Travel writing


(In March of 2005, I wrote this column about travel writing for SunStar Cebu.  I wonder how much has changed since.)

You could be scampering on the beach, being chased by a mad dog whose urine-marked territory you had the bad fortune of crossing, but in the eyes of a travel writer you are one happy tourist. You are “sashaying in the powdery-white sand, communing with the forces of nature.”

That’s travel writing. It is among the most optimistic professions on earth.

Food is not simply delicious, it is “delectable,” and when it is not, it is “exotic.” Mountains (“verdant”) and waters (“azure”) are not simply there; they “beckon.” Which is somewhat of a sore point because all my life I’ve been watching them but they have never beckoned. Perhaps they are partial to travel writers because of the PR possibilities.

And every other God-forsaken place that everyone else is avoiding is never deserted; it is simply “unexplored.” Virgin. In this country alone, I must have read of a hundred or so different “paradises on earth,” and I am distressed at the thought of so many original sins.

The scenes are always “breathtaking.” I’ve seen “breathtaking” on every other piece of travel writing that I’m beginning to wonder if people should be traveling at all when they’re suffering from perpetual shortness of breath. Maybe you should rest awhile.

Imagine if we all thought like travel writers. I tried. I “sojourned” to our old house (excuse me, “hideaway”) in the south for a Holy Week “getaway” and I looked at everything from the eyes of a travel writer.

“Are we there yet?” my wife, who had never been there, asked.

“No. The place is nestled…well, tucked away in a charming, powdery-white sand beach with a captivating view of Tañon Strait.”

“Is there a place where we can stop to find a clean restroom?”

“You’ll have to be patient.”

“There are no clean restrooms?”

“Let’s just say,” I said, remembering to look at everything from the eyes of a travel writer, “a clean restroom is the south national road’s best-kept secret.”

It was not easy being a travel writer, even for a trip. I had to strain it a bit when I explained that the trisikad drivers causing the slow traffic were actually “hospitable locals with a ready smile” inviting us to “take in the lush greenery” you get a sideways glance of when you shake your head to complain. Or that those aging smoke-belching buses really evoked a sort of “old-world charm” that’s impossible to shake off, even if one desperately wanted to.

We finally found a restroom. I checked it out first, and found that the lavatory had a busted pipe, and the bathroom floor was flooded. As my wife entered, I told her: “By the way, as you go in, you will catch a fantastic view of cascading waters, and the rising waters will cool your weary feet.”  (Pablo John Garcia, “Breakfast at Noon”, SunStar Cebu March 2005)





That toy

I don’t usually do this, but my last column elicited quite a response from readers that I feel I have to acknowledge some of them here.

And I hope you won’t begrudge me this chance columnists sometimes grab, in recognition of their readers’ efforts, in aid of deadline-beating, and with not an inconsiderable dose of self-congratulation.

It was just about a toy made in China, really, and the English instructions (also made in China) that came with it. A good number of readers recognized the great wall I ran into, trying to divine what the accompanying “literature” meant.

Norman Catabug, whose letter found its way to the TalkBack section of this paper, recounted a similar experience he had last year, getting lost in the instructions while installing a Chinese-made smoke alarm. He has since installed it, but wonders, to this day, whether it would work.

Norman, I’m optimistic that it will, and I am told that prayers help. But what I’m more worried about, really, is whether your Chinese-made gadget will give off the international signal for a smoke alarm, or whether its innovative manufacturers have decided to make it talk, and shout a warning instead. Because how would you respond to: “Vaporous system of small particles! Carbonaceous matter emerging! Possible to conflagrate organic material!”?

Brigitte Novabos wanted to “roll on the floor” in laughter reading the column, and remembered her mother buying a Chinese-made toy a few years back, that came with accompanying “literature”. On the package, was written, in a bit of self-advertisement: “Amused! Intersting! Elicitation your wisdom!”

Maybe we should stop calling it literature, because some countries apparently take the word seriously. It’s not enough to call a toy “fun” or “exciting” or “educational”. No, that’s too prosaic to be called literature. It has to be “amused”, “intersting” and “elicitation your wisdom.”

John Kupsch, Technical Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, of the Good Housekeeping Magazine published by Hearst Publications, found the column “hilarious”. But he hastened to add: “Other than the large comedic value, there could be something here to discuss with our readers.” He meant, of course, readers of Good Housekeeping Magazine. And so, he asked: “Is it possible to send details of the product, e.g., manufacturer, .jpeg or picture of packaging or product?”

So I did. And so to Mengkay, and all the others who were wondering whether I wrote about an actual toy or was just making things up as I usually do, I will upload a picture of the toy and the packaging to my new (and I emphasize “new”) blog, which you can visit at

Menchu Ponce, from North Hills, California, swore she “rolled with laughter”, literally, and had to be restrained by her daughter, who worried that the neighbors might call the police. She wrote that it was “comforting to know that the Filipino sense of humor is still alive, in the midst of the crisis confronting the country.”

Of course it’s alive, Menchu. Why do you think we keep importing toys from China?

Choking hazard

Toys these days are getting more and more complicated.

Last Christmas, my then one-month-old daughter received a toy, and so, dutiful father that I was, I figured I should read the packaging first, so when the time came to teach her, I’d be ready.

It’s been 9 months but I still haven’t figured it out. From time to time, I take the toy from the shelf, bring it to my study and subject the literature that came with it to another round of hermeneutics and logical analysis. This has occupied my mind since, and I’m now concerned that another Christmas is coming in less than three months.

I thought the toy itself promised nothing complicated. It’s made in China, calls itself “Magical Light” and is supposed to light up and play a melody when you push a button. What kind of light? A “different efffeet light!!!” – the extra “f” and the extra “e” and the missing “c” giving you an idea just how different it is.

What I’ve been spending the rest of my life on since last Christmas is the warning label, under the heading “Notice” which advised: “The custodian must be read it as follow.” Custody over my daughter not having been in dispute, I felt alluded to, so I read on.

“No play under 3 years children, so as to eat it.” I am not a genius, but it did not take me more than three months to abandon the idea that this was an invitation to partake of the gustatory delights of “Magical Light”, with its main ingredient, the “special efffeet light”.

“Forbidden small parts leaded into the mouth, so as to lead to stifle.” This was the particular line that I wrestled with throughout the summer months and into the rainy season.

After 10 months, I decided that it sounded like a Japanese poem manufactured in China through some outsourcing scheme that took advantage of the cheap labor. So I have since been consulting Basho and the other haiku poets in hopes of arriving at its meaning.

“No shut battery, resolve or throw into the fire.” How does one resolve a battery? There must be some Zen wisdom here, reminiscent of the poet Buson, advising us to transcend the duality of the battery’s negative-positive polarity.

And even if you cannot figure it out, who would fail to see strains of Yosano Akiko, in her rich, sensuous and erotic lines of the ancient Japanese poetic form of tanka in the warnings that followed?

“Pat attention to forbidden finger hand and clothes insert moving parts.”

“Finger do not insert moving parts gap to so as to lead to danger.”

“Do not cover head and fan with plastic bag so as to lead to stifle.”

Here was accompanying literature that was really literature, and I don’t care if you find it inappropriate that it should be waxing poetic over a piece of plastic that promises to light up and play a melody when you push a button.

Yesterday, I finally showed this to my wife, what I’ve been laboring on for the past 10 months. She began reading the packaging. Then she started laughing. She didn’t stop laughing. She was turning red and gasping for air, laughing.

And I looked at her and I wondered whether this, here, wasn’t the real choking hazard.

SunStar Cebu
29 September 2005

Not so fast

Perhaps to make up for the shortcuts they have taken in order to make their food fast, fast food outlets have made ordering food a long and winding road. It’s like needing to get married – quick — and applying for a license without the benefit of a fixer.

That is not entirely true. At least, when you apply for a marriage license, the guy over at civil registry doesn’t ask you: “Would you like some fries with that?” They ask for the usual credentials, sure, but they don’t ask you if you’d like to “super size” your fiancée, for a few pesos more.

Not the chatty type, I have avoided fast food outlets for precisely this reason. (And just so my friends don’t bother with the punch line: It is along this line of reasoning that I have not been avoiding the civil registry.) I actually have a fear of fast food outlets: the noisy welcomes, the perky sales “crew”, the sales pitches, the cross-selling and the up-selling, the loud exchange between counter and kitchen that management feels it is our privilege to hear.

The other night, I tried to get over that fear by confronting it. Surely, I thought, another offer of French fries won’t kill you, if the fries actually will.

I can, I felt, stand my ground. “No, I don’t want fries with my French fries.”

If nature abhors a vacuum, fast food outlets abhor silence. There is this inordinate need to fill every silence – every space in conversation — with something they feel needs to be said. You cannot, for instance, pay for your order in silence. They assume you are either an idiot, or a sleight of hand magician: “I received P500, Sir.”

And if you so much as made the mistake of handing over a P1,000 bill, a whole production number is laid out for you. “I received P1,000, Sir.” You nod when deep inside you want to tell her “That’s amazing, because that’s exactly what I gave you.”

But that, apparently, is not enough. The “crew” member shouts, at the top of her lungs, “Large Bill!” You look to your left and to your right, wondering whether “Large Bill” isn’t the name of a bouncer who throws out insensitive customers who gobble up all the change. The manager marches in, solemnly, holding a key, holds the large bill against the light, opens the cash register, and walks away, leaving you wondering what that whole drill was all about.

I was prepared for all that when I walked in the other night. I ordered a burger, “not the meal, no drinks, no fries, and no upsizing,” and that sort of perplexed the girl at the counter, who appeared ready with her array of offers. Before she could ring up the register, I gave her the exact amount, to the last centavo, wondering what else she could possibly say, under the circumstances.

Fast food outlets abhor silence. “Thank you for giving me the exact change, Sir!” the girl chirpily cried out. “Enjoy your take-out!”

And just when I was about to walk away in defeat, she called out, for good measure: “Be happy!”

SunStar Cebu
Thursday, 15 September 2005

Three minutes

If you were wondering why the Constitution prohibited multiple impeachment proceedings in one year, Tuesday should have clearly demonstrated its quite charitable intent. Apparently, it is to protect the sovereign Filipino people from congressmen who have three minutes each to explain their votes.

That’s 690 minutes of speeches, and the framers of the Constitution must have thought that while this country was worth dying for, it shouldn’t be out of sheer exhaustion.

This is perhaps why congressmen call their leader “Speaker”. Even in primitive societies, to the leader usually was attributed the quality to which the herd aspired. For members of Congress, they call their leader “Speaker because that is exactly what they want to be, and preferably for longer than three minutes: the one speaking.

(For largely the same reason, Senators call their leader “President”.)

In fact, the only reason I stayed up early morning Tuesday until late in the afternoon was to see if congressmen could actually limit their speeches to three minutes. This is like “Starting Over”, I said, a reality TV show featuring people who are trying to kick a bad habit and become better persons.

I’m afraid it was too much to ask. Congressmen routinely ignored the three-minute limit as if it were the “No Left Turn” sign on the corner of D. Jakosalem and Sikatuna.

“I am winding up, Mr. Speaker.” By which they meant what a toy would have meant when it said it was winding up. I don’t know how many of them began with “History will judge us…” and then went on and on as if they were actually planning to go on speaking until history did judge them.

If I were the Speaker of the House, I would have gently reminded them that although their arguments were sophomoric, this wasn’t college, that a “Yes” or “No” answer was quite sufficient, thank you, and you didn’t get extra points for long-winded explanations that needed a lot of winding up.

And should members of Congress really show the whole nation that not only could they not agree, their subjects and verbs couldn’t, either? Has the “rule of law” amended the rules of grammar? And — on the other side — must we be so unforgiving of lapses in judgment, and so liberal with those of the grammatical kind?

And how many times can one repeat “rule of law” without sounding anal-retentive? And how many congressmen can claim Torrens title over the “search for truth” before you get the feeling that they’re being sanctimonious? I actually feared that the headline the following day would read: “Toilet training prevails; massive manhunt for the truth called off”.

And how could congressmen from opposite sides of an issue quote from the very same Bible, sometimes the very same verses? Does this mean that the Bible is neutral? If that is so, can we say that God, if called to vote, would have abstained or absented Himself?

But that would have put God in a tight fix. Pro-impeachment congressmen would have quickly accused Him of making a deal with Malacañang. Perhaps a relative of His has been appointed to a government post?

Considering how many government officials think they’re God, that is one accusation the opposition would have no problem proving.

SunStar Cebu
8 September 2005

Security check

On recent trips, I’ve noticed how airport scanners are taking their jobs more and more seriously.

On my last trip, this scanner in Manila actually stopped my bag, ordered it opened for inspected, then scanned again and opened again. He was looking for a “round, metal thing” which he seemed to have seen on his screen.

“What’s that round, metal object in your bag?” he asked, looking at the frozen picture on the monitor.

“I don’t know.” I honestly did not.

That’s when he ordered the second scanning, then the second opening, after which he asked: “What’s that round, metal object in your bag?”

“I don’t know.” I still didn’t.

So he let me go. Maybe he figured that a terrorist would have a more elaborate answer to the question “What’s that round, metal object in your bag?” and that I obviously wasn’t smart enough to be a terrorist.

And maybe he could sense that I was blushing not because I was about to get caught, but because I pack terribly and my underwear always seem to find their way to the top of the heap. That’s the reason I find those x-ray machines terrifying. My stomach turns at the thought of scanners snickering behind my back, making judgments about the kind of person that I am.

I told my wife this, hoping she’d do the packing herself. All she said was that I was so paranoid I should consider a job as an airport scanner.

And have you noticed how, in Manila, their metal detectors are gender-sensitive? There’s one for males and another one for females. I once mistakenly walked through the one for females and the crack security men ordered me to go back and walk through the other one. (The metal detectors looked identical.)

“Why?” I asked. “I just walked through and the alarm didn’t go off. Is it possible that it would on the other side?”

They looked at me with humorless eyes. “Airport policy.”

Which, as a response, was quite disappointing. I sort of expected them to prove that the female body had a higher metal content than the male body. I wanted them to scoff at my ignorance about gender sensitivity vis-à-vis ferromagnetic fields.

But they were curt, and I had to walk through the other metal detector. The alarm didn’t go off. But only because the metal detectors were not sensitive to electric currents emitted by sarcasm and gloating.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad airport security people are taking their jobs more seriously. I was pleasantly surprised that scanners were actually looking at the monitors more closely now, unlike before, when they looked like they were itching for a remote control to change the channels.

My last trip was a week ago. I’ve unpacked my bag, turned it inside out a hundred times, and my wife is beginning to give me funny looks. She wouldn’t understand. I’m scheduled to fly back to Manila next week and I’m sure the first thing that conscientious scanner would ask me after I’d cleared security would be: “Well, sir, what was that round, metal object in your bag the last time?”

And I still don’t know.

SunStar Cebu
4 August 2005

Don’t ask

I never thought that my eight-month old daughter, who has all of two front teeth (both lower), would soon find reason to gnash them, albeit against her upper gum. But it seems Karmina Constantino has that effect, even on infants.

“Isn’t this a rather early stage to be developing such strong feelings, child?” I asked her, and proceeded, without delay, to e-mail ANC, telling the network about this phenomenon, and how it might consider issuing a parental advisory regarding its morning news anchor.

I didn’t realize what my daughter’s problem was with Karmina Constantino until I had finished writing the long e-mail, sent it, left my computer, resumed my position in front of the TV set, and saw that Karmina Constantino was still finishing the question she had started when I left her.

My baby was frowning, in a way that said, hey, this woman was taxing her admittedly short attention span.

And everybody else’s, it would seem, including her guests’. In that particular interview,
former UP President Dodong Nemenzo, a renowned thinker of quite complicated thoughts, proved no match to the standard Karmina Constantino question. “The question is too complicated,” he curtly replied.

So she began again, on a long and arduous journey.

What is the standard Karmina Constantino question? Let me put it this way: “What is the standard Karmina Constantino question?” is not a standard Karmina Constantino question. It is too direct to the point. It fails to take the interviewee on the extended excursion that Karmina Constantino apparently believes it is her duty to take them.

Let me put it another way: I am actually glad my daughter is frowning. Because while I dreaded the day when I would be asked “Why is the sky blue?” that was before Karmina Constantino.

Now, I’m having nightmares about being asked: “Father, why (and by ‘why’ it is presupposed that I am asking a question and I expect an answer) is this matter (and here, I use ‘matter’ loosely, to include not just ‘matter’ in the scientific sense but also concepts) we call ‘sky’ — which admittedly is a non-scientific concept but nevertheless suffices for purposes of identification – blue?”

I would, of course, have to clear my throat. “…And before you answer that, Father, I hope you realize that by ‘blue’ I mean a specific spectral color discernable on a chromaticity diagram, excluding other senses of ‘blue’ that have evolved metaphorically in the course of time.”

There ought to be a rule prohibiting talk show hosts from asking a question they can’t tackle in a standard high school sentence-diagramming exam.

But there’s hope. I don’t know if it was because of my e-mail, but it seems that Karmina Constantino has realized that her questions are too long and too complicated that she has come up with a solution. No, her questions are still long and complicated. But now, at least, when she asks a guest a question, she suggests an answer.

SunStar Cebu
28 July 2005

In dire pre-need

When people ask me if there’s a bright spot in this whole debacle involving educational plans, I readily tell them there is. And it is this: At least, the calls have stopped.

I think I speak for newlyweds and couples under 40 all over the country when I say that since the pre-need companies College Assurance Plan (CAP) and Pacific Plans went belly up, there has been relative peace and quiet. The phones have stopped ringing about a “business opportunity” involving “the future of your children.”

And we’re loving it.

It had become quite a challenge avoiding those pre-need agents. They’re usually friends or relatives (or friends of friends or relatives, and their relatives and friends), and they’re the first to know about a recent birth, a pregnancy or – the earlier birds among them, at least – a wedding.

“Congratulations and Best Wishes. You might be interested in a business opportunity involving the future of that zygote that’s likely to develop tonight, if it has not already.”

And it’s usually tricky trying to talk your way out of it. You try to tell them you don’t really need an educational plan right now, you’re practicing birth control, say. But then they give you this condescending smile, this shaking of the head, as if to say they heard that before, from people who thought they didn’t need any, and look what diploma mills their children are attending now.

And if you ever made the mistake of bringing your baby to the mall, that’s pre-need hell. “Oh, what a cute baby! How old is she, five, six months?” You know, of course, that your friend isn’t really interested to know what developmental stage your daughter is in, or the peculiar parenting challenges that come with it. In his or her head (or at least in that clear book he or she is carrying), there’s an actuarially determined equivalent in premiums, in pesos and centavos.

It had gotten so bad that I had this retort in my head if I smelled a pre-need agent’s ulterior motive in asking my child’s age. “She’s on her sixth month. And I’m glad, because she’s developing sensory-motor skills already. And she’s getting so good at it that I’m thinking of sending her to vocational school after high school.”

I wonder what happened to these pre-need firms. Of the 91 that the Securities and Exchange Commission registered since 1978, half had ceased operations by 2002. Maybe they were too focused on the “pre-need” part of their business that they altogether forgot that – post-need – they would have to pay up.

What do they tell plan holders? “Well, it was a plan. And, as you know, in life, plans don’t always…”?

Or: “Well, you learned your lesson. You can’t say it wasn’t a very educational plan.”

And what about the owners and officers of these pre-need companies? Do they go to hell? Or are they covered by some pre-need memorial plan that guarantees to get them straight to heaven?

SunStar Cebu
5 May 2005


Why do I feel like I was the only one jumping for joy when news came of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the papacy?

Considering the outpouring of sentiment that followed John Paul II’s death, I would say the reception was rather tepid. This puzzled me, because I was in tears when Pope Benedict XVI emerged from the Vatican balcony. Ecce homo, I said: Behold the man who has just given me back the life I thought I had lost forever.

“You are speaking in Latin again.” This would be the wife. She had, for days, laughed at what she called my “paranoid fear of being the next pope.”

I had patiently explained to her that under the rules of the papacy, any “baptized Catholic man, who is not a heretic, in schism or notorious for simony” was qualified to be elected pope and that, at least three times in the past, laymen had assumed the office: Benedict VIII (1012-24); John XIX (1024-32); and Benedict IX (1032-44; 1045; 1047-48).

“What happens then if I did get elected?” I asked. “I don’t think I can take you or my children with me to the Vatican.”

But she had laughed. There she was, about to lose her husband to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and she was laughing.

“The last layman pope was elected 958 years ago,” she said. “They’re going to undo close to 1000 years of history for you? And for what? Just to make you attend mass?”

For days following the death of John Paul II, there were signs everywhere, pointing to the possibility that I was the chosen one. My wife, for instance, asked me why I had a second name, and wasn’t made a “Junior”.

“I was named after John XXIII…” I said, my voice trailing off, my eyes widening as I looked at her, beseeching her once again to allay my fears of losing her for the sake of the Holy Mother The Church.

She just laughed. I was dragging so heavily on my cigarette that she said: “I can’t even breathe in here with all this smoke.”

“White smoke…” I said, my eyes still wide.

Then April 15 came. I had labored to meet the deadline for filing taxes, knowing that Richard Gomez was being prosecuted for failing to. They’re going after tall, dark and handsome men, I said, and by some logic that my mother (and my mother only) would understand, I just knew that I was next.

“I wish I didn’t have to pay taxes,” I told my wife.

“I know,” my wife said. “With what you earn, you won’t be anywhere near contributing to solving the budget deficit.”

I wish I were tax-exempt, I said. “I would be if I were part of the clergy…” My eyes were the widest she’d ever seen it.

But Pope Benedict XVI is here at last. I celebrated with what was left of my money, after taxes. My two daughters were there, horsing around, and I just knew what was on their minds.

“Habemus Papa,” they seemed to be saying. Yes, my dear girls, you’ll have to deal with Vatican’s loss for the rest of your lives.

SunStar Cebu
28 April 2005

Filipinos rise up

Filipinos are among the world’s earliest risers. Which confirms the suspicion I’ve held for so long that I was born in the wrong country.

The research firm AC Nielsen a month ago released the survey results that officially alienated me from at least two-thirds of my countrymen. Sixty-nine percent of Filipinos wake up before 7 a.m., the survey said, a respectable third to Indonesia (91 percent) and Vietnam (88 percent).

The results were carried in front-page stories of the major national broadsheets. I know, because on that particular day, someone who belonged to the 69 percent strategically spread the broadsheets on the floor when I got out of bed.

It was a bit disorienting, such that instead of the usual “Good Morning”, I kissed her and said: “What’s the margin of error?”

Later accounts have it that I slogged to the bathroom mumbling “methodology”. I was offered coffee and I thanked her by giving her a lecture on “sampling error, non-coverage error, non-response error and measurement error”.

It didn’t work. She said something about whether I knew the difference between the snooze button on my alarm clock and the TV remote control; that maybe I should stop thinking that waking up is just a “commercial interruption” between dreams.

AC Nielsen ruined what seemed to be a plausible cultural reason for waking up late. Now we’re not just lazy; we’re actually un-Filipino. Yes, the Filipino can, so why can’t you?

I’ve worked with alarm clocks all my life. I’ve tried the old ones, the ones that involved actual bells and hammers, but that didn’t work. The distressing noise teaches your body, in Pavlovian fashion, to compensate. Your body clock actually tells you to wake up just moments before it actually rings, so that you can preempt it and go back to sleep.

By the time those electronic alarm clocks started coming into fashion, I was pretty much a hopeless case. The low sound it emitted I actually found hypnotic.

Then the snooze button came. Great. Alarm clocks that are open to negotiations.

So I’m thinking of giving up on alarm clocks, I told her.

“More like the alarm clocks gave up on you.”

A few weeks after that survey came out, came another survey by the Asian Development Bank which showed that the Philippines had the second most corrupt government in the world.

Not only that. The top three early rising countries – Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam — were also the top three most corrupt. When you’re running out of arguments, you see connections everywhere.

So it was my turn to spread national broadsheets on the floor. “So you see,” I told her, “maybe this waking up early business is bad for the country.”

And I glided through the air triumphantly, as if to say – the early birds do get the most worms.

SunStar Cebu
7 April 2005

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