Tag Archives: Travel

Yangshuo: Silk Ribbon of rivers, jade hairpins of hills

Unending series of karst mountains stood tall, seemingly rising straight out of the river. Wispy-bearded cormorant fishermen set their birds off to get the catch in a while. The boy from Babhnan was on a bamboo raft, cruising in the Yulong river in Yangshuo. 

Bamboo rafting in Yulong River
Bamboo rafting in Yulong River

A short Google ‘research’ before setting out to the sleepy and beautiful, almost mystical city had thrown up Bill Clinton’s famous statement after visiting the region in 1998. Visibly flabbergasted by the beauty, he had then said: “I heard of the name of Li River long ago. Today I visit Li River. It is more vivid and genuine than what I thought before. Nowhere is like Guilin. It makes me think of the traditional Chinese paintings.”

West Street in the morning
West Street in the morning

He had got it partly right. Had he drove a little further down or had talked to the locals, he would have known of the local wisdom embodied in a saying. “Guilin has the best scenery under the heaven, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful.” He missed it by a whisker. Understandable though, world leaders do not often have that much time with them. 

Yellow Cloth Shoal- the picture behind 20 Yuan notes
Yellow Cloth Shoal– the picture behind 20 Yuan notes

The boy had much more time on him, though. One doesn’t get to escape Hong Kong, a maddening city in its centre, everyday. Particularly not in China, getting even more urbanised with crowds that can put even Saigon traffic to shame! Yet, there is a city with no malls. Even Xiapu had one- a humongous WallMart! Yeah, the Tourists have started taking over this hitherto muse of the Chinese poets and painters for centuries, and the travellers, especially backpackers’ hideout after the country finally opened up. 

All set for day's cycling, hiking and rafting
All set for day’s cycling, hiking and rafting

The sun has risen on the city that lies at the confluence of the Li and Yulong rivers, forming part of a waterway system that connects the Yangtze with the Pearl River Delta.

So what if 20 Yuan note has Chairman Mao on the front, I can also pretend!

The boy was in the West Street sipping his coffee and munching on the sandwitch- the really scenic centre of the town with small canals crisscrossing beautiful houses, most converted in cafes and shops now. And it is noisy, busy and crowded any time of the day- the exact opposite of the scenic beauty outside the city- rustic, rural and laid back. Yet, it is worth a visit every evening till you are in the town. Best thing? The legend has it that more English is spoken in the West street than in the rest of China taken together. 

XingPing Village- near the Yellow Cloth Shoal (RMB 20 note scene)
XingPing Village- near the Yellow Cloth Shoal (RMB 20 note scene)

It was time to head to Yulong Bridge for Bamboo rafting in the Yulong River, equally scenic but far less touristy than the Li river. It was to be a lovely day. West Street, out of the town, cycling through the paddy fields to the Moon Hill. Then leave the cycle and go for the short hike to the hill so named because of a natural, crescent shaped arch with beautiful views of the town below. Get back, move on to the Big Banyan Tree, believed to be 1400 years old. Go further and explore some caves if you wish. And then to the Yulong Bridge for the best steal- bamboo rafting on the river so serene and clean that you can see the all the way down to its base! All this as the Karst Mountains look on smilingly. Get back to the West Street and unwind with dinner and wash it down with Liquan, the famous local beer brewed in Guilin. 

A couple by the Yulong River
A couple by the Yulong River

Get up the next day for the famous RMB 20 exploration. The boy was so confused in the beginning with every second person selling him that tour- then he got it. This was to the place which is so famous for its beauty that China prints it on the back of 20 Yuan notes! The traveller in the boy never liked these tours. So he got the maps and the basics- went to the local bus stand. He was in XingPing, an ancient looking village some 45 minutes after. Lost in the rusty charm of the village he had almost forgotten what he came there for. He thanked the aunty when she showed him the Note with Yellow Cloth Shoal on the back and asked- no go? Yes Go, Now go- he almost screamed, thanked her profusely, paid the bill and ran! It indeed was a majestic view. 

Of love and photo shoots
Of love and photo shoots

Next in line was Fuli, the birthplace of the traditional painted Chinese fan, just about 8km out of town. The boy had time on him- so he then went to the village’s pier and set off to Dutou, another village, aboard yet another bamboo raft! Aah, the beauty! Back on the land, an ancient village, 800 years old Liugong right on the banks of Li river was calling. One of the least touristy in the whole area and rather well preserved historical buildings like the Moon Pavilion and Home of Senators, what else could one ask for. Or one could, Near the village were the famous three-color ponds, evidently with three different colours of water supernatural tales. The locals believe that water levels in the ponds remain the same throughout the year, no matter what season it is or how much is the level of the Li River. 

Serenity
Serenity

It was time to head back to the town. To come here again and again. Being in Hong Kong, just 4 hours away allows this, the boy thought and smiled. He had found his paddy fields yet again! 

West Street in the night

He had read about Han Yu’s description of the area 1200 years ago- “The river winds like a green silk ribbon, while the hills are like jade hairpins.”

New Cafe in the ancient village
New Cafe in the ancient village

Xi’an: A return to where Xuanzang came from

Happy birthday, Mr. Paanadey- the girl at reception said extending him a glass of fireball cocktail. She was clearly struggling with the last name of the boy from Babhnan. The twinkle in her eyes and happiness on her face was absolutely real though. The boy though was mighty surprised. How did you know, and realised! Oh, she would. She was checking him in with his passport. So that was why he was made to wait- she had some way to tell her colleagues and get him the drink! Xi’an had had begun on a high- both metaphorically and really! 

Welcome drink for the birthday boy in the hostel.
Welcome drink for the birthday boy

The boy had first known about the city in his history books documenting the travels of Chinese monk’s travels in India centuries ago. Hsüan-tsang was the name he knew him by. How could someone walk thousands of kilometers on feet, he wondered. That too for going to a country he knew nothing about, not even its language. And he lived in India for 17 years. The boy was fascinated. He started dreaming of making the journey back, to the place Hsüan-tsang, known as Xuanzang in his own city. 

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, where Xuanzang returned to
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, where Xuanzang returned to

He was there, finally. He knew, now, much more about the city though. Its rich history, the famous Terracotta Warriors, Pagodas, palaces, and monasteries. Chang’an (Perpetual Peace), as Xi’an was earlier known, was the capital of China for 13 dynasties and 73 emperors- for over 1200 years. Think, if you can, of any other city. Wait, did the boy tell you that the city is home to the biggest ever palace built anywhere in the world! The Weiyang Palace, the main imperial palace of the Han and many of the later dynasties. It was built in 200 BC, just a few years after The Terracotta Army, depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China buried with him for protecting him in his afterlife.

The Terracotta Army
The Terracotta Army

Back to the palace, it covered 4.8 km² (1,200 acres), about 11 times the size of the Vatican City for comparison. Sad that little, if anything, remains of that.

Of course, he first ran to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, the last home of Xuanzang to pay his respects. He went in, paid his homage, chatted with him, and came out. Then he noticed that the pagoda visibly leaned to the west. He was surprised at the same not having gotten the name “Pisa of the East” as every such similarity gets! 

The boy from Babhnan with Xuanzang
The boy from Babhnan with Xuanzang and his pagoda

The evening had started descending, in the city and that birthday of the boy. It was time to head towards the City Wall- first built in 190 BC and built and rebuilt ever since till 15th. The legend is that if you do not do three things before you die, you are not a real Chinese. The three are- climbing on the Great Wall (The boy did), walking/cycling on the Xian City Wall (the boy did), and finally- bamboo rafting on the Li River (the boy did). Gosh, has the boy from the Ganga basin become Chinese or what!! 

Cycling on the City Wall
Cycling on the City Wall

The setting sun had turned the wall golden, a lovely golden rarely seen. The city looked beautiful. The boy cycled. Till he could. Soaking in the view, the history, the happiness. Cycling away to glory, and history!  Just like he would, decades ago on the muddy roads of his small villages thousands of kilometers away. This city was to stay with him, within him, forever. And yeah- temperature was Minus 7 degrees. The first time the boy from the plains had experienced subzero temperatures. He was to have many more. 

The Bell Tower with the Drum Tower in the background
The Bell Tower with the Drum Tower in the background

The sun had set. The city below was glowing below, like a river of colorful lights. It was the time to return for that night- not knowing that yet another surprise was waiting for him in the hostel. The rather warm staff had prepared vegetarian dumplings for him- for the final birthday celebration. How warm their hearts were- just like the dumplings! 

A scene in the Muslim Quarters
A scene in the Muslim Quarters

Aah Xian, my love! Those lovely days. Though never enough to live the city to the fullest. The Terracotta Army alone can keep one engaged for a full day. 

Oh, how did the boy forgot the Muslim Quarters! So bubbly and vibrant that one could just fail to notice that this was the starting point of the Silk Road! Yeah, Xian is the city from where started the Silk Road, and the Muslim Quarter its exact location! The boy had seldom seen such a medley of cultures! And spices, of course! 

Interestingly, the Muslim Quarter begins just after the Bell Tower and ends with the Drum Tower- both so Chinese! Aah, the amalgamation of the cultures!

The Grand Mask of Xi'an: the first mosque of China
The Grand Mask of Xi’an: the first mosque of China

And the Grand Mosque- the first-ever of China. The mosque has an entry fee for tourists- they refused to take from the boy,  thinking that the boy was a Muslim. He thought of telling them that he wasn’t. Then he decided not to. Ultimately they all are the same. He put the money in the donation box instead. 

Naans, Sheermals... Food
Naans, Sheermals…

 

Tai Po: The home three oceans away

You have been living in Tai Po for over a decade, even I have not lived here for so long- said Mr. Cheung, the boy from Babhnan’s new landlord. They both smiled with cheers- he emigrated to Scotland long ago and lives there only. But for the coronavirus lockdown, he would have been back weeks before. 7 in one village, She Shan Tsuen, the boy added.

Lam Tsuen River
Lam Tsuen River

Tai Po is home far away from home he left behind in the Gangetic plains. When he first landed in Hong Kong 13 years ago, he knew that he got to find his hideout in this jungle of glass and concrete. He knew that he would not survive in the matchbox sized flats in the heart of the city, just like those incense trees which gave this city its name. Yeah, they, also called Agarwood, were the mainstay of city’s economy 400 years ago. Their aroma gave the city its name- Heong1 Gong2 (香港) – the Fragrant Harbour.

That lake of light was my earlier village- She Shan Tsuen
That lake of light was my earlier village- She Shan Tsuen

The boy soon found Tai Po- so part of the bustling city yet so different. An area which still sustained farming in one of the world’s finance capitals. A place which still had walled villages- reminiscent of the times gone by. One where most of the villagers know one another sheerly by the long term associations. 

Farmers and the fields
Farmers and the fields

Ping Long in Lam Tsuen was his second home in the city, first in the area. Soon the real first, in Kak Tin village was just a pleasant memory- at times longing for the short walk to the nearest superstore from there. Now the nearest one is almost 4 kilometers and a 20 minutes bus ride away. He remembered his village some 3,300 kilometers away. It doesn’t have a superstore nearby even today. The good grocery shops are all at least 3 kilometers away there as well.

Camping in Tung Ping Chau, an abandoned island
Camping in Tung Ping Chau, an abandoned island

So are the roads, dividing agricultural fields on both the sides. And the greetings, the language barrier might have ensured that you don’t know each other by the name, but you both have lived in the village long enough to sustain a wave, and a conversation with gestures. 

View from my window
View from my window

Tai Po, in fact, is much more than the Lam Tsuen. One part of it is an industrial area, with hundreds of factories. Many of them, of course, abandoned with most of manufacturing shifted to mainland China over the decades. Yet, quite a few chimneys still blowing smoke in the skies, one of the biggest signs of civilsation. 

Tai Mo Shan waterfall
Tai Mo Shan waterfall

There, then is the Lam Tsuen river which walks you through to the sea. A river just about 5 kilometers long, originating in the Tai Mo Shan, the tallest peak in the city and emptying itself in the Tolo Harbour. Even Manvar, the river that flows by his village is much longer, the boy remembered. He remembered Tai Mo Shan too- a hike with over 5 waterfalls, unbelievable for the most who know his city only by the post cards they get and the channels they watch. This is a hike which brings people from all over the city. Also the one which took him over 5 years to take upon as the base of the hike was just about 15 minutes walk from his home- would do someday! 

Elderlies in the Triangle Park
Elderlies in the Triangle Park

And the islands that technically fall under the district despite many of them being over an hour and a half away by ferries. At least two of them, Tung Ping Chau, the abandoned island and a geopark of world importance and Tap Mun are far more closer to the mainland than the city. The boy had to know, once he got a super inflated phone bill after all. When he inquired with the service provider, he was told that he was using roaming data from China. He had seen Shenzhen on the other side of the sea, he had forgotten to turn off roaming though! 

And then there is the Wishing Tree- 10 minutes from his home where the whole city descends during the Chinese New Year making wishes and throwing mandarins up in the air. Wishing, also, that they get stuck on the tree, and guarantee that they come true. Just like the Peepul tree back in his village people flock to. Languages, cultures, rituals- all may be different. Yet, there are a few things that fundamentally unite the humanity and the humans.

Love you, home! 

Sapporo: The Song of the snow

 

The small boy from Babhnan was shivering, excitedly. It was the first snowfall of his life. He had seen rivers of snow in Rara, Nepal. He had also seen a little bit of snow in Xi’an, China, a reminder of the late night snowing when the temperature went sub zero long enough for snowing. But he had never seen it snowing, with the cotton like snowflakes playing with his skin. Born and brought up in the Gangetic plains, he was not likely to! 

In front of International Youth Hostel
In front of International Youth Hostel

And it snowed with the sun out in full glory. Sapporo is going to be some fun, he thought. It was, when a bus driver happily handed him his cap and the driving seat for a quick picture, of course with keys taken off! He remembered their conversation for over half an hour with him knowing no Japanese and the driver knowing no English. The world is indeed beautiful. 

The old government building
The old government building

Sapporo. The great, dry river, as per its meaning in the aboriginal Ainu people’s language. It was indeed. A river of snow, dry and chilling. And Fifth in so many things that one could be forgiven for mistaking its meaning to have something to do with the number 5! It is the fifth-largest city of Japan, on its 5th largest island Hokkaido, and northernmost. Sapporo people joke that one can see Russia from its shores on a clear day. And yeah, they perhaps can.

Odori Park, as seen from the TV tower
Odori Park, as seen from the TV tower

It is also the Alps of Asia, its unofficial winter capital. Renowned the world for its ski resorts and onsen(s)- natural hot springs, travelers seek a slice of the city throughout the year. Yet, come February and the New Chitose Airport gets really really busy with unending lines of visitors for its famed winter festival. The boy from Babhnan was a little early with winter festival still a couple of weeks away, but he could sense the city gearing up for the carnival. 

TV Tower modelled on the Eiffel Tower
TV Tower modeled on the Eiffel Tower

The first thing that surprised him in the city was the cushioned seats in the metro, aka the subway system. He was to know why soon when he accidentally touched a bench by the footpath in subzero temperatures. He also saw the rubber tires of the trains- only one of its kind in all of Asia- this time he did not need to ask why though. 

The canal in Otaru
The canal in Otaru

He was back in Otaru where he had seen his first snowfall, a neighboring city, and once a very important Japanese port decreed by the emperor for trade with the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The decline in the coal industry took away its financial glory but not the beauty of it. Just 25 minutes away from Sapporo by the metro, it has now emerged as a bedroom community as well with many people living there and working in the capital. 

Bigger view of Odori Park
A bigger view of Odori Park

For a city of fewer than 200 years of history, it was officially established in 1868, it has a lot to offer. Including the Eiffel Tower, okay, the Sapporo TV Tower modeled on the more famous one. And Skiing resorts. Dare a little more, and natural onsen(s) are calling you across the province. High in spirits? Go to the beer museum, the city is home to Japan’s first beer, by the same name. Once warm enough, get back to Odori Park- blocks and blocks of trees gelling so well with the urban landscape. The best view, though, is reserved for the observation deck in the TV tower. Do not miss the former Hokkaido government building as well. 

Babhnan to Bus driver in Japan
Babhnan to Bus driver in Japan

And museums! Of modern art. Of the island’s history. A whole village rooted in its past. Head to Hokkaido for a break from the plains. It will not disappoint you. And once settled there head to Moiwayama, or Mount Moiwa. Take the cable car or climb, like the boy did, and soak in the city views. Go there in the afternoon though, to get the best of both- day and night views. See you there, soon. 

 

Phnom Penh: The original not in my name

The boy from Babhnan knew that this encounter was inevitable, that there was no escape. One has to fight his demons, after all. He had braced himself up. Yet he could not take it when it really happened.

In National Museum, 2010
In National Museum, 2010

He was standing in front of the Killing Fields, slightly out of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The execution centre of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979 and killed around two million Cambodians, almost one fourth of the total population. This is where the purged from party cadre imprisoned in the Security Prison 21 (S-21) were brought to get killed. Often with all of their family. The boy had been to S-21, a former school converted into first prison, and now a Genocide Museum! What a sad journey! 

The Killing Tree: Khmer Rouge used to kill kids by banging them against this

The trip had started on a positive note. The boy was there to participate in a United Nations workshop on rebuilding the rural communities. The days were filled with the discussions of hope, of looking ahead. The evenings with real yummy street food- though he could dare try one of the most famous of them all- red ants chutney! Early part of the nights was even more hep and happening- exploring many night markets that dot the capital. Phnom Penh Night Market was his favorite despite the jury preferring the Russian Market more. By the way, you can buy almost anything in the Russian Market barring a Russian! It got the name not for selling them, but because at the height of cold war, Soviets, the biggest, and welcome, expat community in Cambodia visited this market. 

In National Museum, 2018

It was also about long walks by the Mekong Promenade and dining in one of the myriad of Indian restaurants. The ‘vegetarian’ boy from Babhnan was ‘culinarily’ home in the South East Asia for the first time. He thanked the UN which had taken over the country- along with the Vietnam backed liberators for rehabilitation in the post Pol Pot era. They brought Indian curries, the reverse, cuisine colonisers of Europe with them. “Indian” restaurants followed. 

The Royal Palace

There was only a limit to which the boy could delay the inevitable. So there he was. In front of the Choeung Ek- the killing field with Sophary, his colleague. 

The Monkey God: A Constant from India to all of the South East Asia
The Monkey God: A Constant from India to all of the South East Asia

It was a revolution gone horribly wrong and revolutionaries gone paranoid. It was a dream shattered. Not in my name, the boy could hardly tell himself. 

It is not your fault, said Sophary, gently holding his hands. 

Being in Cambodia is like time travel. A country stuck in times gone by, running decades behind the most of the world. It had to be- after the year ZERO, or 1975  when Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge snatched the country from a US puppet regime. They abolished the currency, evacuated the cities and ordered everyone back to the villages. Four years of mayhem ensued. Mayhem that included US carpet bombing against the communists in Indochina- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam killing millions. Communist Khmer Rouge added another million to the tally. 

Flower boys of Phnom Penh
Flower boys of Phnom Penh

Ironically, the latter had their own completely understandable reasons for getting paranoid. US led forces were not only bombing Indochina to get rid of the Reds, they were also killing communists with CIA made lists in the countries with allied governments in the region. Indonesia, for instance, had witnessed the killing of half a million members of communist party! 

Ironically, once communist North Vietnam supported forces defeated the Khmer Rouge and ousted them, US immediately allied with them and kept supporting the Pol Pot led government in exile as the legitimate representative of the country in the United Nations! It ended up sheltering him too, where the UN indicted war criminal finally died peacefully! 

The Killing Fields Monument
The Killing Fields Monument

Yeah, truth is far more stranger than imagination. So is history! History that changes Tuol Sway Priyala School into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Choeung Ek orchard into killings fields and a die hard communist Pol Pot into an American protegee! 

Later, resting at the steps of magnificent Wat Phnom, Sophary told him that the younger generations of the country hardly remember the horrors their parents and grandparents lived with. This gives me hope, she giggled, hope that nothing is beyond redemption. It also scares me, she sombrely added- we need memories to guard us from falling in the same pit again.

They agreed and went on the memory trip: the Royal Palace, the Wat Phnom, both night markets, the National Museum. 

And being friends with locals, a gem unknown- a RO RO Ferry trip to the other side of the Mekong- at least 30 years back in time! Don’t miss the last one!  

Ningde: Where the sea became farms

It was so surreal. Bamboos rose out of the sea, all the way till eyes could sea. The boy from Babhnan was in utter disbelief a second time in China. Yet to come out of rice farming on the mountain terraces in Longji, and here the sea had become farmlands growing Bamboo… Like how come, he asked Lin, his driver and the guide in Ningde, the coastal prefecture in China famed for perhaps the most beautiful mudflats in the world! 

In Xiapu's Most famous sea farm
In Xiapu’s Most famous sea farm

Lin had a hearty laugh. They are farming seaweed, not bamboos, bamboos are there merely for drying weeds. It makes the autumn harvest easier. 

Mudflats, also called tidal flats are many things. Found in coastal wetlands, they are a very important part of the ecology, a refuge for many species both of flora and fauna. The last thing one could imagine about them, though, was beauty, breathtaking beauty to be precise! What can be so beautiful about long expanses of mud, just mud, the boy had thought before undertaking this journey. He had nonetheless as he was intrigued by the pictures scattered across the internet. Pictures screaming that these were perhaps the most beautiful mudflats indeed. 

See the girl in the mudflats?

They proved to be. They were a delight for photographers, even for the amateurish ones like the boy who would often keep the DSLR aside, daunted by its hundred controls and take recourse to his phone. Comes the sun, and the rays turn them into paintings capable of putting even the best of the abstract painters to shame! Former Sea Gypsies, the human ones, start their work walking on the mudflats, and they start looking magical! Whole villages, of course floating ones, on the sea. And the miraculous Kelp, a type of seaweed, that grows over half a meter a day and is sort of the hinge on which mudflats lives hinge upon. 

And of course, they were a refuge for escaping the maddening chaos called metropolitan cities, a gateway to the times gone by. 

Mudflats are also an opportunity for a mere human to emulate Jesus, and all others known for the legends like walking on the water! Comes the high tide and they disappear despite being firmly there- walk on them and those looking at you from far away can take you to be the next prophet. Not a bad thing, no? 

A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!
A such a convincing fakery of village life in Rural China, it was all staged!

Mudflats are also a celebration of sheer human endeavor that can move the mountains as cliche would have it. They can also farm the sea, the boy was to know in Ningde. Yeah, all kinds of seaweed along with fishing and crabs and what not. All of this in beautiful gear in super vibrant colors, all of which are locally innovated. They could also build whole villages on the sea, a properly functioning ecosystem. 

Receding tides, leaving day's catch behind
Receding tides, leaving day’s catch behind

Why did they choose to live on the sea, it is not easy, the boy suddenly realized. Lin came handy. His English was very rudimentary, my Putonghua did not even exist. But we were both armed with the magic called smartphones with Baidu App though- you speak into it in English and it translates that into Putonghua and vice versa. As expected, the gut feeling of the boy proved to be true.

They did not choose to live on the sea. No one does, knowing the vagaries of nature. They were rather forced to as they were Tanka people. The Outcasts of China, with many theories of their evolution. The most plausible one of them identifies as the descendents of one of the ethnic minorities, meaning non-Han Chinese people, from the first millenium BC and condemned to fend for themselves ever since. That they did, and did with elan. Exiled from the lands, they converted the seas into farmlands. They were denied a life, they built another. 

Village on the sea… These huts you see are real homes

Tanka people are not treated badly anymore, Lin volunteered. They were brought back in the mainstream after the Peoples’ Republic of China came into existence, he added. You support the party, I asked Lin. A boisterous laughter was the reply- we do not talk about politics here in China. 

Sam and the Seaweeds
Sam and the Seaweeds

I am definitely coming back here, the boy from Babhnan thought, six days were just not enough for a place this enchanting. There was so much left to know, like that colourful parade he came across. Lin had made him tick them all. Dong Bi, Xia Qing Shan, Ba Chi Men, Xiao Hao, Beiqi, Nan Wan, Yangjiaxi, Sha Wan, Yantian, the ancient town whose name he forgot. Yet he got to come back. To celebrate human endeavour. To salute the Boat People! 

With Lin.
Lin, the local

Manila Meandrings: Audacity of hope

Richell’s smile was infectious, her hope audacious. The boy of Babhnan was in Manila, the pearl of the East, as they called it because of its strategic location in the Asia Pacific region. They were chatting in a yellowy darkness that reminded the boy of his village some 4,500 kilometers, two oceans and several seas away. The ambience was eerily similar, reminiscent of those 200 watt yellow bulbs that hanged precariously in decaying holders and gave a twinkling yellow light that sickened more than illuminating. They hanged on, nonetheless.

With Children in Cavite
With children in Cavite

So did Richell, the bright and beautiful young girl. Sitting in the verandah in front of her room that she shared with seven others. All she had of her own was a bunker bed with no privacy other than a big and coarse curtain that could lock her 6 into 6 feet space out of others’ eyesight but could not stop noise, or even light from seeping in. Yet she laughed, and laughed a lot. She dragged the boy inside to have a ‘feel’ of her life and once inside, proudly showed him the teddy bear she had bought, no got as she corrected herself, a few days back. Her eyes twinkled when she talked of her dreams. She had no qualms against sharing them with me, a rank stranger until just half an hour ago.

With Richell and her friends and colleagues
With Richell and her friends and colleagues

Manila was going to be different, very different, the boy from Babhnan thought. He decided to give monuments a miss this time. He would meet people instead. 

Richell’s dreams seemed so out of place in that dingy verandah.Yet,she had the courage to chase her dreams. The girls of his village would dare not, or they would be sacrificed at the altar of patriarchy for the ‘crime’.

His ride to their ‘home” had been tough and uneventful. Having decided to dump a cab ride, he had taken a bus followed by a signature Filipino Jeepney and then a ride in that claustrophobic tricycle that cages you on small shaded compartment attached to a motorcycle or a cycle. The route ran, almost along the seashore that defines the boundaries of Metro Manila, as the national capital region is known there. It passed by Freedom Islands, ironically named so, that are home to the boathouses and the skyscrapers coming next to it, which would gulp the boathouses soon. Notices are already out and served on them.

City Hall, built in 1939

Richell’s journey was much longer and tougher. Masabate, the city she calls home, is not merely geographically distant from Manila, it is almost a different country, poorer and lacking of opportunities. But then, her old and ailing parents lived there, they still do, and it was there where she was pursuing her college degree in Information Technology. Ask her what brought her, then, here and what you get is another burst of laughter that could hardly conceal the pain seeping through her eyes. No work there, why else, she replies. Ask her about the IT course that she left midway and she points towards a roommate, she has an IT degree as well, no use. The roommate nods, giggles and then all of them burst into a collective laughter.

Leya does a Rizal, national hero of the country

Laughter, the boy was soon to realize, is not born merely out of the sheer audacity of their hopes. It was their weapon too, to reassure them that they have not lost everything, The laughter and the hope kept them afloat in a country that alienates them from their own labour, from their own bodies. It is intoxicating. It gives them the delusion they need the most.

You have a boyfriend; the boy suddenly asked Richell and saw her blushing for the first time. The reply, hastily put together with an invitation to have dinner with the group, is a coy ‘not yet’.

The story was the same; be it Irene, a single mom. Or Maribel, a fisherwoman in ironically named Freedom Island. The government was trying to relocate them to mountains, she informed. And giggles, fisherfolk to mountains, the government got some good sense of humour! 

Museum in Rizal Park
Museum in Rizal Park

And Leya, an activist. And Dayan, my colleague. Or Freddie, a vendor in the Rizal National Park. I have been living here since 1972, Freddie tells me. My wife died here, he adds. He had slept in the makeshift bed inside his stall ever since. Wanna try, he asks the boy. He readily agrees. 

Jeepney: US Military jeeps modified into passenger whatever

The boy did manage to go to some of the monuments, just for the pictures’ sake. And he stole a trip to Taal Volcano, a live one. The boy from the plains seeing the lava of a volcano! It is mere 100 kilometers away from Manila, and one thing you should not miss if you ever happen to be in Manila. 

Lava in Taal Volcano

And of course there are more places, one of the most beautiful of them being Manila Bay walk. I have passed by many of them, but not quite visited. Just like locals who hardly wink at touristy places in their own cities. People there become far more important than them. 

Richell’s laugh was the souvenir the boy brought back from Manila, a laughter so uncontrolled and unabashed. And her belief in the future. The audacity of that belief which can make anyone believe in humanity. Can we save the smile for our children, the boy asked himself. He had no answer!

Hope…
« Older Entries