Tags Posts tagged with "Asia"


I take a “leaf in the wind” approach to traveling, relying less on planning and more on just doing whatever looks fun and interesting.  With that attitude I arrived in Beijing looking forward to ten days of adventure and discovery.  On my very first day I met a pair of nice young women who spoke English.  They invited me to have tea with them at a traditional Chinese tea shop, followed by drinks and karaoke at a nearby bar.  At first I was filled with the kind of joy that came from smug self-satisfaction.  I was seeing the real China, not the one manufactured by organized tours and guidebooks!  Well it wouldn’t have hurt to crack open a guidebook before I arrived in Beijing, because then I would have been aware of a scam where tourists are taken to overpriced bars and tea shops and bilked out of large sums of cash.  By the end of the evening those nice young women had taken me for nearly $300.  

Needless to say I was very upset once I realized I had been scammed.  Not just because of the money, but because once again I had reached out my hand in friendship only to have it slapped down.  I had struggled to make friends my whole life with little success.  Sometimes I tried too hard and sometimes I didn’t try hard enough, but either way I spent most of my time alone.  On the one hand it allowed me the independence to travel anywhere I wanted on my own terms, but on the other it fostered a deep sense of loneliness that made me fair game to any con artist with a smile and a few kind words.

I decided to get out of the city and visit Chengde.  The town is best known for Mountain Resort, an imperial palace and garden that served as the summer residence of China’s last emperors.  I went there with no intentions other than to look around, eat, and go back to the hotel.  The grounds were enormous and took all day to explore.  I was awed by the beauty of both the terrain and the buildings, some of which were older than the United States.  While walking through a field I thought I heard someone yell out “hello!”  I ignored it at first, but then I heard it again.  I turned around and saw a small group of people sitting underneath a tree, inadvertently making eye contact with the woman who had been calling out to me.  “Hello!” She shouted one more time as she gestured me to come over.  I suddenly found myself walking in her direction, reasoning that it wouldn’t cost me anything just to say hello.

The woman smiled and introduced herself as Lin, and then she introduced me to her two children, her sister, and her sister’s two children.  We sat and chatted until the sun began to set, and then she invited me to have dinner with them.  Despite the huge red flag being waved in my face, I said yes.  We ventured into town to a very nice restaurant, where we met up with Lin’s husband, brother-in-law, and parents.  Dinner was a meal fit for an emperor.  We enjoyed traditional Chinese dishes such as crispy peking duck, savory pork dumplings and tender steamed vegetables.  Only Lin spoke English well enough to carry a conversation, but the rest of the family was very friendly and tried to make me feel welcome.

Unfortunately due to my previous experience with friendly people I was unable to relax completely, fearing that I would be stuck paying for everything again.  Why did I agree to this?  Why was I such a sucker?  Why was I constantly setting myself up for crushing disappointment?  My questions were answered when the bill arrived.  Lin picked up the tab, expressed how happy she and her family were to meet me, and hoped I would enjoy the rest of my time in their country.  And I did.  I saw many amazing places and met many nice people, none of whom tried to rip me off.

The world isn’t always such a great place.  There are some people who will try to take advantage of you, and that doesn’t change just because you go on vacation.  Every time you put yourself out there you run the risk of getting burned, and sometimes you will.  But if that’s the price to pay for a lifetime of wonderful memories, then I’ll bring some burn cream when I set off on my next adventure.

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Feeling Ironic in China

Gratitude; a place that makes me feel strong, free, hopeful and inspired.. as I was pondering this, with my cranberry white mocha with extra cinnamon sprinkles I wandered to my retreat, a small wooden pagoda overlooking the Han River. I cast my mind back to my busy summer. A place I had felt empowered? I thought of the summer I had spent working in Italy, relaxing in the Tuscan Hills, cycling down picture perfect canals just outside of Milan, stargazing on warm nights outside the Vatican in Rome. I reminisced about Canada and my time in buzzing Toronto and how alive it had made me feel, the magnificent roar as the Bluejays scored their only homerun, how the giant buildings engulfed me but yet I still felt a sense of importance walking around this city, as my dear sister phrased it, in her bizarre mix of Yorkshire and Canadian accent, “It’s like everyone here is connected by the fact we all know that here, in this city, were all a part of something amazing!”. I pondered Scotland – its beautiful moors and mountains that made me feel free and wild. It’s juxtaposed castles and cobble streets with trashy bars offering 2 -for-1 shots, and the food that made me never want to leave.


I scribbled notes on all these pages, manic spider diagrams webbed across my page, these incredible places and the different ways they had made me feel, but none were right. Gratitude? Then I realised, ironically, the place I felt most free, hopeful and inspired was here, in my Pagoda, overlooking the Han river, Fushun, Liaoning province, North East China.


This plain sweet pagoda is located on an island between two main roads overlooking the river. I have never encountered anyone else here, and I can understand why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The roads enclosing the island are constant with traffic; red lights one way white the other. These roads are chocha with irate taxi drivers blaring their honking horns , tyres screeching and people yelling – yet amid this sea of anger I feel calm. The star of my show, is the dark slow river that so beautifully reflects the cityscape with its neon lights. It perfectly mirrors the arches of the bridges creating almost symmetrical circles.


And it is here looking at the reflections I come to reflect on my day, to recharge my soul. It’s half an hour’s peace where I can curl up in the benches embrace, surrounded by a sea of people rattling around in tin cans, each living their own soap operas, and feel alone. Away from my ever questioning, ever enthusiastic students. Away from my ever demanding, ever pushing employers. Away from lifes dramas; the illnesses, the stress, the grief. This pagoda where I can empty my mind and fill my lungs with (polluted) air. I can watch the mirrored buildings flicker and become hypnotised by the lights, I can wade through my mind and plan my next years travels.. to find next years retreat..

About the author: I’m Holly, currently living and working in China.

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Dear Halong Bay,

I don’t know if its appropriate to ‘thank’ a place. But to me, like many of my loved ones, you hold a special place in my heart and your memories make me a better person.  I met you a year ago, when I was lost and hurting from a relationship gone terribly, horrifically sour. I had traveled from Sydney to Vietnam to escape my demons and attempt to repair my soul.

It was initially hard to shake my looming pessimism. The dock at Halong Bay doesn’t reveal much about the archipelago paradise that lies no more than an hour boat ride away. Somewhat scrappy, tarnished Junk Boats bob at the moor, waiting to pick up hundreds of eager passengers, waiting beside their luggage sporting excited perspiration in the stifling northern Vietnamese humidity. I’d seen the postcards and friend’s photographs of Halong Bay but never really taken much notice. Photographs, as much as they open our eyes to unknown places, only provide a droplet of a view, an atmosphere and an experience.

An hour later, I found myself situated in a bright red junk boat, in the middle of the calmest, tranquil blanket of sapphire ocean, archipelagos of various sizes dotted all around me, witnessing a sunset that was cascading a million sparkles on the water.  I was transfixed in awe by the overwhelming beauty that surrounded me from every angle. I stood at the front of the junk boat, the setting sky illuminating slowly transitioning shades of yellows, oranges and pale pinks. I marvelled as the heavens opened up to perform nature’s greatest pantomime, it felt like it was just for me.

It turns out that travel doesn’t repair your soul. Only you can do that. Your thoughts and attitudes are 100% your own. But positioning yourself somewhere you can find peace and beauty, whether around the corner from your home or half way across the world, you will feel the little pieces of your soul slowly tessellate back into place. It took 30 000 kilometers of travel and a whole lot of hard earned money to learn that, but the beauty bestowed upon me that day made me appreciate the beauty in aspects of ever other day I have lived in since… and that is worth more than anything in the world.

The tremendous magic of Halong Bay restored joy to my heart once more, and from then on, every sunset I see, every boat bobbing on the ocean, even something as simple as a crisp droplet of rain tumbling down a leaf, no matter where I am, I feel another piece of my soul come back to me, and I grasp it fiercely with joyful might.


Thank you Halong Bay, I am surrounded by beauty. I am forever grateful.

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Abra is a province in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) that is notorious for its records of election-related violence more than any other thing. Development is slow in this province and not much is really happening inside. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that this place is not one of those that would be in your priority of places to see in the Philippines: to mention that you are going to Abra to other Filipinos will surely invite some stare of judgment and even dissent.

How did we, on the other hand, see Abra?

What led us to Abra in July 2013 is to feature its “natural dye makers” — the indigenous highland people called Tingguians – for What I See travel photography show.

The view of Bangued, the capital town of Abra, from the top of the Cassamata Hill National Park.
Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco "Paco" Guerrero scouting the surroundings of the long Calaba Bridge for the best capture there is to find.
Right after the storm: International photographer Francisco “Paco” Guerrero, the host of What I See, scouting the surroundings of the Calaba Bridge and the Abra River basin for the best capture there is to find.

The Bamboo Split Weavers

The Tingguians, also called Isneg, are engaged in various crafts. The most important of which is bamboo crafts production. It is for this reason that Abra is aggressively positioning itself as the “Bamboo Capital of the Philippines”.




The Natural Dye Makers

In documenting the production of natural dyes from plants, the team went to the Tingguian village of Namarabar in Penarubia, a town an hour away from the capital Bangued.

Norma Agaid, a Tingguian elder and the sister of the ‘Father of Philippine Natural Dyes’ Luis Agaid, explained which plants yield what kinds of colours: mahogany for red, jackfruit and ginger for yellow, the malatayum plant for indigo, the narra tree for brown, among others.

Of all the mountain tribes in the Philippines, we have the most number of colours. We only get these colours from sources present around us“, she proudly said.

Norma Agaid sporting an authentic Tingguian attire. Notice the “frog” pattern in her skirt. Traditionally, this is worn during the rainy months in the belief that this will please the gods and their ancestors in giving them the best out of the planting season.
the malatayum plant produces the colour indigo that will later be used in dyeing textiles with various shades of blue.
Brewing narra barks in this earthenware produces the colour brown sap. The narra is the national tree of the Philippines.
The Tingguian women — in their native backstrap-woven clothes — preparing to serenade the What I See team with a traditional welcome song that they composed only a few minutes before we arrived.

The charm of Abra stems from the fact that it is not at all in the tourism map. Indeed, it is highly ignored by outsiders. Hence, our experience in this rustic province can only be as natural and authentic as we can get. Indigenous dyeing is obviously a dying art. It is important to shed light into it as it is a part of the bigger “Filipino identity and local artistry” that most of us Filipinos tend to take for granted.

Tingguian designs are largely linear and simple, but are assigned with many meanings. Some textiles are reserved for use only during special occasions such as birth-giving, nuptials, and harvesting. The vividness of colours in this shroud only suggests the level of mastery they have in controlling the strength of the dyes they make from readily available sources around them.

Paco Guerrero, whose background is no less than Anthropology, could not have described the Tingguians any better, “In the forest, they do not only see trees and plants. They see colours.”

When I first moved to Hong Kong in 1990, there was a part of the city that was off bounds. It was an ungoverned slum called the Kowloon Walled City, with layer after layer of tenement buildings so close to one another that daylight sometimes never reached the minuscule alleyways. In the center of the slum was an ancient Chinese yamen, or government building. Although Hong Kong had been a British colony for about 140 years by then, the Kowloon Walled City was officially still a part of China. But it was largely run by organized crime.

KWCP model outside
Model of the Kowloon Walled City. Photo by Tom Kason
Model of the yamen. Photo by Tom Kason
Model of the yamen. Photo by Tom Kason

I left Hong Kong in 1991, only to return a few years later in 1994. By then, the Walled City had been demolished and a traditional Chinese park was under construction on the very space where the slum once stood. I often passed the general area of the Walled City–after it was demolished–on bus rides to and from my friend Janice’s apartment. I write a little about Janice’s place in my memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, but was so involved in my own drama back then that I didn’t give the old Walled City or the new park (when it opened in 1995) much thought.

Kowloon Walled City Park sign

Years have passed since I left Hong Kong eight months after the Handover in 1997. But I’ve often thought of the Kowloon Walled City and a missed opportunity to 1) see the old tenement buildings, 2) watch the demolition, and 3) visit the new park.

So when my husband Tom and I visited Hong Kong last month, I put a visit to the Kowloon Walled City Park at the top of our list. We traveled out to the Lok Fu MTR station and took a cab to the park. On the short ride, the driver told me in Cantonese that we should have just walked to the park. It was that close. But I didn’t want to waste time looking for it and Tom wanted a break from the sweltering temperatures. Once we arrived at the park, it was difficult for me to imagine the former Walled City in its place. The park was one of the most peaceful places I’ve found in Hong Kong.

KWC old building
photo by Tom Kason
KWCP stone formation
photo by Tom Kason

We walked around the grounds and found a garden with statues of the Chinese zodiac.

KWCP zodiac statues
photo by Tom Kason
KWCP dragon
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

There was a nice pavilion surrounded by water. A woman sat under the pavilion reading a book. I wondered if she was taking a break from work or chose to spend her day off at the park. I also noticed the modern apartment buildings in the background, many of which probably weren’t around when I first lived in Hong Kong.

KWCP pavilion

We also found remains of the old south gate and an old rickshaw, one of the few left in Hong Kong. Even the tourist ones aren’t so numerous anymore.

KWCP ruins

KWCP rickshaw

We also came across a few walls with calligraphy and this old vessel.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

Tom and I were both happy we’d taken time to visit the Kowloon Walled City Park. He learned about a dark period of Hong Kong’s history and I was able to visit a place I’d thought about all these years. For first time visitors, there are docents who walk throughout the park, offering free information about the history of the buildings and artifacts in the park. We lucked out and met a lovely older Cantonese man who spoke to us in English and another group in Mandarin.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

We hope you enjoyed this article from Susan Blumberg-Kason. Learn more about her adventures in her book:

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

One of my favorite things about living in Hong Kong was traveling an hour south from my home to see the trams glide up and down the northern part of Hong Kong Island. So when I returned to Hong Kong two years ago for the first time in fourteen years, I made sure my husband Tom and I saw the trams.

photo by Tom Kason

Traveling by tram isn’t always the quickest mode of transportation in Hong Kong, but it’s a reliable one. Only the trams run on the tram lines, so there’s no competing with double-decker buses, red taxis, cars, or trucks. On our last day of that trip two years ago, we spent the morning riding a couple of trams lines and saw different neighborhoods, including Wanchai and Causeway Bay.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

So when we decided to return to Hong Kong this fall for another quick trip to promote my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I had the brilliant idea of staying in the area where Happy Valley, Causeway Bay, and Wanchai intersect. My plan was this: we would travel by tram to and from our hotel (shown in the photo above just to the right of the greenery). It would be relaxing to hop on a tram and sit back while it sauntered along the track to a subway station or a destination we could reach on the tram line.

But then Occupy started a couple weeks before our arrival date. Thousands of students took to the streets to protest the lack of democratic representation. Although they didn’t set up their tents that close to our hotel, the barricaded roads affected many modes of transportation on Hong Kong Island. Trams included.

Occupy tents

In fact, on the night we arrived in Hong Kong, I asked the concierge at our hotel if we could take the tram out front to a subway station. He didn’t go into any details, but simply said that the trams weren’t running because of the ‘events’ in Central.

“But aren’t the trams running around in this area?” I asked, half panicking that my grand plans were about to be squashed.

“No, sorry. No trams.”

I thanked him and turned back toward Tom. We went to our room, activated our free wifi, and found out from a friend that the trams around Happy Valley, where we were staying, had started running again.

So we would get in a tram ride on this trip, I sighed in relief. But it still wasn’t what I’d envisioned when I booked the Cosmopolitan Hotel (which, for history buffs or people who enjoy quirky facts, used to house the de facto consulate of the People’s Republic of China back during the days when Hong Kong was a British colony).

racetrack at night
View from the Cosmopolitan Hotel

The next morning we figured out how to get to other parts of Hong Kong without riding the trams. I was still sad we couldn’t just hop a tram in front of our hotel. But I’d soon learn a lesson about what it means to live in Hong Kong these days.

Happy Valley tram terminus

trams in Happy Valley

Traffic was congested, especially during rush hour. We had to leave our hotel an hour before we needed to be somewhere that usually took only fifteen minutes to reach. I was amazed by how calm and accommodating people in Hong Kong were when it came to these changes in transportation. After all, they’re used to living in one of the most convenient and efficient cities in the world. If Hong Kong people can handle it, I certainly could. And we would do our best to ride the trams when we could.

More tram lines opened toward the end of our four-day trip.

tram in Western

And on our last night, we were finally able to take a tram from Central back to our hotel.

Looking back on this recent trip to Hong Kong, I’m so glad we were able to see Occupy and experience what people in Hong Kong now have to deal with on a daily basis. So we didn’t get to take the trams as much as I had envisioned, but we got our fill and had wonderful trip nonetheless.

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Let’s do something unruly. Let’s get lost in our own selves and brush all the expectations of society aside. I’ll pack the bags and you can swing open the door. We’ll tell everyone where we’ve gone, but they’ll have no way of finding us there. We’ll wander into strange towns with strange buildings and we’ll dawdle down bizarre roads that lead to nowhere but cliffsides. Let’s hang our feet off and ponder why that road was put there to begin with. We’ll create stories of gods, or dragons, or just a lunatic who had nothing else to do but build a road to nowhere. Perhaps he made it for us. Perhaps he, in some feverish dream centuries ago, knew we would find it someday. No one will bother us there: on our secret cliffside. Every place is ours simply because we planted our feet there and only the sound of the wind sharing space with the grass will be our company.

We won’t be alone, though. Never that. We’ll meet many others along the way. We’ll make new best friends from other sides of the world and find true loves that will make us want to live and die; all at the same time. I’ll drink too much unfamiliar wine and you’ll cry about a boy you left behind in our past life. You’ll slowly pick yourself up from the steps you were sitting on and I’ll find my way to the ocean to wash my face. We’ll walk along a beach that no one has bothered to name, creating masterpieces in the sand with each shared step we take.

Let’s be admired for our adventures; our voices shouting loud when we were told that we ought to be silent. We won’t know the meaning of regret nor will we want to. Let’s be remembered for our careless decisions that led us to magical destinations.

They’ll talk about the depth of our smiles. They’ll debate our life choices over their weekly brunch. They’ll all grin with affection when they remember us – thinking about our complete disregard for rules and our courage to dance away. They’ll gaze into the sunlight and wonder where we are, and maybe wish they were there too.

We want to be remembered as those who laughed and loved the way people are supposed to. We want the world to know that we were there and we did something worth living for. We’re going to be great someday. We’re going to be worth talking about.

And if nothing else, they’ll say we were beautiful.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

I still remember my first impressions of Hong Kong. Racing through Kowloon in the back seat of a red taxi at midnight in 1990, I saw the neon. Bright and colorful, flashing and still, the neon signs peered at me through the side streets as my taxi made its way to the quiet of the New Territories, Hong Kong’s countryside.

I wouldn’t live among the neon that year or the other four years I spent in Hong Kong that decade, but it didn’t take me long to journey to the densely-populated areas where neon signs defined both major avenues and smaller side streets. I loved Hong Kong’s neon signs so much that I even discussed them in the opening chapter of my memoir, Good Chinese Wife.

Before I made a recent trip back there with my husband, I had read about the dying art of neon signs there. The old neon signs are being replaced by newer LED lights. And the artists who work with neon are retiring and there just isn’t the interest among the newer generations.

So I set out to take a look for myself last week in Hong Kong.

What I found was troubling. Streets either looked like this, with LED lights and no neon in sight.

signs in western

Or like this, with one neon sign per street.

More neon in western

As I looked around Hong Kong Island, I continued to see very little neon.


Pawn shop

Yung Kee neon sign

And even in Kowloon, it was difficult to find a lot of neon.

Neon at Luk Fu

Neon signs have been a part of Hong Kong from before my mother first traveled there in 1962. In Good Chinese Wife, I write about walking around Hong Kong and imaging my mom and her family there thirty years earlier.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9: Honeymoon in Hong Kong:

As man and wife, Cai and I headed for an abbreviated honeymoon in Tsim Sha Tsui, the district that sits at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula. We were staying at the Miramar Hotel on Nathan Road, only a mile up from the waterfront promenade that overlooks what I consider to be the most breathtaking skyline in the world. My mom and her family usually stayed in the same area. The Miramar was a popular hotel back then, but I had never heard any of my family members speak of it. Still, I pictured them walking down this street thirty years earlier, dressed in suits and shift dresses, and poking their heads into the tailors and jewelry shops that lined the road. 

Among the traffic congestion and crowds of students, pajama-clad grannies, and tough teenage boys with blond-tipped hair, Cai and I slowly inched our way from the Jordan train station south toward the hotel. I felt graceful and special holding Cai’s hand. We had not spent much time in this area together, although it was one of my favorite spots in Hong Kong. 

While I didn’t write about neon lights in this excerpt, they were everywhere in the district I describe above. At night, the Tsim Sha Tsui area came alive because of the colorful neon signs on Nathan Road–the main street–as well as the side streets that twisted around this densely-populated area.

Back then it was a given that this and other urban areas were adorned by neon signs. That’s not the case now. I now wonder how much neon will be left the next time I visit Hong Kong.

Sure, the sand dunes of Ilocos Norte have been used as the setting for the desert scenes in the movies Mad Maxx, Born on the Fourth of July, and the local blockbuster flicks ‘Ang Panday’ series and ‘Temptation Island’. The sand dunes have always been there. For the longest time, the locals knew it was unique and beautiful to some degree, but no one really knew what can be done in and out of a barren, useless landform – it is, after all, inhabitable and definitely not arable.


In previous years, however, given the development of tourism in the province of Ilocos Norte in Northern Luzon, several groups have started re-branding and re-positioning the sand dunes as a one of a kind “extreme adventure” destination in the Philippines. This completely makes a 360-degree turn from its earlier image as ‘dead and dull’.



Recently, an outdoor group discovered an area in the village of Bacsil in Paoay that is a good addition to the options present for sand dunes safaris. How does this area differ, then, from earlier established commercial areas in the sand dunes complex? Firstly, it is a newly discovered and developed area so the terrains are as pristine as they can get (and not many tourists have been there yet!). Secondly, The combination of wide sandy plains, clusters of closely-formed dunes, several oases and outlying vegetation, a good vista of the coast towards the West Philippine Sea, and the height of its dunes (some at 70 metres in height!) does not disappoint anyone visiting Bacsil.

Bacsil does not only offer the usual desert expeditions using rugged and sturdy four-wheel drive jeeps with their complementary sand boarding. But, in addition, it also offers picnicking and camping in a desert setting, golf playing and several other outdoor activities.


Furthermore, inspections are also being made to survey the waters adjacent to the sand dunes as initial dives have revealed a promising coral reef in the area. What does this mean? SCUBA diving is in the pipelines of additional activities that can be done here, too! The reef has come to be called as the ‘Onse Reef’ amongst the locals. I will definitely be giving updates on this potential dive site the moment I get to see it myself – hopefully very soon!



Across the Southeast Asian region, it is only in Ilocos Norte where one can find a desert environment. Technically, this landscape is known as the ‘Ilocos Norte Sand Dunes’ that spans across four towns in the province. Due to its superlative natural beauty, geological uniqueness, and scientific relevance, it has been declared as a National Geological Monument (NGM) in the Philippines in 1993 (the only three other sites that have been declared as NGM in the country are: the Hundred Islands National Park off-coast Pangasinan, the Taal Lake and Volcano Protected Landscape in Batangas, and the Chocolate Hills in the island of Bohol). It is widely accepted that Paoay boasts the best terrains there are to find in the sand dunes complex, and that Bacsil is definitely worth checking out if you are up north!


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I lean to open sliding doors and step onto the red-tiled lanai. It’s 6 a.m. A canopy of bamboo, trees, and pastel awnings portrays rural privacy. The mango Abby and I planted two years ago curtseys in a breeze, begging applause for her growth. I wonder if she’ll ever bear fruit.

Most days, I walk to work. Hibiscus and 12-foot poinsettias guide me through a barangay cut of a jungle swamp and manicured into a neighborhood. A step past the gate and Manila wraps me in pouring car horns and the feline purrrrrr of jack hammers, starting a day filled with unearned deference: choruses of “Ma’am/Sir”, elders calling me “Boss”, and 90-pound women trying to carry my 40-pound boxes.

But today is Saturday, home day, real day; so I sip another cup of chicory coffee and consider the morning before our friends arrive. Saturdays heal. No special treatment, good or bad, just people being people, together. Our citrus tree says I should go to market for fresh tilapia: the kalamansi are ready. If the sili peppers are shining red, we’ll mix the two in soy sauce for sawsawan to dip our fish.

We didn’t always have Saturdays here, though, not the healing kind. Some warned us Manila was impermeable – our outsider status permanent and preordained. So, five days a week I only worked and Abby labored for a perfect loaf of bread. On Saturdays, we walked spirals in four-story malls, holding hands, tightly, turning like screws. We lived that way for months.

After work everyday, I passed a dojo where jabs snapped and shins slammed into duct-taped heavy bags. It was the laughter, though, that drew me in. Kru Carlo was the instructor. He laughed the loudest. So, we joined him to study arnis, the local bladed martial art. Soon Kru said it was time to meet Manong, a master of the Kalis Ilustrisimo arnis system. We were swimming laps in a cultural fish bowl, staring out at the ocean; this was just what we needed. So, with Abby closing in on that perfect loaf, we hosted a dinner.

At the gate, Kru smiled and Manong greeted us with a strong handshake and easy eye contact— rare as rocking horse teeth Monday to Friday. Through dinner I saw why he was called ‘the old master,’ even having never seen a kalis in his thick hands. His story and world vision intrigued us and his manner seduced us. For hours we tuned into him like the first TV in the county.

“May I ask you to remove your shirt and stand at the wall,” he asked. If the conversation had built to this, I hadn’t seen it. But, I did it. Manong slipped a knife from his pocket.

“Stay still and follow the tip with your eyes.”

He leveled the blade, pushed it toward my right eye and retracted it. And, again. Once my adrenaline slowed. Acute intrusions of heat burned hot as the tip neared me and lessened with its retreat.

“What do you feel?”

I explained.


As he worked his blade across my torso the heat signaled his targets.

“Okay, face the wall. When I say ‘now’ touch the spot I’m targeting.”

I closed my eyes. There was no sound. Then, a heat burned between my shoulder blades.


I reached back and placed my finger beneath the knife’s tip. Gasps interrupted my quiet.

“Yes, good. Now.”

I felt the heat at my kidney.


Seven of 10 times the heat betrayed his knife.

“Okay, how do you feel?”


“Yes, I’m sure. That is enough for one night.”

The tenor of the conversation changed and moved to things uniquely Filipino, that marriage of Eastern, Western, and Native, lying just beneath what Manong called the Western veneer. And as the bottle emptied, we explored our differences and reveled in our sameness.

That was our turning point here. We visit Manong every chance to learn his craft and absorb his wisdom. And he visits us, I think, for Abby’s bread and, maybe, for time with apt pupils. On Saturdays Kru, his wife and three kids, and a cast of friends come to play and visit, sometimes so late the kids sleep draped over chairs.

Now, it’s 12:30. I hear Abby greet Kru and our Goddaughter, three months old now, so I stand.

A horn blast reminds me that nearby traffic surges and pauses, surges and pauses in inky plumes like startled squid. Mosquitoes and debris churn like chum, stealing visibility. Jeepneys flash stainless through the turbid mix like feeding barracuda and pedestrians dart shad-like toward the safety of cover.

The heavy sliding doors open and a bare foot steps out onto the red-tiled lanai.

“Hey, Kru,” I say, reaching for his hand, thinking, it’s really good to have Saturdays.

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