Category Archives: Travel

Week 49: Spend a weekend in a forest

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A jungle jaunt deep into Quezon, Philippines

B and R go to a small school with a very tight-knit community. So when one of their classmates decided to spend his 10th birthday weekend in a forest, the whole class went along.

It was a riot waiting to happen.

We were going to Lilim Forest Conservatory in the municipality of Real, the province of Quezon, about five hours south of Manila. “There will be some rough roads right before we get there,” warned our host. No truer words were said. If I had a cell signal right then, I would have called for a helicopter to airlift us out of our Honda and deliver us at Lilim’s doorstep. But since there was no signal (also, I didn’t own a helicopter), I drove on. In millimeters, the three vehicles in our convoy navigated the rocks, muddy pits, and the sections of the road that were so narrow that our wheels on both sides skimmed the edges of the road. A half inch in the wrong direction and our vehicles would have fallen a foot off the cemented path.

When we arrived at Lilim, the sky was gray, it was drizzling, but the forest was serene. You wouldn’t have been able to tell, though, with the amount of childish chatter we brought along with us, disrupting the tranquility.

From the three-car parking lot carved into the foot of a hill, we climbed 211 steps to the mess hall. B went ahead with her friends. R, the second youngest in our group, stuck with me and proceeded to update me and everyone within hearing distance of his physical abilities.

“I’m not tired at all,” he announced to the air in front of him. Of course, he couldn’t have been tired because all he was carrying was a pair of slippers while everyone else was loaded down with bags and pillows. It went on until the 198th step, at which time I convinced him to say his words inside his head instead.

All around us were trees and grass, shrubs and wood. We walked on a path flattened by feet that had gone before us. The drizzle made the ground slightly slippery. And the chilly air—we could tell that what we were breathing was completely uncontaminated by anything manmade.

We reached a clearing from which several paths diverged—paths to the colorful cottages we would be staying in. After depositing our bags, we went for a tour.

More than a decade ago, Lilim was almost barren, a denuded forest. But one guy saw its potential. He bought the land and turned it around. He started planting trees of various species, and today, Lilim is a protected forest. Because of his efforts and help from the local government, illegal logging in this part of Quezon eventually dried up. It’s now home to several endangered and indigenous species of trees.

In the midst of these trees, there’s an ampitheater, a grotto with 15-foot statues of Jesus and Mary, an obstacle course, a swimming pool, and a viewing deck that looks out across a neighboring mountain of forests.

Halfway through dinner, the lights went out so we decided to retire to our cottages. Now, our cottage was designed to accommodate five people. That was just the right fit for me, another mom (N) and our children. However, we discovered that utter disregard for the rules took place that night. Our cottage ended up housing three moms and eight kids.

The moment those neanderthals children saw the mattresses lined up on the floor of the one-room cottage, they lost all manner of civility. Someone must have programmed their brains to use “beddings on the floor” as cue for “manic pillow fight.” The fact that they were doing it in near darkness (one candle provided light) added to their dementia. For an hour, they wrestled, pushed, pulled, sat on, piled on, and had a grand time.

At around 8:30, N and I almost managed to trick the kids into going to sleep. We just lay down and the children took it as a sign that they should go to sleep, too. We blew out the candle. And then a diabolical voice piped up in the darkness: “It’s just 8:30. It’s too early to go to sleep!” Up went eight heads simultaneously, and the candle was lit once again. They proceeded to play cards in the dark until they all passed out close to midnight.

The next day was still wet, cold, and gray, but we went ahead with our planned activity: walking into the forest and swimming in the river. After a 20-minute walk into the “wilderness,” we arrived at a field with a couple of football goals and an obstacle course. B, who normally abhors any activity that puts dirt on any part of her body, immediately climbed up the structure of horizontal logs and shimmied down the rope ladder on the other side, landing on mud in her bare feet. And then she did it again. And again. Happiness.

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The musical river at the foot of the mountain

R fell sick halfway through our jungle jaunt so he and I had to go back to our cottage early. But B stayed on and, with her friends, jumped into the river. Nevermind that they had to walk 30 minutes back to the cottages. Nevermind that they did it in their wet clothes. Nevermind that it was so cold they “felt like ice cubes.” Nature has a way of making people love life to its most basic level.

And on that note, the weekend was over almost as soon as it began.  Lilim Forest Conservatory is a gem. We intend to visit it again, but this time with a moratorium on wrestling matches pillow fights.

Week 48: Kayak

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Photo by Winston Baltasar

It was the perfect day for B to paddle her first kayak. The sun was out and was gently touching the earth–the harsh rays would come later. Our one-minute walk to the river took us through a grove of trees, a foot path that cut across an organic mini farm, and under a canopy of purple flowers that looked like fireworks in fauna form.

Our two guides had picked the tandem kayak that B and I would ride and were carrying it down to the river–Bancal river in Iba, Zambales (northern Luzon in the Philippines). We were spending the weekend at the Mango Grove at Bancal River and after a yummy organic breakfast of grilled dried fish, tomatoes, eggs, and fried rice, we were ready to sweat it out.

R was supposed to join us, but he took one look at the kayaks and decided he didn’t want to have anything to do with them. So he and W stayed on the riverbank and played with rocks. Meanwhile, B and I got into our life vests and did some practice paddle strokes.

“What if we drown?” B likes to get right to the point.

“We won’t,” I said.

“But what if we do?”

“Then you won’t have to have an early bedtime ever again.”

This comforted her, apparently, because she went straight to her seat and plunked down. We chose a good river for B’s first kayak ride. Bancal river is quiet and calm; none of that whitewater adrenaline rush, thank you. (I’m saving that for when B turns 13.) Upstream, as is the norm in provincial rivers, were a few locals washing clothes–Sunday was laundry day. Right across from us was a kid, about 6 years old, buck naked and swimming happily with his dog.

Our guides were on another tandem right beside us, in case our vests, natural buoyancy, and common sense would fail and bring us to peril. They pushed us into the river to get us going. The moment my paddle sliced through the water, I was transported back to the last time I’d been on a kayak. It was for a travel assignment and I was alone on a kayak in a cove early in the morning. It was one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever felt.

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Photo by Winston Baltasar

I started paddling. So did B, who was sitting in front of me. In two strokes, she had managed to soak my shorts. In four, she’d sprayed water all over my face.

“I think my paddle is too small for me,” she announced, unaware of the soaking efficiency of her paddle.

“That’s the perfect size for your hands and arms,” I told her. Our guides had given her a child-size paddle. It was yellow.

“Can we switch, just so I can check?” she asked me, her mother, who was, last time I checked, bigger than her. So was my paddle. We almost tipped ourselves over exchanging paddles mid-river. Our guides must have had the word “idiots” running through their head.

It was a little difficult paddling for two using a kiddie paddle, but it worked. B paddled when she felt like it. When she didn’t feel like it, she leaned back to an almost prone position, with her fingers skimming the water on both sides of the kayak. I was torn between continuing to paddle to give her this precious experience with nature and wanting to splash her on the face and tell her to pull her own weight. I compromised and splashed her hair, and only when our load got too heavy.

The sun’s rays got steadily hot. Despite that, our kayak run was a pretty one. We passed under a dark cluster of trees whose drooping branches formed an umbrella of leaves over the deeper part of the river, in the opposite bank. In the shallower areas, we could see the river floor, with its pebbles dotting the sand.

We–or rather, I–paddled about three-quarters of a kilometer downstream which was a bad, bad idea because that meant I would have to paddle a kilometer upstream, back to W and R. With every stroke upstream, it felt like B and I were paddling through mud–wearing 20-kilo wetsuits.

Finally, we made it back. By then, W had beaten R at bato-bato-pick (rock-paper-scissors). The consequence was that R had to go kayaking, too. So he took the place of B and off we went, back downstream.

If B was concerned about drowning, R was curious about what kind of monsters lived in the river.

“Do you think the monsters that live here have just one or two heads? Will they eat us or maybe just play with us, like pet fish? What if a river dragon came out of the water? You know what I would do? I would throw my paddle in his mouth so he can’t chew on us.”

It was good to know that we had an escape plan in place. It was also nice to experience the river with constant chattering in the background. The lilting little voice kept the kayak run from becoming too much of a metaphysical jaunt.

Because I was already tired, R’s and my kayak run was a short one, but he didn’t mind. I brought him to the deep part of the river, where the trees bent over protectively. While we were there, R was giddy with a mixture of fear (“I think this is where the monsters live.”) and excitement (“If they come out, I’m going to jump and shout to distract them.”).

Even though hours later, I could still feel the soreness in my arms and abs, those two kayak runs were among the best ones for me. They were full of kids, sun, water, chatter, and peace.

Week 45: Go paragliding

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Cradling the wind with Airsports Adventure Philippines. Photo by Winston Baltasar

Cradling the wind with Airsports Adventure Philippines. Photo by Winston Baltasar

My feet left the ground and started running on air. And then I was being carried–pushed–forward. It was as if I was riding a conveyor belt going 30 mph, except that I was standing on nothing. Between me and the cows munching on grass in the field below was 300 feet of wide open space. All I could hear was the soft, but insistent, whistle of the wind. And there was screaming, too, which I eventually realized was coming from me.

To fly (outside of an airplane) was something I’d always wanted to do.

See, in the bowels of the storage shed at home is a small pink Hello Kitty backpack filled with all the things a little girl would hold dear. For example: a wooden tea set whose cups are as small as a baby’s fingertips, a dried rice stalk harvested from the Banaue rice terraces, a dirty white t-shirt covered with notes in ink from my friends in grade school.

But the most interesting of all those odd objects is a piece of brown paper, folded and unfolded many times. It’s the bucket list I wrote when I just started high school and referred to all through college. The list has some un-checked items that are a little difficult to do–“Drive an 18-wheeler truck.” “Ride to the sunset and touch the sun.”

And until a week ago, “Go hang-gliding” also stood un-checked. (I know hang-gliding is not paragliding but I’m willing to be flexible with the prefixes.)

Early on Sunday morning, The Hub and I packed the kids into the car and drove to Carmona, Cavite–easily a 40-minute drive from Manila without traffic–to the fly site of Airsports Adventure Philippines. The Hub was going to shoot them doing their cool thing while the kids and I hung out with the cows. The One with the Toilet Humor wanted close contact with the animals (“If I flick that cow’s butt, do you think he’ll kick me?”) and The Manipulator practiced his math (“There are 17 cow poops in this field”).

After half an hour of that, Buko and Albert–the main men of Airsports Adventure Philippines–came by in a truck to bring us up to the jump-off point at the top of a hill. There was no shortage of trees at the top. About 50 feet away from the edge of the grassy summit, under the shade of trees, was a small hut that served as the pre-departure area. Sitting on the bamboo benches, we had front-row seats. We watched Buko, Rolly–another paragliding enthusiast–and others from their group one by one lay out their paragliders, wait for the right wind conditions, get into the harness and strap their radio on, and run off the edge and into the wind. Albert–who The Hub dubbed The Wind Whisperer–stood by with his radio, murmuring instructions for whoever was in the air (“Veer left.” “Now swing around, it’s carrying you away.”) From the hut, we could hear the strong whoosh each glider made as it caught the wind and rose up, carrying the pilot away with it. It was exhilarating even to just watch.

After a filling lunch of pork chops and rice, it was my turn. I was riding tandem with Buko, who, incidentally, is an award-winning paraglider. Albert was giving me instructions while strapping me in but all I could think of was how high we’d be flying. Once the glider caught the wind, Buko and I took several running steps before we swooped off the hill. I felt like we were riding a giant swing that suddenly decided to take off from the playground. We steadily rose and all I could see were treetops and then, just sky and clouds. It was all so beautiful that I felt like crying.

We went in wide sweeps over the field and twice, went low enough to “walk” on the trees by the jump-off point. And for maybe 10 minutes, we were still. I have no idea how Buko did it, but we didn’t move–we were suspended in mid-air. We could have been watching TV, but 300 feet from the ground.

From where we were hovering, I could see the Makati skyline, a horse racetrack, rows of houses, grazing cows, our shadow on the field–all in dollhouse proportions. And, of course, I could see the sun. I guess birds didn’t want to have anything to do with this strange flying contraption so they stayed away. I was hoping to go eye-to-eye with them mid-flight.

I felt completely safe with Buko that several times, I let go of the straps and let my hands skim the wind. And there was no noise. The wind flapped in my ears but that was it. Everything else that made useless sound was far away. With a world like that, eagles must be the happiest creatures on earth.

All too soon, after about 20 minutes of euphoria, we were descending. We hit the ground running and the second we stopped moving, I got the urge to go up again. Paragliding took my breath away and right then, I wanted to hug everyone I could see and laugh until I cried. I felt so giddy with happiness.

Now, to find an 18-wheeler truck to drive.

*Huge thanks are in order for Buko, Rolly, and Albert and all of Airsports Adventure Philippines for this truly unforgettable experience. I will be back!

Week 41: Trek at high noon

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That would probably be a non-issue if I did it in a country with a cooler climate, where eggs don’t fry on the pavement in the summer, and where the sun is at least 90 million miles away instead of just next door.

But I climbed this (small) mountain in the Philippines, which is a breathtakingly beautiful country, but also where, in the summer, the sun likes to match the islands’ beauty point by point in heat. Nevertheless, we forged on. We were on the island of Sibale, in Romblon province, at the heart of the Philippines.

Based on how our group had to stop and catch our breath after climbing about 15 steps to get to the forest trail, I placed our collective fitness level at .2 percent. But there was a ray of hope: beside me was a local man in jeans. I figured things were looking good and easy if this guy thought jeans would be the appropriate outfit for the day. So I walked on, encouraged.

We reached the end of the cemented path and went on into the forest trail. All throughout, we had to scramble over huge rocks and duck under low tree branches that decided to cross over to the other side of the path. Our chattering and jokes gradually faded away until the only sounds I could hear were crickets and the crunch of dead leaves under our feet. Being surrounded by nature does that to people, I’ve observed. Trees and mountains, oceans and rivers have a way of working themselves into your soul and the only choice you have is to quiet down and listen.

Some parts of the way were awash with the noon sun. Walking through those hot patches that stretched about 10 feet at a time became increasingly difficult as the path wore on. At several points, I was so close to saying, “You guys go ahead. I’ll just wait for you here.” What kept me going was the shame of bowing out ahead of the guy in jeans. I thought, if he can defy the heat in his denims, I can, too.

Sweat dripped from me as if I were standing under a shower. It even dripped from my fingertips, which had never happened before. It was briefly fascinating. The only thing that stayed sweat-free was my black dry-fit t-shirt. (So they do work.)

Finally, we reached the end of the trail. Approaching it, I could see the rich aquamarine sea through the trees. It was sparkling, as if calling out, “Jump in, jump in!” There was nothing I could do but stare at its majesty. That was all anyone could do.

At the tip of the trail-end was a grotto bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary. It faced out to the sea. The locals built it that way, they explained, so that Mary would protect the island from all coming danger, and also to greet visitors and send off travelers with a shower of blessings.

I like to think that I fell under that shower. See, in usual cases, the same amount of effort that I put in on that trek would have landed me in bed for at least half a day, gasping for breath. But on that day, there was none of that. Sure, I was tired. But I wasn’t close-to-death tired, which I would sometimes get in the city.

So that night, I drank to the beauty of life, the wonder of the unknown, and the power of faith.

At the end of the trail. Sibale, Romblon.

At the end of the trail. Sibale, Romblon.

Week 32: Bask in the sun at Angkor Wat

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The Hub and I are drawn to a good photo and a good story like The One Who Spits is drawn to a nice pile of sticks. So at the beginning of our short but sweet quasi-vacation in Cambodia, The Hub and I rose at 3:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s temple of temples. About a hundred other tourists had the same idea. Silently – everyone was still probably dozing on their feet – we all walked toward the small lake in front of the temple. It felt like the scene from the movie City of Angels where the angels gathered at the beach every day at dawn to watch the sunrise. The Hub and I kept walking, though – he had been to Angkor Wat before and wanted to take photos that didn’t look like everyone else’s silhouette-against-the-sunrise shots. So I left him alone to do his photography acrobatics. It was my first time in the temple and I actually forgot that we were there to watch the sunrise. Angkor Wat beckoned to me. So I went in.

It was deathly quiet inside. When I walked, the only sound I heard was the soft slap of my feet against the rock floor. When I stopped moving, there was nothing to hear. It was as if the walls sucked in all sound. And all light. Sunrise had come but as I stood in the middle of a five-foot square chamber, the only light I could see came through an arched passageway at the end of the hall, about 20 feet away. I was shrouded in complete darkness. It was cold, too. The warmth of the sun hadn’t permeated the walls yet. Essentially, it was still night inside Angkor Wat and the peace that overcame me in the temple embraced my whole being.

I thought, this must be how it feels inside a tomb. (Except the residents of tombs don’t really care.) What a relief that only later did I find out that Angkor Wat really is a tomb. In the 12th century, king Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat to honor the Hindu god Vishnu. When Suryavarman died, Angkor Wat became his tomb, as well. Centuries later, other kings who leaned toward Buddhism put images and statues of Buddha in the temples, turning the temples into interesting documentaries of religious history.

It was Buddha who I met at one of the bigger chambers. It was still dark and I was stumbling through the temple, disoriented by the many arched passageways and long, narrow halls. At first, I thought the 20-foot tall Buddha statue was a dead-end wall. When I came nearer, my scream died in my throat and my bladder curdled into itself. It was just Buddha, after all, smiling benignly at my fright.

When I found my way outside, the sun was in the sky, but only just inches above the horizon. Even then, it provided enough light for me to recognize the famous bas reliefs of hundreds of devatas, or female deities, on the wall. The reliefs were almost worn smooth because of the rubbing they got from thousands of eager hands over the decades.

Way led on to way, as Robert Frost wrote, and I kept walking until I reached the edge of a wooded area. Through it, I could see a well-worn foot path going deeper in. There was an elderly tourist walking toward me from the woods, sandals in his hand. Apart from the two of us, no one else was around.

“Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” I asked him as a form of greeting.

“Absolutely,” he said. An American tourist. “There’s another temple in there,” he added, gesturing toward the woods. “But you might want to find your companions before going in. It’s still dark under those trees.”

A temple within a forest! I forgot about his advice and strode on. It wasn’t really dark, and it wasn’t really a forest, I discovered. All excitement fizzled out when I saw, feet away from the foot path, a paved road. So much for Indiana Jones-ing. The temple beyond the “woods” was small, really just a bungalow made of stone with its roof caved in. But because of the stillness that the trees brought, it felt magical to stand there, welcoming the sun.

The next day, The Hub and I went to another temple, Bakheng, within Angkor. This one sat on top of a hill – the perfect spot to catch the sunset. Walking up the hill, we met many tourists on their way down. They provided us with useful information.

“How far away from the top are we?” We asked one couple.

“You’re five minutes away,” the guy said with a smile.

Five minutes later, we asked another couple.

“Just five more minutes,” they said.

Five more minutes later, with no summit in sight, we asked another tourist.

“Oh, you’re close. Five minutes, tops.”

They were all either optimistic about our hiking abilities or they had varying perceptions of time. It took The Hub and I about 20 minutes to reach the temple.

Finally at the top, we climbed a makeshift staircase of about 50 steps. The temple, much like Angkor Wat and the other temples, was being renovated. What we found were just the ruins of a small tower that had no doors, no ceiling, and no floor. Still, about a hundred tourists were there, most of them sitting on the ground in the shade the tower walls made. All sorts were there to, again, pay tribute to the sun: cranky little kids, noisy groups of friends playing gin rummy, a couple with pierced noses and with limbs covered almost entirely with tattoos, solo elderly tourists using up their retirement fund. The sun brought all of us together. It felt good to be part of the universe.

An hour to go before sunset. When it got cooler, people gravitated toward the west side and waited for the show to start – which didn’t come. The sun decided to set behind a cluster of clouds – no spectacular ball of fire, no burst of colors. Tourists put away their cameras.

“The sunset is beautiful here, sometimes,” I heard a tour guide tell his wards. “But sometimes, the sun is shy.”

But even then, hiding behind clouds, the sun made one thing clear: it was the boss of us, and whenever it decides to put on a production number, we would be there, basking in it.

Week 18: Take the MRT

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It wasn’t my first time on the MRT. I’d taken it dozens of times in my pre-life to avoid traffic and skyrocketing gas prices. But it was the T-Rex’s first MRT ride; The Hooligan had taken it once before but she was too small to remember.

I got the bright MRT idea one early afternoon on a hot day when the Two Halves couldn’t sit still. The T-Rex had a plastic spatula and was running through the house yelling and swishing through the air. The Hooligan alternately shrieked The T-Rex away, “Pirate! Pirate! He’s going to hit me!” and whining at me to let her play another 30 minutes of Emily’s Taste of Fame on the laptop. When I was an inch away from losing it, I proposed a trip. Both Halves quit the wild rumpus immediately and became excited about going on a train ride.

We took a cab to the Taft station and I instantly realized my bright idea wasn’t so bright after all. A kilometric line greeted us at the gate. After a few minutes, I saw what was taking so long – two guards were at the head of the line, checking bags by touching each one with a stick. (They didn’t seem to actually look inside the bags; only tapped them, like a fairy godmother, to make sure the bags were actually there. When it was our turn, I thrust my bag at one guard without opening it, and the guard blindly tapped it with the regularity of a metronome. I wonder how many bomb explosions they foiled with that hare-brained tactic.)

The Two Halves were in awe. They’d never seen so many people standing in line. The Hooligan immediately began investigating.

“Mom, why are they standing in line? Where’s the train? Why does that man have a moustache? Can I pee?”

Finally, we made it down to the train. Since we were at the first station of the route, we got to choose our seats. We rode the first car, reserved for women and senior citizens. In contrast to the noise in the lines at the ticket booth, sounds were muted inside the train. As if people were afraid to be caught talking aloud. And this made The Two Halves instant celebrities because they didn’t care about disturbing the peace.

The T-Rex, who has steadily increased his vocabulary, stood on the seat and looked out the window at all the passing buildings and treetops. Every few seconds, he piped up, “Oooh, was dat?” And The Hooligan acted as his tour guide. “That’s a building. That’s a car. That’s a bus. That’s an airplane. That’s another train.”

The novelty wore off after about three stations. The T-Rex began squirming to be let go to explore the train. The Hooligan started her trip routine, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” So we got off at the Shangri-La on Shaw to keep our sanity and find more diversions.

After a pizza, The Halves were ready to walk around and I was ready to go home. So we walked around. We each left the mall an hour later with souvenirs: The Hooligan had a sticker on the back of her hand, The T-Rex had a similar sticker which he promptly ate, and I had a migraine waiting to erupt.

The ride home was uneventful, save for more tourist-guiding. “That’s the roof of a house. That’s the sky. That’s the window of the train.” (At one point, the elderly woman sitting next to us whispered to me, “Amerikano ba tatay nila?”)

Back home, it was as if energy was not spent. The T-Rex found his spatula and started tearing through everything again. The Hooligan found the laptop and quietly, without permission, logged on but got up and chased The T-Rex with her own spatula every few minutes. I sat amidst the chaos and ate a lemon square.

Week 17: See Binondo

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I wonder what makes old Manila always so fascinating. Is it the rich art and history embedded in every street, every pebble? Or maybe it’s the glaring contradictions – Starbucks, with its air-conditioned coffee haughtiness, is just a hop and skip away from San Agustin Church, the oldest church in Manila (whose cobblestoned parking lot, incidentally, was recently covered over with a layer of cement, ruining its appeal).

From Intramuros, where San Agustin Church is, take the Jones bridge and you’ll soon find yourself looking up at Binondo Church’s beautiful facade, with its octagonal bell tower. You are in Manila’s Chinatown. On a regular day, Ongpin Street, where the Binondo Church stands, is congested with passenger jeepneys, pedestrians – jaywalking and otherwise – and vendors. But because yesterday was Good Friday, the congestion was down sixty percent and we could actually see the street. Parking was easy. A bummed-looking guy, dripping generously with a mustache and a beard, and with his board shorts hooked precariously over his hips, waved us over to the space in front of a building that was closed for the day. (The Entrepreneurial Pinoy finds employment opportunities even in a six-foot wide sidewalk that reeks of urine. Kudos to our parking-attendant bum.) The Hub, The Hooligan, The T-Rex, and I went to Binondo Church to pay respects and retreat deep in prayer – at least, as deep as we could get while keeping The T-Rex’s teeth out of the skin of any passing repentant.

Outside the church was one of Binondo’s purple firetrucks. Curiously, it was parked right by the church’s exit, as if reminding the penitents of the fire they just avoided by murmuring prayers inside the church. There were several small piles of garbage in discreet areas outside the church – under a parked kariton, in the middle of the shrubbery in front. Someone left a Starbucks cup on an ivy-covered post beside a church window – it was still good for some three sips of Frapuccino.

Inside the church, maybe as a nod to Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, murals of Jesus’ resurrection covered the ceiling. Lower, on the walls, were murals of the stations of the cross. There were more than a hundred people inside – kneeling on the pews, doing the stations of the cross with their little prayer booklets, lighting candles, texting. It was nothing new, really – just people doing their Good Friday deeds. It felt comforting to know that people who had the same faith as I did were doing the same thing my family and I was in churches all over the world on relatively the same day.

And then the inevitable came. It was time for lunch. We ignored Jollibee and Chow King and walked up Ongpin, looking for an authentic Chinese restaurant that was open. What we saw on our way to lunch was a conglomeration of the Manila culture. Vendors selling apples, oranges, dragon fruit on carts, SUVs cruising up and down Ongpin, storefront signs in two languages – English and Mandarin. In the midst of it all, on a bridge over a stagnant river of gray water and garbage, was a little boy sitting on the hot ground. His bare feet were dirty up to the ankles, his hands were smudged, and his head was shaved smooth. He wasn’t begging for alms, though. Just sat there waiting for nothing, it looked like. I wanted to bring him with us to lunch, but how?

We found our authentic Chinese restaurant – at least by Binondo standards – as we were just about to get hungry. We knew it was genuine because the name was something I couldn’t pronounce correctly, the TV was on the Chinese channel, there was an announcement or something in Chinese on a blackboard on the back wall, and standing by the entrance was a gangly and disheveled Chinese guy in a white sando (with armholes reaching down to his waist) tucked into dirty dark blue slacks, watching the diners silently. We bet that was the owner – he had a proprietorship air about him. And when I asked for a spoon for The T-Rex, the waitress looked as if I’d asked for a milking cow.

Because it was a real Chinese restaurant, they didn’t offer fried chicken, which meant that The Hooligan was about to go hungry. The closest fried thing we could find on the menu was fried spare ribs, which was really good, cooked with a potful of garlic, it tasted like. (It was far from good for The Hooligan, however, who contented herself with a few martyr-like spoonfuls of plain rice.) I loved the fried rice with peanuts and mushrooms – Chow King’s yang chow fried rice  couldn’t hold a can’t to that.

After our Asian immersion, The Hub and I needed a Western fix. So we went two doors down to the most Western find in Binondo – a coffee shop. It was one of Seattle’s Best Coffee’s original coffeehouses in Manila – consistent with Binondo’s old-world appeal. Even inside, there was a fusion of cultures. At one table, there was a guy taking advantage of the free wi-fi on his laptop. Beside his table were three old Chinese guys playing checkers with ceramic pieces on a portable board. And on our table was The Hooligan with her papier mache horses from Laguna.  

Really, in the midst of all there is to despair about Manila, there are also many, many things to love about it.