Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, its ironies and my misadventures

Lumbini was in my list of must-see places in Nepal. I visited it out of curiosity of what Buddha’s birthplace was like. While I am not a religious person, Buddhism, among all the religions in the world, resonates with me the most. And, Lumbini is one of the top holy sites among the Buddhists. It is their Mecca.

Taking two to three days from my 45-day stay in Nepal and coming to Lumbini, thus, seemed like an obligation.

But Lumbini, which is located in the Terai plains of southern Nepal close to the Indian border, turned out to be underwhelming, not to mention the long and dusty bus ride from Kathmandu and the subtle harassment I got from the tour guide I hired for one day.

My experiences in Lumbini were punctuated by ironies and ugliness. At first I thought writing about it would be all-zen. A magazine editor had even asked me to write about it before my supposed trip. But it would be too hypocrite of me not to tell exactly what happened and what was on my mind while I was there.

I left Kathmandu for Lumbini a day after a three-day international conference on investigative journalism which I attended because it happened to be held just where I was in that month. I was still recovering from cough and colds so I was not in my top shape. I arrived at the bus station in Kathmandu 5 minutes after the AC bus en route to Lumbini had left. I had no choice but to take the non-AC bus to Bhairawa. In Bhairawa, I had to find another bus going to Lumbini. All in all, the travel took 11 hours because these ordinary buses stopped frequently to pick up passengers.

While in discomfort and sweating inside a full bus that was like a sardine can, I consoled myself: “Everything will be better in Lumbini.” To get through the day, I tried to think of impermanence, a Buddhist thought. Everything, without exception, is “transient, evanescent, inconstant.”

I arrived in Lumbini at half past 6 in the evening. On the bus, I was half-worried that it might be too dark to find a guesthouse to stay for the night.  I didn’t book my accommodation beforehand because I thought it might be less costly to simply scout for a cheaper room, which turned out to be a right decision. I found a room for 5 US dollars.

But still it was a risk to come in the night. (Tip: Make sure to get the AC bus at the Kathmandu bus station at 7 a.m. because the travel would surely  take six to seven hours. You will arrive in Lumbini by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.)

The caretaker of the first guesthouse which I had checked asked me how much I was willing to pay for a private room and quickly I replied: “500 rupees.” He initially said 700 rupees but he eventually agreed to my price. The room was clean and had basic amenities- shower, fan, and a queen-size bed, all that I needed.

Lumbini has been identified as the birthplace of the Buddha way back in 248 BCE. A pillar of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who visited Lumbini in 248 BCE,  stands erect there with an inscription commemorating the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, whom the world knows as the Buddha, or the enlightened one.  The exact place where Buddha was born has always been a subject of debate. Some claim he was born in India. But Buddhists for more than 2, 000 years believe that the enlightened one was born in Lumbini, a town located in the present-day Nepal.

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When I came to Lumbini, I was disheartened to see poverty everywhere. I saw several children with gaunt eyes, tiny bodies and bloated bellies. While I was eating outside a restaurant, one child carrying a tiny baby, probably 1 to 2 months old, was begging for alms. “Should I give her money?” a Caucasian woman sought our help in her decision whether to give or not. A Japanese tourist replied: “It’s up to you.”

After an hour another girl came with the same baby asking the other tourists for money.

 

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My misadventure started when I met an unusually friendly owner of a restaurant near the guesthouse where I was staying. When he found out that I was Filipino, his face brightened up and in an instant he became chatty. He even Skyped his former Filipino officemates in Dubai so they could talk to me. So he somehow earned my trust. He offered me a tour guide to go around with me the next day. I asked how much and he said I shouldn’t bother and it would be up to me. (Note: This was a mistake. Hiring a guide turned out to be more costly than just hiring cycle rickshaws and figuring out where to go on your own. )

I met the tour guide the next day. He was supposed to drive me around with his motorbike. But an hour after visiting the gleaming white Peace Pagoda, his motorbike began to malfunction. It wouldn’t start. We had to take a rickshaw and then bus from where we were.

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It was totally fine with me. I know shit happens on the road. But what pissed me off big time was this tour guide’s subtle sexual advances. There were several times he put his arm around my shoulder despite my disapproval. I told him, still politely, that, it is inappropriate to touch a woman. “But we are friends,” the guide reasoned out.

His advances, no matter how subtle, made me uncomfortable throughout the day. Worst, after I paid him 1, 500 NR (15 USD) , he stroked my back in a sensual way.

I stood up and shouted “I told you not to touch me!” I walked away. But I felt I didn’t do enough to punish him for his acts. It was clearly a harassment. While in my room, I was boiling over. I should have expressed utter disgust, curses and all, to prove a point. I shouldn’t have allowed it to pass.

But I actually allowed it to pass. I felt I had to leave Lumbini as soon as possible.

(My advice to solo female travelers: team up with fellow travelers if you are in South Asia. And for your safety, look for a female tour guide instead. You can also go around around Lumbini on your own. And if anything like this happens to you too,  tell the guy to F*ck off!)

My misadventures actually didn’t end with that. Perhaps due to the rough day, I found it difficult to sleep on my last night in Lumbini.  I did manage to sleep eventually, so soundly that  I missed my 7 a.m. bus to Pokhara. I had to take a non-AC ordinary bus, which again crawled on the road to pick up as many passengers as possible.

So if you’d ask me if I got my zen while I was in Buddha’s hometown? My answer is definitely not.

I went back to Pokhara where the approaching winter cooled the air. And the sight of the Annapurna Himalaya cheered me up again.  I went back to my yoga mat the next day. And, all things had gone well.

In a way, Lumbini gave me a taste of ironies and some lessons learned.

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Maya Devi Temple, the main highlight of my tour. It is believed to be the place where Buddha was born. Siddharta, born a prince, is said to have been born beneath a sal tree. The temple was named after Siddharta’s queen mother Maya Devi.

 

My 2016 in a Nutshell

I am inclined to write more on Instagram than on this website mainly because it is easier to write short prose than lengthy ones. That is obvious. There are also days when my short attention span only allows me to write a few sentences.

And so Instagram has been the best receptacle for my snapshots and short notes in 2016. A friend actually suggested I compile the best of my 2016 Instagram photos. “Brilliant! So easy to copy-paste,” I jested. I am lazy like that.

Here’s what my 2016 is like.

1. Manila, Philippines– Japanese Emperor Akihito and wife Empress Michiko were in Manila for a five-day state visit. The Philippines had strictly followed the protocols laid down by the Japanese government. After all, it was the Emperor who was on the Philippine soil, the most revered figure in Japan. During the reception hosted by the Japanese embassy in Manila, the Filipino VIPs among them were a previous president, current officials and high-profile business leaders were told to turn off their mobiles phones, not to extend their hands to the Japanese royalties, and don’t talk too much. We, on the other hand, the low-born members of the media were cordoned off in one corner. (January 26, 2016)

 

2. Hawaii and California, USA– In February, together with 14 other journalists from Asean nations, I came to the United States for the first time for a two-week study tour. Among the highlights of the tour were the meeting of US President Barack Obama with 10 Asean leaders in California and our interviews with military officials at Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii.

We were rushing to catch our flight from Palm Springs to San Francisco, California right after the Asean summit, when I bumped into the then Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario. Instead of giving me further details about the meeting of Obama with the Asean leaders, Del Rosario, just like a grandpa, offered to give me a treat. “Can I buy you an ice cream?” Do I really look like a kid? Haha. (February 17, 2016)

3. Tikling Island, Matnog, Sorsogon– The story of the lost and found phone. I was enchanted. Its clear turquoise blue water was so radiant that I rushed to jump into it. I dropped and lost my phone in my excitement. This photo was taken by our dear friend Peewee after returning to the island to search for my missing phone. After scanning the area and asking the people, we gave up and thought it was gone. We couldn’t do anything but simply to enjoy the beach. But No! Three days later, a woman who works as a treasurer in a village in Matnog called my friend Jaymee saying she found my phone. (March 29, 2016)

4. After following Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail for more than three months, it took a while to sink in that he is the new President of the Philippines. The 2016 elections was the most divisive elections in recent years. After I’ve posted a status that the Filipinos should give him a chance but with a healthy mix of optimism and skepticism, I got an angry public comment from a senior reporter, lecturing me and questioning me what have I done. Oh well, I did my best. (May 11,  2016)

 

5. Dharamsala, India– It was a beautiful experience to sit beside Tibetan monks throughout their Friday afternoon chanting inside the Dalai Lama Temple. An elderly nun asked us to sit beside her. She offered us a cup for the milk tea being given freely to all. A Tibetan man afterward gave us bread. We felt home. (July 15, 2016)

6. It was overwhelming to see the Dalai Lama in person and up close. This photo was taken while he was delivering his public teaching in Leh-Ladakh in India. (August 14, 2016)

 

7. Ladakh, India– Surreal. This is how I describe this photo I took during our seven-day trek in Markha Valley in the Himalayas. (August 20, 2016)

8. Pokhara, Nepal-  I woke up earlier than usual to catch the sunrise in Sarangkot in Pokhara, from where I can see the full glory of the Annapurna Himalaya. But the snowcapped mountain peaks were hiding behind thick gray clouds. I was still happy to get this view. (September 20, 2016)

 

9. Pokhara, Nepal–If you prefer not to trek in the Himalayas in Nepal because you are too lazy like me, why not fly? I made sure to do paragliding before leaving Nepal. The experience was exhilirating (October 9, 2016)

10. Vang Vieng, Laos–I felt like Tarzan doing the rope swing in the famous Blue Lagoon of Vang Vieng in Laos. After cycling 7 kilometers to reach the lagoon and then rope swinging for three times, I explored the cave nearby leaving me totally exhausted. (November 5, 2016)

11. Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi–It has been exactly five months since I left Manila. I am back in Hanoi taking traveling slow. And I am loving the cool weather, the hostel where I am staying and the people around me. (November 13, 2016)

 

12. Hanoi, Vietnam — Funny things can really happen on the road. My friend Nina and I were on a bike to visit some Buddhist temples on the outskirts of Hanoi last Sunday when an angry Vietnamese on a motorbike called our attention at an intersection. He was shouting at the top of his lungs words we could not understand. We thought he was some crazy guy about to harass or even attack us. So Nina drove at a full speed to avoid him. (I was a backrider to Nina) But we realized our mistake a couple of minutes later when we noticed that we were the only ones riding a two-wheeler on the road, which was completely odd if you have seen how bikes dominate Hanoi traffic. So it was obvious. We shouldn’t be on the highway. We pulled over, completely at a loss how we should go back. Then a group of Vietnamese on the parallel street motioned us to go there instead. But how? There was a metal barrier separating the two roads. Voila! They helped us lift the bike over the fence. Wow, how kind of them to help us, I thought. But my gratitude dissipated in an instant when the locals started asking for money. One man showed us a 100, 000 dong bill. We said: “No, we don’t have money to give.” We thanked them and rode the bike in the opposite direction, too afraid of what they would do. We continued our journey laughing the incident off. Come to think of it, we had actually thought the angry bike rider was a bad guy and the locals who helped us were good Samaritans when it could be the other way around. (December 10, 2016)

THANK YOU, 2016! 

 

Missing my flight home: A year-ender post

It was not a confluence of unexpected events that made me miss my flight home. It’s nothing that dramatic. But on December 16, I decided not to take the flight back to Manila and end my supposed six-month sabbatical-style break. I booked a Cebu Pacific flight way back in October in anticipation of the skyrocketing airfare during the holidays.

Well, I chose to settle for a while in Vietnam and continue wandering in the next few months or probably years. I have no concrete plan to be honest. But at the very least, I have some vague idea of where I want to be in 2017. But if you have been on the road for quite a while, you know things can change anytime and you have to be open to all possibilities.

Looking back, 2016 was magical for me. I couldn’t believe I was able to take the plunge and leave everything behind to take things slow, breathe, explore, and know more about myself and the world we live in.

My journalism career was blossoming then. My office had been entrusting me with important coverages, one was the assignment to follow Rodrigo Duterte on the presidential campaign trail. Prior to that, I was picked by the US Embassy in Manila to cover the first ever meeting of US President Barack Obama with 10 Asean leaders in California. It was definitely a feat, but even then something was amiss.

Deep within me, I was constantly restless. My friends knew how much I wanted to travel and explore the world. And so after the results of the presidential elections were out, I was unstoppable. Despite opposition from my bosses, I tendered my resignation and flew to India.

For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine how I did it. I didn’t have much money. I left with 2, 500 US dollars and almost half of it went to to the yoga school in Dharamsala where I stayed for a month. But it was exactly the right time to do what I wanted. I have a supportive and loving family. And at that point in time, I had nothing to lose.

The worst thing that can happen to me was to end up broke,” I told my best friend. “I can always go back home.” It was I who needed much convincing then that all would be well.

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A rare sight. The moon could be seen around 4 in the afternoon while I was in Nepal’s Swayambhunath Temple
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The glorious Annapurna range in the Himalayas finally showed itself to me before I left Pokhara, Nepal

Life on the road is never as easy as it seems. It isn’t all about scenic beautiful mountains, beaches, good food, coffee and beer, hostels and meeting fun and adventurous travelers. There were days anxiety kept me awake until 3 in the morning. I felt I was just drifting aimlessly and wasting precious days and months. There were times I wanted to go home.

But I had to be reminded of my reasons why I left in the first place and the things I have accomplished so far. The previous months had toughened me physically (because of yoga) and spiritually. My heart and mind have never been this open and clear. My travels, especially India, had changed me.

The change was pretty obvious, especially in my yoga practice. Compared to six months ago, my forward bend was deeper. My flexibility and core strength had improved astonishingly.

On the last day of 2016, I was smiling while doing the sun salutations and positive thoughts had begun to come in. I was happy and I was myself.

So for now, I will be in Vietnam. Hanoi has that unique Asian beauty, traditional but modern. There is chaos and order. While I get annoyed seeing sidewalks blocked by parked motorbikes and I feel like a scared kitten crossing the streets, I am happy to see that motorbikes are the kings of the road here. Whether you like it or not, riding a motorbike, either with your own or with GrabBike, is the cheapest and most convenient mode of transport in Vietnam. And so I am liking the city.

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But after having found a furnished room in a neighborhood close to the scenic West Lake for a price not too far from the average monthly rental rate in Manila, I have to move again to take a teaching job in the province called Thai Binh. I have no idea what the province will be like. But you may call it an adventure and a learning experience. Wish me luck!

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2017 be full of love, magic and adventures and of wishes granted and dreams coming true.

Coming back after a hiatus

Three months ago, I told my housemate, as if patting myself on the back, how I loved the fact that I was able to keep blogging regularly. Well, if you know the Filipino word “nabati” which means “jinxed,” that was what actually happened in the next three months. Some Filipinos say “nabati” whenever something opposite to what has been noticed has happened, like when someone gleefully mentioned about the clear sky and rainless day and all of sudden the sky turned overcast and rain started to pour hard. After I praised myself, I ended up delaying my writing until the topics in my mind were overtaken by various events. So many exciting things have happened in the last three months and I wasn’t able to devote a blog post for each of them. Here is a rundown of what happened in the last three months. 1. Rockclimbing in Norzagaray, Bulacan My friend Jaymee and I thought about an all-girl climb since it was March 8, the International Women’s Day and it was just befitting to show our prowess without the slightest help from our good male friends. We chose these two limestone rock formations in Norzagaray, Bulacan, which climbers before us had baptized as the Lioness and Rhino Rock mainly because they amazingly resemble a female lion and a rhinoceros. But it turned out we would rely on a teenage boy as our guide.  Without him, we wouldn’t be able to make it to the top nor to scale it down. It was crazy we thought we could do it on our own. We made it to the peaks of the two rockies, but not without scratches, and bruises. Those rocks were so hard on us. My major mistake at the time was I chose to wear shorts and let my legs go bare instead of wearing usual tight pants. Good thing J had an extra pair of tights in her bag, so I was good while climbing Rhino rock. You would need gloves to protect your hands from the harshness of the rocks. But like any other climbs, it was all worth it. We felt accomplished in the end, having spent only less than P700 for the transpo and the guide fees, including a giant pizza I bought from a kiosk before we headed home.

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Look how regal she is: the Lioness Rock

J made a beautiful video which actually summed up the whole thing.

2. Inked by the last Kalinga tattoo artist in Buscalan

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Whang-Od uses pine soot for her ink, citrus thorn for her needle and a bamboo stick to mark me with this crab sign.

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were the only days the newspaper shuts its operations and allows its employees to be normal human beings who can enjoy the very concept of public holidays. J and I took advantage of this annual small miracle and headed to Luzon’s northernmost part. We were just lucky that a stranger offered us two roundtrip bus tickets to Tabuk, otherwise we would probably be satisfied doing planking in the middle of our beloved Edsa, which isn’t a bad idea for the sake of an excellent photo-op. We took the Manila-Tabuk route, enduring the 12-hour bus ride. I managed to get intermittent sleep on the bus but my neck and back were complaining afterwards. In Tabuk, after breakfast, we transferred to a jeepney going to Buscalan past noontime. I suggest you go top-loading at some point during the  jeepney ride. You would want an unobstructed view of the rolling mountains, rice terraces and the Chico River snaking through. We arrived past noon time at the Bugnay Junction where we were fetched by our guide, whom we hired through Charlie, one of the locals in Buscalan Village. We rode a habal-habal to the jump-off point where we would start to walk. Riding a habal-habal going up along the unpaved hilly edges of Kalinga was truly an adventure itself. The trek, about 20 minutes, was a walk in the park. But we were screaming silently because of the scorching noontime heat. Buscalan village is a laid-back community tucked against the lush green mountains and terraces of the town of Tinglayan. Charlie is the caretaker of houses in Buscalan so he’s also the best person to ask about the accommodation. We saw a lot of friendly kids smiling and badgering us for candies all the time. They have become used to tourists giving them food so it would be better to bring some for them and for Whang-Od who we learned later liked chocolates. I asked a teenage girl if there was a word freedom in Kalinga as they have “fain” for mindfulness. It shouldn’t be a far-fetched idea as children played around and domesticated animals- dogs, native chickens and pigs wandered unleashed. She said yes, even the animals enjoy freedom in the village. But there was no word for it, probably because there was also no available concept and experience for its absence. Here owners need not to know which pigs are his and not. I guess that’s the example of a community where some resources are shared. In the afternoon, after a short power nap, we went to see Whang-Od, the 96-year-old “mambabatok” in Kalinga. She was there sitting idly in the hut and chatting with other locals just after giving a huge tribal tattoo to a professor. The prof later told us the meanings of the the Kalinga tattoo designs. The sight led us to a slight fear: there was no one being tattooed to take a photograph of and we should get the tattoo J and I had no earlier plans of getting a tattoo. We just wanted to see Whang-Od and have a little chat. (That was the lame reason we wrote on the visitors’ logbook). Jaymee decided to get one, a small fern, on her arm. I was hesitant at first because I had no idea about the pain. A guy before told me it was like giving birth. But I immediately found his metaphor flawed. I asked him: “When did you experience the labor of maternity?” From Jaymee’s face, it looks like there was no pain at all. “Mas masakit pa ang mabigo sa pag-ibig,” (It’s even more painful get your heart broken) a female tourist quipped. I eventually picked the crab sign, convinced by the idea behind it.  The professor we met said it was the sign of Lumawig, the local Zeus of the Kalinga tribe, who goes down to the mortal world to find wives to make love with. He said some would say it’s a traveler’s sign. We weren’t really sure and maybe the professor was making them up. Jaymee said I chose it because I liked the idea of a flirtatious travelling God. I replied: “It chose me.” Some things to note: elders of the tribe associate tattoo with prestige and beauty. Women used it as adornment, the headhunting warriors as marks of their victories in wars and conflict.  But the tradition is dying amongst the tribe’s descendants. I asked Charlie’s daughter, a descendant of Whang-Od if she had one. She said she refused to have it because the prospect of finding a job would be dimmer if she had a tattoo. For the locals, having a tattoo is no longer seen as a practical thing to do. Only the amused tourists coming to see Whang-Od, however, could be the only reason the tradition is still flourishing in this tiny village. I was happy with my tattoo, looking at it as a priceless artifact. But my brother, after seeing my bare right arm, called me “Siga” (Gangster). 3. Trek to Mt Pinatubo My friend Andrew who was in town then sent me an emergency invitation. “Let’s trek Mt Pinatubo!” Since I had just cancelled a trip and I had nothing planned, my kaladkarin (up-for-anything) self was game. We did our research for itinerary, budget and tips. (This was my second time in Mt Pinatubo and the first time was about six years ago.) Still, I cannot fathom how a violent natural event such as a volcanic eruption can create something magically beautiful. I guess this fact is in agreement with my almost perennial optimism in life. Mt Pinatubo 4.  24 hours in Kuala Lumpur Sometimes my work brings me to places and it will always be fun however brief and still loaded with work the assignment will be. But last May 6 was my first time to stay overseas for 24 hours. I arrived KL at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday and left the city for Manila at 6:30 p.m. the following day. A quick working visit it was and I felt I was just traveling to my hometown in the province, which is about 20 kilometers south of Manila. Or I can actually say I was like a President swinging by an international conference. But the trip was interesting for I met diplomats and experts from the EU and the Asean who gave me insightful thoughts about the hot issue in the region, the South China Sea. Well, I was there to work and not to travel anyway. But catching a glimpse of the Petronas Tower again and taking a stroll along the streets of KL are awesome too. IMG_1303 IMG_1305 5. Apec in Boracay To tell you the truth, I have never been to Boracay until last May when the office asked me to cover the meeting of APEC’s senior officials.  I have never really fancied going there with the impression that the place had been exploited through time. To me, there were other places in the Philippines worth my time and my money. But I would never turn down an assignment, be it a disaster coverage in a far-flung area or like that, a coverage of the APEC meetings in preparation for the upcoming big party in November where the likes of US President Barack Obama, Russian President Validmir Putin, and China’s Xi Jinping are coming over. My female boss then told me in jest: “Get a bikini.” IMG_1671IMG_1682 Still I can say that Boracay is among the Philippines’ best, having those long powdery white beaches and the turquoise waters. (Although I noticed the algae bloom on the other side of Station 1). I won’t mind including it in my travel lists and going back on my own.

Self-love and liking yourself more

Our minds have been trained to believe that our successes will be based on how much we are liked and loved by the people around us, that we should be receivers of all the available love in this world, thanks to the “tele-serye” romantic movies and TV shows which we were exposed to during our teenage years.

But it occurred to me a few months ago after a debilitating heartbreak that one of the few things I can be sure of in this world is self-love. It was during those days after someone whom I thought was dear to me had hurt me in the most painful way possible and in my effort to recover from it that I decided to take the yoga practice seriously.

On impulse, I traveled to my hometown to give myself a good break. The next morning at my parents’ house, I set up a mat. I could still feel the emotional pain morphing into something palpable, as if your chest was being squeezed so tightly and your stomach punched a dozen times. I could no longer remember the last time I felt that. On top of the mat, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I bent my body forward as if bowing to a bigger force in front of me. In those minutes, I can picture myself trying to pick up the pieces of my heart while doing the poses one deep breath and one vertebrae at a time.

Funny as it may sound but afterward I imagined my heart whole again.

I rode the bus back to Manila. As I plugged some music into my ears, I felt that inexplicable happiness. I enjoyed how light I could be. And I made a promise: I will never ever forget to love myself again. While loving someone else, you tend to forget yourself, unmindful of the things that make you happy.

I actually wasn’t able to explain it even after joining a group meditation a week later in Makati. (There is this group in Makati called Philippine Insight Meditation Community which does weekly group meditation). It only came to me when we began talking about “freedom.”

You become free when you release yourself from that bondage to things that are really non-existent, not in your present, not in your now.

Freedom was the best gift one can give to oneself– freedom from worries, anxieties, illusions.

Don’t get me wrong. We often confuse self-love with selfishness when in reality, they are the opposite of each other. A man who loves and accepts himself truly is always ready to give love and happiness to others. An empty man will need the people around him and seek material things to fill that gaping hole, and in the end will never be able to do it.

I couldn’t say I had found self-love and self-acceptance. I consider it a challenging but exciting journey because every day we are presented with a slew of distractions.

Heartbreaks could leave one’s self-esteem in tatters. To regain it, I did a writing exercise, sort of a set of New Year’s resolutions, except that those I listed are what I want to become in order to make me like myself more. I think it helps when you write them in the present tense. The exercise is something like this:

1. I am peaceful and mindful of the present. (I find those who are genuinely composed really attractive. They don’t get distracted easily as they live lightly and gracefully. Plus, there is a a study I read somewhere that people are more creative and productive when they are at peace with themselves.

2. I am full of love. (Love can be found everywhere, be with your parents, your siblings, friends, special someone, pets, plants, jobs, food, book, and even in silence) I remember Mother Theresa’s words: We can do small things with great love.

You can write as many as you want. The goal is to find ways and make those baby steps to like yourself more. But the most important part of this exercise is doing it. What I do is I read the list in the morning or in the evening to remind me about these daily goals.

(Above this post, I attached a poem by Derek Walcott “Love after Love.” That sultry voice is Tom Hiddleston’s. Enjoy!)

Solo but not alone in El Nido

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Since all the odds weren’t in my favor the first time I attempted to go to El Nido in Palawan (see previous post), I have learned to manage my expectations and keep them to a minimum. My goal was simply, well, to get there. I didn’t care if I wouldn’t have that fine weather or the good company since I was doing it solo, hence, my joy when the days went on perfectly.It was as if the universe was giving me a blast in the paradise!

While at the airport waiting for my flight, I was browsing some travel blogs, checking for some itineraries to copy for a four-day getaway to El Nido. It was a much-needed respite from the city. Four days away from Manila, its hellish traffic jams and its pollution. Four days wasn’t enough to explore El Nido entirely since the travel time from Puerto Princesa City will take about 5 to 7 hours from you. But this was already welcoming for a city slave like me.

The challenge I had imposed on myself was to spend P5, 000 or less to prove that fact that visiting beautiful places in the Philippines need not to weigh your pockets down. But I spent a little past the P5, 000 mark because I made a couple of mistakes. First mistake: I went to the first terminal of vans going to El Nido, paying P700 for the five-hour ride. I didn’t even have a good seat. It had no headrest and thus I was unable to sleep the five hours of travel away. I discovered much later that I could find a van that would cost me as low as P450. I didn’t repeat this mistake on my way back to Puerto Princesa. I asked one of the people at the hostel to reserve me a seat for my trip back. The van had good seats and it dropped passengers right outside the airport terminal. To reach the Lexus Van terminal from the Puerto Princesa airport, take a tricycle, the Pinoy’s three-wheeled taxi, from the airport to Junction 1 (P8), and then a multi-cab (P12) to the van terminal. If you’d even want to cut costs and you have a lot of time with you, take the non-aircon Roro bus (P250). But the travel time is definitely longer since it makes more stops. The second mistake was booking my Island Hopping Tour at that same van terminal. A local offered me the Island Hopping Tour A for P1, 000. I thought it was a good deal since I heard the usual price is P1, 200. I was fooled right away. The price didn’t include yet the P200 environmental fee. So imagine my disappointment when a Taiwanese guy I met at the hostel later told me he got his tour for P900, the environmental fee included.

Lesson learned: in El Nido, you can haggle over the price of almost everything including the tricycle fare and the tours.

I stayed in a dorm-type room of Hakuna Matata, a backpacker’s hostel next to Art Cafe, for three nights (P350/night). Although not on the beach front, Hakuna is a few strides away from the beach. It had all the things I needed: bed, electric fan, locker for important stuff (I brought my laptop thinking I could still do a bit of work), clean shower/toilet room. The hostel also offers free unlimited coffee. The best things about Hakuna Matata are the people and the atmosphere. I was traveling solo but I never felt a slight loneliness. Just sit at the common area and you’d immediately find new friends. There was one evening when that place was like a beehive, people from different countries were like busy bees buzzing at each other. It was a wonder why I was the only Filipino traveler at the hostel.

El Nido seemed to be more popular to international tourists than to the locals. I had a few theories. One, many Filipinos travel in luxury, thinking perhaps that going to El Nido would cost them a fortune. Second, traveling alone is not appealing to most since we have this sense that our travels should be shared with a special someone, family and friends. Most of the people I met in El Nido were solo backpackers from distant places like the Netherlands, England, Australia, Israel, Russia and Canada. Philippines is just a part of their extensive travel in Southeast Asia.

I had no concrete plans on what to do in El Nido so my first question to the people at the hostel was “Where should I go now?”

I arrived in El Nido past 4 in the afternoon, so I still had ample time to catch the sunset on the nearest beach. They advised me to go to Las Cabanas beach, a 10-minute tricycle ride from the town proper.

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There, I picked a spot on the stretch of the powdery cream sands to loll and watch the moment pass by. It was amazingly beautiful.

Back at the hostel, I met fellow travelers who also wanted to go to Nacpan beach, another beach on the island. It’s a four-kilometer beach with clear sparkling blue waters. The coconut trees surrounding the beach made the scenery perfect. It would be best to go here with friends so you can split the transportation cost.

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Our melting pot. Friends from India, the Netherlands, Canada, and Taiwan
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In my red bikini. Haha

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On our way back to our hostel, we stopped off to trek up to the nearest waterfall. A swim in the cold waters made the 30-minute trek worth it.

You cannot leave El Nido without getting into its island hopping tours. You have the options A, B, C or a mix or “combo” of two of them. I picked A and would have picked the two others too if I had the entire week. El Nido is known for its limestone cliffs, turquoise waters, and pristine powdery white beaches. But being there was simply astounding. I could not put into words what I felt then. Feelings of awe and gratitude struck me. Oh this country, my dear Philippines! No camera can capture El Nido’s pure beauty as it is. You simply have to be there. P1070958 P1070905

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Kayaking around Miniloc.

Anti-Fencing Law, activation lock, and how I got my stolen phone back

Flashback. December 13, 2014.

I fell victim to a pickpocket in a bar in Bonifacio Global City last month while my friends and I were celebrating our victorious return from Mt. Apo. We already had a few drinks when we decided to bring the fun out. The bar was jam-packed and we found ourselves squeezing our way inside. A few minutes later, the bouncer called my attention: my sling bag was unzipped. Oh my, there was a thief in the bar and my iPhone was missing!

To cut the story short, a woman was arrested that night after trying to take off with a dozen of valuables- smart phones, wallets, cash. But my phone was not with her unfortunately. Obviously, she was not the only thief in the house. By the way, this happened at the URBN Bar and Kitchen in BGC. The management told me not to publish the bar’s name. But what right do they have? Security of their guests must be bar management’s top priority. They let us down when they allowed us to be robbed by those thieves blending in with the crowd.

I tried to track my phone through iCloud’s Find my Iphone feature, which automatically turns on the Activation lock. This makes it difficult for anyone to use or sell any apple product if it is lost or stolen. Every time they turn on the phone, it would ask for the owner’s Apple ID and password.

A day after the incident, the tracker located my phone at the Greenhills Shopping Center. I got the alert through an email. “All souls go to heaven and all phones go to Greenhills,” a friend joked. I filed a police report and sought the help of the San Juan police. But at this point, I already lacked the interest to go through the hassle of chasing the phone. Note that this happened during the Christmas season while everyone was busy buying gifts and attending dinners and parties. I didn’t want to ruin my Christmas. I finally said: “Ahh, I am letting this go.”

A month later. January 16, 2015.

I got a text message from an unknown number saying they found my phone. They bought it without the knowledge that it was stolen. They described my phone. That’s it! It was my phone. I realized I registered my mobile number in iCloud in case someone finds it. They said they bought it but they could not use it. I immediately called them. A male voice answered the phone. Instinctively, I asked: “Where did you buy it, and for how much?” He said at “SM North, P4, 500.” He sounded apologetic and assured me that “they” were good people. I asked him to give me time think.

 It turned out I was talking to a young couple studying at the University of Sto. Tomas. They gave me their full names and student numbers. The girlfriend answered my text message when I said I wanted to give them P4, 500 so I could get my phone back. I was willing to buy my phone for that amount with the thought that I wasn’t expecting it to be back to me anyway. But then, the girlfriend changed the story and told me they bought it at P15, 000. She was begging me to give her my apple ID in exchange for the payment of the unit. She promised to pay me P2, 000 monthly for 10 months. For one entire day, she kept on sending me messages, saying she must show a working iPhone to her parents who thought she had bought a new one. This was when I began to be suspicious. What if they were in connivance with the thief? What if the thief was using them as fronts?

Good thing, I was too busy then to make the decision. Pope Francis at the time was in the Philippines for a five-day visit and I was part of the team covering him. I really had no time for them and this iPhone. I told her I will meet her a day after Pope Francis’ departure.

One colleague who had lost her iPhone thrice and got them back twice through GPS and her fighting spirit advised me to entrap the girl and her boyfriend with the police’s help.

Anti-Fencing Law.

It was not an easy decision. I initially thought of agreeing to her scheme of getting the P2, 000 monthly payment. It was a lost phone anyway. But then my wise brother helped me sort things out.

“Hmmm, how can you make a decision that is both merciful and just?” he said, thinking out loud.

Be just. It was a stolen phone. Under the Anti-Fencing law of 1979, buying a stolen good and keeping it knowing that it was stolen are criminal acts. The law is on my side. Here are the important provisions of the law, also known as the Presidential Decree 1612.

Section 2. (a) “Fencing” is the act of any person who, with intent to gain for himself or for another, shall buy, receive, possess, keep, acquire, conceal, sell or dispose of, or shall buy and sell, or in any other manner deal in any article, item, object or anything of value which he knows, or should be known to him, to have been derived from the proceeds of the crime of robbery or theft.

Section 5. Presumption of Fencing. Mere possession of any good, article, item, object, or anything of value which has been the subject of robbery or thievery shall be prima facie evidence of fencing.

Bingo. Section 5 alone says I can press charges against the people keeping my phone. Buying the phone from them or giving them my Apple ID makes me a participant in the crime, of which I was a victim.

I was more inclined to ask the police to entrap them. But my brother cautioned me: “But are you being merciful?” If these people are real students, a criminal complaint would ruin their records and would cause them great embarrassment. You would cause them harm.

The best decision was simply to demand the phone back. All or nothing. No conditions. 

I was able to verify through the girl’s password to her student account on a UST website that they were indeed students. The girl is on her second year of taking Asian Studies.

As calm and polite as I can be, I told them my decision. I enlightened them about the Anti-Fencing Law provisions. I even offered to help get their money back by pursuing a case against the person who sold them my phone.  We can get their money back the right way.

They eventually agreed, probably after realizing the potential repercussions of their actions. I asked them to meet me at a police station so we could begin to file a complaint and plan to get the original fence.

Hours before our scheduled meetup, however, they told me they would return the phone, but not file a case as they fear for their own safety.

At noon time of January 21, the phone found its owner.

I am not sure what to make of this. I hope I’ve made the right decision without harming anyone.