggio.

At one point some of their friends from deep in the mountains stop in unexpectedly, on their way into town. They are rice laborers who hunt in the off season. With them, in a jute bag, is an injured mountain eagle they captured to sell to a taxidermist. It is still alive, but its wing is mangled and it looks spaced out. They let it wander around the workshop while they sit and lunch with Luz in the other room. It decides to hang out next to the blowtorch.

A few minutes later, another friend of the Abuls pop in. He is a French tourguide married to a Filipina actress, based out of Manila. With him today are about ten middle-aged tourists, equipped with fanny packs, socks and sandals. Some have ski poles. They do not speak a word of English and their guide translates. They chatter loudly in French and are suddenly taken aback by the injured eagle. Roger explains the situation in English to his friend, who explains a completely different situation to his clients in French, whereby Roger's friend the hunter is transformed into an avid conservationist. The French are relieved by the good news and buy three sets of earrings and a ring before leaving.

About an hour later, yet more visitors stop by, four fit-looking young Filipinos. Roger greets them and pulls out a double-barrel shotgun. The young man explains in English that Roger is the only one in town who can fix his gun, and that his farmers need it to finish up some work on one of the terraces.

All this to the sound of Hank and Merle.

On a lark, I ask if he's heard of Caleb Klauder, one of my favorite living Americana musicians based out of Portland. Unsurprisingly, Roger has not, so I bust out my ipod and play one of Caleb's albums, in which he sings a few Hank Williams covers, in addition to some of his own originals in the same genre.

Roger looks up and states emphatically,
"He is very good. Like Hank Williams. Is he dead?"
I tell him no, and he nods to indicate he is pleased by this news. Looking up from his work again, he says,
"The beating, it is very good and his singing is clear. Three chords only, makes it very easy for a bass to follow." I agree. After a few verses, Roger is able to sing the refrain with Caleb. He, Luz, and I are are smiling.
"You know," he shares, "Italians, French, they can't sing country. And many Americans I meet don't know Merle Haggard. Only geniuses like this music!" We all laugh as I wholeheartedly agree. Tucked away in the rice terrace hills of Banaue, I have found a fellow music snob.

Sadly, Roger completes my ring, and Luz polishes it for me, before handing it over, thus ending a pleasant and unexpected five hours. We exchange warm goodbyes, I take pictures, and I take down their mailing address which is comprised of only their names, the name of the village, and the name of the province. I vow to myself to mail them Caleb's CD's.

Walking back to backpacker hell I begin to mull over the past 5 hours. I think it was only when the shotgun was pulled out did it occur to me that I was in a slightly vulnerable situation, camped out in a shack above some nondescript set of steps, with no regular passersby. At one point, there were five men, an injured eagle, a double-barrel shotgun, and me. But I met the Abuls at a point in my trip where I was worn down. It was a point at which I wanted to trust someone. And, if I couldn't trust an Ifugao fan of Merle and Hank, who was assiduously making me a good luck charm, then who could I trust?

I am finally nearing the tourist zone, where I hear thumping sounds of techno pouring out of an internet cafe. I put my headphones on so that Caleb is crooning in my ears instead. I am rubbing the shiny new ring around my finger. It is beautiful, and fits me perfectly. And it has already brought such good fortune.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Losing Sight

By the time I return Legaspi, I am a grouch. Maybe it's because I left beautiful Boracay. Or maybe it's because of those damn whale sharks. Those hard-to-get bastards.

From Boracay I fly to Manila and stay overnight in order to catch the only Legaspi flight daily, which is at beautiful 6:30am. How annoying.

My goals are to swim with the whale sharks out of Donsol, which is an hour from Legaspi. Then I planned to camp overnight on Mt. Mayon, out of Legaspi. I had not yet decided whether to stay in Legaspi the whole time and just take a day trip to Donsol.

But Legaspi is not beautiful. Teeming with cement stalls bearing corrugated roofs, and exhaust stained buildings, it makes Manila look like Paris. But while I've grown to appreciate Manila, I'm not confident that the same will happen in Legaspi, despite beautiful Mt. Mayon looming above. So when I arrive at 7:30am, I high-tail it to Donsol an hour away by mini-bus and two tricycle rides away.

I get there at 9:30am, too late to hop on one of the morning boats that search for the whale sharks, and too early for just about anything else. Argh. So I pay $45.00 for a room right next to the whale shark diving center. I later find out that I could have found a room for half that price down the road. Again, I am annoyed.

But I remind myself that the room still costs 1/3 of any of those crappy motels I stayed on my two week drive from Alaska to New Orleans. And it is a large room, clean, air-conditioned, and sitting right there on the beach.

The morning boats return and all I speak to have seen and swam with these bus-sized whale sharks. Damn it. Damn it damn it damn it. But my turn is next, right?

I pass the day reading a book sitting in front of my room overlooking the water. I take a night cruise to look at the fireflies that take over entire trees growing along the river. I meet charming and interesting European tourists at the hotel and pass a pleasant 5 hour dinner with them, talking about politics, French films, and how Denmark has a government-required 10 month paid maternity leave.

But they got to see whale sharks and I didn't!!!

So the next morning I went, and again the morning after. These boats are staffed with a captain, a World Wildlife Fund observer, and two whale spotters, who perch on bamboo joists hanging over the boat. There are six eager tourists on the boat as well. We all look and look and look. A total of ten hours on the ocean, looking, waiting, watching, for nothing!!!!!

"But it rained so the plankton sinks to the bottom," they say. "But it's better earlier in the morning." "But the plankton level is not so high this morning." "But it is not high season." Can these stupid whale sharks get any more high maintenance? Aaaagghhhhh!@##!

I never got to see them so the boat rides were a waste of time.

Well, except for the perfect temperature, and slight breeze blowing to cool us down.
And except for the perfect views of Mount Mayon looming over the glassy water.
And except for the beautiful Danish guy who stripped down to practically nothing and sunbathed for three hours. (Ok I'm digressing.)

And so now I start thinking Donsol was a waste of time.

Except for the cute hotel an the sweet staff and home-cooked food.
And except for the nice Euro's I met.
And except for that lovely boat ride with the fireflies.

But I am busy having a temper tantrum. So after three days and two nights of unsuccessful whale stalking, I head back to Legaspi. At least I have the volcano waiting for me.

Or not.

Magayon Hotel is flat-out scary. Lonely Planet, for the umpteenth time on this trip, has failed me. But I'm too tired and too cranky to keep looking. And anyhow, I'll be sleeping on the mountain tomorrow, right?

Wrong. "No overnight tours right now, ma'am, unless you want to pay $75.00 by yourself," they tell me. "The weather is not good for overnight camping now, ma'am." My sense is, no one at Bicol Adventures wants to take me on an overnight tour. "But there is a group going on Sunday only as far as Camp 2." I'm not staying in Legaspi for a minute longer than needed unless it's an overnight hike. I am having a temper tantrum that I'm doing best to internalize.

Before quoting me a price, the Bicol Adventure guides ask me where I'm from, worsening my already-irksome mood. So I pay the American rate of $45.00 for a five hour round trip hike to Camp 1, which puts me back in town 1.5 hours before my flight which I decide to take right then. Later in the day I confirm with some young, healthy-looking Dutch tourists I run into who have just completed the same hike in 5 hours, round-trip. Perfect. Spendy, considering there's no food and no gear rental, but perfect. I'll be with an informed guide. All in all it costs less than $10.00 per hour.

Or not. We start the hike. In Alaska, I was the least fit of my friends and boyfriends, and invariably the last one on the hike. I've since shaped up a bit more, having started boxing, but nothing noticeable in my eyes, and no scale of comparison since I no longer hike with Alaskans. Today, I have a bit of an urge. Having been stood up by the whale sharks, I want results. I'm not going to be able to camp up there, so I want adrenaline. All 8000 feet of the mountain are in full view in the morning, but then hides when we reach Camp 1, about one-third the way up, about an hour and a half later. I have passed my guide twice, a young Filipino, who needed to rest. He's getting a little snippy with me. But there's no stopping me.

We get to the camp and he points me to the "spring, safe for drinking", just minutes after he explained the presence of wild boar, wild cats, and water buffalo roaming the volcano. We are well-below the tree line. He has neither iodine pills nor a water purifier with him.
He's kidding, I say to myself. He's got to know that it can't be safe with animals around. He's a guide for Christ's sake. I ask him if he knows what giardia is, the water-born parasite common in untreated water sources where there are animals and animal feces present. He has no idea what I'm talking about. My water bottle is empty and I do not fill it. He doesn't drink the spring water either.

I am double timing it down the volcano, leaving him far behind, seriously irked and concerned at the water situation for I have sweat up a storm in my adrenaline quest. We make to the bottom putting us at comfortably less than three hours round trip. He looks pissed and a little ill.

But I, finally, got my adrenaline kick, so I'm less annoyed. And I got to see the volcano despite the weather. I feel badly about how poorly my guide looks so I tip him well. He is surprised. At the base of the volcano, his boss is playing golf amongst some wandering water buffalo. I compliment my guide to his boss. Again, he looks surprised. I want to be nice to him because I was a grouch, and despite being a somewhat under-qualified guide, he was kind and friendly. I apologize to him for rushing him, and he says it's okay, that he expected it. He elaborates that no one in the office wanted to take me because I sounded determined and because I look strong.
I look strong. I like that. But I feel badly for having been so cranky.

There are moments traveling that I lose context of what I'm doing. Every missed opportunity becomes a personal assault, every rip-off seems like a national conspiracy, when at the end of the day, I've spent as much that day or less than what I would on one night of drinks back home, and I'm doing something 99.9% of the people in the world will never get to do. I at least manage to restrain myself from complaining about this stuff out loud (this blog not included), but evenso, the negativity is the same. How I spiral into this mode I'm not sure. I really shouldn't lose sight of where I am and all the things I'm seeing. I saw Mount Mayon. I saw a charming beach town and had lovely boat rides, saw fireflies, and shared drinks and dinner with a lot of nice, interesting people.

If only those whale sharks had not stood me up. Jerks. JERKS!!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Another Day in Boradise

It wasn't love at first sight. White Beach of Boracay Island in the Philippines constitutes the main strip of the island and is choked with all sorts of resorts and kitsch vendors catering to the tastes of Western and Manila-residents alike. There's even a claustrophobia-inducing strip mall selling enough disposable clothes, toys, and other crap to create a landfill as big as the island. Every possible urge to consume is provided for in this mall. And if that weren't enough, there's a pedestrian path on sand running parallel to the shoreline and the main road, also teeming with commerce. Bad bad techno (redundant?) pumps out of various bars every hundred feet or so. Either that or a remake of "No Woman No Cry", or a combination of the two. Squint your eyes and you could be at any number of white sand beaches in Southeast Asia.

But walk just a little further, or cross the island, or make just one quick turn down an alley, and that weird, Southeast Asian beach version of Las Vegas is gone. That's how I found Boradise.

Sometimes I am lucky. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I was led through a tiny, unremarkable alley off the main drag, into the Boradise Resort Hotel. Essentially, this "resort" is comprised of little more than a conglomeration of Japanese-styled cement houses with which serve as more of a family compound than a hotel. There's a Japanese restaurant and breakfast bar under thatched roofs, serving Western-styled meals and coffee. Lines of Japanese lanterns trim the areas and provide illumination at night in case one returns home tipsy. Chickens run wild, and if you're lucky like me, you'll even get to see a pig roasted. All this within a stone's throw away from consumer-central.

I got my own room with a/c, a large bed, a Japanese-style sink, and a little Japanese garden, all gated off from the main quarters. After looking at the luxurious villa of Shangri-La my newlywed-friends were staying at, and the smelly backpacker camp recommended in my Lonely Planet guide, I felt like a triumphant Goldilocks when I found Boradise.

Life is not rigorous on Boracay Island. My schedule for the first few days consisted of meeting up with my old friends to eat, drink, walk on the beach, you get the idea. And when the friends left, my time somehow filled up more quickly than I could keep track of. Shall I meet an interesting stranger and have a long conversation? Or shall I finish reading that book today?

In large part because I look Filipina, I quickly became the adopted relative of Boradise Resort owner, and local councilman, Jason and his family. One of his brother is the mayor, and his other brother sports dreadlocks, and is the MVP of the Boracay Island Ultimate Frisbee team, who apparently just recently finished second in an international competition in Brazil.

I extended my stay on the island for the Ati-Atihan festival, a celebration of some quasi-religious figure mutating Catholicism and some sea-creature character. Drummers from all over the country came into town to compete with their respective relative's group. Jason gave me a t-shirt bearing his tribe's name, and I paraded with them throughout the island, on the beach and to a central park, where all the groups converged. Drumming and parades occurred in the morning and evening, reminiscent to me of the New Orleans second line parades. A pig is killed, roasted, and consumed, and karaoke is set up outside. And does not end for another 36 consecutive hours later. It was a first for me to hear "With or Without You" to synthesizer and a Filipino accent.

I scubadive with local divemasters, who also treat me like family, invite me to drinks and play pool.

Later, I meet a funny, talkative New Yorker, who reminds me of, well, New York. To quell his urban restlessness, we walk briskly to the highest point on the island and see a somewhat depressing yet funny attempt at a zoo on top, as well as a beautiful vista.

And of course, I take kiteboarding lessons from two Frenchies, and almost break a limb.

I manage to escape the consumption pit with only a pair of havaina flipflops. And, by the end, I'm glad to have the resorts there, with their posh bars at which I sit and watch the sailboats pass by during the sunset, sipping cocktails in between pages of a good book.

But my favorite is walking. Either on the beach, or on the main road, or to Bulabog Beach. I know I'm where I should be when I'm strolling leisurely, with the commotion of a place surrounding me, but only peace and quiet in my head, as if I am at once apart from but also a part of a place. It's a sensation of feeling that the world is spinning, and at that very moment, I have no responsibilities in it. The traffic moves by, chickens cross my path, and I am on vacation.

I came to Boracay with no plans other than to soak up some sun with my good friend Pam. I left wondering if I should stay longer. When I eventually return home to New Orleans, and I'm behind a desk, getting frustrated and about to bang my head against a wall, I will smile knowing there's a place where there is nothing to do but whatever you want.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Calamities in Kitesurfing

The wind and rain had thwarted my plans to scuba-diving, and inspired the crew of American friends I was with to cross over from the glitzy White Beach, to granola-esque, kite-surfing Bulabog Beach. To get there, we passed through a narrow dirt road flanked on both sides by small kiosks catering to locals, cement walled houses, palm trees, and free wheeling chickens and dogs. After a little while, blue sky peeks through and we see a kite sail by.

Devoid of the same volume of resort hotels and vendors, Bulabog Beach might as well be in another country from White Beach on Boracay Island in the Philippines. Bulabog denizens either are or cater to a nomadic group of foreigners whose destinations are determined by the winds. They are leashed at their torso to giant, bat-shaped inflatable kites, and strapped to their feet are pancake-thin boards made of fiberglass. On this blustery day there are easily 75 kiteboarders in the water, careening back and forth across the bay, seemlessly amongst one another without incident.

The wind whips through our hair as the seven of us perch on a makeshift set of bamboo bleachers, sipping pineapple slings, sold for 70 cents at the bar next to the Isla kiteboarding shop. We sit there for a couple hours, virtually speechless, totally mesmerized, and completely entertained. Well, almost completely entertained.

The next morning, I arrive at the beach at 8:15am, minutes before my kiteboarding instructor is due to arrive. A well-tanned Caucasion in his early twenties arrives and I introduce myself, assuming he is my guide.

"Hello, I am Matt. but ack-shoo-lee it is Arnaud who is your teacher," he says, in a thick-French accent.

I leave him politely and resume my perch next to a palm tree, totally entranced by the sight of morning kiteboarders sailing across the bay. A few minutes later, Matt sits next to me.

"Where are you from?" he asks. I tell him New Orleans, which incites the usual comments of post-Katrina empathy and respect.
"There are a lot of French people in New Orleans," I lie, attempting to lighten the mood a bit.
"Yes, he responds. "There are many French kiteboarders. All the good seengs in zee world are French, you know."

I respond with laughter that is genuine. He is lucky that he's good-looking. I consider asking him if he's heard of Pepe Le Pew, the cartoon womanizing skunk with a French accent, but decide against it. Sensing my mild disgust, Matt continues,

"Vell, ack-shoo-lee, the first kiteboard was from zee U.K., and zee world kiteboarding champ is English. But it is much more popular in France. Windsurfing is very passe."

Matt is correct. Kites were first used for locomotive purposes in England in the 1800's, to propel cargo both on land and on water as an alternative to horse-drawn power. But it wasn't until the late 1970's that the same-type of kite was attached to a board by two French brothers. Subsequent technologies and patents developed out of France throughout the 1990's. Since then, the sport took off. Over a hundred thousand have been hold and countless numbers have been rented. The longest distance kitesurfed has been recorded at 140 miles, by a woman who ventured solo from the Canary Islands to Morocco in nine hours. Speed records have been set at over 50 knots.

The pace at the kiteboarding center picks up and at once I realize that I am surrounded by the French. Arnaud finally joins us at which point, Matt decides to voluntarily assist with my private lesson.

Setting up, I am unable to disguise my skepticism of the gear. The bat-winged shaped kite spans over 10 feet and has a surface area of 7 square meters. It is leashed to a control bar connected to four points by lines the diameter of angel hair pasta. The control bar attaches to my harness with flexible plastic straw-like tubing, without a lock or caribiner of any kind. As an afterthought, there is a bungee chord clipped to to the control bar and my harness, as a supposed safety back-up.

"Don't wo-ree," says Arnaud, smiling at me. "It's not just for you zees set up, it is for everyone like zees." I look up at Arnaud and Matt in all seriousness and respond with,

"I'm going to break something, aren't I?"

Just then a kiteboarder glides past, and any sort of rational judgment I was about to make evaporated.

Arnaud gracefully launches the kite overhead and we walk into the ocean until the three of us are waist-deep in water. Arnaud then hands over the reigns. He is in the process of explaining that I must steer with gentle angles to the left and right, when the kite suddenly dives to the right, picks up a gust of wind, and catapults me 10 feet up and forward, before jerking me back into the water. "F*&k!!!" I shout, as I land on my knees, chest deep in kelp. I am instantly reminded of National Geographic footage I once saw of a killer whale launching a dolphin into the air before spiking it like a volleyball back into the ocean.

Matt and Arnaud run towards me to check if I'm alright, trying in vain to hold back their laughter. I pride myself for having a sense of humor that can get the guys laughing, but this is not quite what I had in mind.

As Arnaud fixes the now deflated kite, Matt offers,
"See, you have to geev a lot of slack and pull very very gent-lee. You are pulling pulling zee bar, it picks up too much weend, and become too powerful. Just centimeters is all you need."

I try again and again, with progressive success and manage to keep my truckdriver mouth to a barely audible murmur. It took another hour, but slowly I begin to understand. Where iceclimbing (my former hobby) and boxing (my new favorite pasttime) require sharp, severe and powerful moves, these French hippies were trying in broken English to explain the need for the opposite here: relaxed, barely noticeable maneuvers. Quel sport for a control freak like moi!

After a few hours, I was happy enough for the first day to sustain my kite in the air for a tranquil 20 minutes at a time. How exactly I was to pull this off with a piece of fiberglass strapped to my feet, I hadn't the slightest clue.

By day 2 I am finally able to control the kite and move it in a desired direction. I complete body-dtragging exercises where I allow the kite to tow me through the water from side to side at my choosing. By day 3, I am slated to repeat the body drag exercise and strap the board on my feet, but slow winds sabotage my progress, and after a few hours marked with too many failed launches, including ones by Arnaud, we call it a day.

On day 4 I am due to leave the island by 1pm, but I cram in one last shot in the morning. Arnaud decides to set me up with the leer jets of kites; at 12 sqare meters of surface area, I am guaranteed to be able to launch with even a mere whisper of wind. His boss Francois looks at me and the kite, and in French asks Arnaud if he is sure. Without looking up for even a second while setting up, he answers in the affirmative and I smile. Unlike Arnaud, Francois did not see the giant pout on my face when my kite would not launch on day 3.

Though I appreciated Arnaud's determination to deliver, the power of the kite became immediately apparent and after 10 minutes of maneuvering it, I suspected that the lesson would finish in a Filipino hospital. The tide was low and powerful, and rocks, shells and coral were below my feet. The kite seemed to have a mind of its own, picking up little hiccips of wind and spinning wildly out of contrtol. Though my efforst to contain it were for the most part successful, it was not without a price; my body was dragged violently from point to point, often brushing against coral and shells, and the kite frequently slaps me around in the water.

After three hours of this, Arnaud decides I am ready to ride. But by this point I am exhausted. It feels as thought I had pissed off a mob boss who has held my head in a salty toilet and flushed it repeatedly, while delivering right hooks all over my body. Arnaud asks if I need a break first. It is already 11:00am, so against my better judgment, I decline.

I manage to mount the board and ride for a few hundred feet. My body is fully torqued in order to maintain control of both the board and kite. It is tiring but undeniably fun. I replicate this feat another half dozen times before I decide that I'm exhausted. "One more run and then I need to call it quits," I tell Arnaud. But I had spoken one run too late.

I mount the board one last time but immediately lose control of the kite, which launches me 20 vertical feet in the air. It dawns on me that if I land badly, I will soon be admiring the inside of that Filipino hospital I was thinking about earlier in the day. I shake my feet free from the board and manage to land on them when I am jerked back into the water. There is a dead calm and my heart is beating furiously. I am not sure for a minute but soon conclude that I have not broken any limbs. Arnaud looks both stunned and frightened, until I burst into peels of uncontrollable laughter. Only then does it finally occur to me that at age 33, I may be too old to call kitesurfing mine.

"I like to go out big," I explain between cackles. Arnaud is laughing a relieved kind of laugh, and responds in the same vein:
"Yes, I can see. You don't need me anymore, you do zee jumps like a professional, but without board...Eh maybe next time I take lessons from you..."

I hobble back to the shop only to discover that a shell has punctured my foot and my shin is also bleeding. I have a purple bruise on my left thigh, my eyes are stinging and my cheeks look like two pieces of burnt toast. My neck is tender and my belly is full of enough salt water to fill a tropical fish tank. And though I never hit the ocean floor with my butt, one cheek has a disperse bruise on it from what I can only conclude was caused by the sheer impact of being pommeled into the water, rear-end first. I looked and felt like a mangey, stray dog left outside in the rain, so Arnaud repeatedly insists on nursing my scratches.

Technically speaking, one might say that I succeeded in achieving my goal of learning how to kite surf within 12 hours of instruction. But success has never tasted so salty. I suffer from what my friend Sergei has referred to as FOMO: fear of missing out. Admittedly, my love affair with kiteboarding was a brief one. But what if I had been awesome and had never tried?? What if I had been able to stand without swallowing gallons of seawater and had never known?

At the end of the day, I'm happy to have tried. And, aside from the scratches on my shin, the bruises on butt and thigh, the stinging eyes, the whiplash, and the soarness, I feel like a million bucks.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New Year's Eve Ode to Hong Kong International Airport

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, a journey of eight thousand miles from New Orleans to Manila, Philippines begins with three flights and two layovers for a total of 34 hours of travel. While some may prefer to spend New Years Eve sipping cocktails and dodging confetti, I planned a New Years of being stranded in the Hong Kong airport for 12 hours, waiting for a morning flight to Manila so that I could make it to a New Yorker friend's destination wedding.

But I've never been a huge fan of New Years' Eve and the world's sentimentality for it, as if this one particular day should symbolize something profound. From what I can tell, it's about going to some party with a million people you don't know, or even like, pretending to be thrilled about sharing a special moment. Afterwards, driving home is a life or death version of dodge ball in your car as you try to avoid drunk drivers.

So it wasn't the end of the world for me to spend New Years in an airport, especially because for the most part, my 2010 sucked. This time last year I was getting over a break up. In fact, 2010 for me was the year of the break-ups. After years of being reasonably happy as a single gal in Alaska, somehow last year I spent the first half of the year extricating myself from two progressively dysfunctional relationships, and then spent the second half of the year trying to figure it all out. I also broke up with two jobs. Having left government work by my will, I learned in my subsequent job that the mercenary of an agency director of my former employ (who I once considered a good friend) had personally taken out a bounty on my head. And I also broke up with Alaska. I can't decide whether it was falling through a partially frozen river or getting frostbite the week after that took the glamour out of Arctic winters for me. So, after six years on a roller-coaster of both amazing adventures and brutal winters, I decided it was time for me to move on. The dark and the cold just became too much to bear.

So I had no desire to reflect on all these events with my new friends New Orleans. I was content to have my December 31st be a start a new journey, of 8,000 miles to be exact, which was why I found myself at the Hong Kong International Airport on that day.

Upon hitting the tarmac, I was fully prepared to be physically miserable. I had already spent a layover the day before in Newark International Airport, which had resembled a scene from Dante's Inferno. As the hub of Continental, and a recent locus of numerous snowstorms from a week earlier, it had become a campground for the thousands of stranded passengers who were due to fly on one of the 500 flights that got canceled. By the time I got there, it was only starting to resume flights. People were sprawled on pieces of cardboard, using luggage as pillows. There was a line to the bathroom that streamed out of the facility and around the corner. When an overhead announcement was made that a flight to Ohio was beginning to board, applause erupted; some were reduced to tears.

Though I was relieved to be headed out of there, my 15 hour flight to Hong Kong was, well, a 15 hour flight on a major carrier with about 500 people whose body odor, illnesses, and snoring patterns I grew well-acquainted with. And don't forget the crying babies. I surely couldn't, and managed to get about three and a half hours of sleep, even with the aid of over-the-counter sleeping pills.

Walking through the duty free section at Hong Kong International, I was a touch on the groggy side and couldn't get that weird kink out of my neck, or that aching streak of pain running through my left leg. We arrived at 8pm local time and there were already a few thousand people from four or five international flights, all waiting to get through immigration. Leaving the airport would have required at least two hours' wait, and walking around alone in a new, insanely bustling city (which I do love by the way), up until the wee hours of the night, having about three hours of sleep under my belt, did not sound appealing to me. So I resolved to stay in the airport, stranded in the middle of fifty-some incredibly high-end duty free shops.

And that is when I read what I now believe are the three most beautiful words in the English language: Premium Plaza Lounge. I had heard about these things before but thought them only legend. That is, until I walked through that romantically-lit doorway, greeted by immaculately groomed and attractive attendants, who welcomed me in cheerful Hong Kong English. The place was laden with large, modern yet plush-looking leather couches and arm chairs. There was a full bar, a handful of large flat-screen tv's, an internet cafe, and an all-you-can-eat hot noodle bar and buffet. The lady at the counter explained that I could check into my own room with a bed and private shower for 6 hours and stay in the lounge for longer, food and other amenities included.

I consider myself a fairly frugal traveler, staying in hostels more often than not, paying for bus rides over taxis when I can. But at that moment, I could not hand the lady my $120.00 fast enough. My room had the look of an exclusive spa and the bed was an extra-wide massage table with starch white linens. I immediately stripped my body of its airplane-marinated clothing, took a hot shower in my slate-tiled bathroom, shut the lights, and collapsed on the bed. And slept. And slept. It was that kind of sleep earned from a long, tiresome journey. It was no matter that the bed was narrow; I could have rolled right off and crashed onto the bamboo flooring without cracking an eye lid. On December 31st, 2010, when 11:59pm came and went, a fleet of wild horses could not have dragged me out of my deep and peaceful slumber.

I woke up on New Year's Day. The kinks of pain in my body had vanished. I lapped up a couple bowls of hot noodles, which, on New Years, is good luck in Chinese and Vietnamese culture. I leaned back into the comfy, leather armchair and began mentally reviewing the events of 2010: I recently heard that one ex-boyfriend moved back to his parents and remains there still, and just yesterday I saw that the other moved to another mountain state and started seeing someone new, from the looks of it (at least on facebook) completely unlike me and entirely more appropriate for him. I also heard that the agency director of ill-repute, for many reasons, is in the process of being relieved of her post against her will. As for me, a new job, new friends, New Orleans. And there I was sitting in Hong Kong, well-rested with a noodle-filled tummy, well-prepared to greet my day which eventually would finish in Manila in the arms of a good friend I hadn't seen in six years, on the day before her wedding. Finally, things are starting to be to be as they should.

Happy New Year's dearest reader, I hope your 31st was as blissful as mine in Hong Kong International. May 2011 bring us all better days.