Wednesday, December 30, 2009


(For Ate and the Cape Codders, who supposedly demanded that this story be turned into a blog)

So I get home from the office last Thursday. Regina takes me home as Ches is in his office party. Yoshi’s first sentence to me was: can I wear my Batman costume at our Christmas party tomorrow? I was initially suspicious bcoz this is his third Christmas party in Mayfield and none of the first two was ever a costume party. So I ask him if Teacher Liway said they could come in costume, and he replied with an emphatic yes, and that in fact the girls in class were discussing which Disney princess they were going to dress up as. I was still worried that he might be the only one to come in a costume and end up being the laughingstock. But then Regina says to let Yoshi do as he pleases, he looks cute in his Batman costume no matter what, anyways, and besides, if he had the same cool costume as Yoshi’s, he’d also show it off every chance he gets. (Leave it to Tito Reggie to think like a kid. Hahaha.)

Ches shares my concern but also sees Regina’s point. So the following morning we dress Yoshi up in his full Batman regalia minus the expandable wings (all gifts from Tita Jen, bought on the occasion of Bootsie’s 2nd birthday, which we celebrated with a superheroes/villains costume party in Fun Ranch). Bootsie sees his kuya getting dressed and demands to be decked in his Robin costume too (“Wear ako my Robin!”) Groan. Crazy boys.

So we take Yoshi to Mayfield, and I linger in the school yard but do not see any other kid in costume. Hmmm. The Ates in school are all over Yoshi tho, gushing at how cute he looks and having their pictures taken with him. Hmmm.

I call the house around the time Yoshi gets home. I ask him what costumes his classmates wore. He says they didn’t come in costume. What about the girls who were going to come as Disney princesses? He says maybe they changed their mind. I ask him if any of his classmates wore a costume. He says no. I ask him if any student in the whole school came in costume. He says no. So everybody laughed at you, I ask, already tearing up on behalf of my little baby. His smug reply: Ok lang, Mommy. I’m happy kase lahat ng students and teachers napa-wow sa akin. Sabi nila ‘wow si Ethan … Batman!’

Ches and I tell Mom and Pops this story over lunch the following weekend. We get tears from laughing too hard. As it turns out, Yoshi is not yet done bcoz he blurts out while we were cracking up: Para lang akong Jollibee mascot na pinagkaguluhan sa whole school!

Sheesh. He’s a riot thru and thru, our little Batboy. I’ll probably never be able to figure out what Ches and I have ever done to deserve him.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Made in China

How do you begin to rave about Beijing? I don't know where to start or end.

1. Frozen Delight. The first thing Ches and I noticed when we got off the cab from the airport to the hotel was the cold. It was a mere one minute walk from the cab to the hotel entrance, but the two of us ended up shivering and frozen and completely incredulous and at the same time excited that the weather was that bad. The temperature dipped to -5 degrees in the capital and -8 degrees in the Great Wall while we were there. It's obscene. Prior to this, the coldest we've ever been in was like 5 degrees in HK Disneyland. That was cold enough for tropical people like us, but Beijing was positively freezing.

Ches' friend Zhang's first advice to us when he picked us up from the airport was, we needed to get thick jackets. Serious, winter type coats and not the purely-for-show kind we use in the Philippines. And that was the most useful advice ever, bcoz even with the piles upon piles of jackets and sweaters and leggings we brought, they were no match for the cold. N-O match.

Hence, I would wear two pairs of leggings under my jeans. Not an easy feat when the jeans are a size 25 skinny Levi's, but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. Hence, my legs look even bigger in the pictures. (Groan.) Hence, Ches and I look exactly the same in the 60 million pictures we take in the 60 million places we visit in the course of our five-day stay, bcoz in all of these times we're both wearing the same friggin winter jackets. I am vain and stupid and all of that, but I will not take the jacket off just to have a different attire in some silly picture, not in Beijing weather.

By the fourth day or so, our faces are all dry and our mouths hardly open and our smiles all crooked. You can see the transformation in our pictures. It's funny and scary both, like we've just had strokes or something. Hahaha. (I actually have a picture of Ches using my Victoria's Secret lip gloss to soften his chapped lips. Useful for blackmailing ...)

It's especially bad when you're coming from a totally warm and cozy building, and once you get out the cold hits you flat out. When you're inside it's deceiving bcoz the sun is so high up and you think it can't be that cold, but it is. It so is. There was a time when I went to the toilet and I took like 5 minutes zipping my jeans up bcoz my fingers just refused to function already. Considering I was wearing gloves the whole time. Groan.

An office friend was telling me how she and another girl friend got stuck in the cable car in the Great Wall for 30 minutes or so. It was a good thing this happened in summer, bcoz if it had been winter, they would have frozen over and it would have been goodbye, life.

2. Forbidden City. My runaway favorite in all the places we visited. It's grand, ancient, endless, solemn and sad all at the same time. One of my favorite pictures of the entire trip is one of the sun setting behind the palaces. I can't get over the countless courtyards, exquisite artwork, old trees, the long, winding alleys all over the magnificent palace. Like Zhang said, you can spend one hour or one whole day in the Forbidden City, it's totally up to you. Make that one whole week for me before I am totally sated.

My favorite part was peeking into the rooms and trying to imagine real emperors and empresses and concubines moving about amid the beautiful furniture and silk and porcelain and jade. I also have this love affair with the imposing red doors with the golden knobs. I recall seeing one at the cover of Mabuhay a few years ago, and it was surreal that I was actually touching these doors. If there's one thing I would always associate with Beijing, it would be this red door.

Gosh, I love Forbidden City. What I love most about it is the utter tragedy of it, how you can never bring back all that wealth and power and pomp and that whole way of living ever again. It became one of those places where I got tears in my eyes when it was time to leave. Sob.

3. The Great Wall. It was every bit as magnificent as it was hyped up to be. Zhang gave us a choice of whether to climb the wall or ride a cable car overlooking it. Ches and I both replied that we want to be touching the wall itself. Zhang also said it was a good thing it was so cold so there were less tourists. In the summer, he says, you can't even take a decent picture of yourself on the wall bcoz it becomes just a great wall of humanity with the sheer number of people climbing up. Hahaha.

When you think about it, it seems rather pointless to go thru the whole exercise of climbing it when you know it's endless and you'll never get to the top or end of it. You can easily take pictures at the bottom steps and no one will know the difference. It's not like the 60 million steps in Baguio, for example, that you climb bcoz you know that there's a grotto at the top. Zhang said there used to be a sign in the higher portions that said 'I climbed The Great Wall' and that's what we were aiming for at first. But then he found out from a guide that the sign has been removed upon orders of UNESCO to not add anything new to a heritage site. (Good for them.) So then we settled for this sign that said 'The Real Rock of Man' (from a Chinese belief that the Great Wall is the only true rock and climbing it makes you a real man).

I would have loved a sign that said 'I survived -8 degrees in The Great Wall'. That would have been way cooler. I count it among my lifetime mini achievements (that include giving birth by Lamaze method twice). And the amazing thing was, cold as that was, it was also the one time that I was able to take off my winter jacket while outdoors bcoz there was a portion of the wall that was really steep that I ended up sweating climbing it. And I have two pictures on the wall in just my sweater to prove it.

4. The Olympic Park. I wanna be friends with the cool people who thought up The Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. They will have to be a little bit crazy to even consider building stuff like these, and yet at the same time super brilliant bcoz they pulled it off.

I also love the artworks that line the park. It's a mix of the old and new – a replica of a hotung, an engraving of runners that leave shadows at the back, a huge structure made up of drums and another one of bells. Even the street lamps were in the form of a bird's nest. How cool is that.

This was the second site we visited (after the Capital Museum), and I told Zhang, this alone is already worth the trip.

5. The Summer Palace. Zhang said many people prefer the Summer Palace to the Forbidden City because of one thing: the lake. And I've got to admit, Summer Palace seems superior in terms of beauty and romance, with the serene lake on one side, the picturesque hills on the other, and the amazing long corridor between them, every inch of which is painted with exquisite artwork. It's just that I'm a sucker for ancientness and tragicness, which is exactly what Forbidden City had to offer.

We saw Summer Palace on our second day, before the Forbidden City which we saw on our third day. And I remember thinking when we entered, now this is a palace. I enjoyed running thru the 60 million steps to get to the top of the palaces on the hill. And the view from the top, of the lake and the skyscrapers, was amazing, acrophobia and all. It was perfect too, that the sun set just as we reached the top. One of my favorite pictures is that of me and Ches giggling on one of the highest points of the Summer Palace with the sun setting behind us. So honeymoon-y. Hahaha.

6. The Others. I refer to all the other places we visited. The Capital Museum, which was grand and impressive and probably housed in one floor more artifacts than all of the museums in the Philippines combined. (Groan.) Entrance was free, and I marveled at the sight of all these Chinese people, young and old, lining up to view their own heritage, a sight I have never witnessed in the Philippines.

The Lama Temple, which was a labyrinth of halls upon halls of statues of Buddha and other deities. (I refer to the female-looking statues as 'Buddha girls' and Ches glares at me and tells me in so many words to stop being so ditzy as these are actually gods revered by the Chinese. Hahaha.) Most people came to worship rather than sight-see, I think. But inwardly I was like, do I really need to see 60 million Buddhas in my lifetime? No, it was enough for me to see the Guiness record holder for tallest Buddha, and you're not even allowed to take a picture of that. Groan. (I tell Regina about this, and he replies: And you say you like history and all that ancient stuff? Hahaha. He's learning fast, that one.)

We also went to see Tiananmen Square, the domed center for the arts (or something), the main office of the communist party, the CCTV tower (super cool building that looks a lot like a pair of pants), the Ming Tombs and the Temple of Heaven. The Ming Tombs was amazing for its vastness, ancient trees and solemnity. It was like a palace for the dead. From my audio guide I learned that some of the trees are over 100 years old, and Kissinger (or somebody) was quoted as saying, the Americans can always build something as majestic as the Ming Tombs, but they can never replicate the centuries-old junipers and cypresses. It was also in the Ming Tombs where I saw the most startling difference with the Philippines: the tombs and thrones of the emperor and empress were strewn with yuan bills all over and the bills look like they have been there for some time. That kind of money will disappear within hours if it were here in the Philippines. Hahaha.

The Temple of Heaven was unlike all the other places we visited bcoz there were a lot of locals in groups, singing (everything from pop to opera; in fact, I have a video of this cool old woman singing what Zhang said was traditional Beijing opera), dancing (everything from taichi-like to hip hop), working out, playing games (including what I call a gentler, more graceful version of badminton; Zhang gifted us with the racket and ball set). Zhang explained that entrance was free for senior citizens, hence the crowd.

What also makes the Temple of Heaven stand out are all these awesome things in the place: how the main circular temple was built without one single nail, the echo wall (where you can whisper something and it will be heard by somebody on another part of the wall hundreds of feet away), the exhibit that showed the whole process for the emperor's praying to the heavens: from his being carried in a carriage by a hundred or so men from the Forbidden City to the temple, to his fasting in the Abstinence Hall, to the cleaning and slaughter of the animals for the sacrifice in the Divine Kitchen, to the actual worship rites. All that pomp and ceremony just to pray. A far cry from my own ritual of closing my eyes and silently uttering a prayer anywhere, anytime.

7. The Goodies. On our first night Zhang told us he wanted to give us the whole Chinese cultural experience, which means we'll get to try out various cuisines from various regions. And I was like, bring it on. Hahaha. He said Chinese food as we know it in the Philippines is mainly just Cantonese food, and there were so many other cuisines the Chinese have to offer.

We had Cantonese the first night, but even that was unfamiliar and already bordering on exotic. For one, we ate Eeyore. Groan. Zhang ordered as appetizers these thin slices of meat that he made us guess what kind. It turned out to be donkey. (Sorry, Eeyore, I ate you only to be polite to my host.)

We also had the two dishes Beijing is supposedly famous for: Peking duck and mutton hotpot. We had the Peking duck in Quan Jude, apparently the Jollibee of Peking ducks as it boasts of several branches all over China, except that, unlike Jollibee, Quan Jude is high-end and formal dining and all of that. It was arguably the best Peking duck Ches and I have ever had. And the duck came with a birth certificate too, with a note that it was like the 11 millionth something something Peking duck that they have served. Ches quipped: it should've been a death certificate. Hahaha. I love Ches.

We had the mutton hotpot in Wangfujing. It was yummy and filling and the perfect antidote to the cold weather and all of that, but we had it on our third day by which time I was so ready to revert to my old breakfast meal bacon/hotdog/egg/garlic rice kind of self.

We also tried out a lot of dishes from the northern part of the country. I loved the bread with the pocket where you put in thin slices of pork (not Eeyore, I made sure), cucumber, onions and this thick dark sauce, and the pork ribs seasoned with all kinds of spices we don't get to taste in the Philippines. From the Taiwanese part I loved the fish cooked in something like our sinigang tho not quite and the vegetarian bread things cut like a pizza. I also dug the mutton barbecue and scalloped cooked in what they called Malay sauce that actually tasted a lot like bagoong.

One of the great things about Zhang is, he made us try stuff that were unique and not easily available anywhere, least of all in the Philippines. We tasted this kind of nut that was sweet and chewy and supposedly very expensive but when not cooked right can be fatal (Zhang said there was a time he ate some bad ones and he lost his voice for a couple of days), vegetarian pork strips (that I had a bite of to be polite but that was it, no seconds for me), vegetarian sea cucumber, a big fish that was supposedly cooked for hours and hours hence it is so tender you can eat even the bones (we did), this root crop thing lathered with blueberries, deep fried duck heart (best eaten while still hot and yummy). Even our drinks and soup were exotic – juices from dates and this local fruit called sancha (?), milk and soup from almond and walnut.

It was all yummy and filling and all of that, but the whole time I had one nagging thought: where are the chocolate cakes? Or anything chocolate? Or any rightful dessert for that matter? The kind of desserts we had were sticky rice cake or fresh/sweetened fruit types that could never satisfy my sugar craving. I'm sorry, but dessert for me should be chocolatey and sinful and with no redeeming nutritional value whatsoever; otherwise, you have no right to be called dessert. Duh. Hence, I ended up buying Snickers bars at the Walmart near the hotel, and would ravenously bite into the things as soon as we got in the room and out of Zhang's sight. Hahaha.

8. The Bikers. I loved seeing all these people getting around on bikes in Beijing. They were everywhere – in the main road in front of our hotel, in what Zhang said was like a university belt around the Beijing University area, even in Forbidden City. Some were young, some old, but most of those I saw were female. They went biking around in their winter skirts and dresses. How cool is that? And the bikes were not even the kick-ass, flashy types that I would see in Manila. They were mostly old and simple models with just a small basket in front. The difference is, these ones were used on a regular basis, not like those in Manila which I'm sure are a lot more expensive but spend more time in the garage than out in the streets helping avert climate change. (Boo. It's one of the Pinoy things that annoy me, this propensity to show off without exuding any bit of substance whatsoever.)

9. The Audio Guides. They were available in all the major sites we visited, except the Summer Palace (I don't know why). I loved being able to listen in on the history of a certain spot we're in. It made the experience so much more enlightening. And it wasn't just history the audio guides provided – in Forbidden City, for example, there were a lot of gossip type info about the concubines and empresses, and in the Great Wall there was even a re-enactment of the speech of this general who is credited for restoring the wall. I loved these audio guides.

10. The Shopping. Shopping is a lot better in HK and Bangkok. Ches and I compared the prices in the Swatch and Nike stores there to those here in Manila, and it was more expensive there. And considering how everything including your dog is made in China these days, I found it surprising that I didn't see a lot that I wanted to buy. In fact, this is maybe the one trip where I didn't buy anything major for myself (save for the winter jacket, which I'm planning to give to my sis, anyway). All we bought were small stuff – toys for the boys and Vada, Tibetan dolls for my diva friends Randy and Gabby, local delicacies, silky purses and bags, all little things for giving away. No nice, authentic Hello Kitty anywhere in sight, nothing other than the tacky kind that scream 'fake' all over it. Dang.

What I loved about the shopping in Beijing was the beauty of the shopping districts. We went to Wangfujing which was lined up with sculptures, huge, lovely Christmas trees and decors, sales people dressed up as knights and empresses. It was here where we saw steam rising from the pavement (they were being steamed up to make the whole place less cold). Ches' favorite shot is one of me emerging from the smoke, like I was in hell. He says it is so me, so evil Jewel. Haha.

It was also in Wangfujing where we saw what has got to be the most shocking street food we've ever seen: live, big scorpions, seahorses and starfishes on sticks and ready to be cooked (fried or barbecued, I think). Unfortunately we didn't see anybody, local or foreigner, eating the things.

We also went to Qianmen which is so, so lovely with the distinctly Chinese buildings glowing with a thousand little lights, and the quaint lamp posts that line the street. Even the Starbucks here looked exquisite and without its usual loud logo. It had the ubiquitous Chinese arch, plus a church and some temples. They were all lit up and I asked Zhang if this was because of Christmas. He replied that these buildings are lit up the whole year. (Hence, climate change.)

I didn't get any shoppping done here at all, but I love Qianmen.

11. The Signs. The breakfast buffet at the Haige International Hotel where we stayed was a constant source of amusement for Ches and me bcoz of the crazy signs all over the buffet table. Imagine waking up to partake of something called “mushrooms rape” and “chicken breakfast intestines” and “pa tomatoes” and “pumplcin calce” and “steams the sweet potato”. Go figure. The dessert table had signs like “two kind of fruits” and “six canned fruits”. It was probably too much effort to name each and all of them, so even on mornings where only a watermelon was available, they used the “two kind of fruits” sign just the same. And this is a four-star hotel. Hahaha.

Oh well, even Crowne Plaza in Shenzhen which I presume is a five-star hotel had staff who couldn't point me to the toilet when I asked. Groan. What's a trip to China without the language barrier, anyway? I could do an entire other blog on all these funny signs in Beijing, I swear. Our hotel corridor is littered with signs marked “Warmly notice”. And our room had this door sign that read, “Please arrange room right now”. Hahaha. So bratty. (Rhoel's and other QT people's comment when I tell them about this: you should have brought that sign home, Jo, it's so you. Hahaha.)

Oh but all of these blooper signs are offset by some really cool and flawless English signs in places like the Olympic Park and the Forbidden City. Examples: “Tender fragrant grass, how hardhearted to trample them”. “A single act of carelessness leads to the eternal loss of beauty.” Priceless.

12. The Commie Guards. I can't explain it, but I had this thing going for the guards and cops all over Beijing, in their long green coats and squarish fur head gear with the communist logo (I presume) at the center and the ear flaps that work whether they're up or down. How cool are these headgear? They are oh so Kremlin. And the guards and cops wearing them look oh so hot. Hence, Ches gets jealous and tries to impress me with all the Russian words he can muster: czar, perestroika, glasnost, Sharapova, Kasparov ... Hahaha. We get him and Regina one each of these uber cool things.

Randy's reply to me when I tell him I'm back from Beijing: I hope you didn't belly rub any communist guards for good luck. Hahaha.

13. The Trees. I have all these pictures of lovely trees, pine and juniper and cypress and whatever else they're called. I love how they look lined up by the street all leafless and forlorn in the cold weather. I also saw a lot of this kind of tree that was only about five feet tall with branches on top that twirl in all different directions. It looked grotesque and lovely at the same time.

The nicest tree was something called the love tree (I think) in the Forbidden City. If I recall my audio guide correctly, it's two ancient trees grafted together by the trunks so they end up looking like one tree. (Gosh, I wrote about Ches and me this way once. I still have that piece.) A close favorite is this leafless tree jutting out of big rocks in the Summer Palace, with countless little branches extending up into the sky, all expressive and generous. I love the picture that I took of it. I also loved the acorns that grew on the trees and the bird's nests nestled in the branches.

The trees are one reason to go back to Beijing. In autum next time.

14. The Little Creatures. I had this thing for the little creatures that lined the roofs of the ancient palaces in the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. They looked like dragons and other creatures of the mythical sort, and I learned from Zhang that they were put up on the roofs in the belief that they guard the place from fire, robbers, evil, etc. Zhang also said that they are so much a part of Chinese heritage that they were even incorporated in the Beijing Olympics paraphernalia. I love them, the way they stand all proud and solemn like that up on the roofs, taking their job so seriously (which is a lot more than I can say for some people, starting with me).

15. The Happy Honeymooners. Beijing was the first trip, local or international, that Ches and I took without any of our kids in tow since we had Yoshi. We brought Yoshi everywhere – Bangkok, HK, Palawan, Bora, Puerto Galera, Corregidor, not counting all those trips to Subic, Tagaytay, Clark and the like. Bootsie we brought to HK and Macau before he even turned one. We're such suckers for our kids that we could never bear to leave them. In fact, we planned to take them with us to Beijing, but we were worried about the weather, the whole hassle of getting visas for them, the expenses, and whether they would already be able to appreciate the whole cultural experience of it.

Zhang told us how he had a friend who brought his daughter to Beijing when she was about Yoshi's age. They visited the Great Wall and Forbidden City and all that stuff, but when asked what her favorite was among all the sites they saw, her reply was: the play ground in the KFC. Groan. This was the anecdote that made Ches and me decide that it was not yet the right age for the kids to visit Beijing. But even so I still flip-flopped on whether or not to take them, right until it was time to order the tickets a few weeks before our flight. Sigh.

So as a consolation we took them to Taal Vista the weekend before our trip. And we beg the grandparents to go to the house and stay with them and take them to the mall or wherever so they wouldn't miss us so. And along the way Boots picks up a joke that Ches and I make, that we would try for a baby girl made in China. Hence, if you asked him where daddy and mommy were, his reply was: Sa China. Gawa sila ng baby girl. Hahaha.

Which is not to say that all that guilt and drama about abandoning our kids stopped Ches and me from having a good time. In fact, I realized this right in NAIA, that we could be like those honeymooners who were always smooching each other and stuff, especially grating if you were traveling with your kids and have to spend every second running after them and generally making sure they don't end up the first ever humans to be run over by a plane, a feat not altogether impossible with their tenacity and sheer energy. (Groan.)

So that's how Ches and I ended up in this trip. We were the happy honeymooners being affectionate and lovey-dovey everywhere. Hahaha. Mightily annoying, I know. Zhang even joked he would write to the government with one of our pictures and petition them to put our pix in the tourism ads to promote Beijing as a honeymoon spot. Hahaha. This was all rather embarrassing, actually, coming from Zhang. Groan.

But like Mom said, Ches and I should have a good time and that we both deserve the break. Mom knows exactly the right thing to say sometimes.

Beijing was not only a break; it proved to be the greatest trip Ches and I have ever had so far.

I am so going back to you, Beijing. Xie xie!