Tag Archives: travel

The Trip Part 7: Welcome to Tokyo

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After another wonderful flight with the good people of Japan airlines, Sara and I faced the decidedly less escorted part of our trip. Our mission, which we had no choice but to accept, was to make it from Narita airport to a pay-phone in Shinjuku station on the other side of Tokyo. From there, we were to take the Chuoh line from Shinjuku station to Nakano, where we would meet Makoto, the care-taker of the apartment we were renting. The first part of the trip was rather easy. We were both armed with Japan rail passes that would take us anywhere in the country if we wanted to. We did hit a little snag in Shinjuku. The million or so people that travel through that station everyday made it a little difficult to find a phone. However, I was able to make use of some of the Japanese I learned in university and so we found the pay phone and all Makoto had to do was look out for the weary-looking foreigners exiting the station. He did, and led us to our rented Tokyo apartment.

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The Nakano broadway mall was very busy with shoppers and salespeople, but the buzz quickly died down as we passed through the winding streets behind it. You could see how safe everyone felt. There weren’t any of the hurried gaits you would see even in Vancouver’s West End. The apartment itself was like a large trailer. There were hardwood floors leading to a small bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom. As small as it was, it was still a house of the future in some ways. The heating and hot water were all computer controlled. The rice maker had a suction lid that could keep your rice going for days. The washing machine fit in a closet and was almost silent. The small television had a large kill switch at the top that would allow it to remain plugged in without using any power to maintain the remote control connection. The garbage can was divided into four categories: Kitchen waste/combustibles, PET bottles, Non-combustibles, and glass bottles/aluminum cans. Each category had a different pick-up day. Even with the steep learning curve, I liked the apartment much better than a hotel.  I’m never comfortable with the idea of hotel housekeeping, and when you are travelling to foreign country, going native can give you a true international experience.

The Trip Part 6: The Birthday Party of the Century

You’d think that after exploring Intramuros, Corregidor Island, and eaten copious amounts of mango fresh from the tree, that we had seen all that we could see of Manila in one week. But no, the last night of our stay had even more surprises in store for us.

One of Don’s Colleagues was holding a birthday party for her granddaughter on Saturday night, so Sara and I were invited. We were a little trepidatious at first because we didn’t know the family, but we were so flattered by the invitation that we accepted it. As we meandered through the highway, Judy mentioned that there would be the kid’s party first, then the adults’ party after dinner. At this point I wondered what exactly Sara and I had gotten ourselves into.

This was our answer.

To say this was the most extravagant birthday party I had ever been to was an understatement. They had a DJ leading the kids through games of finding coloured golf balls and seeing who could say “Happy Birthday” the longest. There was a vintage ice cream cart, a cotton candy machine, Transformers goody bags for the boys, Disney Princess goody bags for the girls, and chair covers. As God as my witness, I have seen chair covers at a child’s birthday party.

But what really floored me about the whole party was the parents. What were they doing while their children were being over-stimulated with toys and sugar and all that nasty stuff? Again, as God as my witness, they were chilling. Just kicking back with their drinks and watching their kids have the time of their lives.

Now this is a scene that is completely foreign to my home country. If this was going on in a Canadian backyard, no matter what income level, you’d have parents in the middle of the games making sure the “bad” kids kept their distance from their precious little snowflake.  Someone would be grilling the caterer over little Jimmy’s gluten allergy, or there might be a small cache of parents gossiping about what a bad influence the DJ is. They would not be catching up with their cousins over fruit cocktail.

Now, you might say I’m only making this observation as a non-parent, but believe me, I was nervous too.  Someone was making toy swords with balloons, and Sara’s 10-year-old triplet cousins were having a full scale battle with the other kids. I fully expected to hear a piercing wail coming from a kid who got hit too hard or whose balloon sword had popped. All I heard was laughter. Sara and I were talking with Don’s colleague’s neighbour, who has twin nine-year-old boys, and she asked if Sara had any kids and when she was planning to have any. Her tone was more akin to asking “When are you going to Cancun?” rather than the “When is your life going to be ruined too?” or “Can I have your mat leave?” tone that I usually hear when the question of children comes up. At that very moment, something clicked into place. A solution with clues reaching far back into the trip.

We all may have heard at some point or another on celebrity talk-shows or chick-lit novels that you need to get a Filipino nanny because, you know, they love kids. You might think, well, they come from a developing country and they would appreciate the Canadian/American minimum wages, so they’ll work hard. The party was a big “No, no, no, you don’t understand,” to that statement. They LOVE kids. They are not only our future, but they are one of the pleasures of life. The sound of children playing is considered the background noise to a life well-lived. In the malls, there are all of these playgrounds and rides. I saw no less than 5 places in one mall advertising that they host birthday parties. You could tell that the tour guides were directing their stories at the triplets, and any other kids we taking the tour with. Judy even told us that in Geneva or Canada, people would see her with a triple stroller and give her looks of pity. In the Philippines, people with no more with 5 pesos to their name would go up to her and tell her how blessed she is.

Does this mean that they value children in the Philippines more than we do? Of course not, but the concept of children is approached with less emotional baggage and less fear. Our culture makes it tough to be a parent. “Where are the parents?” is the first question people ask when they hear about kids shoplifting or beating up each other in the news. Then you’ve got the other side of the coin, where parents are pulling their kids from dance school because they were playing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” at the recital. Parents are basically being judged all the time, which makes them paranoid. Everyone else is paranoid of the paranoid parents. We are all actively trying to avoid each other, so our parks are empty, our kids can’t relate to anyone, and under no circumstances do we have big, fun, birthday parties.

So what am I going to do, knowing what I know now? Again, I’m not a parent yet, but I want to be some day. I’m not going to be leading a one-man revolution against paranoid parenting, that’s just too much for me or my kids. We can’t just socially engineer away all of our problems. I will be looking to them to see what makes them happy, and try to balance that with the knowledge that I have that will keep them that way in the future. And most importantly, I will enjoy myself.  I think we can always choose the way we react to life, and if an entire nation can make their child-rearing years the best years of their life, I think I can too.

The Trip Part 5: Corregidor Island

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It was like seeing the set of a big budget movie, only it really happened. Corregidor was a 90 minute ferry ride from the docks in Manila. Along the way we could see a myriad of tiny fishing boats bobbing up and down in the waves. From there, we loaded into open-air tour buses that reinforced the Universal Studio Tour feel. However, as we passed the distance numbers on the road and the dilapidated pill boxes in the trees, everything became just a little more real. None of this was for show, everything had a purpose of some kind. This was where the fate of the world was decided long ago.

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In British Columbia, there are no great battlefields. Aside from the paranoia of the Japanese internment camps, the bases for training soldiers, and perhaps the odd submarine, war was a stranger to my part of the world. All the battles for Canada as a nation were fought on the east coast.  BC’s border disputes were decided in the halls of government rather than through the barrel of a gun. Corregidor is unique among WWII battle zones. While London, Berlin, Pearl Harbor and Tokyo were all rebuilt for the sake of the people living there, Corregidor was home to no one save the birds and monkeys. Its guns were rendered obsolete by the events of the war.  In addition to the museums and monuments, the ruins of the base that once defended Manila bay serve as a reminder to those who died in the war.

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There something about all of those ruined structures that can’t be captured with photographs. A step in either direction reveals never-ending caverns of lonely building guts. It reminded me of the last scene in “Slaughterhouse Five” after the fire-bombing of Dresden. There really is such a silence after a massacre. It’s not the kind hear, though. At once you think about the people who made those buildings their home and the mechanical savagery by which they were destroyed. The bullet holes conjure images of a young soldier leaning on a machine gun trigger until his box of ammo was empty, yet the look on his face is the same as if he were working an industrial press.  The craters and pock-marked concrete were only a inkling of the violence that took place here.

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As the tour went on, we learned about how the Americans and Filipinos had defended the island until their ammunition and water had run out. We walked through Malinta Tunnel, where they had lived while the Japanese bombers deforested the island. When they surrendered, the Japanese marched all 72,000 of them up the Bataan peninsula, which we could see in the distance. 54,000 made the journey alive. When the Allies retook the island in 1945, the Japanese soldiers, honoring their Bushido code, would commit suicide by jumping off of cliffs overlooking the sea. That was where the Japanese government eventually erected their own shrines to the sons they had lost there.

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In this day and age, we are so removed from the horror of that time. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan almost seem like small-time thuggery by comparison. Americans, Filipinos, Canadians, and Japanese now visit this place as tourists, whereas 60 years ago they would have been the bitterest of enemies. The fact that there has been peace between those countries for so long raises a few questions. How could we reconcile what happened here with what we have today? What changed? Was it our ability to communicate over television and computers? Do our well-heeled post-war lifestyles prevent us from getting the idea to kill each other? And whatever caused this reconciliation, can we put in a bottle or a book or something so we can send it to places like Afghanistan and Iraq where they really need it?

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The Trip Part 4: Intramuros

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Intramuros, or literally “within the walls”, is the oldest district in all of Manila. It was constructed in 1571 over the remnants of an older Islamic settlement. For over 300 years, it was the cultural center of the city before it was almost destroyed at the end of World War II. The city was rebuilt in the 1980s under Imelda Marcos in an attempt to restore the Philippines’ history and national pride. If one wanted to explore the history of Manila, there was no better place. Whereas the rest of the city had the modern sheen of the 21st century, Intramuros retained the ornate trappings of Spanish colonialism with a few Chinese stone lions for a little Asian flavour. The buildings are beautiful enough on their own, but if you want to experience the history fully, you must employ the flamboyant story-telling of Carlos Celdran.

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Carlos is Filipino by birth, but went to graduate school in America and spent some time on Broadway. His tour of Intramuros is, in effect, a one man show about the history of the Philippines. Aided by a boom box, a large binder of photos, and a small but effective collection of props, Carlos crafts the story of a country built out of a mish-mash of foreign influences into something unique and beautiful. The tone was irreverent and light-hearted. Almost all of the Philippine historical figures get a good roasting. He called Douglas MacArthur a “Drama Queen” in reference to the good General’s penchant for catch-phrases, photo-ops, and political grand-standing.

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I was fascinated with the way Carlos described the darker moments in the city’s history during WWII. In the battle to take back Manila, 6 of the 7 Spanish cathedrals that had stood for centuries were reduced to rubble. Some were destroyed by the Americans as “collateral damage”. Others were destroyed by the Japanese to break the spirit of the Philippine people. In some ways, it had that very effect. This was puzzling. How could such places built by foreign conquerors mean so much to the people they were imposed upon? As the tour went on, Carlos gave us the answer. It didn’t matter which culture was there first or who had stayed the longest. All sorts of bits of culture from Spain, America, China and the Philippines itself had come together to create a place like no other in the world. So, why shouldn’t the Filipinos take pride in things on their land that have beauty and majesty? The Philippines is what is, no matter who had the idea for it first.

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I think that every country needs a Carlos Celdran. Every country needs a person or set of people that can take a look at that nation, warts and all, and use their love and resourcefulness to introduce that one country to the world like a member of the family. People like that make the world all the more worth exploring.

The Trip Part 3: De La Salle University and the Bamboo Organ

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Our trip wasn’t all lounging by the pool and enjoying fine home cooking. Sara and I are more of the museum type of tourists, and Judy was happy to oblige us. Our first outing took us to the Museo De La Salle. The first floor contained artifacts from the Spanish Colonial period, like furniture, Catholic shrines, and dresses (including one worn by the infamous Imelda Marcos). There was also a statue of the University’s patron Saint, John Baptist De La Salle. The second floor was a sight to behold. Our tour guide led us through the servant passages of an immaculate reproduction of 19th Century Spanish Patrician’s house. There are a few heritage houses in BC, but they are nothing like this. Every room was decorated from floor to ceiling with ornate paintings and intricately carved furniture. There was an entire Catholic chapel adjacent to the living room where services, weddings and funerals were all held for the Patrician’s family. There were segregated drawing rooms for both the men and the women (Simon opined that the boys must have sneaked in to see the girls room at some point, and vice versa). The dining room contained these massive fans that were waved by servants in an adjacent room via strings. The kitchen itself was large enough to employ a small army. The most interesting part of the house was the servant passages we were taking the tour through. Unlike the inner chambers, they seemed to get the most natural light of all the rooms. There were sliding doors going to all the rooms in the house so that the Patrician’s family would never see the servants. We were told that if a servant made eye contact with a member of the Patrician’s family or their guests, they would be sacked immediately.

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After lunch we were driven to Las Piñas City and the Church of St. Joseph, which contained the world’s only Bamboo Organ. The cool stone church was a welcome refuge from the tropical sun. One of the organ players was on hand to give us a demonstration. The sound was a lot warmer than a metal organ, and there was this interesting mechanism where air was pumped through a pool of water which made a sound like a flock of calling birds. In the basement of the church there was a small exhibit detailing the history of the organ and the church. The construction of the organ was a laborious process, involving burying large bamboo stalks in sand for long periods of time so they would not get eaten by insects before the organ was finished. The tour guide told us that the organ was only around 200 years old, but we said that was okay because it was still older than our own country. There was also a chronology of the Church’s history, depicting its trials through earthquakes, plagues, and war. It was apparent that the Philippines’ recent history had been quite tumultuous, as we would soon see in our tour of the old city of Intramuros.