2011 – The Year of Travel

Year 2011 treated me very well. It was indeed the year of travel. Come to think of it, I was home for only about a quarter of the entire year. So how did it end? Just how I imagined it… TRAVELING!

The recent holidays have been my most memorable ever. Aside from the fact that it was my first time to be away from family and friends back home, it was my first time to spend the season doing what I love the most. In a span of nine days, I have been in ten different cities. I met so many amazing people along the way, experienced a lot of different things and saw a bit more of what France’s neighboring countries have to offer. Here are just seven things I learned during my first backpacking experience in Europe:

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How will I spend Christmas?

Gallery

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Whew! Time flew by so fast and it’s already December. I’ve been enjoying my time here and I never felt homesick until I saw that Coca-Cola Christmas commercial made especially for OFWs/Filipinos abroad. I know what I’m feeling is nothing compared to … Continue reading

< One Fine Day in Amsterdam

By far, this is the shortest trip I’ve spent in one city that has so much to offer. It was such a shame that I didn’t get to experience Amsterdam in all its entirety. If you want to maximize your stay, don’t you even dare consider doing what I have just done. Well, if you’re too curious to know, I’m already warning you in advance… nothing juicy or crazy happened. Sex and drugs are not part of the story! :p

We left Paris last Friday at around 12AM via an organized bus tour with fellow Filipinos. Our first stop – Solingen, Germany. After almost 7 hours of driving, we reached the city. When the Gülabi Gerez Stahlwaren store opened at 7:30AM, people went gaga over the very famous kitchen knives, cutleries, pots, pans, plates and even grooming tools (a.k.a. manicure-pedicure stuff my mom would love) such as nippers, scissors, tweezers, nail files, etc. Trust me, outlet stores in the US selling the same things will pale in comparison to the bargain prices here. Even if the bus was only 2/3 full, the compartment was already packed with boxes after just 3 hours of shopping! (And sorry mom, I don’t have any box for you)

By 4PM, we were already in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. We first checked in at the Novotel Amsterdam City which is a bit outside the city center. Since my phone was running out of juice, I decided to stay and just follow the Pinoy group later. I was alone when I left the hotel around 6PM. This is the first time in years that I felt lost in a foreign city! Whenever I go to a new place, I always do some research to get myself properly acquainted with directions, major landmarks and the transportation system. This time, I’ve never done any planning. It was still fortunate that I followed my instincts to not board the wrong train after I bought the wrong ticket. Great thing that English is very widely-spoken here, language is not really a barrier. I was saved by a Dutch couple when they helped me buy the right ticket and accompanied me in the metro going to the central station.

While waiting for my aunt’s call to let me know where they were, I decided that at the very least, I wanted to go and visit the Van Gogh Museum as previously suggested by a friend a few minutes after I posted a Facebook status that I’m in Amsterdam. When I arrived at the right tram station, I was so surprised when I heard someone calling my name. It wasn’t a Pinoy or anybody from our group. It was a former housemate of mine in Paris! She’s on a bus tour as well with other students and they were on their way to the museum too. What a coincidence! I may have started experiencing Amsterdam solo but it turns out I’m not gonna be alone for the rest of the night. Not just with one friend but with a big group of people! After, we went out to have dinner at a chinese restaurant. Nothing special about it except that it’s beside a couple of sex shops and there was a blow-up doll next to our table! Then, we had a couple of beers in a pub while dancing to mostly top 40 hits. I didn’t stay up very late since by 9AM the following day, we are scheduled to check-out to head towards Amsterdam’s outskirts. We visited a cheese farm (Jacob’s Hoeve) and a wooden shoe factory (De Vriendschap). The cheese tasted great but the shoes were… well, for decorative purposes only. Around noon, we started our return journey to Paris stopping only for lunch and the occasional bio breaks.

Overall, the experience was fun and I enjoyed every minute of it. However, I don’t think I will do these very short trips (< 1 day in a city) again. I felt at home when I was in Amsterdam and I really wish I could have stayed there for at least another full day. Nothing beats spontaneity, the experience of getting lost or being on the verge of being lost. That’s when unexpected things present themselves and you might be in for a good surprise. 11.11.11 in Amsterdam – short but sweet!

Viaje del Sol

I was asked by my participants what Viaje del Sol meant. Even if it was my second time to go there, I still didn’t know its proper translation until after I googled it a few minutes ago. So, I said with reservations and simply translated it as “day trip”. I found out that it’s actually “Way of the Sun.” Well, nice try! Here are the highlights of what happened that day:

Ugu Bigyan | Tiaong, Quezon
Augusto “Ugu” Bigyan is a very famous ceramics artist. When we arrived at the pottery haven, we were told by his staff that he was still at the “bukid” (farm). So we just marveled at his creations and they were truly interesting. The place was teeming with artful but functional masterpieces – there were mugs with cartoony faces, woven curtains with ceramic fishes, terra-cotta tiles and ceramic wind chimes. I read that the food there was great there and I will try it some time. A few minutes later, he arrived and I was able to shake his hands. Not too long after that though, I was told by a participant that he overheard Ugu saying that his father had just died. It was an unfortunate moment but I hope his dad is in a better place now.

Sitio de Amor | San Pablo City, Laguna
The first time I went to this resort farm, I brought the first issue of Lonely Planet Philippines because Sitio de Amor was featured there as part of the Viaje del Sol article. I had it signed by the owners, Tito George and Tita Amor Bondad. Yes, we are that close! For my second time, after I stepped off the van, the first thing I asked Tito George was “Kilala nyo pa po ba ako?” (Do you still know me?). He answered, “Oo, di ba ikaw yung nagpa-autograph sa amin?” (Yes, weren’t you the one who asked for our autograph?). Wow! He remembered me.  They are really very warm and accommodating. What I like about this place is that it has a very laid back appeal. Add to that, Tita Amor never fails to prepare a very sumptuous buffet lunch! And that sansrival, heaven!

Lake Pandin | San Pablo City, Laguna
This is one of the city’s seven lakes and to get there, you would have to hike for 10-15 minutes from the main road. Upon arriving, the awaiting bangkeras (lady rowers) will then take you to the other side of the lake via a bamboo raft. The bangkeras are very much into chismis (gossip). They remember well whether a famous person has treated them nicely or if she has been a snobby bitch. That time, we were told that Eat Bulaga host Julia Clarete was spending her birthday on the lake with environmentalist Illac Diaz, her rumored boyfriend. We confirmed that they were indeed there together (and I am sure about them being “together” as a couple too). Anyway, we sang “happy birthday” to Julia and they were gracious enough to transfer to our raft for a photo-op.

Other areas we visited in Laguna:
Lake Sampaloc and Sulyap Gallery Cafe | San Pablo City; Underground Cemetery | Nagcarlan; Tsinelas Street | Liliw

Art, Food, History, Nature, Religion… all in one Sunday

Wandering Solo

“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

The first thing that people asked me after learning that I’ll be taking ten days off work to go around three different Southeast Asian cities is, “Who’s coming with you?” Almost always, they are surprised to find out that I will be traveling alone. It is usual belief that one only enjoys an activity if he has somebody to share the experience with. How difficult is it for a first-time kayaker to go island hopping by himself? How do you finish four different dishes on your dinner table? How do you play badminton alone? How does a rock band sound like if only drumbeats are there for one to hear? Well, there are things that are just too difficult to accomplish by yourself but it is not a bad idea either to do some things on your own.

Perhaps, traveling solo is one challenge that many people may not dare do. Scary. Lonely. Boring. Stressful. Yes, it will be all of that if that is your perspective. Like other free-spirited individuals, I chose to view the experience with a more positive frame of mind: adventure-packed, spontaneous, surprising, tranquil and liberating.

I booked my very cheap 5J tickets last Nov 2009 (emphasis on very cheap: PHP176 for MNL-BKK, USD19 for SGN-MNL). It took months of planning to iron out the itinerary and other details. As the day arrived closer, excitement and anxiety both crept in. It wasn’t my first time to travel alone in a foreign place but this is the first time that I’m doing it outside of a business trip. Not to dismiss the fact that this will last for more than a week.

Time flies quickly when you’re so busy. I was involved in a project and on the day that I was supposed to leave, I crammed two days worth of work into a couple of hours. By 5PM, I finally left my professional hat on my desk and looked forward to the adventure ahead.

The hours spent waiting for flights at the airport, the four hours at sea, the 7-hour wait at the train station, the half-day bus rides and the endless strolls under the sun (and a bit of rain). Time seemed to stand still but these were the moments that let me reflect on the present and where I want to be.

The kababayans (translated: fellow countrymen) who lent me their pen so I can fill out the arrival/departure card. Shared suggestions on what they can do in BKK as first-timers. Satisfied our hunger by eating during the wee hours of the morning. Then, after being friends for three hours tops, we had to finally part ways since I am bound for Koh Samui via a 6AM connecting flight.

The Ang Thong Marine Park snorkeling tour with the excellent dive crew of 100 Degrees East. I was with a Canadian, an American, French and Australian tourists. Funny that fate has brought together the three countries I have seen so far and the one I that want to be in next year. The two young, nice and friendly Economics majors, an American and a Canadian, who were my BKK-Aran busmates, my Thailand-Cambodia border crossing buddies, my taxi-mates bound for Siem Reap, my Angkor Wat-mates. Isn’t it wonderful when total strangers turn into new friends? In Ho Chi Minh City, I stayed at a high school friend’s house. I got to spend a little time learning about the life of Filipinos working abroad. After all the animosity and the unfamiliarity of the past days of wandering, I end up where it feels closer to home. It was a fitting last stop. I had so much fun and I didn’t want to leave yet. I am neither lost nor lonely. I wasn’t soul-searching. Sometimes, being alone lets you open your eyes to new possibilities and you are able to see them clearly because you are free to think. No work, no problems. You become aware and you are able to enjoy the present. You get to be you and at the same time you get to be different. I was alone when I started the journey but I realized that it wasn’t so while I was in it. So do I regret traveling solo? Not one bit.

Clockwise from top left: One of the islands in Ang Thong Marine Park; Emerald Lake; A young girl waiting on the train station bench; A girl selling water after school; Shrimp Paste Stir Fried Rice & Iced Coffee; Welcome statue at Renaissance Koh Samui
Clockwise from top left: Angkor Wat at Sunrise; Four Monks and a Dog; Boy on a ferry while crossing the river; Grandmother and grandchild; Bayon; Fish Amok
Clockwise from top left: Sunset at Moc Bai (Vietnam side of VN-KH border); Bike frenzy; Vendor oustide Reunification Palace; War Remnants Museum facade; Beggar outside Notre Dame; Opera House at night