Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The New Babylon

Flying into New York was like descending into a sea of stars. The city, with its million lights, shone brightly in the darkness. It was like a brighter, more ostentatious mirror of the sky that watched over it. It was the biggest, and expectedly, the brightest city that we had seen so far. The airport was abuzz with the flurry of people, more than any other airport we’d passed through. From the moment you set foot in New York, you feel the vibrancy of the city that never sleeps. It was up and about, alive and kicking, and you could sense it in the air.

One of the things you will notice about New York is the smell. It’s a pungent city smell, as though the city had been working under the sun for days. It is the smell of a living city, a hard-working city. A city that moves fast and furious and has no time for dolling itself up. It is what it is. The smells of New York range from a sewer aroma that wafts in slow wisps through the sewer caps to the thick bouquet of horse manure infused with the flavor of digested grass. There is also the indescribable smell of heating, a smoky, dry smell that flows through buildings. New York is a heavily sensual city, with the beauty of old pre-war buildings side by side with lush treescapes, statues, and bright lights. New York overpowers the senses on all fronts, from smell to sight to sound, which is composed of blaring horns (the first American city where I’ve heard horns honking), the hum of engines, the clopping of horse hooves, and the rush of people making their way through the concrete landscape. The sound of the people is the most powerful sound in New York. People talk in New York. Loudly. People talk from their cars, telling pedestrians and slow-paced drivers to move. People talk on their phones while walking, almost as though to themselves, Bluetooth hands-free units tucked into their ears. People talk to each other, either in boisterous elation or in loud threats. The air of New York is awash with the sound of a million people walking. It is staggering.

If America is a melting pot, New York is its center, where all cultures are stirred. There are restaurants of every conceivable cuisine, and people talk in different languages throughout the city. Places like Little Italy sit beside Chinatown. Tourists and natives alike talk in different languages freely, adding to the rich sound that makes the city alive. The sirens of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances punctuate the city’s symphony almost as though it were orchestrated. New York is the noisiest city we’ve visited so far. This is the new Babylon. Skyscrapers mimic the tower of Babel, reaching for the heavens and blotting out the sun. New York is a triumph of man, with many of its buildings etched with the wear and tear of time. New York’s crevices, its guts, are textured with use and refuse. The city has character. Actually, it has more than that… New York has attitude.

I’m not quite sure what to make of New York just yet. On one hand, I love that it's an undeniably beautiful city that’s full of pride and swagger. On the other, I’m not sure about its pace, which is hurried, and its sound, which is loud. New York definitely isn’t chillax. But New York is a powerful city that has endured great tragedy. It’s proud and has every right to be. That appeals to me greatly. It is also the center of great learning and creativity, with museums like the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim, as well as the host to the headquarters of two of the greatest comic book companies in America, DC and Marvel. I love that it has nooks and crannies that are worn and dark and foreboding. There are stories here.

If there’s anything about New York that has struck me, it’s that my imagination for stories has been roused, and for that I’m grateful. The city is a bit too fast for me, but perhaps I should just let myself be swept by it. Maybe, and I look forward to this, I will find more tales in the tide.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Blood of Heroes


There are many meanings to the word ‘monument’. It is something that is erected in memory of a person, event, etc.. It is any enduring evidence or notable example of something. It is an exemplar, model, or personification of some abstract quality. It is also an area or a site of interest to the public for its historical significance, great natural beauty, etc., preserved and maintained by a government.

Today, we visited the Lincoln Memorial, a monument that pretty much meant all of the above. Erected in the memory of a great American, perhaps one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, it represented the abstract ideals of truth, justice, and freedom. Ideals that I have always held dear and aspired to. We also visited the recently-built (2004) World War II Memorial that commemorates the courage and sacrifice of Americans and their allies who fought in the most devastating war in human history. They are awesome sights to behold. Just as I was awed by the eternal magnificence of the Grand Canyon and the ephemeral beauty of the Matanuska glacier, I was humbled by the gravity of those man-made wonders.

Monuments, at its very heart, are made for us to remember. The Lincoln Memorial was made so that America and all the world may remember Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, and the great emancipator responsible for ending slavery in America. So that America and all the world may never forget the ideals that he stood, fought, and died for. The phrase ‘carved in stone’ and ‘larger than life’ both literally and figuratively describe this monument, with Lincoln’s moving Gettysburg Address and his eloquent Second Inaugural Address indelibly etched into marble and his imposing, yet gentle, figure dramatically watching over visitors as though watching over all over America. This was a shrine of epic proportions. Doug, one of our directors, educated me a little about Abraham Lincoln. As he spoke, I could feel the pride well up in his voice and I realized just how important he was to America. “This place is like a church to me,” he related, and told me of how Abraham Lincoln rose from poverty to become one of the nation’s – indeed, the world’s – greatest citizens. There, standing before that monument, listening to Doug talk about a real American hero, I truly felt American national pride.

The World War II Memorial was a simple, austere, yet powerfully moving. More than the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps, the WWII Memorial caught me in the gut. Entering the memorial, I immediately saw ‘Manila’ carved into the base of a fountain. And then I saw ‘Bataan Corregidor’ and ‘Leyte Gulf’… all places in the Philippines where the Americans fought side by side with Filipinos. The Bataan Death March, where thousands of American and Filipino soldiers suffered and even died during a week-long forced march, is remembered and our soldiers honored during Araw ng Kagitingan or Day of Valor every April 9. My people fought and died in the war. In fact, America won in the Pacific with the key strategic position and assistance of the Philippines and its people. We had always been allies with America, perhaps the only Asian country allied with the United States during WWII. I saw a pillar with the name of my country carved into the stone. It was extremely emotionally moving for me, and I swelled with national pride.

During my first few days in Washington, D.C., one of the first things I noticed was the prevalence of American motifs, such as the red, white, and blue; stars and stripes; the American eagle… at each corner there was invariably an American flag in some form or other. Out of all the cities we were to visit, Washington, D.C. was the one I was most excited to see. For me, it represented all that was good and true about America. It was here I expected to take a big step forward into finding out what the American Way truly meant. Seeing those monuments, I began to realize that the American Way was not all too different from the Filipino Way.

The pride that Doug had for Lincoln reminded me, rekindled in me, my own pride for our national hero, Jose Rizal. A multifaceted man, Rizal’s death served as the catalyst for the Philippine Revolution that ended over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. Like Lincoln, Jose Rizal was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and strived towards the Filipino people’s recognition as equals by our Spanish rulers. His thinking was the seed of national pride. To unify a country composed of over 7,000 islands is a remarkable thing. It is a powerful ideal, a beautiful dream. In 1898, the Filipino people won its independence from Spain. We had, through the struggle and sacrifice of many nameless men and women, finally won our freedom. The Filipinos who gave their lives, the surviving veterans of WW II, they all fought for freedom, too. We have been fighting for freedom from the very beginning.

America is synonymous with freedom. Americans are so proud of it. Yet freedom is a nebulous concept so often abused and the struggle to achieve it very often forgotten. So vigilantly must we guard against forgetting. It is the one sin a people must never commit because it lays to waste the groundwork that our forefathers have laid down, laboriously and valiantly, with their lives and their blood. We are free, but a price was paid for that freedom and the struggle to maintain that freedom continues.

Like America or any other nation, the Philippines has its heroes. In fact, we are a nation of heroes: the Philippines is the only country to hold two peaceful, civilian-led revolutions that deposed tyrants and eased reputedly corrupt men from power. In 1986 and 2001, millions of Filipinos converged in nonviolent mass demonstrations that changed the course of Philippine history. We popularized the term People Power, which celebrated not the power of the individual but the tidal influence of our people as a whole. For a few short years following those revolutions, there was great national pride. It was wonderful to be a Filipino. But we so easily forget.

The blood of heroes runs in our veins. In you, in me, in every citizen of every nation pulses the potential to be great. We know what must be done, we must simply remember. If we believe in truth, justice, and freedom; if we all struggle every day to maintain and protect these ideals; if all of us, in all our moments, strive to become the best that we can become, then there would be no need for monuments of stone. We would ourselves become monuments, testaments to the human ideal.

But we forget. Always, we forget. Lincoln writes in his Second Inaugural Address, “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” How often we break the promises we make. Even America, in all it’s splendor and power, has flaws. In Washington D.C., America’s capital, more than Alaska or Las Vegas, I witnessed poverty. The irony was biting. Washington, D.C., which reveres and cherishes the memory of the man who freed the blacks of America, has one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans in the country. So it is a saddening sight to see that many of those who beg on the streets of this great city are black people. Rather than despair at this reality, however, it is important – even essential – to be spurred to action. To remember.

The ideals that men like Lincoln or Rizal stood for are not new. Neither is the courage that the soldiers of WW II showed. The concepts and values are ageless. It is just that, throughout the course of history, we stray from those ideals. Heroes are those people who remember and remind others of what needs to be done. America has a very rich history replete with great heroes, and it inspires me. Being at the Lincoln Memorial reminded me of our own potential for greatness. Rather than be intimidated by his achievements, we must be inspired to replicate and go beyond them. In little ways, we can be our own Abraham Lincolns and Jose Rizals. In little ways, we can be heroes.

Washington, D.C. is shaping up to be the city I had envisioned. The seat of power, patriotism is visible everywhere. It is America in its most idealized vision, with great monuments scattered throughout the city… from towering obelisks in parks to mounted sculptures at every other city block… the colors and motifs of the American flag everywhere. It has been, so far, the most “American” city we’ve visited in terms of vibe and attitude. Just as I had hoped, however, the palpable patriotism in the air only served to fuel my undying love for my own country.

The Philippines is a developing nation with a large segment of its population still living below the poverty line. Our government has been rated as the third most corrupt in Asia. We lose so many of our best and brightest to the Brain Drain. It is so easy to be lured by the wonders of America, to think that it is the better place. How easily we forget. We forget how beautiful our land is, home to the most beautiful beaches and bountiful land. We forget how resilient our people are, the happiest in the world, a people that cannot be broken by languid economy or violent weather. We forget that there is still much work to be done, that we have the power to change things, and we take flight. The monument that I saw today is there for me, for us, to remember. We must never forget truth, freedom, and justice. Never forget that it is our duty to ensure that all our people enjoy the same access to and opportunity for those ideals.

I have never been prouder of who I am and where I come from, never been more inspired to be a hero. I’ve never been more spurred to take action, from the smallest gesture to the grandest goals. As I write these words, small monuments to the things that I believe in and fervently hope for, my journey truly begins. In the heart of America, I have found a deeper sense of identity. I found my country reflected in all that I see. Thank you, America, for reminding me. I am a Filipino, and I am proud. I am a Filipino, and the blood of heroes runs through my veins.


OCTOBER 26 - Man wasn’t meant for the cold. Aside from Robin Williams, man is one of the few mammals who don’t have body fur or any natural protection from the elements, like blubber (ok, well, some humans do…). Yet man, also the most stubborn creature on the planet, has always forced himself into the most inhospitable conditions, whether in exploration or settlement. Yesterday, we exhibited that stubbornness and forged into one of the most inhospitable places on earth, well, a taste of it, anyway. For our Chase Splurge in Alaska, we had considered taking a plane to fly over Mt. McKinley, one of the Seven Summits, or the highest peaks in each continent. Logistics and costs put it out of consideration, though, but we also considered hang gliding over the snow-capped mountains. We later concurred that we could pretty much hang glide anywhere else, so we scrapped that idea, too. One activity that was doable and seemed perfectly Alaskan was to hike through Matanuska glacier. Going up to the glacier, which is the largest one accessible by car, only costs $15 for the maintenance of the roads leading up to it. However, doing so would limit us to a certain picnic area which would’ve made for uninteresting television. To actually trudge into the ice, though, which can pose a few hazards if you’re not experienced with glacier travel, required hiring guides and renting equipment that was a little bit over our daily stipend of $50. With that in mind, we decided to hit Matanuska glacier.

The Matanuska glacier is a living glacier that moves up to two to three feet per day during the summer and several inches during the winter. It is a valley glacier twenty-four miles long and four miles wide, its terminus being the source of the Matanuska river. The weather on the glacier itself is almost always good, thanks to a meteorological phenomenon called a weather hole, which keeps a location mostly under calm weather, and yesterday was a perfect day for a hike. Our guides, Heather, Luke, and Louie taught us that the biggest danger of hiking on the glacier was the cold itself. With the TJs like Jaime and Lena shivering under their layers of clothing, we were easily convinced. The freezing temperature also worked up our mucus membranes, so we had to be vigilant for snotsicles forming under our noses. To help ward off the cold, our guides lent some of us extra layers of clothing, such as windproof pantaloons and jackets. Basically, there are three things that we can do to keep ourselves warm: add more layers of clothing, eat, and do physical activities. As long as the blood circulates normally in the body, we’ll feel warm. The reason why our extremities are the first to feel the effects of cold weather is because the blood rushes to the brain, which our bodies consider to be the most important part and the blood rush is its natural mechanism for preserving the brain, depriving other parts of the body of blood and consequently, warmth. One way to keep warm is to fool the body into thinking that everything’s okay by keeping our heads, more specifically, our napes, warm and toasty. So scarves and beanies are a good start. Our guides also made us wear these space age-looking boots to go over our sneakers for better traction on the snow. To walk the actual glacier, which is extremely slippery, they taught us how to use crampons, a framework of spikes that attach to boots to provide traction for snow and ice. With a bit of an education on glacier travel, we were off.

The first thing that entered my geek brain while we were trudging the ice and snow was how much it reminded me of all the snow-covered places I’ve seen in movies or read about in books. This topography resembled that of the planet Hoth, from the Hoth system in Star Wars. There was a little bit of Middle Earth’s Caradhas. Somewhere in the crevasses, I could imagine the entrance to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. In the snow-covered terrain, I could envision forces of the Horde and the Alliance fighting in Alterac Valley from the World of Warcraft. It was fueling my imagination like mad and it was great. Glacier hiking entails a few perils in addition to the cold, like crevasses deceptively covered with bridges of snow or thin ice, uneven hard surfaces beneath the soft snow which can easily cause ankle sprains or worse. Carefully supervised by our guides, we traversed the icescape in awe and wonder. It is a testament to nature’s grandeur and power, which I have learned to respect. Back in the Philippines, I had grown to love and respect the majesty of the Ocean. Nature is more powerful than we can ever hope to be, and in order to fully appreciate it, we need to play by its rules. And sometimes, she doesn’t play nice. There were times when we’d be walking on solid ice or surrounded by mountains made of compacted ice. It was surreal. It was like being on another planet. Coming from a tropical country where the biggest block of ice that I’d ever seen were those industrial-sized ice blocks, seeing a gargantuan wave of frozen water was a completely new experience.

It was only after walking through the glacier for some time that the idea of impermanence struck me. The vast topography formed a gorgeous white landscape that reminded me of the Grand Canyon because of the creases and wrinkles in the ice. But unlike the Grand Canyon, a natural marvel that was the result of thousands of years of water sculpting rock, a glacier, at least Matanuska, changes very quickly. Ice cracks, fills, forms and reforms, making the glacier a living, moving piece of real estate. The Matanuska that I saw and experienced did not have the same features that hikers from a week ago or hikers next week will see. The icescape changes. As the glacier flows into the valley, the ice cracks, melts, and tears down and builds new mountains and canyons of grey and blue and stark white. It is an inspiring sight. The serenity and silence of the place also gave me cause to reflect. Our guides told us that global warming has forced the recession of glaciers to the point that in about eighty years, the Matanuska glacier may no longer exist. With a little research, though, I found that the reason for glacier recession is debatable (you can learn more about Global Warming here, here, and here). What isn’t debatable, though, is that these glaciers are disappearing. The Grand Canyon’s beauty is a testament to nature’s work over thousands of years while the Matanuska glacier is a work in progress that keeps on changing and will eventually disappear. It was an ephemeral landscape, ephemeral being a relative term simply because all those mountains of ice were older than we were. But it reminded me of the conversation from the Little Prince, where he comes upon a geographer and encounters the word ‘ephemeral’ for the first time. “We write of eternal things,” the geographer told the Little Prince. Eternal, perhaps, like the Grand Canyon. But not of the Matanuska glacier, which is more like the Little Prince’s rose. “My flower is ephemeral,” the Little Prince mused to himself, and had his first moment of regret.

So it was with that thought that I felt the melancholy of the white terrain seep into me. I had wished, at that moment, that all the people that I love were there with me to see what I was seeing. That’s why at every crook and crevasse, I would whip out my digital camera, overworked in the cold, and try to capture every moment we experienced. I regretted that my camera wasn’t sensitive enough to capture the nuances of the colors and textures in the ice. Even my words, as I write now, about everything that I saw and felt, are woefully inadequate to capture the essence of the experience. This was life in a nutshell. Moments strung together. For the planet earth, the Matanuska glacier is but a speck in its million-year history. We, on the flip side, are but specks in the glacier’s ever-changing landscape.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alive than when I was in Alaska. Every experience has been so invigorating and exhilarating that I hardly needed to do the things that our guides taught us to do. There were times during our hike that I’d remove my gloves and beanie because I actually felt warm. It was excitement, an adrenaline rush… a strange inspiration that I hadn’t felt in a long time. It’s something of an irony, really, that such desolation, in a place with so little life, that one can be spurred to creation. I had attempted to write poetry again when I saw my first snowfall. It’s a work in progress, and I might actually be shameless enough to post it one of these days. I’m also mulling over some graphic art inspired by all the frost, it’s shocking. Being in America has made me reach deep into myself, and I’ve been wonderfully surprised. America’s greatness does not just come from it’s wealth, which was greatly apparent in Las Vegas, but that it is blessed with such beautiful and varied topography, which I have glimpsed in Alaska. I am grateful to be here, to be alive, and to be part of this rare experience.

POSTSCRIPT: I dedicate this BLOG, my VLOG, my photos, and all my experiences in Alaska to my brother Bruno, who was again denied a US visa by the consulate in the Philippines. As sad as the glaciers made me, it made me sadder still to find out that my brother was denied a chance to see the beauty of America. Like I said in my first official BLOG, I have a great many things to say to the US consulate. My last BLOG on this trip will likely be a love letter to them. But right now, I would like to tell my brother that one day, buddy, we’ll walk the glaciers together. When you are ready to scale Denali (my brother is an avid mountaineer), I’ll be cheering you on. All things in good time, you know He has reasons for everything. Maybe He just wants you to put on more blubber for the cold. I love you, bro!


OCTOBER 23 - If I said Las Vegas was a woman whose beauty comes from make-up and theatrics, I would say Anchorage is a low-maintenance kind of girl, a natural beauty. We passed over snow-capped mountains flying into Anchorage, which was the first time I’d ever seen snow in my life. The closest I’d ever gotten to snow was to scrape the frost that had formed in the freezer when I was a kid, back when freezers needed to be de-frosted now and again. It was a completely exhilarating experience seeing blankets of white beneath wisps of clouds. From a distance, the snow looked like confectioner’s sugar sprinkled atop chocolate cake. It was splendid.

We were told to expect a late winter, and that there would be no snow in Anchorage. But there certainly was snow, if only from a distance, and it was stunning. The sunlight cascaded onto the mountain tops like a gentle golden blanket that turned the stark white of the snow into luminous champagne. Stepping out of the airport into the cold Anchorage air felt like falling in love. Everything was new and fresh, the air smelled clean and crisp, and my heart was beating with an unusual excitement. Even though Anchorage is worlds apart from where I come from, a country that straddles the equator like a dog straddling a leg, it felt like home. That one of the people from Arctic Adventures hostel who came to fetch us from the airport was Filipina didn’t hurt, either. The air was rather chilly, and the rest of the TJs were completely wrapped in layers of clothing. On the other hand, I opted to brave Alaska’s cold in a shirt and a beanie. I had been waking up daily at 5am in Nevada and exposing myself to the frigid air in order to condition my body for Alaskan weather. I certainly wasn’t immune to the cold, but I felt completely at home in the freezing atmosphere.

The municipality of Anchorage stretches nearly 50 miles from Eklutna to Portage Glacier, covering roughly 2,000 square miles. It’s
roughly the size of Delaware, reputedly being the largest city in the United States. Despite this, however, there are no skyscrapers or extravagant faux monuments that tower over the city. With a view consisting of magnificent mountain ranges, who can blame them? Putting up skyscrapers would be like putting mud on the face of a beautiful girl. Anchorage is very serene, a very laid-back town which doesn’t have the frenetic pace of Las Vegas. It was the polar opposite of a big city with bright lights. It was, in a word, chillax. Chillax means chill and relax. Anchorage was both those things and more.

We are booked at this hostel called Arctic Adventures and the owner, Joseph, gave us a rather good deal for our accommodations. The spaces are somewhat cramped, but for the price we were paying, it was comfortable enough. In fact, despite the limited space afforded us, the whole hostel pretty much outdid our previous one. There was a spacious kitchen with a long and wide counter/bar, a cozy common area with a couch and a couple of rocking chairs, the rooms had mini-refrigerators and televisions, and there was free (if intermittent) Internet throughout the entire building.

The following morning, we had planned on going to this place called Resurrection Bay, where we would be taking a boat ride in the hopes of seeing whales and seals. Joseph, however, mentioned that he was driving up to this place called Hatcher Pass, which was the nearest place where one would see snow, and asked if any of us wanted to join him. I really wanted to experience snow for the first time, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go. Lena and I decided to with Joseph while the rest of the team took the bus to Resurrection Bay.

The ride to the place was gorgeous. The roads were wide and we could see terrific mountain ranges on both sides as we drove to Palmer, a nearby town where we made a short stopover for lunch. We ate at this small diner which was packed with the Sunday crowd, although we managed to get seats fairly easily. Just to take part of the Alaskan experience, I ordered a chili cheeseburger made from Elk meat. Elk is a kind of large deer, more popularly known as a moose, whose meat is low in cholesterol and fat. I might have defeated the purpose of ordering Elk meat as I had my burger slathered in chili, though. I also had bottled water indigenous to Alaska which was bottled in Mt.Mckinley, also known as Denali. It took quite a big chunk of my $50 a day, setting me back about $13 (it was an additional $2.50 for an Elk meat burger patty), but it was worth the money considering this was true Alaskan food. And just like true Alaskan food, it was expensive! A lot of things in Alaska are somewhat more expensive than normal, considering they have to be flown in a good distance from the rest of America.

On the way up to Hatcher Pass, we also swung by a Musk Ox farm. Musk Oxen are arctic mammals noted for their thick coats and, according to Wikipedia (, the males’ strong odor. Joseph mentioned that the Discovery channel also rated the Musk Ox as one of the ten world’s smelliest animals. Sandy, our guide at the farm, however, said the name was a misnomer since they neither had musk glands nor were Oxen, being more closely related to goats. In our encounter with the Musk Ox – we met a young female named Luna (because she was born during the fool moon) and Fat Boy (because he was, well, fat), I certainly didn’t smell anything funny, although Sandy did say the males exuded a strong odor when in heat. It would’ve been an interesting encounter, though, because Musk Oxen in heat compete with other males for harem rights, charging at each other with their large, thick horns. The sound that these animals make when they collide can supposedly be heard from a mile away. Musk Oxen are bred for their inner coat of wool called Qiviut, which is an Inuit word. Qiviut is stronger and eight times warmer than sheep’s wool, and is softer than cashmere or vicuña. Sandy said it was the most expensive wool in the world, and she brought out knit beanies and scarves for us to feel. Although I could tell that the material was soft and warm, my fingers were popsicles at that point since I didn’t wear gloves and couldn’t fully appreciate Qiviut. The inuit native word for the Musk Ox is Oomingmak, or “the bearded one” and it was such an appropriate term as the Musk Ox have long, thick beards that extended past their knees. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tauren from World of Warcraft, an MMORPG that I play, and was wildly amused. You can find out more about Musk Ox and Qiviut at They have several programs that allow you to contribute to the Oomingmak cooperative. It’s certainly worth looking into as this Alaskan native animal has been around since the wooly mammoths, making it one of the oldest species of mammals on earth.

When we finally made it to Hatcher Pass, I can’t describe to you how wonderfully insane it felt to see and touch snow for the first time. I was told that snow was overrated, but considering I’d never seen snow in my life, I have to say the experience was just crazy. I had promised myself I wouldn’t make any snow angels since it would mean getting wet and subsequently getting cold – catching hypothermia on International television was the last thing on my mind. When I hit the soft, newly-formed snow, however, I lost all inhibitions and frolicked like a kid. I sank, I lay down, I rolled around, and yes, even made snow angels… it was the most fun I’d had in a long time, and I ran short of breath quickly like I’d just sprinted. It was exhilarating. I was surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the sun was peeking ever so slightly from the thick, gray clouds, illuminating everything in a glorious light it was breathtaking. And by breathtaking I mean having to whip out my inhaler.

It wasn’t quite snowboarding season but there were a few people hitting the snow on their boards. Determined to learn how to snowboard, I approached a local named Alvin to teach me. He agreed and we walked up a tiny hill – by tiny I mean ‘small enough for a three-year old to toboggan on’ – where he
strapped me up and let me ride down the slope. I was the equivalent of a grown man being taught how to bike on trainer wheels. But when I finally rode down that small hill it was, for lack of a better word, AWESOME. I fell a couple of times, but thankfully not on my face as I’d predicted. It was actually easier than I thought, and I’m quite confident that if I’d had more time on the slopes, I’d know how to snowboard quite proficiently. It felt natural. It was just such a rush to be sliding down on that board, surrounded by all that snow. I wish I could spend more than a week in Alaska. I’d be hitting Hatcher Pass every day just to snowboard.

Snow tastes terrific. I remember this one scene in Pixar’s Monsters Inc, where the Abominable snowman offers Sully and Mike yellow snow cones and Mike reacts with disgust; the Abominable snowman goes, “it’s lemon!” I don’t think the joke is quite as funny if you haven’t actually seen snow. But one of the first things Tim warned us about snow is to never eat yellow snow… and you probably know why. Well, there was no yellow snow in sight and I stuffed my face with the soft snow, which was granular and fine, melting in my mouth so subtly that all my memories of shaved ice were put to shame. Right now, for me, snow is not overrated. In fact, I might have underestimated it. My excitement at seeing snow was no match for the real thrill of actually touching, even tasting it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alive. While Lena was freezing, I actually felt quite warm, perhaps from all the adrenaline. It was just something else.

Barely one day into Anchorage, and I have to say I’m in love with the place. The city is like a small town where everyone knows everyone else. The people are so laid back and chillax, I felt right at home. The whole place is quiet and has a calm that you can smell in the air. This was chillaxville, where the people and the weather are cool. It’s my kind of town. With the rest of the week still waiting to unfold, I can tell it’s going to be a blast.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Leaving Las Vegas

OCTOBER 21 - I didn’t really experience Las Vegas. It was more like getting to shake the hand of a movie star while she’s walking down the red carpet while being behind the cordoned area. And her hands were clammy. Not that I didn’t enjoy the city, mind you. I did. Immensely. I can get used to clammy hands. The point is, with $50 a day, you’re better off going to another city.

Las Vegas is great sightseeing, but unless you’re perfectly destitute, you won’t be able to resist spending. You’re meant to spend in Las Vegas. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about being willing to blow money on the casino floor, about pampering yourself at a luxury hotel, about catching a $150 show like Elton John or Celine Dion. I did none of that, even though I had promised myself that I’d gamble at least once. With a limited budget, I decided it was somewhat foolish to be feeding money to probability. It would’ve been irresponsible. Of course, there were the penny slot machines, but to gamble away such miniscule amounts would’ve been laughable.

Las Vegas is a sexy city. At night, with the neon in full force and all the landscaping is brightly lit, she’s spectacular. On my last night in Vegas, I walked along the Strip to watch the free shows such as the Sirens of TI (Treasure Island) and the fountains of the Bellagio. The shows are free, and it’s definitely entertaining, but it’s all doable in one night. It’s actually impressive to think of how these hotels spend so much money on free entertainment to attract more customers. The city, or more accurately, the Las Vegas strip, is all about one-upmanship. Bigger, brighter, better. In that way, Las Vegas is beautiful, even seductive.

In a more literal way, Las Vegas is very sexy because the streets are lined with boxes housing adult entertainment flyers and every other street corner has a person giving away cards bearing the numbers and pictures of escorts. Roving billboards with an invitation to call… an easy to remember number consisting of only 6s and 9s. Full service. No obligation. Las Vegas is a lover for hire, fully made up and dressed (or undressed) to kill. With no natural beauty to speak of – the Grand Canyon is technically part of several other States – you’ll only really get what you pay for. Since I was on the cheap, it was like I ended up getting the girl with a moustache and unshaven legs.

My last thoughts on Las Vegas: I would like to go back. The city is so uniquely fabricated, so extravagantly made up, that it is worth seeing and experiencing.

Ain't Life Grand?

OCTOBER 18 - $50 a day isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s a fortune. I come from a Third World country where the daily wage of most people averages $5.90. In the provinces, in agricultural areas, that number drops down to $3.27. If you’ve seen the Miniature Earth flash presentation, you would know that about 53% of the world’s population struggle to live on a mere $2 a day. When I grimace on camera groaning about my $50 per diem allowance, please understand that I am well aware of these numbers and complain more out of jest than any real discomfort at my situation. The truth is, I don’t think I can be any more blessed. $50 a day can feed an entire family in the Philippines. I think I’m the luckiest person on earth.

The hostel we stay at is no Bellagio, but it gives me a comfortable bed, a warm blanket, and a clean bathroom. That’s more than what 75% of the world’s population has, and I’m very happy. I’m happy to wake up to a cold Nevada morning, blessed to be part of this unique experience. Each and every day that I wake up, I thank God for all the blessings He’s given me and continues to give me. $50 a day? Life is good. Life is very good. Maybe it’s not enough to truly experience Las Vegas, which asks you to indulge yourself a little and consequently spend a little (or a lot), but it’s makes for a decent, survivable, even comfortable living.

You can imagine my delight, then, when the folks from Discovery told us that the Chase Manhattan bank had agreed to sponsor one indulgent activity for us each week. We would all have to collectively agree on one activity that we would otherwise be unable to afford on our relatively meager $50 daily budget. For Las Vegas, we had considered staying at one of the luxury hotels. I jokingly suggested that we blow $1000 on a hand of Poker, but the real consensus was to go visit the Grand Canyon. Personally, I was neither here nor there about the whole thing, perhaps because my only real understanding of the Grand Canyon was Chevy Chase’s Vacation. But considering it’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and one of America’s most distinctive natural features, it was a no-brainer decision.

When Chase Manhattan used the word ‘Splurge’ to describe our activity, they weren’t kidding! To begin our Chase Splurge activity, we were fetched by a stretch limousine painted in the glittery colors of the American flag. Stretch limousines are the stuff of television shows and music videos and I never thought I’d be riding in one. But all of it was very real, even the surreal moment when the chauffeur opened the sunroof and allowed us to pop our torsos outside for our very own rock star moments. The limousine took us to the air field in Boulder City, which was about 20 minutes away from Las Vegas. Our television moments went a notch higher when we saw the helicopter that our splurge budget afforded us. Just like the limousine, it was painted in the colors of the American flag, and it was fabulous.

The helicopter ride itself was a lot of fun, and it was incredible seeing the desert from such a unique perspective. We flew over Lake Mead, Blackrock Mountain (Ok, it’s not really called that, but since the mountain is made from black volcanic rock, I thought I’d name it that way. Besides, I think all the geeks will enjoy the reference), and Hoover Dam, which is an experience in itself. I don’t think I’ve ever been so blessed and being in that helicopter, with all the world below me, it made me realize just how magical and wonderful the world can be.

As great as the helicopter ride was, it was nothing compared to the experience of being face-to-face with the Grand Canyon. When we landed on the helipad of the Grand Canyon West Airport, we were greeted by ice cold winds that sliced into our clothing, like a harbinger of Alaska. We were greeted by a Native American, Wilfred Whatonaw, and he drove us on a really cool Hummer to Eagle Point, close to where they were building the Skyway, an engineering marvel that extends a U-shaped glass bridge 4,000 feet overlooking the Grand Canyon. Scheduled to open on January 1, 2007, I felt somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t able to experience it. But the grandeur of the whole place only provided impetus for me to try and come back, hopefully with my wife and kids. It is a dream that I’m determined to fulfill.

Grand Canyon West is owned and managed by the Hualapai Nation, a Native American Indian tribe that resides in the Grand Canyon, and they treated us to two of their tribal dances. The first was a Grass Dance, where the dancer re-enacted the flattening of the grasslands to enable them to inhabit the plains. The other was a Hoop Dance, which consisted of the dancer masterfully juggling and articulating with a number of hoops. It was mesmerizing. The hoop dance represents a great number of things, not least of which was the world, and how it can easily fall apart. The dancer, Lowery Begay, would transform the hoops into a globe, into an eagle… it was simply remarkable. The world, he explains, can easily fragment – we are many different people, many nations – but what was important was that we could always put it back together for we were, at the heart of it, one. We were all part of the human race. When he spoke these words, you could feel how deeply he believed in it, and it was touching. There was a very strong kinship that we all had underneath it all, and it was humbling.

The Grand Canyon itself made me feel miniscule but hardly insignificant. Eagle’s Point was called such because across the ridge was a rock formation that resembled an eagle with outstretched wings. To the Hualapai, the eagle is a messenger for the Creator, and if one were to mutter a prayer, the eagle would carry it to Heaven. I don’t think I’ve ever been as moved to prayer as I was then, faced with the indescribable grandeur of the Grand Canyon. It was God’s hand in full force, a boundless canvas painted with an ever-changing sky and a cascade of rocks deftly sculpted over thousands of years. If I felt blessed coming into this trip, I felt completely favored at that moment. It made me understand more how utterly special this opportunity was, and how imperative it was for me to not waste the moment and share the experience as best as I am able to.

The vastness of the Grand Canyon, oddly enough, made me feel even more important and loved. God had created these things in our world for a reason. The beauty of the world is meant to be seen, felt, and shared. Standing there, in the midst of its glorious expanse, made me think of everyone I’ve ever met, of everyone I love, and how truly blessed we are as a race to have a God that cares for us enough to paint for us a world that is more colorful, more beautiful, more stupefying than we can begin to comprehend. Before we left, Wilfred muttered for us a short blessing for a good journey in the Hualapai tongue. That small gesture that lasted all of ten seconds was as significant as the magnificence of a natural wonder that had been around for ten thousand years.

As the day ended, with the sun setting and our helicopter flying back into Las Vegas, I thanked Him for granting me such a charmed life. The experience, the people we meet and care for, all of life’s adventures from the smallest thing to the grandest event… it’s not something you can buy for $50 or a $5 million. If you look at it in the right way, all things are beautiful. And that’s perfectly free.

Surviving Picasso

OCTOBER 17 - Of all the fabulous hotels on the strip, arguably the most stunning, impressive, and lavish one is the Bellagio. Opened in 1998, the Bellagio was the most expensive hotel built during its time, costing a staggering $1.7 billion. That same year, Nevada’s annual gaming revenue hit a landmark $8.1 billion and Las Vegas’ annual visitor count tops 30.6 million. The hotel is featured prominently in Steven Sodebergh’s remake of the 1960 Rat Pack movie Ocean’s Eleven. Andy Garcia’s character Terry Benedict shares some similarities with the creator of the Bellagio, Steve Wynn, and even spouts a line that references how one of the kidnappers of Wynn’s daughter was nabbed after he tried to purchase a Ferrari with the ransom money. Las Vegas is larger than life and the Bellagio is pure Las Vegas. It’s luxuriousness is stunning… from the beautiful lobby ceiling which is decorated with what appear to be glass flowers, to the indoor garden which is currently themed for Halloween, replete with enormous pumpkins, autumnal trees, and a goofy scarecrow. In a word, the Bellagio is enthralling.

The Bellagio is so awesomely impressive that it gave us, the TJs, some thought about where to spend our Chase Splurge opportunity. Chase Splurge is courtesy of the Chase Manhattan bank, who seem to have taken pity on our meager finances and have agreed to sponsor one activity of self-indulgence in each city that we visit. All the TJs have to collectively decide on what activity we would like do which we would otherwise be unable to experience on our $50 per diem allowance. I have to admit that a night’s stay at the Bellagio was a very tempting proposition, indeed. I’m not a big hotel person, though, so even though it was a nice thought to mull over, it wasn’t very compelling. Give me a comfortable bed and a clean bathroom, and I’m all set. That said, in order to truly experience Las Vegas, you must stay at one of the luxury hotels. Luxury hotels are Las Vegas just as Casinos and Elvis impersonators. If I had the money to burn for lavish accommodations, though, I would spend it at the Bellagio.

For Tim’s birthday, he was treated to a short cooking lesson with renowned Chef Julian Serrano of the Bellagio’s Picasso restaurant. One of the key features of the Bellagio is its extensive collection of art, even housing a gallery currently showing works by America’s great landscape documenter Ansel Adams. The Picasso restaurant is named thusly because it is decorated with genuine art from the Spanish genius. While Tim was enjoying his experience inside the kitchen, I marveled at the art inside the restaurant – again, shown in Ocean’s Eleven – which featured old and new works by Pablo Picasso. It was humbling. Chef Serrano estimated all the artwork in the restaurant to total somewhere between $80 to 90 million. It is arguably, per square meter, the most expensive place in the hotel. There is no need to go over how much of a genius Pablo Picasso was. As a student in art school, it impressed me how he could deconstruct everything… it was the visual equivalent of Rimbaud’s disordering of the senses, and it is awe-inspiring.

It is difficult to explain how truly inspired I was by the art. Seeing Picasso’s work in pictures is quite different from seeing it two inches away, being able to see the texture of the paint as it ripples from the surface of the painting, to see its colors in the way the sun teases it. To be in the presence of artwork that influenced generations of artists, that shaped the thinking of so many people is indescribable. A similar feeling has coursed through me in moments when I look at my grandfather’s artwork. It makes me somewhat embarrassed to have been cheating my way out of my legacy, not having painted or drawn consistently as was my birthright.

My grandfather was a remarkable painter. He never attained a status accorded to other Philippine National painters (in fact, he has yet to be accorded the distinction. But these nominations are complex and mysterious and deserve an entire article altogher.), but he was every bit as talented as, if not more than, his peers. The difference was that my grandfather was not a very socially deft man. Art is never simply about the genius in the work, it is also about the ability to connect with the viewers, or patrons, not just with the art but on a personal, face-to-face level. Vincent Van Gogh, a genius whose art has reduced me to tears, never made a good profit while he was alive. He was reputedly socially inept, which is never good for an artist. It’s the show. And Pablo Picasso, more than any other artist except perhaps Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, was The Show. Not to undermine his genius, of course, but Pablo Picasso was larger than life. He was not only one of the most recognizable artists of the 20th century, he was one of the most recognizable figures of his time. It seems only fitting that the Bellagio chose the Spaniard for its homage and theme.

There, in the Picasso, it struck me just how prosperous America is. A country so rich and powerful that it can afford to create a restaurant worth $90 million, to be able to provide important pieces of culture merely as ambiance for a dining experience is mind-boggling. This is America at its best, a nation that affords its people the luxuries of life in ways that people can only imagine and sometimes not even.

PS – Inspired a bit by all the Picasso I’ve taken in, I stopped by a nearby Walgreens and bought myself a $4.69 sketch pad. Coming off the $50 a day per diem that we have, that’s a bit of a luxury. The art that I’ll be putting on those pages probably won’t hit the $90 million mark but, hey, it’s a start, isn’t it?

A Little Biddy Help From Elvis

OCTOBER 16 - I met Elvis on my birthday. Well, not really. Elvis "died" in 1977 - that the King still roams one of the most enduring American urban legends. It's been poked fun at in movies like Death Becomes Her, where Elvis is reprimanded for showing up in public after faking his death; and Bubba Ho-Tep, where a geriatric Elvis saves the world from an ancient mummy. Going to Las Vegas without seeing Elvis is like going to McDonald's without trying the burgers. It has to be done at least once. So on my birthday, Bevis and I went out of the main city to visit a man called Steve Connolly, an Elvis impersonator. We went out to the desert, and there was construction going on everywhere… they were building new roads, widening old ones, putting up malls on the outskirts of the city… it was just a remarkable sight. The development that Steve lived in is a lovely suburban community that’s right of an American movie or television show. I half-expected Elliot to come riding past on a bike with E.T. in a basket, or Eva Longoria stepping out to seduce the gardener.

Steve Connolly’s house was something else, though. As soon as you step into the room, you’re greeted by a baby grand piano to the left, and a gigantic portrait of Elvis on the right wall. Steve, aside from being an Elvis impersonator, is also a painter and the portrait on the wall, along with other paintings in the house, were all his. Behind the piano were different Steve Connolly-as-Elvis memorabilia, like newspaper clippings, playbill flyers, and a life-sized statue of Elvis playing the guitar. It was a surreal experience, starting from the time that Steve opened the door for us… it’s not everyday that you knock on Elvis’ door, after all. It was somewhat disconcerting to be greeted by a man with a cemented mile-high coiffure and large, upturned collar in the middle of the desert. I think Bevis a little frightened by the whole introduction. It was bizarre and cool at the same time.

Steve took us on a quick tour of his house, which included a guitar-shaped swimming pool. He considers himself a serious musician, and it shows. He has a guitar collection that includes a $6,000 Gibson replica of one of Elvis’ guitars. He had originally been in his own rock band from his hometown in Massachusetts when a man, after seeing him do an Elvis cover, approached him and told him he should just become an Elvis impersonator. He had strong objections to it – he was determined to be a rock star, for crying out loud – but his mind started to change when, trying it out, a gig transformed him from a $100 a night band frontman to a $1000 Elvis impersonator. The rest is history. Steve went on to become one of America’s most popular Elvises, winning awards and getting the Las Vegas’ press’ vote as Best Elvis. In a town with over 100 Elvis impersonators, that’s saying something.

We asked Steve what the requirements were on becoming Elvis and the first thing he mentioned was the hair, “no hair, no gig baby!” And he was right! The hair is huge. Literally. It was tall enough to house a dwarf. The first thing that people notice is the hair, and once you get that right, Elvis is much easier to accomplish. The next step to imitating Elvis is the lip, an upwards curl on either side of the upper lip that Steve did with ease and Bevis almost had an aneurysm trying to imitate. People always ask for the lip curl, Steve said, so it’s kind of required if you want to be the kind of Elvis who’ll be meeting and greeting. The third requirement to becoming Elvis is what Steve calls the ‘wiggle’, or the moves of Elvis “the Pelvis”. He pointed out that Elvis was very asymmetrical, demonstrating that symmetrical movements just turn out goofy while Elvis’ moves were carefully designed to be uneven and consequently sexy. The fourth requirement is to be able to sing on key, which is something of a no-brainer unless you’re only going to be Elvis for Halloween (which is just around the corner, by the way…). If I recall correctly, the fifth requirement is the hands, since Elvis loved to gesticulate and he had his own brand of Elvis Karate. The man had a Black Belt in Karate, which lent well to his on-stage kicks and gestures.

Meeting Elvis wasn’t the most bizarre part of the night, however. Our mission that day was to experience Elvis… and the experience just wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t actually become Elvis! So Bevis agreed – ok, I cajoled him to do it – to let Steve transform him into The King for one day. Armed with over five kinds of industrial hair sprays, Steve proceeded to mould Bevis’ otherwise straight and flat hair into the world’s most recognizable hairstyle. There simply are no words to describe the transformation of a small Asian man into America’s biggest rock and roll icon. You guys simply have to watch the show. It’s gold.

Steve then invited us to watch his show at the Fitzgerald, which is one of the older hotels in Las Vegas on Fremont street. When you go to The Fitz, as its fondly nicknamed, you get the feel of an older, more relaxed Las Vegas. It’s almost sad, actually, almost as if Las Vegas is moving and growing faster than the Fitz can move, and is being left behind in another era. Old Las Vegas. The show itself was a lot of fun, though… Steve was really something to watch. I was never a big Elvis fan, but watching his show really enlightened me about why Americans hold on to Elvis like a national treasure. It was revelatory. Elvis Presley was a true American artist, someone who shaped the way Americans think and act – being banned from television just because of the way he moves his hips! – Elvis IS America. And it was breathtaking. I appreciated the way Steve explained it… he wasn’t an impersonator. He was paying homage to a great American artist, and you felt his gratitude exude from him every time he spoke about the King. For the first time since arriving in the United States, I caught a glimpse of the American Dream. And it was beautiful.

PS – The other TJs gave me a fried Twinkie for my birthday. These fat bombs have held a special place in my heart since I read about Twinkies on the back of the comic books that I read as a kid. The ads would depict some super-villain about to perform a dastardly deed and a super-hero would swoop in and throw Twinkies at him, at which point the villain would drop whatever he was doing and revel in the delicious taste of the Twinkies. When I was in America twenty years ago, I stuffed my face with Twinkies because of those comic book ads. I am 12 years old again, and life is good.

Pretty Vegas

OCTOBER 15 - I arrived in Las Vegas in the morning, which is probably the wrong way to see the city for the first time. Las Vegas during the daytime is something like waking up beside a woman you don’t recognize, when that gorgeous model you picked up at the bar the night before loses her glamour and her make-up, has disheveled hair and morning breath. Las Vegas without the neon is like walking backstage before a show, catching a performer with her costume undone, and you feel the urge to look away out of courtesy. Las Vegas wasn’t meant to be seen during the daytime.

When the sun sets and the neon switches are flicked on, however, everything changes. The city transforms into the familiar Vegas of loud sounds and bright lights, and it’s spectacular. There is no place like it on the planet. It’s been said that if you want to tour the world, just go to Las Vegas. I don’t think it’s sound advice, but there’s certainly a reason for it. Las Vegas is home to so many replicas of world monuments and architecture that you get a glimpse of the world all on one strip of road. If anything, Las Vegas should whet one’s appetite for the real thing. Seeing the remarkable Eiffel Tower and Arc d’Triomphe replicas of the Paris hotel only makes you wonder just how magnificent the real things must be.

Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in America, and you can see it. There’s non-stop construction going on everywhere. It’s like the entire city is in a frenetic race to build and build. The city, essentially, is one strip of road growing outwards. Pretty much everything happens on what is called The Strip, which is Las Vegas boulevard. All the big hotels and casinos are on it, and anything off the strip gets a little less attention. Walking along the newer part of the strip is fabulous… the buildings are just magnificent, even if some are cheesy and a bit kitsch. Caesar’s Palace, for example, towers so high it’s daunting; but at the same time, since its architecture is based on ancient Rome, it’s extremely cheesy to see in the modern world. But its all in good fun, and is actually amazing if you just roll with it. The buildings are unapologetically over-the-top, with hotels like the Aladdin, which looks like something off Persia; New York New York, which is a hotel built to resemble the Manhattan skyline, complete with a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the facade; the Venetian, which is inspired by Venice (complete with canals and gondolas inside the hotel!); and even Treasure Island, which has the pirate theme. Yarr!

Speaking of Treasure Island, we tried Dishes, the hotel’s buffet. Las Vegas is also synonymous with buffets, and while there are some cheap ones in smaller hotels, we opted to try something a little more classy. After a little bit of confusion at the door, we spent something like $15 (pardon me if I round up prices… the whole 99c always confuses me) and proceeded to stuff ourselves silly with a plethora of good food. I wish we had more time for it, though, as we had to cut our buffet experience short when we had to rush off to other appointments. Here’s a tip… when eating at a buffet, take your time. To make the meal worth it, take a little bit of everything and avoid getting too much carbohydrates (pasta, bread, etc) so you don’t fill up right away. If you do it right, you’ll have enough room for all the dessert you want. In the case of Dishes, I regretted not having enough time to eat every single pastry, chocolate-dipped fruit, confection, and free-flowing Dreyer’s ice cream that was available. If I could have my way, I’d have stayed there for at least two to three hours, pacing myself with the food. It’s Las Vegas! Excess is always in vogue, so a little Bacchanalia is in order.

After Dishes, Tim and I went to the Luxor to learn the finer points of Blackjack and Roulette. I would’ve personally preferred to play Poker, but Blackjack is a fast, easy game that is all over the casino floors. I had 19 twice, which often would’ve been good enough to double down with, but the dealer, Thai, whipped out 20 on me both times, cleaning me out. Tim had better luck, though, ending up with twice as much as we started with. Too bad it wasn’t real money, as we were being taught using tournament chips, which can’t be exchanged for anything. The real casino chips are always kept under lock and key because they’re good as cash. I enjoyed learning how to play roulette, though, as it’s a game of pure luck. Unlike Poker, and to a lesser extent Blackjack, which require a bit of strategy and familiarity with the statistics, Roulette is completely random. It all rests on the ball, which could land anywhere.

During my first full day in Las Vegas, I got a taste – literally and figuratively – of the good life. Self-indulgence and trying one’s luck are key guiding principles of visiting Las Vegas. It’s a place to let go and enjoy. I’ll be honest with you and say that $50 really isn’t bad in America. You can live on it picking the right meals and getting cheap accommodations, but the difference is actually experiencing the place. Las Vegas isn’t a place you are meant to experience with just $50 a day. Las Vegas is built on indulgence and excess, and to fully savor it, you have to be able to let go a little. This can mean anything from being able to play $10 hands at Blackjack without a second thought to spending $15 (some hotels go as high as $35!) for a good buffet.

There’s just so much more to Las Vegas than the buffets and casinos, of course. There’re free shows that happen every hour or so at the different hotel fronts, and that’s certainly worth it. It’s only the beginning of the journey, and Las Vegas is really pouring on the delights. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the week unfolds.

An Ode to my Grandmother

October 14 - I’m on a plane right now as I write this, Philippine Airlines flight PR 104 from Manila to San Francisco. I think this is the longest airline flight I've had in a long time. The last time I flew to the United States was when I was twelve with my grandmother.

I was always my Lola (Filipino for 'Grandma') Luz’s favorite grandchild, and she took me practically everywhere. Actually, I was her first and only grandchild for some time, which probably contributed to the favoritism. Anyway, when I say she took me practically everywhere, I mean practically everywhere… she was an art and fashion teacher, and she would take me with her to class; she was also the school dance troupe adviser, and she would take me with them on tour; and if there was anything my grandmother was, she was the consummate bargain hunter, and she would take me on her infamous budget shopping sprees. When she brought me to the United States, she spent a great deal of her time dragging me from one garage sale to another. She reveled in finding treasure in other people’s throwaways. Growing up, one of my memories of America was that it was the Land of Garage Sales. Living on $50 a day, a Lola Luz mentality would probably be of great help.

On the way back from that first trip to America, I cried on the plane thinking I would never be able to go back. I don’t come from a very well-off family, and the only way I was able to make that trip was because my grandmother was a very intelligent woman who got a lot of scholarship grants all over the world. The mileage she earned from her trips – that small Asian woman backpacked all over Europe long before Lonely Planet – went a long way to bringing her favorite grandson with her to the US. As I cried, she assured me with unwavering certainty that I would be back. Twenty years later, she would be proven right, although she never got to see her prophecy fulfilled.

My grandmother passed away from breast cancer several years ago in the United States. She had emigrated when I was a teenager, and when she fell ill, my parents had planned to send me to see her or to at least attend her funeral. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as the consulate at the US Embassy didn’t think I had compelling reasons to return to the Philippines and my visa application promptly got denied. The next time I saw my grandmother was in the form of an ornate marble urn after her ashes were flown in.

In a curious twist of fate, several years later, it was that very same consulate – I don’t think I could forget him – who approved my visa to participate in the 5 Takes program. He did so with great reservation, apparently, granting me only the bare minimum to go – a single-entry visa that expires exactly on the day I am scheduled to fly back with a Report Back Letter that requires me to personally appear at the US Embassy when I return to the Philippines to prove that I was not, in his words, “bumming around somewhere in the US.” I have a great many things to say to that consulate, but that’s for another time, another story. For now, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for giving me a chance to prove myself.

Now, as our plane nears San Francisco, my journey officially begins. Our flight got delayed by two hours, which means I’ll miss my connecting flight to Las Vegas. I’ll be meeting the other TJs much later than I anticipated, but this is the kind of challenge that I relish. I’ve been booked for a flight early the next day, which means I’ll have a bit of time to kill in San Francisco. Even though I don’t have a video camera, I’ll try to take pictures of my short stay to show you guys how it goes. When I was young, my grandmother took me everywhere with her. Now, I take her with me everywhere I go. I know her spirit is with me, and everything I ever learned from her (which is quite a lot – the woman was a sage) will come to the fore during this trip. Lola Luz, this is for you. I hope I make you proud.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Emptying the Cup

The most difficult thing about learning is unlearning. Some of you may be familiar with an old story about a professor who wanted to learn about Zen. The scholarly man approached a Zen master who, as part of his introduction to Zen, welcomed the former with some tea. The Zen master poured the man tea, but kept on pouring until the teacup overflowed. As the cup overflowed and the tea kept spilling, the professor, unable to contain his discomfort with the situation, told the Zen master to stop. To this, the Zen master explained, "you are like the tea cup. No matter how much tea is poured, no more can enter."

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It gives us a false sense of security or an unhealthy level of confidence. It can prevent us from taking on more knowledge. In order to truly learn something, we need to empty our cups. Unlike teacups, however, knowledge isn't as easy to dispose of.

This week, Discovery flew us in to Singapore for Boot Camp. It's where they are supposed to teach us all the important things we need to know for the trip. Among these things was how to edit on iMovie, Apple's built-in film editing suite. It's a fairly simple program, and I've used it before for some personal projects. I could only stay in Singapore for three days (actually, just one full day and two hectic half-days) because I need to go back to the Philippines for my visa interview tomorrow. Despite all that's happened, there needs to be one last hurdle for me to jump. If all goes well, you'll be reading this blog and I'll be on my merry way to meet the rest of the team in Vegas.

Anyway, back to that teacup. I would've loved to learn what the other TJs are learning. Right now, they're off to Little India to get some beautiful footage for their VLOGS (pronounced as its spelled, apparently... more of that learning thing. I called it VEE-log in my VLOG). On the other hand, I had a few hours to rush mine in the Changi Village Hotel because my flight to Manila is in about four hours. It's what little of Singapore I can share with you. My meager knowledge of iMovie came in handy, although I would've loved to learn from the production and Discovery guys Francisco and Robert, who flew in from the US to give us a crash course on filmmaking. Something like that.

This whole trip, this wonderful 8-week adventure (technically 9, since we've started this week) requires an emptying of the cup. Not just with what little I know about video editing, but with my experience of America. All I know about Las Vegas, for example, comes from watching CSI: Nevada and listening to INXS' Pretty Vegas. I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. I need to empty my cup and unlearn everything I think I know about America and Americans. This is a journey for me to learn, and I'm excited as hell.

So. If you're reading this, it means God said "ok kid, show 'em what you've got," and I'm on my way to the United States. Tell me what you want me to do! Our little Power Ranger assortment (I get to be the Black one, please) is going to crash into Sin City and we're going to be running around like headless chickens for a while. If you've got ideas, throw it our way. Even better, if you're in the area, let's hook up. You're buying coffee. Throw in a bagel while you're at it, or whatever it is that's good chow in the Neon. Let's get this party started. My cup's empty.

PS - I'm going to Anchorage, Alaska the week after that. I come from a tropical country and I don't want to die of frostbite on national television. If you can point my way to where I can get a good, cheap (hell, even free!) jacket that will prevent me from popsicle-izing, you become my best friend in Las Vegas. I even promise to cut the Zen mumbo-jumbo.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Heroes, Villains, and the Animal Planet

It may be old news to everyone, but... I just wanted to write this. It's a little piece about Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin, as if you didn't know, was the popular conservationist who wrestled alligators and danced with snakes on Animal Planet. He died last Monday in a freak accident when a stingray stabbed him in the chest. Even though I was never a huge fan, news of his death saddened me immensely. He was a hero, no matter what that idiot Germaine Greer says.

Animal Planet had a Steve Irwin marathon today (and I'm sure, I hope, for weeks to come) and I was watching a few of his old shows like Wildest Home Videos and The Crocodile Hunter. If you have Animal Planet on your cable tv, do yourself a favor and tune in for a few minutes. Maybe stay for a few hours, like Aila and I did, and watch the man. He's just amazing. More than his fearlessness, his passion for what he did was genuine and highly motivating. In the short tribute commercials that Animal Planet showed, you could see how much love and admiration Steve Irwin had for his father. He said that was his one ambition, to become like his father. A deep part of all of us, I'm sure, can relate to that. Maybe he was a little intrusive of animal spaces in his methodology, sure. That can be argued. But there can be no doubt to the man's immensely infuential love for those very animals he wrangled and wrestled with. It's that kind of passion that moves people. Aila and I were watching him, and we just asked ourselves, how can you not like Steve Irwin? He was just... very NICE. With that goofy smile, how can you not smile back? We did smile back, and those short clips of him talking with so much passion about life, animals, and his father brought tears to our eyes.

Germaine Greer, on the other hand, is another manner of creature altogether. Why didn't this bitch feminist writer say any
of the nasty, insensitive, moronic things she said while Steve Irwin was alive? It's simple. Because she's exactly the kind of sensationalist creature she accuses Steve Irwin of being. It's good press. Feed on it. While the world mourns, she says something so distressingly inhuman (yes, you stupid woman, your insensitivity has marked you as the worst kind of wildlife) that it attracts the press. Her comments -- you really should click on my links, you know; I put them there for a reason -- weren't a neutral assessment on "that kind" of nature program... they were a personal attack on Irwin. And that, my friends, is the kind of human behavior that exemplifies one of Irwin's most valuable lessons: humans are the most dangerous animals on earth. It's not the black mamba, or the great white shark, even Steve Irwin's favorite crocodiles that are the nastiest creatures on earth. It's us. Our capacity for such venom, such ferocity, such... inhumanity is what makes this world a dangerous place.

Discovery Channel is one of my favorite channels. And it's not just because of 5 Takes, either. Anyone who knows me knows I love Discovery, National Geographic (my late grandmother gave me a subscription to National Geographic as a present. It was one of the best gifts ever.), etc. and Steve Irwin, I suppose, and people like him -- Ian Wright, Jamie Oliver, Samantha Brown -- not just animal conservationists but travel documentary hosts, are a huge part of that. They show us how wonderful our world is. I think, more than anything, that's what I want to do. I want to show how absolutely beautiful our world is. The Crocodile Hunter did that in spades. No matter how dangerous the creatures he showcased were, he always managed to drive home the point that this, our world and the creatures that inhabit it, is a mind-blowingly fantastic place. I'll always be thankful for that.

As we travel life, in everything we do, one of our duties as human beings, I think, is to show others how great our world is. It's our duty and our gift. To be our own Steve Irwins. My father recently compiled all his travel articles in his blog. In a strange, circumnavigatory way, I see everything coming to place. Stories. Travel. Heroes. Fathers. Everything is as it should be.

Friday, September 01, 2006

A Sigh of Relief

It's done. After a grueling two days in Singapore, I had the good fortune of landing one of the five spots in 5 Takes. It's a real dream job, and for 8 weeks, I can be like Anthony Bourdain, Ian Wright, or Jamie Oliver. The casting process was intense. There were over 4,000 submissions of short 150-word essays, and from those, the Discovery Travel & Living people asked about 3,000 to submit their video logs (VLOGs). About half of that were able to submit, and from those submissions, they asked 40 people to fly to Singapore for the Closed Door Auditions. About 36 of us made it, and the non-Singaporeans were booked at the lovely Gallery Hotel. We had cocktails with the other candidates and the judges on our first night; the following day, we had closed-door panel interviews where we had about 5 minutes to sell ourselves to the judges. It was just so much fun. After lunch, they announced 12 finalists which would eventually be whittled down to five.

Even though I got the job, I want to say that every single one of those who attended the auditions were equally qualified for it. You would've enjoyed watching any of them. I just hope to do them and all the people who supported me some justice by not being totally boring. Anyway, I'll be posting my thanks to all my mind-blowingly cool new friends in my next entry, but for now I just want to breathe a sigh of relief that it's all over. Thank you to everyone who believed in me. It's going to be one amazing ride.

Monday, August 28, 2006

150 Words

I'm off to Singapore. Last week, I got a call from Discovery Travel & Living telling me I made it to the semi-finalists of the 5 Takes Season 3 Casting. Even if I'm only on Stage 2 (or 3?), it feels like a dream. I saw on Discovery Travel & Living that they had over 4,000 applicants who sent in their 150 word essays. It's simply remarkable to think how far 150 words can take you. Out of the many submissions, they selected some to fly to Singapore for them to meet and interview personally. I'm a bit nervous - all the candidates are just amazing - but more than that, I feel blessed. I'm really excited. We're booked at the Gallery Hotel, which looks like an awesome place to stay in. I'm really stoked, and I think... and this is always my word... it's going to be really cool. I don't have much time to write a really long entry, but I wanted to share with you what I wrote that eventually landed me this trip. Wish me luck.

My father used to shoot documentaries of Philippine cultural events all over the archipelago. As a kid, that always fascinated me, and was one reason why I took up social anthropology in college. I think it helps give me a different perspective on culture and society. I love films. I made some shorts many years ago, and even shot a music video for a local band using money from my own pocket.

I love writing, drawing, and taking pictures. I love visiting new places, experiencing new things, and meeting new people. I’ll go anywhere and do pretty much anything. I enjoy sharing my experiences with other people, and I relish the chance to translate my travels into blogs and video podcasts. I hardly part with my PowerBook; coupled with a camera and a 5 Takes’ itinerary, I think I can come up with some really cool, amazing things.