Reading, Writing, Walking
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Rosh Hashanah in Israel

"Hagsame!" exclaimed a familiar voice onstage and I realized it was Jamie Green (in photo) of the Living Kabbalah System or referred to as "LKS" Level 1. His voice guided me in my first dip into Kabbalah six months ago.. and now, I find myself in Israel celebrating Rosh Hashanah (New Year) with 3000 students from all over the world.
This is the first of everything for me - my first participation in a Kabbalah event, first time to be face-to-face with its founders - Rav Berg, his wife Karen, their sons Michael and Yehuda; first time to do mikveh; first time to be in Israel and the first time for the Kabbalah Center to have an Asian contingent- this is 12 of us from the Philippines.
I didn't know what to expect. Kabbalah is being touted not as a religion but more of a spiritual technology, as a self help guide towards lasting fulfillment using ancient teachings.
What drew me to attend this event was when David Ghyam, the 23-year old L.A.-based teacher in one of his lectures in the Philippines, said that Rosh Hashana is an opportunity "to wipe the slate clean"; to correct not only the negative actions of the last 12 months but also issues from past lives. He said that this is made possible through the confluence of several powerful forces during this specific period in time and for this year its from Sept 12 to 15.
There was indeed some kind of powerful force present. I was in tears while singing and clapping, I was moved by the lectures, I felt some tingling sensation in my fingers and burning sensation in my ears. I just let go and was open to everything including the blowing of the shofar, the scanning of armaic letters and also in fact going to the ocean every morning (except on Shabbat) to do mikveh. This involves immersing the entire body into the water while doing specific meditations as a form of healing.
The bottomline learning during the event is to treat everyone with human dignity; to put others before ourselves which is actually the basic tenet of any religion which can be referred to as the golden rule “do unto others what you want others to do unto you” or even ‘love thy neighbor’.
The whole process involves changing of consciousness. Michael Berg said in his lecture the last day that “the way we view something changes the way it occurs.” I guess this is what is meant by wiping the slate clean. Berg said that, where consciousness is, is where our history is, and thereby we can transform retroactively today.
Kabbalah is not an easy task. It requires constant study to learn the process to become better. Kabbalah encourages to love without reason (unconditional love), to go beyond conflicts (unity), to find joy and happiness in what has already been given (appreciation), resist the desire to react to instinctive impulses (reaction) and to accept responsibility for own actions (accountability).
The world operates on a cause and effect. Whatever happens may be the result of a negative action that we have done a moment ago, yesterday, a week before, last year or even previous lifetimes. In a nutshell, another familiar voice from LKS Level 2 Michael Moscowitz sums up the best advice to resist reacting “when in doubt, shut up!”
Thursday, September 27, 2007


(Part 4, Dos Palmas)

While we were still planning the trip, i was resistant to the idea that we stay at the bay cottages. What was so hot about staying at a cottage standing on stilts out in the open water? What if the high tide rose and rose and drowned us in our sleep? Or a wayward shark decided to ram the stilts and have us for a midnight snack? And so on.

As i was outvoted by my friends, we eventually did stay at bay cottage no. 8. And it turned out to be one of those small serendipitous things that spell the crucial difference between a so-so vacation and a truly enjoyable one.

Why? Because the clear waters beneath the bay cottages were teeming with fish, lots and lots of fish. And they weren't the Nemo-type fish better suited for aquariums. . .these were real fish that you could actually eat, and there were schools and schools of them frolicking in the water with nary a care in the Neptune world. (well, at least it seemed that way)

Pretty soon, R.C. got into the habit of asking the Dos Palmas staff for leftover bread, which we broke into little bits and started throwing into the water to feed the fish. Some of these guys literally leap to the surface and gulp down the bread, while others are more poised, and simply take a quick nibble at the floating bread.

At times, two or more fish collide with each other while in pursuit of our bread, which proved quite entertaining. To liven things up even further, we throw many bits of bread into the water simultaneously, and watch as around a dozen or so fish converge on the morsels. Wow! And just for kicks, once or twice we threw in a whole slice of bread, and the fish all furiously swam towards it, each one biting off his or her respective chunk. Talk of an underwater stampede!

There is just something oddly therapeutic about feeding the fish, its like time slows down. Eventually, we were feeding the fish in the morning, then whenever we were in our cottage during the afternoons, and then late in the evening after dinnertime. I think nabondat sila [they stuffed themselves to the gills], since during late nights they sometimes refused to bite into the bread anymore.

To illustrate how extreme this new hobby grew, i was soon taking bread rolls from the buffet spread just for our fishy friends. Then we noticed that some types of fish were slower than others, and thus always getting left behind in the race for the bread. So we tried aiming the bread bits very close to them, with positive results. Ahh. . .it's a great feeling knowing you've done your good deed for the year, haha :-D

Then yours truly hatched an evil plot. Why don't we catch the fish and have them cooked? We could spread some sunblock on the bread before throwing these into water, and as the fish gobbled them up, they would get dizzy from the chemical smell and weird taste; thus, easy to catch! Unfortunately, this brilliant plan didn't get off the ground, due to the inconvenient fact that Dos Palmas strictly prohibited anyone from catching the fish. Darn!

One sunny morning, we noticed that some schools of fish were gathered together in circles (see photo above). What could they be doing? We tried throwing bread in their midst, to see if they would pursue it.

Nope, they weren't biting. Absolutely nothing could disturb them.

So, what could they be doing? Were these fish all part of one big family, and it was their weekly Sunday morning get-together? What were they talking about? The latest weather report? The new neighbors two nautical miles away?

Not about those three bums throwing all sorts of stale bread at them, i hope.

(For the rest of the Dos Palmas series, pls. check out my blog at

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Monday, September 17, 2007
one trip down One Quiapo Lane

I wake to the sound of metal scraping. I sit up and peer with grogginess through our half opened bedroom window. I wrinkle my nose as I catch a whiff of a strong sour stench emanating from a floor down, almost knowing that a certain neighboring storeowner has ever so inconspicuously dumped his garbage again in front of our store sometime in the dark of the night.
Two stray cats rummage the trash for salvageable feline necessities. In the middle of the narrow bumpy road of Evangelista Street, a group of boys has started their own version of a soccer game by kicking an empty rusted tin can around thus, making the scraping sound that woke me. I rub my eyes then I start to get ready for school.

It is the eighties. My family has lived on the floor right above our appliance store since the early seventies. My Chinese-Filipino family thought it wise to have work and home close to each other. Right here where it once thrived as a river village with abundant water lilies named Kiapo. Hence, Quiapo. This is the district where the unique third-world dreamlike experience is strong with grittiness. This is where people come for the cheap bargains from electronics to native handicrafts, otherwise called Manila’s downtown. This is the place I’ve come to call home for most of my first ten years of existence.

After I’ve been forcibly fed a bowl of oatmeal, my yaya takes me by the hand and leads me out to the busy streets of Quiapo. Right across our appliance store is an old man early at work engraving epitaphs on marbled blocks. He waves his hand and calls out, “Magandang umaga!” My yaya greets back. I smile in answer.

The street is slowly coming alive as some storeowners have decided to open shop early today. There aren’t much people walking in the streets yet, mostly just the homeless getting up from their banigs or balikbayan-box-beds. Stereos begin blaring on both sides of the street; owners believing the notion of the more noise they make, the more customers they’ll attract.
I look down at the concrete navigating my way around phlegmy spit and careful not to soil my black newly polished school shoes in anything as nasty as muck. Most likely horse dung since kalesas or colorful horse-drawn carriages are popular in this part of town. Another colorful means of transportation, with even more adornments and accessories than a fashionista, is the jeepney. A group of them huddled in a corner of the street waiting for passengers. My yaya and I get in one of them. The driver honks at the jeepney blocking the way, whose driver angrily yells, “Paliparin mo!” The jeepney finally moves as a cloud of thick dark smoke spews out from the muffler. We then head for school.

Hours after, after classes, my yaya and I get dropped off by a pedicab at Plaza Miranda because I usually get a pink cotton candy on the walk back home. The plaza is packed, as expected during afternoons, with vendors selling and people buying rosaries, Sta. Nino statuettes, herbal medicine, and even love potions. We pay for the cotton candy and move deeper into the crowd and closer to the renowned Quiapo Church, otherwise known as St. John the Baptist Church. The church houses the Black Narazene, which many religious devotees claim to bring miracles. As a child, naivety makes you believe anything’s possible. I always smile at the thought of seeing miracles.

Just a few feet away from the church are rows upon rows of fortune tellers which I always found funny because of the rather close proximity of religion and the mystic world. I waved hello to the manghuhula who foretold weeks ago that I’d get married by the age of twenty-seven and bear ten kids. We pass men selling funny-looking bright-colored bird puppets and plastic yoyos; men in low crouches looking the sinister type to pounce and mug you. Unbothered, I put a pinch of cotton candy in my mouth and let the pink puff melt on my tongue as we stroll out of the busy plaza.

* * *

Months after, my family moves out of the store’s second floor and into a house. I have never set foot again in Quiapo since. Until just last month, my mother needed some stocks delivered to our store in Quiapo so I decided I’d visit my hometown, see how it is and if it’s still as grubby and frenzied like how I remembered it almost two decades ago. I decide on wearing old sneakers, expecting to get my feet dirty from the grimy downtown pavement. I call Miyagi to brush up on my martial arts to fend off thugs and muggers. So imagine my shock when I finally see my old home again.

My voice gets trapped in my throat. Yes, it’s still the same feisty place heady with personality but better. A blanket of filth from its signature garbage piles in the streets, fecal matter, the homeless and the disorderlies to the dark gloomy atmosphere… majority has been chiseled off to show a cleaner place with a little more structure.

I stand in awe in front of our appliance store and take in the lively go-getting mood of the district. I see the shop which does the epitaphs for the dead is still there right across the street but not the same man at work from twenty years ago. With the roads less congested, I go out for a walk and see if the old church is still up and running. It still is. Seeing it for the first time again gave me a rather nice surprise --- Quiapo Church is a sight now; Plaza Miranda is stripped bare of the swarming vendors to reveal to me its gloriously clean tiles. It truly is a wonder. I ask a little girl selling sampaguitas, where all the vendors are now. She points to the side streets of the church.

True enough, the vendors have moved to a more concealed area. It still caters to the masa for bargains from the mundane to the spiritual. I see branded imitations, cellphone accessories and pirated DVDs in every corner. The market is where having the right haggling techniques could bag you the cheapest buys.

The palm-readers and the fortune-tellers are still there. Candles in all imaginable colors are sold for specific spells. Wooden or plastic statuettes of Mother Mary and the Sto. Nino, rosaries of all sizes, a plethora of dried or powdered leaves, seeds and roots of medicinal plants. A wide choice of sidewalk and turo-turo cuisine for the adventurous palate.

My tummy doesn’t feel bold today. I walk over to a cotton candy stand right beside the Quiapo Church. I plop a tiny ball of candy in my mouth and becomes nostalgic. I think of the years spent here. I remember the fortuneteller’s hula that I’d get married at twenty-seven (HA!). I remember about the Nazarene and its miracles. I gaze out to the extraordinary change Quiapo has gone through. And I smile and let the pink puff melt in my mouth.

Saturday, September 08, 2007
A Week with the Burma Babes

It took a lot of personal conviction to go to Myanmar. Trained in political sociology in the United States, one just did not visit Myanmar if one was politically correct. Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement has been ruthlessly stilled by the ruling military junta and Aung San Sui Kyi has been under house arrest since 1990. Indeed my first apprehensions were further pronounced by the fact that I was traveling to Myanmar with five other women that I did not know. We met in the Bangkok airport, having been introduced to each other via email by an American woman who lived in Jordan. We were then a bunch of women from different countries, living each of us in a second country, off to Myanmar with plenty of misgivings.

By the time we arrived in Yangon, we had dubbed ourselves the Burma Babes and had exchanged enough information to know that really the world is a very small place.
Dianne our French Canadian friend (“Dianne” must be pronounced the French way she insisted) had already appointed herself the life and soul of the group, while Kathy from Jordan was going to be the de facto leader. Rosemary, June, Janet and I were glad to be corralled and marched.

Arriving in Yangon, I was struck by the fact that the immigration desks were manned by young pleasant women sitting behind low counters, none of the surly armed junta I had anticipated, behind barricades. Our tour guide, a young breathless woman in a traditional longhi (long skirt) and a man (the tour manager) were standing past the immigration barrier to greet us and take us out to the parked vehicle. In a totally forgivable mistake, they had not anticipated that six women would have at least six suitcases (large) and accompanying hand luggage. But pile into the van we did on top of the luggage amidst groans and laughter and we were delivered to our hotel. The Kandawagi Palace hotel was grander than was expected, with nicely appointed wood paneled rooms with a view of the lake. A safety deposit box in the room took away one of the serious apprehensions I had about being a tourist in Yangon and losing all my personal belongings.

Our first destination was the Bogyoke Aung San Park which was just outside our hotel. Our tour guide, Sandra, had her English practiced to an art form but her pronunciation would have us looking either amused or befuddled. She had a particularly funny way of saying “rail” for “royal” and“bellis” for “palace” and considering the number of royal palaces we passed, we burst into laughter at every turn. A walk through the park and several photos later we were taken through the charming 19th century-feel downtown area to the beautiful octagonal Sule Pagoda. Being in the middle of the busiest streets it was little harrowing as we were accosted by a number of beggars demanding dollars. We were intrigued by the yellow clay-like patches that were it seemed smeared purposefully on faces, especially on women. These we found later were a combination of sandal wood paste and bark and were a sun block-cum -disinfectant. Soon the 6 Burma Babes had their faces suitably plastered as well; we agreed we looked like extra-terrestrials but certainly happy ones. A walk through the Aung Sang market (formerly Scott Market) gave us an interesting flavor of local wares and we bargained mercilessly over rubies which we knew were no cheaper here than anywhere else in the world. There was a dearth of craft shops except for one upstairs which we discovered by accident.

We saw some glorious stupas and pagodas in Yangon, the most spectacular in size and magnificence of course being Shagawan Pagoda which is a sprawling mix of stupas and spires in a gold, white, dark green and dark red, with the famed gold covered stupa in the center. We were there at sunset and the warm evening glow reflected gold off the stupas, while there was a cool breeze wafting. The main platform is inlaid with marble and I would think would be very hot during the day. As you walk around, you discover various resting places. I was struck not only at the amount of devotees at the little shrines, but also at the number of monks who freely floated through the compound, sometimes praying, sometimes just sitting at the zayats (resting places) and chatting to passerby with ease and abandon quite different to other Buddhist countries in the region.. One intriguing aspect of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar (unlike its neighbor in Sri Lanka) is that it has integrated comfortably with certain aspects of Hindu-Brahmanism of the original traders, with ancestor worship and with ancient nat (animism) worship that had preceded all else. This was evident in the worship of ancillary gods and animals in the little stupas to the 37 primary nats that were interspersed around the golden pagodas. We were told by our guide that we had to go to the stupa that stood for the day of the week in which we were born and then pour as many cups of water as our age onto the shrine, Considering that we were all past middle age (!), there was much water pouring and accompanying merriment. We hoped that we did invoke the necessary blessings needed for our advancing ages!

We had to make a detour to have tea at the famous Strand Hotel, known from British colonial times for the genteel class. We sat in the high ceiling lounge and sipped our tea, imagining the glorious colonial days when the rooms were cooled with hand pulled fans by Indian turbaned waiters. The National Museum just across from the Strand Hotel we avoided, having made a unanimous decision that we Burma Babes were going to concentrate on history that was “living”. .

One of the major fortes of our team leader Kathy was that she was a connoisseur of food, while Dianne, coincidentally, was a photographer of food. Our first lunch was at Panaga Restaurant recommended by Ms Elly, an interesting Burmaphile, and a single Dutch woman who visited Burma and never left. She had told us to order a green tomato salad and a winged bean salad, both of which were delicious, tangy and different.

The evening meal was a testimony to Kathy’s splendid research. We dined on French food at the opulent Governor’s Residence. The old colonial bungalow, situated on stilts in a lotus pond, was something to behold in lamplight; old Japanese red, yellow, white umbrellas were part of the lighting that cast a romantic glow while frogs croaked in unison in the water. This was I think the only time on the trip that we took out our good clothes and dressed up for dinner.

We had to be up at 4 am (something that was already becoming the norm) to take our flight to Mandalay. The guide books had already warned us that we were not to expect much in Mandalay but having been of the generation that was brought up on Rudyard Kipling, we were not going to give up our one chance of being “on the road to Mandalay”. We were met by our guide, Macan, speaking much better English than our previous guide (though she did say “pakora” for “pagoda” giving me visions of Indian fried food). We were taken, tired and drooping after our early morning flight, to a local Buddhist monastery in time for noon day prayers and almsl. Hundreds of tonsured monks clad in deep red/orange filed past us with eyes on the ground and begging bowl clasped for their only meal for the day. The younger monks – sometimes as young as 7 or 8 years old – were having a hard time being quiet and an even harder time sitting still while the chanting was going on. We quietly made our way to the kitchen area and were amazed at the size of the cooking vessels and the amount of rice and vegetables that had to be cooked to feed the 800-strong religious order.

That evening we were taken to see the world’s largest book, an amazing collection of white little temples at the Kuthodaw Pagoda – 1780 of them in all – housing the Tripitika or the Buddhist canon recorded in Pali script on marble slabs. While the sheer magnitude of the undertaking was awe-inspiring (they say it took 2,400 monks six month to recite the full text), the complex was badly maintained and we were dispirited to see the number of little kids begging in the premises. We left hurriedly and raced up Mandalay hill to reach the top (unfortunately with hundreds of European tourists) and watch the sunset across the dry plains. This is definitely a popular tourist site and well developed with covered stairways and 1729 steps (groan!) right to the top. The trick is to linger past the sunset hour as the tourists lessen and there is a lovely cool breeze that wafts up to the top.

Dinner that night was in a restaurant called The Irrawaddy Dream and sure enough we sat on a raised platform by the muddy Irrawaddy and dined on a tamarind leaf salad and some succulent meat dishes while the mosquitoes had a tasty treat of our toes! The food was served on traditional dark brown and black lacquer plates which we admired.

We were up again the next morning at 4 am (did I say we were getting used to this?!) and went to the dock to take the south bound Pyay Ferry as we were going to Bagan by boat. The boat we boarded was not like we had expected. We had been told that we should take everything from food and water to toilet paper for the 10 hour trip to Bagan . We were pleasantly surprised to find reclining airline seats in the interior cabin and a large dining area with tables and chairs. The Burma Babes opted to monopolize one whole area of the dining area when it was discovered that cold beer was on the menu. The ten hour trip was thus pleasantly spent and we got into the languid mood of the slow, meandering river, read and even slept. The boat stopped twice and women and children waded, sometimes neck deep, with all their clothes on to sell fruit and colorfully woven fabric to those on the boat. The Irrawaddy river is Myanmar’s life line and the center of its rice culture and we were happy to traverse some part of its 1,350 miles by boat.

I think one of the highlights of the trip for me and certainly one that will remain in my mind’s eye was approaching Bagan by water while the sun was going down on the horizon. The entire plains, studded with pagodas of all sizes and shapes and as far as the eye can see, was bathed in golden light. Bagan (also known as Pagan) was the old capital and now though deserted, has to be one of the most remarkable religious cities of the world. Between 1057 and until Kublai Khan’s forces over ran the area, some 13,000 temples, pagodas, kyaungs and other religions structures were built on this vast plain. Now seven centuries later, 2,217 of these temples and pagodas remain.

Our guide, a man with impeccable English and who we dubbed immediately “Mr. Handsome,” put us on horse drawn carts for our trip to the hotel. This was again one of those sublime moments, trotting past the silhouettes of several pagodas as the moon began to rise higher in the sky. The next morning we went to the Shwesygon Temple, Bagan’s greatest temple and the center of prayer and reflection for the Theravada Buddhist faith. But that day, far from quiet reflection, hundreds of people had brought food and money as alms for the monks as it was the annual temple festival. Some of the most intriguing gifts were “money trees” of paper cash made into beautiful patterns of trees and then gifted to the monks. The young monks or novitiates were proudly walking around with the decorated cash and were happy for a photo opportunity. As this festival only happens once a year (in the Myanmar month of Nadaw, or November), we were extremely lucky to have chosen that day for our visit. It is said that the festival is popular because nat (spirit worship) was combined with Buddhism in the pagoda’s construction and so people from the rural countryside come as much to worship the 37 nats contained in a small hall to the southeast of the pagoda as the Buddha.

Tired but satiated, we then visited the Ananda Temple whose whitewashed edifice (with stunning magenta bougainvillea in front) stands out on the plains. Completed in 1091, it is considered the masterpiece of Mon architecture. However the condition of the temple reminded us of the long periods of anarchy and neglect in Myanmar.

Our lunch was at the Green Elephant Restaurant, beautifully situated by the river with sand banks in front and mountains forming a blue backdrop.. We decided on the Burmese “set menu” with chilies and pickles ordered on the side. Indeed all of us found the food in Myanmar to be quite mild and had got into the routine of asking for extra chilies. This was a little unexpected given the centuries of Indian influence. Perhaps also as a (misplaced) gesture to the tourists in the hotel, it was rarely that we were served kaw swey or the famous Shan Sticky Rice Noodles for breakfast. The Burma Babes were simply not into toast, jam and breakfast cereal and after politely accepting these in the first two days, we got into the routine of telling the hotel that we would in fact like a traditional Burmese breakfast. In the subsequent days we slurped our spicy chicken broth and noodles with great delight.

Our hotel in Bagan, Thirpyutsaya Hotel was a Japanese joint venture and the nicest we stayed in both in terms of its spectacular location and comforts. The hotel was right by the river, with large lawns in front and back and individual cottages as rooms. Our night meals were served on the lawns with candlelight and a wonderful local dance performance. It is evident that Myanmar’s tourism ministry is trying hard to improve the hotel infrastructure in the country and attract visitors despite the US embargo on traveling there. Certainly the French and other Europeans did not seem daunted by the travel restrictions. .

The next day started early (was there any other way?!) to take the hot air balloon over Bagan. Imagine the trepidation, coupled with excitement, capped with awe as we floated above the temple-studded plains as the sun rose over the horizon. A magnificent ride was made more special by the French guide and the champagne breakfast!

We had decided that a visit to the Abode of the Gods, Mount Popa, was in order. I was not keen on the climb as I had heard of the monkeys that had made their home on most of the stairs up to the temple and their aggressive antics when confronted by tourists. So I opted to stay below and nurse a cold drink at a local restaurant while the others bravely did the climb, along with Mr. Handsome our guide who had a large stick which he was happy to wield. I was relieved to hear when the others got back that there really was not much to be seen at the summit other than the shrine to the Mahagri Nats. A better idea and one that we pursued later was to drive up to the new Mount Popa Resort which gave a spectacular view of the funny-shaped Mount Popa (which means “flower in Sanskrit) from afar. The resort itself I would recommend for anyone wanting a quiet holiday in a scenic setting. Just ask for cottages 701 or 801 which have the best views!

The next morning, early of course, we were off to Heho and the South Shan State, by plane. Our guide Evelyn was there to meet us. She had by far the best English skills and we thought it quite strange that the further we got from Yangon the better the English skills. Evelyn was in her early 60’s and thus we discovered the secret to her success. Those who had been to schools during the British period (1886 to 1945) and immediate post colonial times, had the best opportunities to study English. The young people today are dying to learn English but there is a real paucity of English teachers, even in the capital cities.

We took a bus to the dock, stopping on route at a quaint old monastery over run by cats. The priest there had trained a cat to do some circus like tricks and this was it seemed quite a tourist attraction. At the dock, we got onto two long canoe-like boats and sped off on Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s major tourist destinations and certainly worth seeing. It was lunch time and the sun directly overhead but the water itself was blue, beautiful and placid. Our boat ride was 45 minutes long at top speed before we got to the Hotel Lake View. A nicely appointed hotel again, with an interesting lobby full of antiques chess sets and old burma teak dowry chests. Yes, each of our rooms had a view of the lake. Famished we got back on the boats and sped further down the river to a large restaurant on stilts over the water. We felt infinitely better after dining on stuffed fish, a Shan specialty. We then went on to see a silk weaving factory, a temple and another monastery all built on the water. The return trip at dusk was again one of those exalted moments – sitting on the boat as it glided over the water which now was a translucent glass- like color and the water and the horizon seemed to merge. The only interruption to this perfect view was the occasional fisherman who trawled using large bamboo nets, like cages. What was most intriguing was that the fisherman paddled his boat with one foot around the long oar, thus leaving his hands free to wield the large cage-like net.

We actually had time to watch the sun rise over the lake the next morning and a warm haze spread over the lake while we had coffee. Mid morning we boarded our two boats, and sped off to the market (which was on land, disappointingly not a floating market) which takes place every five days and where the different ethnic tribes come to sell their wares. Myanmar has several tribes and racial minorities and is of course bordered by China, India, Laos Bangladesh and Thailand, a fact very evident in the crafts. Despite the blistering sun, we happily walked and bargained and took pictures with any of the tribal women willing to pose with us. Our shopping spoils included several woven sarongs or longhis, tribal jackets in red and black, silver bangles and in my case, a lovely antique wooden chess set.

We had lunch at a restaurant called Anne’s Place which had come recommended and proved to have the best stuffed fish, Pao style. We took a further boat ride to see a handmade paper factory (one of those visits that are de rigor for tourists) and then to see the floating gardens where the villagers actually grew vegetables on the water for their families.

We left Inle Lake the next morning (very early again!) to return to Yangon. We had a spare afternoon and decided to visit a fascinating glass factory, which literally had the whole compound strewn with shards of colored glass, almost like a modern sculpture. Just when we thought we had chanced upon something outside the usual tourist route, we were told that John Glenn the astronaut had already visited! That evening was our last and we relaxed back at the hotel, sipping wine and reminiscing on our perfect trip.

Myanmar had given us more than food for thought. Myanmar’s pro-democracy activists, students and Buddhist monks have been muzzled. Aung San Suu Kyi the Nobel Peace winner has been under house arrest for the last 17 years and not allowed to participate in the political process though she won in a landslide victory in the 1990 parliamentary election. The United States and other countries have denounced the military junta and advised its citizens not to travel to Myanmar. But I want to make an appeal. Tourists going to Myanmar do bring valuable foreign exchange and help not only those in the cities on the main tourist routes but also ancillary crafts and services in the rural areas. Contact with the outside world in the form of tourists brings information important to a people thirsty to find out about places and events across the globe. While we were there students talked to us about what TV and the internet meant for them and the slow but strong inroads made by technology in their society. Myanmar’s fascination for all us might be the fact that Myanmar has managed to survive the last 150 years relatively unspoiled because of its involuntary isolation. But I visited Myanmar and know that we should visit and that more and more people who visit will also force about change.

After all, one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that nothing is permanent and everything is in a constant state of change.

Shyamala Abeyratne

Breathing Space
A green lung in the middle of bustling, noisy Manila. The Ayala development of the Greenbelt is an outstanding complex of shops, restaurants, coffee shops, spas, with a church in the middle. Different in style from what I have seen to be Filipino style - based in large part from a Spanish colonial heritage - the Greenbelt verges on American-European geometry but in a free flowing manner. Perhaps reflecting the Filipino value systems and strong network of the family, the Greenbelt's four malls simply flow one into another, with plenty of spaces in between. These are shared spaces, and the profusion of ethnically diverse restaurants take on the spaces and characteristic overhang verandahs on the 3 different floors. The modern styled, upside- down- domed church and its huge stone cross is central to this organic architecture, demonstrating above all else the role of prayer in everyday life. Whimsical and beautiful metal sculptures dot the green lawns, while a koi pond, a duck pond and water fountain attract the kids. It's fitting that a sophisticated commercial center such as this embraces the arts, and the performing arts have a large auditorium in Greenbelt 1. The Ayala Museum, modern and glass paneled, has special exhibits and permanent exhibit of sixty dioramas of Filipino history.

The free interchange between exterior and interior spaces is tropical Asian in architectural form and the Greenbelt has the best of it. Visit it in the day and one cannot help marveling at the tall palm trees and giant ferns; visit it at night and it is Manila's most happening place. Superb dining and feet- tapping music in the central plaza of Greenbelt 3 will have you forget the traffic, construction and smog elsewhere in a flash. This is not the "real Manila" you will say. But this too is Manila, vibrant, fun, clean and very central.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007

From: "Peter"
To: "Eric"
Date: Fri, September 7, 2007 11:47 pm

Hey Eric,

Just came back from the Travel Mart Expo at Megamall. As expected, I nearly keeled over carrying the ten kilo-ton bag of brochures, flyers, etc. handed out at the booths. Kinda impolite, really, to refuse, especially if winsome ladies are thrusting them at your face.

I took a quick glance at the brochures, and threw out most of them, though. They’re all so glossy . . . so perfect-looking, yet after a while, they all seem to be all the same. I mean, if its about a beach resort in Boracay or Palawan or wherever, you see this glorious sunset with a couple entwined in each other’s arms; kids frolicking in the fine white sand; a bikini-clad girl snorkeling or kayaking in the azure blue waters; etc.

If its about a luxury spa nestled somewhere in an island or at the hills, you see close-up pictures of their aromatherapy oils and natural / herbal scrubs; sauna / Jacuzzi / bathroom facilities with those to-die-for vertical showerheads; heck, even those flower petals floating on wooden bowls, while they wax euphoric about their detox programs and massages that “rejuvenate the soul and revive the core of your inner being”. Who writes these meaningless claptrap, anyway?

What bugs me is that these perfect photos inflate your expectations, but once you get to the destination and see what it actually looks in real life, you feel deflated, misled even. Remember when we drove to Nurture Spa in Tagaytay? The damn place looked so impeccably manicured and sterile and artificially put-together that it could have been Snow White’s garden where she played Trip to Jerusalem with the Seven Dwarfs every afternoon (of course, they have to let Grumpy win, every single time).

So, last Saturday, during our visit to Intramuros (I did mention in my last email about this travel writing workshop I was taking part of, right? You shoulda listen to this writer, KF; she has this enthralling way of speaking), I thought it would be fun to take some “real” pictures.

It was perfect weather to be walking around and poking one’s nose into history: very light sun, a fair breeze, and no sign of dark clouds preceding a rainshower. I got there early. Hmm . . . no sight of anyone looking like a fellow travel writer-wannabe, nor anyone remotely resembling our tour guide Ivan.

I decided to buy some taho from an itinerant vendor and walk around Plaza Roma, the square right in front of Manila Cathedral. As you know, Intramuros is the oldest part of Manila and Manila Cathedral is no spring chicken itself, having been burned down a couple of times over the past three centuries and rebuilt each time.

In due time, everyone showed up and pretty soon, I was absentmindedly half-listening as Ivan animatedly fired away with a carload of historical tidbits about Intramuros, while resisting the urge to scratch an itchy spot at the small of my back.

Well, here’s something he probably has never noticed. Ever. There are TWO GARGOYLES guarding over the Manila Cathedral!! [triumphant chortle] Yup, from the looks of it, they scrutinize each and every visitor entering its doors from their vantage point at Plaza Roma (and probably put a curse on would-be thieves, who knows?)

And I have here the pictures to prove it, too; one of them a close-up at that:

Fascinating, isn't it? Well, yes and no. Here's why:

Yep, by my (unofficial) count, that' s 4 cigarette butts, 1 candy wrapper, a few lotto tickets; and strangely enough, some giant black ants happily swimming in the fetid water.

Gargoyle B fared much worse. Take a look:

Tsk, tsk [shaking head vigorously]. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

And those Bahay na Bato (stone houses) at Casa Manila? Remember you were quite impressed with them during our field trip back in Grade Three, and wanted Dad to tear down our house and rebuild it in the exact same style? Well, the whole thing is one big sham.

Turns out the design is not from the 1800s, as we had thought. No sir. It was Imelda the Iron Butterfly who had these built, back in 1981.

As Ivan pointed out, there were no such things as three-storey buildings a couple of centuries ago. Why, you ask? I dunno. [shrug]

In fact, Imeldific got the design of these stone houses from an old house in Jaboneros St., San Nicolas district in Binondo. An absolute disgrace, fooling tourists like this! Gusto ko talagang sapatusin yang Imelda na yan! (I want to bop her in the head with my fake, turquoise-blue Croc sandal!!)

Oh yeah, we dropped by the equally historic San Agustin Church as well. It looks all magnificent and imposing in postcards and magazine articles about Philippine churches, i know; but up close, I’d say it’s in dire, dire need of a paint job. Take a look:

Inside, we looked around some exhibits of religious figures, and even a mausoleum. Pictures were not allowed for the most part though, but no one seemed to be enforcing it anyway.

Check out this abaca press from the 18th century:

I’ve no idea how exactly they used it, but it does look like a giant corkscrew or something like that, don't you think?

Wellllll. . . not quite. Take a closer look. Here's a close-up pic of it now:

Hah! Our ancestors really had incredible prescience! They knew that those nincompoops at the Department of Tourism would be looking for something record-breaking, after inflicting the biggest shoe in Marikina and the biggest strawberry cake in La Trinidad on us.

Damn right, here is the “Longest Phallic Symbol disguised as a Museum Artifact inside a Historical Church” in the world, and it's right here in Intramuros, Manila, Philippines!

Now, this i wanna see in a brochure.

Your twin,


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Monday, September 03, 2007
Salam Malaykum from Egypt

Monday, 9 April 2007
Salam Malaykum from Egypt

That's Bettina Go, Clang Garcia, Raeanna Cranbourne and moi outside the tomb of King Tut in Luxor's Valley of the Kings, a vast funerary complex at the West Bank. We finally made it after much visa hulabaloo in Manila. Thanks to Kim Harrington who not only helped us get our 'visa upon arrival' but also hosted us at her place in the hippest Cairo-hood in Zamalek, helped us with our tours and even got us an affable taxi driver, Abdul Amin!

We've seen most of Egypt in a week. First stop was Cairo's Citadel (1176) and An-Nasir Mohammed mosque (1318). It wasn't hazy that day and got a clear view of Giza's pyramids from the terrace. From the citadel, we drove through traffic (the city has 15 million population) to visit one of the seven wonders of the world - the pyramids! There are three structures: the Great Pyramid of Khufu (2750 BC) at 146m high, his son's called Khafre (136m) and his wife's Mankaure (62m). It is indeed amazing to be at the foot of a monstrous mountain life-like size tomb and it makes me wonder if there is any truth to its extra teresstial origin.

The next day we flew East to Hurgada and drove down the coast to dive the Red Sea. It was a toss up with Sharm el-Sheikh but we were warned that it was very crowded and most of the corals are damaged so we opted for Marsa Alam, a newly built city with relatively less divers. Brrr! It was freezing at 22 degrees! I felt like a 'Michelin' man in a 5mm full suit plus a 5mm shortie! The dive operator at our hotel (Iberotel), Coraya Divers was run by Germans. They were very organized. I'm referred to #164 - for my locker box number, gear, etc. It was quite expensive at 20 euros for full gear rental per day (without computer) and 30 euros per dive (its an extra 3 euros for the guide). The best dive sites require a full day boat trip to "Elephinstone' and "Sataya".

We did another dive (in Sha'ab Marsa Alam) the next day before heading out to Safaga to cross the Red Sea mountains with a police convoy to Luxor. I've never felt secured with checkpoints every 500 meters or so and a police escort. I guess after the bombing incident at Sinai in 2005, the government is trying to protect its US$6B tourism industry. The drive took almost five hours, 2 hours to Safaga and 3 hours to Luxor.

At Luxor, we went first to the West Bank's Colossi of Memnon where we were welcomed by a pair of massive statues (18m high). Then drove to Deir al-Bahri to climb the steps up to visit the mortiuary complex of the first female 'male' pharoah, Queen Hapsheshut (very difficult to pronounce, just say hot chiken soup). Its a limestone monument carved out of a mountain! First sign of vandalism here with coptic graffiti and also where her stepson Tuthmosis III scratched out her face. Then drove to the Valley of the Kings to visit the tombs of Rameses I, IV and VI. There are 700 tombs and only 15 tombs are open for public viewing. Our ticket allowed us to visit 3 tombs. The highlight here would be the colorful painted walls depicting the life of the pharaoh, scenes to help guide his journey through his afterlife, heiroglyphics and the sacrophogaus at the end of the tomb (the contents - mummy, gold masks, etc - are at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). After, we drove through the Tomb of the Nobles and stopped at Deir al-Medina named after a coptic temple built by christian monks. Here we visited two tombs of the workers where for 5-20 egyptian pounds, the guards allowed us to take photos! It was extremely hot in Luxor at 40 degrees, so we decided to break for lunch at a resto along the Nile River. After lunch, we spent the whole afternoon in the temple complex of Karnak and Luxor and in the evening, did the Sound and Light show. (note: we bought tickets through our travel agent only to find out its cheaper and easier to do it on your own).

After Luxor, we flew back to Cairo and Abdul picked us up and drove straight to Saqqara, a huge cemetery of ancient Memphis where the oldest pyramid is located called Step Pyramid of Zoser. For 5 pounds, we were able to take photos inside the tombs. After visiting the pyramids and the newly built museum, we drove 10 kms away to Dashur where we climbed the 125 steep stone steps of the Red Pyramid and down the 63m long claustrophic passageway down the tomb.

The next day Kim drove us to Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great. We walked down the Corniche to Bibliotheca Alexandrina, designed by Norwegian architect Snøhetta, it houses millions of books, 3 museums and a planetarium. Then a seafood feast down at the seafood market and walked down to Fort Qaitbey (1480 AD). Back in Zamalek, we were too exhausted to eat out and decided to watch DVD of "The Yacoubian Building", film adapted from Alaa El Aswany's novel.

The next day, Kim booked us to Wadi El-Hatin (western dessert) on a 4WD with driver Moustafa and his side kick Mohamed, to visit the UNESCO world heritage site for the first recorded fossilised skeletons of primitive whales. The site used to be a vast ocean some 35 million years ago. The topography is likened to the Grand Canyon in the United States. We had a picnic lunch at the nearby dessert Waddi Rayyan. Then before heading back to Cairo, a stopover at Tunis a plush domain-secondaire type village to view pottery. (note: town not recorded in Lonely Planet).

For our last night in Egypt, Kim took us to a walking tour of Islamic Cairo. Our first stop was to a bazaar where locals go to (opposite Khan al-Khalili) and then crossed the street to the famous touristy Khan and visited several shops including the famous Fishawi's Coffeehouse. The nobel peace prize author Nagib Mafouz (Cairo Trilogy) grew up in this neighborhood in Sharia al-Gamaliyya.

I enjoyed my trip and luckily, despite warnings by friends, we didn't get harrassed at all by street hawkers or for 'baksheesh' (tips). The magic word is 'la' shukran' which means "no thank you". Also most earn pathetic monthly salaries of 40-50 pounds (tomb guards) or 78 pounds (military solider). That's why they end up harrassing toursits for tips. I'm quite tolerant and in fact, ended giving tips to everybody!
[from: Dyslexia Chronicles,]

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Friday, 22 June 2007
Phenomena of Pheromones

“You’ve been feasted on!” exclaimed Dra Roberto Romero, a leading clinical dermatologist in the Philippines and the third doctor I’ve seen in two weeks to treat the insect bites all over my body. The bites have not subsided since my 3-day detox weekend stint at Tiaong, Quezon two weeks ago and in fact, the bites have spread on my face and the ones on my arm turned black and blue.

We were a total of four patients at the Philippine Breast Center Network’s “Tiaong Breast Haven” (photo). Unfortunately, I was the only one bitten! Dr. Romero refers to my case as the phenomena of the pheromones. She said that I emit a particular scent that attracted the arthropods of Tiaong. They left their mark (saliva, even eggs) on my skin. The lumps, itchiness, swelling manifested 2 to 3 days after their sting. We're talking about an anthropod party, lots of anthropods, because my arms, chest, back, legs and face are ridden with bites.

At first I thought I had the ‘shingles’ because it was spreading all over my body. I went to see the first doctor and she said it was an allergic reaction and injected each bite with steroids and prescribed antihistamines (cost me an arm and a leg!). The second doctor also diagnosed allergy and again injected each bite and prescribed oral steroids.

Dr. Romero’s advice was simply to “suffer” and not go back to Tiaong where the arthropods there love my scent. The next bite she said could be deadly! She prescribed a cortisone ointment and to avoid foods that will cause my bites to flare up. My condition will last for another 6 to 8 weeks and meantime I’m wearing long sleeves to cover the bites. Otherwise, will scare some people because it looks like chicken pox marks!

My scent is different from anybody else and I hope this doesn’t deter anyone from going to Tiaong Breast Haven, a two-hour drive from Manila. Danny Meneses set-up the facility as an “alternative venue for empowering women afflicted with the disease - to confront, overcome and live with breast cancer with full honor and dignity.” His wife Rosa who passed away in September 2000, survived 43 months without chemotherapy or radiation. Danny’s protocol is quite intensive and based on the natural approaches of Rudolf Breuss, Max Gerson and Sat Dharam Kaur. This consists of fasting, raw vegetable juice and narra and turmeric tea , and twice a day coffee enema. The therapy is to remove the metabolic waste from the body, free the cells membranes from protein build-up and provide the body with the necessary essential vitamins and minerals while fasting. The coffee enema eliminates estrogen by-products, environmental estrogens and toxins from the colon and the liver. For more info, contact Danny at or visit
[From Dyslexia Chronicles,]

Sunday, September 02, 2007


(The Balatoc Mines Story)
By Peter So

“Well, you can start your chronicles by saying we are in the middle of nowhere,” my friend Ramil quipped wryly. I could only manage a forced smile, and looked around me, taking in the eerie stillness of our surroundings. Come to think of it, we DID seem to be in the middle of nowhere.

Some forty minutes earlier, we had boarded the Baguio-Acupan jeepney at the Petron gas station on Harrison St., right across the Baguio Patriotic High School and fronting Burnham Park. Our destination? The Balatoc Mines in Itogon, Benguet, where we planned to tour the underground gold mines.

The ride was initially not as arduous or uncomfortable as we had expected, as our jeepney was traveling through generally well-paved roads. This changed dramatically, however, once we got off the main highway. The roads turned into narrow, bumpy and winding rock-strewn stretches of dirt and gravel. The pervasive, swirling dust made it necessary to cover one’s nose with a handkerchief. Yet, as if to somehow compensate for this, a magnificent view of the Baguio mountainside was present with every twist and turn of the jeepney.

Eventually, the driver turned to face us and asked, “Balatoc? Go down here.” With alacrity, we did as we were told.

The three of us were standing on the side of the dusty, unpaved road with the hot mid-morning sun bearing down on us. No other signs of life anywhere. No other vehicles passing by, either. Most ominously, not a single sign to point us to the Balatoc mines.

“Where are we?” my other friend, Dale, asked plaintively.

Looking down over the side of the road, we espied the steel roof and wooden frame of a large, semi-rundown building nestled amongst the trees and foliage, some fifty meters below. Could this be it? We carefully – make that very carefully – negotiated the steep stone path leading towards it, as a ravine on the side welcomed us should we lose our footing. We found no one in sight, but undaunted (or was it foolhardy?), we decided to keep on walking.

Visitor's chapa, with unique visitor number.

Mercifully, we ended up at the main gate of the rather grandiosely named Benguet Mines Tourism Village. A few workers loitered here and there, minding their own business. Otherwise, there was little sign of activity this Saturday morning. In fact, the atmosphere of the place could be described as too quiet, somewhat desolate even. I started to have doubts, and wondered what possessed us to go all the way here.

It turned out that our jeepney driver had overshot the main gate, thus leading us to be momentarily stranded in no-man’s land. No wonder, for right after we told him of our destination, he had looked at us quizzically, obviously asking himself why on earth these city slickers would want to go to Balatoc.

We were eventually pointed to the Visitors’ Center, where the staff on duty proved friendly and enthusiastic. Billed as the first and only mine tour in the country, the Balatoc Mines underground tour promised to let one experience how it was to be a miner for one day. All in all, our batch consisted of twelve intrepid would-be miners.

Each of us was issued standard miner’s safety gear, comprising of skull guard, rubber boots and miner’s lamp. We were also each given a “chapa”, a round metal button roughly the size of the old Bagong Lipunan one-peso coin, which indicated our visitor number. Cool!

The portable toilet of the miners.
Tissue paper not included though.

Our guide, Ms. Alma, explained that “chapas” served a practical purpose as well. At the entrance to the mines area proper, each miner drops his “chapa” into a wooden box. This serves as a control measure, making it easy to keep track of which miners were still underground. As a rule, the miners work on a buddy system and are prohibited to go out alone. They work a maximum of eight hours per shift, as their work is evidently physically strenuous.

She further narrated that the Balatoc Mines had a long and storied past. Started in 1903, it was the oldest mine in the country. The main product was gold, with silver as a by-product. They sold their gold bullion to the Bangko Sentral, who further refines it to gold bars with 99.9% purity. The devastating Baguio earthquake in 1990 flooded the mines with water. Compounded by the drastic fall in world prices of gold to below US$200/oz. levels in 1992 [Gold prices are presently around US$660/oz.], operations became economically unviable and the Balatoc Mines were shut down.

Fortunately, a few years after, the Acupan area mines were re-opened. Now operated by a contractor, the output (in the form of gold ore) is divided equally between Benguet Corp. and the nearby community.

On the way to the underground tunnel, we passed by a display of the various antique tools and equipment used in the olden days, such as slusher, pinch bar, blow pipe and claw bar. Back then, the basic qualification to be a miner was that one just had to be healthy and strong.

Of humorous interest was the toilet car (literally, a portable toilet on wheels). Instead of the miners going to the toilet, it was the toilet which came to them. Imagine, if you will, the sanitary man pushing around the toilet car, just like your friendly neighborhood ice cream man, and tending to each miner’s respective call of nature.

Into the batcave! Rather, the Vegas tunnel.

Ms. Alma mentioned that our miner’s gear totaled 4.9 kilos per person, with the battery of our skull guard light taking up majority. While the equipment weight was bearable, the knee-high rubber boots were rather uncomfortable and made brisk walking difficult.

Now, we were at the start of the 500-meter long Vegas tunnel, built back in 1946. Time to turn on our lights! We gingerly walked single-file into the tunnel. The ground was moist with water, and one had to walk carefully lest one slipped. But this was no longer a problem once our eyes became accustomed to the limited visibility. Our rubber boots provide good stability as well. Contrary to expectations, the tunnel wasn’t hot or stuffy and cramped. Rather, it was surprisingly roomy, and the air inside was light and cool due to the presence of blowers. Hardly any claustrophobic moments inside this tunnel, for sure.

We made our way to a portion of the tunnel where miners were preparing to do some dynamite blasting. Once gold veins embedded on the rock are deemed viable to extract, the foremost rule is to ensure that the blasting site, or “doghole” in industry parlance, was safe before operations could begin. The procedure, in simplified terms, goes like this: Strategically-placed holes are drilled on the wall to complete a blasting pattern. Safety fuses are put in, after which dynamite is loaded and pushed six feet deep into the holes. The blasting agent, comprised of Ammonium Nitrate and fuel oil, is added using an auto loader.

Huddling together at the Miners' Lunch Room...
waiting for the big BOOM!

Once everything is all set, the miner lights the fuse and scampers as fast as possible to safety. The burning rate of the fuse is 40 seconds per foot, so there is sufficient time to be quite a safe distance away from the blast. A round canvas exhaust bag, dubbed the “Anaconda” by the miners, runs along a fair length of the tunnel and is used to get rid of the smoke and dust after blasting operations, thereby preventing suffocation.

Over time, certain sections of the mine are fully exploited and deemed unsafe for any more blasting. Once this happens, the site is filled with sand, water and cement, to prevent future collapse.

Next stop was the Miner’s lunchroom, a small recessed area with spare wooden benches and tables. As its name suggested, this was where the miners partook of their meals when on duty. Our group sat on the benches to take a brief respite. We all turned off our head lamps in unison, and were plunged into pitch-black darkness. Shrieks and cries abounded, and we quickly turned on our lights again.

Ms. Alma forewarned us that the miners were now preparing to detonate some dynamite. With collective bated breath, our group eagerly strained our ears and waited. Seconds ticked by, in excruciatingly slow motion. She motioned us to cover our ears . . . .5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .BOOM!! Perceptible shaking accompanied this muffled, yet unmistakable, sound. A few seconds later, the tunnel was still anew. I heaved a sigh of relief; and at the same time, I felt giddy and energized by what we had just experienced.

Riding the locomotive mine train. . .and
wishing Kylie was here to do the locomotion! :D

Our group walked until we reached the end of the Vegas tunnel, only too glad to see daylight again. We hopped on the locomotive mine train and rode back, passing by workers going about their daily work routine, be it fixing equipment, carrying sacks of gold ore, etc. The distinctive smell of diesel fumes filled the air. We were proceeding onwards to the ore processing area, where we would take a closer look at what happened to all that rock extracted from the mines.

Heaps and heaps of woven sacks containing gold ore occupied the ore processing area. Truth be told, these looked just like ordinary rocks mixed with sand, gravel and whatnot, so it was difficult to visualize the gold waiting to be unearthed. The ore is crushed until approximately the size of sand. Now, for the fun but arduous part, gold “panning.”

Simply put, the gold panners sit in front of round plastic basins filled with water and ore. They use a rectangular “pan” with a handle near each end, on which they continuously sift the mix back and forth, the purpose being to isolate the minute specks of gold dust from the rest of the rock. According to Ms. Alma, this could actually be done by machine, but it was cheaper to do it the time-honored way. The women doing this task took great pains to point out that only water was used in the panning process, and no Mercury (a very toxic metal) was used to extract the gold. Peering over the heads and shoulders of my fellow tourists huddling closely over the panners, I finally caught my first glimpse of the specks of gold sparkling underneath the hot, blistering sun. It truly, madly and wonderfully made my day.

Our last stop was the mini-museum beside the Visitors’ Center, showing rock samples that present gold in its natural form, and pictures of the Balatoc Mines through the years, among others. A 20-kilo (643 oz.) replica of gold bullion sat grandly on a dark, wooden pedestal, as if daring visitors to pick it up. (Warning: Do so only if you have adequate footwear, as you are liable to drop it on your toes)

Best of all, each of us intrepid souls was given a Certificate of Appreciation by the Benguet Mines staff, providing evidence that we had bravely gone to the innermost bowels of the earth and made it back successfully. I am exaggerating, of course, but what the heck. . .who wouldn’t?

As Ramil, Dale and I shared Cokes at the canteen while waiting for the next passing jeepney to take us back to Baguio City, our faces sprinkled with a fine layer of dust and our shirts lined with sweat, we agreed that visiting the mines was an educational experience and a rollicking adventure rolled into one. While I hesitate to use the much-repeated phrase “We had a blast!”, well, that was exactly what we had!


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