Adieu… adieu… To yieu and yieu and yieu.

As our Great Asian Journey comes to a close, it’s time to look back and take stock.


So much of this trip was about food. We knows our food. (I’m refraining from saying, “We’re Foodies” here, but we’re Foodies.) On this go-round, we’ve had the sublime, the ridiculous, the downright nasty, and the unforgettably delicious.

A note about individual tastes… Peter will eat just about anything, but when it comes right down to it, he’s a meat-and potatoes man. His palate is omniversal. But a good steak is his reset button.

Mom likes what she’s comfortable with, and there were many things I was suprised to find her shying away from: She can’t mix fish and meat. She doesn’t care for sushi or overly herbaceous dishes or heavily spiced foods like curries. Her weakness? Crispy things (Me too). And things that require picking at (Me too). Like crab. It satisfies a deep need for that “picking” MO that I’ve inherited from her. Oh, and gooey desserts. Follow up the crab with something made of glutinous rice and she’s your girl 4EVA.

As for me… well there’s a reason I had my stomach removed. Fat + sugar or fat + salt? You had me at hello. Umami is my thing. Funkiness, cheesiness, meatiness, earthiness, I’m all over that. And I love the slow food and nose-to-tail movements. I think if you’re gonna kill something, you should be willing to 1) look it in the eye and kill it yourself if you have to, and 2) eat every bit of it that you can. Offal? Yes, please. Blood? Sure. Feet braised to collageny goodness? You bet.

Our biggest failing is that none of the three of us has a taste for spicy food. It’s embarrassing, and it occasionally proved problematic. While Pete and I will slog through a very mild meal VERY lightly flavored with Thai chiles, my mother will take one bite and proclaim that MY MOUTH is on FIRE! She will suffer vocally this way throughout the evening, though the surrounding tables are happily putting away large meals made with hot coals, boiled in lava and garnished with Satan’s toenail clippings. Mom has a deep aversion to even the slightest discomfort. I inherited that from her. It makes traveling with us FUN FUN FUN!)


The Philippines: It was all home-cooking. Great home cooking. And it was all about the pork. Lechon, lechon, lechon. And the fish. It’s also about the sour soups and stews, sinigang with fish and dinuguan blood stew. We had lots of seafood but absolutely none better than the crab, tuna belly and lobster-sized shrimp prepared by Cousin Mary Ann.

Dessert-wise, flans are my favorite (but not one matched my mother’s, natch)  I’ve also come to be a big fan of arroz caldo for breakfast: Filipino rice gruel, also called puspas (or, elsewhere, congee or jook) flavored with scallions, garlic and ginger, and other condiments: eggs, fried shallots, crunchy dried fish, fish sauce, etc.

My mother has an… interesting habit of tasting things in California, wrinkling her face, and saying, “Not like back home.” Until I tasted a real Philippine mango, I thought that she was just grousing. Not so. Philippine (yellow) mangos, at their best, are like rich, mango custard. No fibrousness. A wonderment.

Lunch at Suda. Yes, the establishment behind me is called "Nice Girls Massage." I have no doubt about their niceness.

Bangkok: Eat it, especaly if it seems popular with locals. At least two of the best meals of the trip were here. And seafood? Superfresh mud crab and mantis prawns, blisteringly fried fresh whole fish, sautéed water spinach (kangkong). Condiments, condiments, condiments. Recs?

For haute cuisine, Bo.Lan, a cozy fine-dining establishment with beautiful atmosphere and delicious, unexpected flavor combinations. Fabulous, both for atmosphere and suprise. For seafood, Baan Klang Nam is at the end of Soi 14 off Rama III road south of the Rama III bridge. Your cab driver will not know where it is. The Soi looks impassable. Make him drive all the way to the end. It will appear like Brigadoon and you’ll love it. Our best streety lunch  was at Suda, on Soi 14 off Sukhumvit.

Singapore is meant to be an epicurean’s dream, with Malay, Cantonese, Indian and Indonesian influences all coming together at the table. The hawker stalls are the greatest evidence of this. The trouble with all this is that I find it rather hard to stomach in 90° heat.

Still—Laksa for breakfast. It’s magnificent. Chilli and White Pepper crabs, Rendang, glutinous carrot cakes, and noodle concoctions like char kway teow with cockles and mee siam, deep-fried bananas, and the signature dish of the city: the simple Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is just what it sounds like: the chicken is perfectly poached with scallions, ginger and garlic, and the rice soaks it up. Total comfort food!
Recs? The hawker stalls at Maxwell Road all the way. And No Signboard Seafood Restaurant. Wow! And Au Jardin Les Amis at the botanical gardens. A beautiful, beautiful place and meal.
Hawaiian food. You either get it and love it or you don’t and I feel sorry for you. It’s GARGANTUAN in proportion, and it’s heavily influenced by postwar “American” staples, like hamburgers and Spam. There are uniquely Hawaiian things that are musts, like Spam musubi and Shave Ice and malasadas.
In Honolulu, the highlights were definitely our omakase dinner at Nobu, and as a counterbalance, our outrageously portioned meal at the Side Street Inn. Oh, and you GOTTA have ice cream at Bubbie’s! It’s worth the long line.
On the Big Island, Roy’s and Sansei were really nice dining experiences. But the crowing glory was Hawaiian Style Cafe in Waimea, a little greasy spoon specializing in Hawaiian delicacies like Loco Mocos and various plate lunches served Hawaiian Style, with two scoops of rice and a scoop of mac salad. (What, no defibrillator?) A word of warning: When people tell you about Hawaiian Style Cafe, they all tell you that the pancakes are fluffy as hell and the size of hubcaps. (Hubcaps seem to be the usual frame of reference here, much as fruits are for tumors.)
THE PANCAKES ARE AS FLUFFY AS HELL AND THEY ARE LITERALLY THE SIZE OF HUBCAPS. You have been forewarned. Get them with haupia (coconut pudding) on top. But you will need four people and you will need to order nothing else.


Durian. I now understand its reputation. Entering an establishment that features Durian prodigiously is immediately apparent. The air smells like Satan’s farts. ”Tastes like heaven, smells like hell.” It does neither. It both tastes and smells like Purgatory. (The flavor is like a gooey, eggy custard made with old cocktail onions.) And it… uh… repeats on you. For hours.

Don’t go to a western restaurant and expect western standards. That’s just silly. For example, ordering escargot at a French restaurant in Bangkok (Artur’s) should be a lovely thing. But in this case (perhaps because they hadn’t been purged properly), they tasted like they’d been attached to an Oil Tanker not 10 minutes ago.

Also: why does every rum drink in Southeast Asia taste like it’s made with sewer water? And it’s worse in high-end bars. Am I missing something? Is rum supposed to have a Turd Bouquet?

Hati Babi Bungkus. Actually lack of Hati Babi Bungkus I has wanted to try this ever since I saw it featured on TV. The closest Singapore has to an indigenous race are the Peranakans, descendents of the Malayans and the southern Chinese. Hati Babi Bungkus is a dish made of pork and pork liver, shaped into little balls and wrapped (to braise) in caul fat. To me, that sounds like heaven. And it seems to be rather hard to find. We shlepped to a Paranakan restaurant across town just to try it. And they had run out. On or last night in Singapore, we got… wait for it… Hati Babi Bubkes.


It was actually lovely having real drinks again for the first time in many years. In addition to learning to drink beer, as I said above, I got to revisit some old favorites that I’ve missed: Prosecco before dinner. Port after dinner. Champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve! (Oh, I’ve missed that.)

And above all, Stupid Girl Drinks. I’ve always been a big fan of Stupid Girl Drinks, and busting through some Singapore Slings and Mai Tais and Piña Coladas was really fun. But above all, I have missed my favorite, my old standby: the Grasshopper. For me, it’s the ultimate Stupid Girl Drink. It’s worth ordering just to see the look on the waiter’s face. One evening, I had three. I’ve never had a hangover before, but I think this came close. The next morning, I felt put-upon if people even breathed near me.


Quik-dry nylon clothing is a godsend. I bought a bunch before the trip, and as Pete and I share all our clothes (except undies and shoes), we ended up looking like the Adidas Twins. It was a little goofy.

Travel pants. Our dear friend Robert Love once recommended the kind of pants whose lower legs zip off to turn them into shorts. To be honest, at the time, I thought, “Oh yeah. Old Guy Pants. What should we wear with them? Black socks and sandals?

Cut to one month later: We’re in southeast Asia with the legs zipped off, wearing black socks and sandals. The man is WISE.

Lastly, an observation: When I wear a stingy-brimmed fedora, I look like a pathetic, wannabe hipster. When Pete wears a stingy-brimmed fedora, he looks like he’s in the Zapruder film. See?


They suck. We all know they suck. But it really didn’t get bad until we re-entered the US.

I mean, Philippine airports treat you like cattle, but they’re also strangely expedient. The Bangkok and Singapore airports are actually pretty fantastic. But Honolulu? Awful! The whole airport seems to be run by Gorgons in blue Aloha shirts who exude a distinctly Polynesian-Nurse-Ratched air. These are the kind of women who smile at you at a sleazy bar and then drug you and white-slave you. The kind of women who entice you to hire a launch to an enchanted island and then entrap you into marrying their underage daughter.

Okay, maybe I’m just living too much in overdramatic musical theater metaphor land.

It’s just embarrassing that the US should offer worse airport service than the Third World. I mean, just because a bunch of assholes attacked the US eleven years ago doesn’t mean you’re no longer in the hospitality industry. Pull the stick out yo’ ass and get with the frickin’ Aloha spirit, bitches! (And where’s my fucking lei?) Mahalo.

The Untold Story:

Here are some things we never shared with you all.

The gastrointestinal distress. I was the only one not to come down with White Man’s Tummy over the course of the trip. Mom had some Revenge issues in BKK and Singapore. But Pete probably got the worst of it in the Philippines. The prevailing opinion seems to be that it was an oyster he ate at a buffet lunch.

Oh, husband. What will I do with you?

In the interest of remaining discreet, let me put it this way: I had never actually witnessed projectile vomiting outside of repeated viewings of The Exorcist. But if I’d had Max von Sydow and a copy of the Roman Ritual with me on The Night of the Oyster, I would have felt a bit more at ease.

Rest assured, after that 24-hour difficulty, the rest of the trip was hunky-dory for the Budinger gut. (And, yes, we did leave a HUGE tip for housekeeping.)

As for my own little oven, it’s always tetchy, but it managed pretty damned well, I must say. (The liberal lashings of belladonna and phenobarbital didn’t hurt, either. Just sayin’…)

The Occasional Friction. When asked for a decision, Peter repeats the question right back at you. “Where do you want to go today?” “Where do YOU want to go today?” Sometimes, he’ll rephrase it, just for variety. “Did YOU have a place in mind to go today?

When asked the same question, my mother says, “I don’t know. Whatever.” and then vetoes all the things she doesn’t want to do.

My response to this is to preempt it by giving concrete options. “Do you want to sightsee or relax? Something cultural or something scenic?” If I present these with a slight warning edge to my voice, Peter will take the hint and choose. (If he’s not too busy having conversations with the wee pixies in his head.) My mother will say, “I don’t know. Whatever.” And then she’ll grumble through the day if you’ve made the wrong choice.

Which left lot of decisions to me. One of my biggest fears is becoming that Horrible Middle Sister who constantly acts put-upon and passive-aggressive and says things like “Well SOMEBODY HAS TO DO IT!!!” about trivial things like buying tickets or doing laundry. Or breathing. You know that Middle Sister. We all know her. A lot of us HAVE her.

So my watchcry throughout this trip has been “Just chill out. It will all be okay.” Which, if pressed, is amended to “CAN WE ALL PLEASE FOR CHRISSAKES CHILL. THE FUCK. OUT?!??!?!!?!?!”

And then, if I’m getting blindly angry, I take a Valium. Works wonders. Esp. with the Belladonna colloid I mentioned earlier. Social lubricant? Fuck, this shit is 40-weight motor oil.

I’ve only gotten blindly angry a couple of times on the trip. Oh, I’ve gotten grumpy. And I’ve gotten a bit snitty. But only two things make me angry: Thoughtlessness (and willfully “not being there” — not listening to what the other person has to say) — or downright rudeness. That doesn’t make me angry, it makes me explode.

At the aforementioned Honolulu airport, for example, we were treated terribly. The porter left my mother waiting alone in her wheelchair with no explanation. Peter was yelled at when HE tried to move her. And then she was unceremoniously pushed to the side because she was in the way. Excuse me?

Few of you have ever seen me go ballistic. I explode. Mind you, I don’t get irrational. On the contrary, I get SUPER-rational. I take names and numbers and I tear people new assholes:

“Excuse me, did you just move my mother aside?”
“She was blocking the aisle.”
“I don’t see anyone behind us, and I didn’t notice you asking her if you could move her. She’s a person.”
Excuse me, sir, I have to keep the pathway clear.”
“And is that the ALOHA SPIRIT I hear so much about? You’re a disgrace to your state. What’s your name?”
“MY name? What’s YOUR name?”
“My name is The Traveler You’re Here to Serve. And yours, I see, is Sharon Won. To whom do I write to file a report about you, Sharon Won?”
“That’s it, I’m calling security. You three are waiting right here.”
“But aren’t we blocking your passageway, Sharon Won?”
“You really want to make something of this? You want to start something about your lack of skills to do your basic administrative job? Because I will be MORE than happy to discuss our Honolulu airport experience COMPLETELY candidly with your supervisor, a TSA official, or whomever you want to include in this discussion. Bring it on. BRING. IT. ON. SHARON WON.

No shit. Actually said this. Like Sigourney Weaver.

Brief discussion with friendly TSA official ensues, with apologies from him. I ask him the full method for registering a complaint about Ms. Won’s performance. And then we leave, with her giving us the stinkeye the whole way out.

And I SHOUT from across the baggage claim area, “THANKS FOR THE ALOHA SPIRIT, SHARON WON! WELCOME TO HAWAI’I!!!!”

Was that psychotic? That’s where four weeks of travel gets me to. Out my way, bitch!

And then, of course, it was totally time for me to tell myself to


1) Don’t do the touristy stuff. See if you can hunt out stuff that’s new and weird. (And, in our case, accessible to Mom).

2) Do the semi-touristy stuff. Go ahead and be guided by Tony Bourdain and Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor and That Fat Guy Who Eats Weird Shit on the Travel Channel. (Yeah, I know: Andrew Zimmern. But we call him “Tubby” at our house. I just love him!)

3) Okay, do the touristy stuff. Of course you need to do the touristy stuff. Guess what? You’re a tourist. To pretend otherwise is both folly and poseurish. If you’re gonna hunt out hawker stalls in Singapore and holes in the wall in Bangkok, you gotta also tour the palaces and have a Singapore Sling at Raffles. If only to see this foxy chick on the tiger rug hanging behind the Long Bar:

That’s it. We had a blast. And now we’re home, happily being attacked by our cats and surveying the newly-demolished kitchen. (If you can plan to be away for at least part of a kitchen remodel, do it!!!)

We’re really grateful that we had the chance for this trip (thanks for winning an award, Mom!) And we’ll remember it forever.

And I hope it’s not another near-decade before we go abroad again.

And if you’ve actually spent the time to read this WHOLE blog, you are super-fucking-amazing and we love you beyond measure.

Kob kun mak man.
Terima kasih.

And Pete.
And Mom. 

Beaches and Bullshit

Hi! DC Here.

Okay, we didn’t laze away ALL our time. For example, we visited a Kona coffee plantation.

Mountain Thunder Coffee.

(Doesn’t it just make you expect a Disneyland ride narrated by a kee-razy Old Prospector? “Uh-oh! Looks like I sentchee down the wrong mineshaft. Ya better HOOOLD OOON!!!!”)

It was really fun. And there was free coffee!

Here’s a sample:

Bean on plant. This is my "Mrs. Olson" face. "Mmm... Mountain grown!"

Unroasted beans in hand, minus their "cherry" outside.

Above, Andy Serkis sorts the beans.

Ming! Ming! Ming! Kokoikokoikokoi!

Meanwhile, Mom, who is slightly demented by almost a month of travel, tries to pull the tail off the Roastery Cat.

And what goes best with a cup of Hawai’ian Joe? Why malasadas from Tex’s, of course!

(Malasadas are little square fried doughnuts. With no hole. So they’re really like beignets. Only they’re kind of way better than both. They’re malasadas. Our friend Robert calls them “doughludes.” As in “dough quaaludes.” That’s about right.)

We found some lovely beaches. In particular, this one little tidepool beach that was nearly deserted. We installed ourselves in a picture-perfect little spot, and ZZZ.

Hawai’i more than anything else seems to me to have this incredible natural color palette. It’s not garish, like the Asian tropics. And it’s not the same as the sun-kissed Californian palette. It’s somewhere between. It’s got the heat of lava and the glittery blackness of lava rock. The brightness of beach sand and the soft touch of moss. It’s… lovely.

And now for something completely…

exactly like everyone else’s travel photos you’ve ever seen in your life.

Mom dips her feet. Ever try to navigate your mother-with-a-cane over a lava-rock beach? Its… scary.

I used Pete's skin in this shot to set the White Balance of the camera.

Okay, here’s My Embarrassing Admission (#83,243, if you’re keeping count). I’m not a beach person.

Well, I’m not an outdoor person, really. I’ve never once been camping. Or skiing. Or anything really where there wasn’t at least a Best Western nearby. Never been on a horse. I was last in a swimming pool in 1993. (No, literally.)

The tidepool photo you see above is literally as close as I get to relaxing in the water at a beach. I don’t swim or surf or snorkel or “boogie board.” (Honestly, I really don’t quite understand what “boogie boarding” is, but it sounds awful.)

So after about  two hours at any given beach, I get real antsy. And then we have to window-shop and have shave ice.

Like all tourist-based economies (even those close at hand to us, like West Marin, Napa and Sonoma), Hawai’i is full of Stores That Sell Bullshit.

These are usually sold in the guise of “Antiques,” but mostly it feels like people have amassed loads of Dead People’s Useless Junk and they’re pawning it off on tourists.

Please don’t mistake that for disapproval. I do, in fact, LOVE buying Dead People’s Useless Junk. (Admission number… oh, whatever.)

I bought three glass bottles from the proprietor of the store with this leprous mannequin. (She should really move to Moloka’i and have that seen to.)

In fact, not only do I wholeheartedly approve of Stores that Sell Bullshit, my husband and I would dearly, dearly love one day to be the proprietors of a Store that Sells Bullshit.

To me, they break down into three major categories: Stores that Sell Dead People’s Useless Junk (see above), Stores that Sell Dumb Little Handmade Things That Masquerade as Souvenirs, and Stores That Sell Shitty “Art.”

Hawai’i, like Northern California, is CHOCK-FULL of these. Pete’s and my shop would undoubtedly be one of the latter two varieties. God knows I spend enough time wandering around these places saying “Really? A handmade notebook with shells glued onto it for $20? I could make this Bullshit!” “Really? A pseudo-retro pseudo-oil travel poster for $300? I could make this Bullshit in my sleep!”

If anyone wants to invest in a Store that Sells Bullshit in some tourist locale, please let me and Pete know. I will make the entire inventory out of wastepaper, hot glue, paint, macaroni and crap I find on the street. We will call it all “local,” “archival, “artisanal” and “organic” and it will actually be a damn sight better-looking than most of the stuff for sale nearby. Mom will sew the drapes and chat with the customers, and Pete will run the front of house. It will be called LUMMY-LOU’S: THE STORE THAT SELLS BULLSHIT and it will make BAJILLIONS.

Think about it.



Mo Bettah.

You may have received the impression from the Oahu post that we had little better to do than eat and shop (other than visit Pearl Harbor).

That is true. Had our visit to Hawai’i stopped at Honolulu, we would have had NO IDEA.

Twenty minutes after landing on the Big Island, we were seeing this:

And we, in turn, looked like this:

Those expressions are, roughly translated, “What the fuck were we doing in Honolulu all that time?”

The waterfall, incidentally, is Akaka Falls, north of Hilo.

Again: Akaka Falls.

Pictorial evidence to the right.

Look, Hawai’i, we’re all proud of our heritage. But you’ve gotta make concessions to the mainland idiots who form your tourism base. The sign says, to our juvenile minds, “A CACA FALLS. LOOK OUT!”

If you think we’re above getting HOURS of infantile mileage out of such a thing, you’ve got another thing coming.

This does nothing, however, to diminish the beauty of the place. Everything Singapore was trying to be artificially, Hawai’i is for reals.

The windward (Hilo) side of the island is lush and lovely and green. The leeward side (Kona) is sunny and beachy. We stayed on the Kohala coast, north of Kona, in a lovely little rental condo.

Kohala is a manmade oasis in the middle of some major lava flow deserts. Relax? You bet! ZZZZ.

Maybe too much.

You see, like everywhere you visit, there are a bunch of “gottas” that go along with Hawai’i. “Oh, you’ve gotta see all the hidden beaches and fishpools and you’ve gotta see the volcano—preferably from a helicopter—and you’ve gotta snorkel and you’ve gotta zipline and you’ve gotta go to a lu’au and you’ve gotta gotta gotta GOTTA.”

You know what, though? You don’t. Sometimes you’ve just gotta breathe after a LOOOONG time abroad and have some eats and drinks.

And NOT doing things gives you a fantastic excuse to come back so you CAN do them. Right?

Mai Tai, anyone?


The Boys.


Hi! It’s both of us from here on in…

So what’s the first thing we did in after arriving in Hawai’i? Went to see The Adventures of Tin Tin.

If that seems an unlikely choice of activity, you know, being in sunny Hawaii and choosing to sit inside watching an animated tow-headed journalist run around with his dog, it was merely a time-killer. We were waiting for them to clean our hotel room.

After the ridiculous scale of the Marina Mandarin in Singapore, the Best Western Coconut Waikiki was comforting in its smallness. And now that were back on US soil, we unanimously decided that first night that we needed burgers as soon as possible.

Truth be told, a lot of Hawai’i was about eating. Okay, a lot of the whole trip was about eating, but Hawai’i even more so.

Like Puka dogs, for example. (That’s “poo-kah” as in shell. Not “pyoo-kah” as in “one who pukes.”). Puka dog buns aren’t split down the middle; they’re impaled on heated spikes that are roughly the shape of a hot dog. A red-hot, pointed hot dog. Once they’ve been thus internally toasted, they’re removed and hot dogs are inserted in the resultant toasthole, lubricated with Island-y relishes: banana, mango, pineapple, coconut, etc.

This whole process sounds like something Torquemada would nosh on at an auto-da-fé. But they were delicious.

And our big dinner at Nobu. Nobu Matsuhisa, the reknowned Japanese chef, has a restaurant in Waikiki. We ordered omakase: a tasting menu at the discretion of the chef. It changes from moment to moment depending on what’s freshest and most wonderful in the kitchen. We won’t rhapsodize at length. We’ll just say this: it started with raw otoro (fatty tuna) “ice cream,” topped with caviar. If you’re not drooling, shame on you. A monumental menu.

And for sheer yummy volume (volume matters in Hawai’ian food), there was the Side Street Inn. It’s the kind of place that real line chefs go to after hours to eat fabulous comfort food done well. Deep fried kanpachi kama and rare tuna belly, pork chops that are CRISP on the outside and moister than moist on the inside… And desserts that sound disgusting but are actually orgasmic: Peanut Butter Crunch à la mode, butter-fried pound cake…

Yeah. Butter-fried pound cake.

This place is beyond Rabelaisian. This place needs a new word for itself. This place is…


What the hell are we talking about? Movies? Food? This post is decidedly… um… well…

Okay, here’s the truth: there’s just not much to say here about tourism. This is how we planned the trip: 1) Philippines — family, award, HIGH STRESS! 2) BKK/Singapore — Touring, Touring, less stress. 3) Hawai’i. Relax. Melt. No stress.

And we kinda did that a little. Toured the North Shore. Found some beaches. ZZZ.

And we shopped. For Hawai’i kitsch, naturally. Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts have the largest selection of aloha shirts on the island and they feature vintage items going back to the 1930s. Some of the shirts are so rare they will set you back a few thousand dollars. (You wouldn’t want to eat a puka dog in one of those!)

Then we went to Hilo Hattie’s. Hilo Hattie’s kind of defies description. Apparently the demand for Hawai’iana was so great that they needed not one warehouse store, but a CHAIN of them. Filled to the TEETH with Aloha this and Tiki that. It was going to be a quick stop for a few muu-muus for Bel (yes, for BEL!) and instead turned into a two-plus hour orgy of hula girl oven mitts, aloha paraphernalia and macadamia nut products that are  required purchases. Also, pearl earrings (made from pearls pulled from oysters that Bel choose from a little watery dish. Apparently the ugliest oysters yield the best pearls—there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. I learned the truth at seventeen…).

The one non-relaxy visit we made on Oahu was to Pearl Harbor.

While other historical sites on the trip impressed us with their scale or their sheer ornament  or their serene beauty, Pearl Harbor, specifically the USS Arizona Memorial, is notable for its simplicity. One can’t help but be moved by it.

The complex is a very simple collection of open-air exhibit halls and drydocked vessels. Really, the only concession to ornament is a tall, white memorial monolith called “The Tree of Life,” with a window etched into it.

The harbor itself is lovely, and every so often the eye catches a square white marker memorializing one of the battleships destroyed there. Which is far more poignant than any elaborate monument might be.

The most famous of these, of course, is the USS Arizona. Arizona sits where she was bombed—the only ship still to do so. And she serves as a tomb for the 1,000 or so servicemen who served aboard her whose bodies were not recovered after the bombing. That’s about half the number of her crew who were actually killed.

We learned this from Stockard Channing, who narrates the documentary that begins the Pearl Harbor experience.

And it’s wonderful to be told the story of What Happened That Day before you see the memorial. (We never saw Pearl Harbor, because we’re both allergic to Josh Hartnett.)

But the memorial: They’ve built a stark, white, modern memorial that runs across the beam of the wreck of the ship, and it’s only accessible by boat. So, fittingly, you board a Navy vessel manned by Navy personnel to visit the resting place of a thousand Navy men.

Though it really doesn’t look like much from the outside, the inside of the memorial is quite beautiful and far more open than one would think.

This all serves its primary purpose: to serve as a meditative  viewing platform for the wreck of the Arizona, and for the battleship Missouri, docked next door.






It’s absolutely astonishing to see an enormous, destroyed ship just inches below the water. It’s very moving.

Especially, of course, for Bel, who is the only one of the three of us to actually remember World War II—and specifically the Pacific theater. To be at the site of the Japanese attack that pulled us into the war was very emotional. Specifically for someone who lived through the Japanese occupation of her country and its subsequent liberation by her adoptive-country-to-be.

The Arizona still bleeds. Oil. After sixty years, she still produces bright, rainbow oilslicks that float out to sea. Anywhere else, you’d greet that with revulsion. Here, you want to invest it with meaning. It’s easy to find any of a thousand metaphors and meanings to go along with it. Feel free. That’s what memorials are for.

There are a handful of places in the US that you really have to visit and touch to appreciate a human, historical event. This is one of them.

Then you have to visit the gift shop.

(What? This is US!)

Only one thing to share about the gift shop at Pearl Harbor. It’s the single greatest gift shop item, perhaps, that we’ve ever seen.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Beanie Baby.



No, we didn’t buy it. We thought it irreligious to remove it from its rightful place. If you wish to see it, you too must make a pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor.

The Boys

Where Else Should One Partake…

The name Raffles is an important one in the history of Singapore.

Stamford Raffles arrived in the early 19th Century and, within a few years, procured Singapore for the British East India Company.  This was accomplished, as with many colonialist maneuvers during this era, through political intrigue and buyouts and bribes.

Young Stamford Raffles then set about developing the free trade port of Singapore.

So, his name is everywhere… Raffles Avenue, Raffles Boulevard (where our hotel was located), Raffles potato chips (Nooooo!).

But there is no greater monument to Raffles’ legacy—and British colonialism in general—than the Raffles Hotel.

It is a grand old hotel—white on the outside and very white on the inside, if you take my meaning.  There is even a Sikh doorman in traditional dress.  Charming.  The entire hotel is built around lovely open courtyards with attractively lit fountains.  It has lovely dining rooms and an overpriced gift shop.  Among the shop’s many treasures are t-shirts and posters featuring a fey English gent hoisting a hurricane glass.

The text says, “Where Else Should One Partake of a Singapore Sling than at its Birthplace, the Raffles Hotel?”

So what is a Singapore Sling?  It is a combination of gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, fresh pineapple juice and Angostura bitters.  It was created around 1915 by a bartender at the hotel’s Long Bar, where it is still served to this day.  So naturally we had to be a part of this long tradition.  We proceeded to the Long Bar (which is not very long) and ordered up two Slings.  Now the Long Bar, despite its not-so-longness, is quite fabulous. They have those automated palm frond fans on the ceiling and complimentary peanuts everywhere. The peanut shells are simply thrown on the floor, so there is a two-inch hillock of shells at the base of every table in the place.  So chic…so insouciant…

But back the Slings.  They were delicious, and I don’t favor those sweet cocktails generally.  Of course, the folks at the Raffles Hotel are no fools.  How much is a Singapore Sling?  Roughly $25 per drink.



So we felt like tourists who had been decidedly and definitively taken, but we had been treated well and enjoyed a classic, if pricey, Singapore experience.

After our Slings, David and I headed out for one last hurrah—a ride on the Singapore Flyer, dubbed the world’s largest Giant Observation Wheel.

If you’ve ever been on or seen the London Eye, this is basically the same experience. Only the Singapore Flyer is preceded by about a half mile of crap-assed “World of Tomorrow” galleries meant to placate punters stuck in line.

And you get to share a pod with a Japanese family of six hundred children who are all desperately disappointed that the ride is not actually a thrill ride, but just a






That said, the half-hour ride affords some of the finest views of the city and is particularly dramatic at night.

Goodbye Singapore! Now onto Hawaii. Aloha!


Food and Flowahs

So the fried chicken and fries (complete with wasabi mayonnaise…mmmm) were delicious, but we could not deny ourselves the quintessential Singapore experience—the hawker stalls.

After a wonderful day at the zoo, we proceeded to the Maxwell Food Centre.  These food centers (also called hawker stalls, sometimes food lofts…they have lots of different names) feature a vast array of different street foods at very reasonable prices.  They are basically food courts on steroids.  There is no master plan to these facilities, fruit smoothies can be found next to pork dishes, desserts next to noodles.

We overordered as usual: Hainanese Chicken Rice, Singapore’s signature dish and enjoyed it with a variety of lovely condiments.  We had other singapore must-haves (glutinous fried carrot cake, char kway teow noodles with cockles)  and followed that up with a dessert featuring deep fried bananas (yum), deep fried jackfruit (meh), and an iced dessert of grass jelly (bleh), longan and the infamous durian. For those who don’t know durian, it is commonly summed up in one phrase – “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell.” Truthfully, we found neither to be quite the case. Durian does smell slightly like aging onions, but it is not hell exactly.  It is considerably better than how it is usually described, that is, as smelling like stinky socks.  And the taste…well, it’s pretty good.  But heaven?  Perhaps not.  It is, however, texturally very unique for a fruit—durian is custardy and quite smooth.  It’s almost alien; one might expect to find the odd durian in the center of a crop circle or on the roof of a tract home in the Midwest.

The next day we visited the Singapore Botanic Gardens.  Like the zoo, Singapore should be very proud of this—it was easily the most spectacular thing we saw in Singapore, food or no food.

Because of the walking involved, we opted for a wheelchair for Bel, and David I burned off our durian dessert pushing her around the many winding trails.


(Remember the 90° heat and the 80% humidity?)

So basically we’re courting heatstroke.

But back to the gardens:

There are waterfalls, man-made lakes, vast rain forest sections, vast bamboo forests, vast mangrove swamp sections, whole sections devoted to bromeliads, whole sections devoted to heliconia…



You get the idea, I think.




The indisputable highlight of the Botanic Gardens is the National Orchid Garden.

It features over 30 million species of orchids.

Okay maybe that’s an exaggeration.  Would you believe 3 million?

Still a little high, perhaps.  I think the number is closer to 60,000 species of orchids.  It was a bit overwhelming, but lovely.

There were white ones and pink ones and white and pink ones and hybrids and orchids named after celebrities.

Had there been an Eva Gabor orchid, it might have found its way into my pocket by accident.  There were also these fabulous orchid archways that made you feel like the most blushing bride on her big day.

Remember how it's illegal to be gay in Singapore? Bite me, Singapore!

Bel, a longtime orchid fan, was in heaven. We even made a little squirrel friend who was kind enough to pose for some photos.  And a little birdie. Oh, and some bugs agreed to a face off on camera.

"Blue Lagoon" shot. We had to fight over who got to be Brooke Shields.

After such an exhaustive horticultural morning (remember what Dorothy Parker said: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”), it was time for a lovely, refreshing lunch. Happily, there just happens to be an excellent French restaurant in the middle of the gardens. Chilled Jerusalem artichoke soup with avruga herring caviar?



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Sing… Singapore… Sing out loud… Sing out MORE

Singapore and Bangkok could not be more different.  One is a chocolate chip cookie and the other is sorbet…both have their merits, but they suit different moods.

But suggesting that Singapore is sorbet does not mean it is cool and refreshing; it is hot, hot, hot!  It is a humid, equatorial heat. Like the crotch of a volleyball team captain after a grueling regional semifinal.

Luckily, our hotel was well air conditioned and we looked forward to the moment when we would cross the threshold into its lovely chill.  And such a hotel.  The Marina Mandarin is a big high rise hotel that tops an equally large mall.  Its rooms run around a central atrium that towers some 18 stories and to look down can induce vertigo.  It brings to mind the senate chamber in the more recent Star Wars movies.  One can almost imagine Natalie Portman gently floating up to floor 15 or so to plead her case for the people of Naboo.

While Bangkok is very ancient and friendly and warm, Singapore is slick, modern and almost pathologically clean.  Public spitting and gum chewing are illegal so, if you want to do that, better go to China.  Also on the illegal list: male homosexuality.  (Though I think someone forgot to tell quite a few of the waiters.) Lesbians are okay  in terms of the law, it seems, and cheerfully butch women can be seen all over the city.

The skyline is dominated by some impressive architecture, including the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, known as the “surfboard” thanks to the roof deck that curves gently across the tops of all three towers of the hotel.

Singapore was so very hot that we decided it would be better to rent a wheelchair for Bel in the more strenuously walky activities. And she likes the breeze generated by letting her go at the top of a hill…

Singapore also boasts the Singapore Flyer, a large, ferris wheel-like structure that carries little pods around slowly up and down and affords some of the best views of the city (more on that later).

After a day in the airport and a rather confused cab ride that left two of us at the wrong hotel, we settled in for (what else?) fried chicken and fries from the mall.  Yes, it seems an odd choice for a city known for its culinary wonders, but boy, that fried chicken was GOOOOD.

Our first sightseeing excursion took us to the beautiful Singapore Zoo.  This is a world-class, happy-animals zoo and not one of those cement Communist Bloc zoos where the animals all look sweaty and tired all the time.  We started the day with an elephant show, highlighting elephants at work and play.


Bel feeding her pink elephant. Mai Tai, anyone?

Supposedly, this used to be a show about the elephant as tool of manual labor in the logging industry, but has now been updated so that when the elephant drags a log, it looks like fun!   In another update for a sensitive audience, they took pains to tell us that the water the elephants were spraying liberally over the first several rows was in fact purified water from a trough.  Well, what fun is that?!?  No dirty trunk water?

Not all the elephants found the log dragging that amusing and one actually dropped dead.

Just kidding! She’s resting after eating a large cantaloupe.

At the end of the show, there was the option to feed the elephants.  Naturally David and I nearly trampled a sea of small children to get up there and grab our basket of apples and bananas.  It’s interesting: I always thought that the business end of an elephant’s trunk would be all moist like a nose, but in fact it is quite dry and articulates very precisely.  These elephants are quite the bottomless pits. They would gladly have stood there eating all day given the option. Like everyone else in Singapore.

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After you feed the elephants, you’re given the opportunity to handle their turds. There’s not much more to be said about that.

The natives are restless. Rrowr.

After the elephants, we took in a show about the rain forests that featured some rather shapely wildlife.

These shows are all wonderfully predictable. Perky Asian Girl: “Oh, hi! I didn’t see you there! Welcome to the Rain Forest. I’ve been exploring here for some time—let me share with you some of the exciting friends I’ve made.”

Show me a Rain Forest Explorer that looks like she does promos for Japanese Children’s Television, and I think they deserve every cent of their grant money.

Cue monkeys, peacocks, “native drummers,” etc.

But, hey, it’s 90° with 80% humidity, so anyplace with fans is a MOST welcome diversion.

Entertainment having been accomplished, we went on the rest of the zoo.

The famous Singapore Racing Tortoise.

Here’s a slideshow in which you will see a Sun Bear letting it all hang out, a white rhino having his sores picked by birds (ewwww) and other surprises.

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In our next post, Singapore’s legendary food stalls and a trip the the Botanic Gardens.

Here's me with a statue of Singapore's most famous scientist, Doctor Zaius. They worship him here, but to me he's just a damn dirty ape.



The Blog Goes On… in Singapore.

Pete has boldly declared that he’ll continue the blogging, so you may not hear my voice for awhile. I call that Blessed Relief, eh?

But I’ll be editing the photos as before, and I may pop back in from time to time. Maybe in Hawai’i.

We’ll talk soon.


Auld Lang Thai.

When shopping at an outdoor market, it's so important not to look like a Gullible Western Tourist. Don't you think?

Our final day in Bangkok brought us a singular experience.

Saturday (New Year’s Eve) was our only weekend day in Bangkok, and the Chatuchak Weekend Market seemed to be on everyone’s list of Must-Do things in Bangkok.

Shop? Well, if you insist.

Bangkok’s full of markets. Floating Markets, Wholesale Markets, Night Markets, what have you. Thousands of stalls with thousands of hawkers eager to take you. (I mean, “Offer you goods at very reasonable prices.”)

I’m not a good dickerer. Here’s my idea of dickering: “I give you—One Thousand Baht, very good price. You my first customer.” “Oh, gee, well, I can really only do 600.” “Oh no. These name brand. I can only do maybe 950.” “Oh. Well, gosh. 600 was really what I was hoping for. Can you do a little discount?” “Okay, for you 900. Very good price. You lucky to get.” “Oh, I got lucky! I am such a Very Smart and Savvy Western Tourist. I’ll take it. Smart Me!”

Clearly, I should not travel to any country where they sell camels.

I had read that the Chatuchak Weekend Market was on a larger scale than anything I’d been expecting. It’s not.

It’s larger.

It’s a small city.

And it’s absolutely amazing. I can’t even describe to you the craziness of it. Much of it is arranged into cramped alleyways (Soi) of crowded little stalls, each arranged in a section of like merchandise. Somewhere around 40 sections of many Soi each. It’s roughly semicircular.

How to describe? Have you ever read Greek mythology? Remember when Theseus goes into the king’s Labyrinth on Crete to kill the Minotaur? No one has ever actually entered the Labyrinth and come out again, so King Minos’s crafty daughter, Ariadne, gives him a ball of string to unfurl behind him as he goes, so that he can find his way out again. Such was the technological advancement of the Ancient Greeks that a Ball of String was a veritable Pot Noodle of an idea.

(Theseus: “Wait… a Ball? Of String? What am I, a kitten?”
Ariadne: “No, no, you unroll it.”
“Then it’s not a ball anymore. It’s just a mess. Have you really thought this through? I’ve got this crazy Bull Man to kill, and you’re giving me string. Could I maybe have a sword?”
“Listen for a second, will you? Don’t be such a pain in the ass. I should just let the Minotaur eat you. Jesus!”
“Who’s Jesus?”
“Never mind. You WALK with the ball of string, and you unroll it as you go. Like one step, one turn.”
“Uh-huh. As I go.”
“And then you FOLLOW the string BACK.”
“To the outside.”
“But how can I… wait… OHHHHH!!!”
“I will never make fun of Cretans again.”
“So we’ve made some progress. Go kill the mutant. I have to go sacrifice some puppies to Hecate.”)

But I digress… The scale of Chatuchak is colossal. The breadth of its scope is unfathomable. Here’s a small sample:

You want silver? There’s a Silver Section. There are also sections for china, glassware, basketry, weaving, silk, clothing, clothing, clothing, luggage, “local crafts” (i.e., crap), paper goods, lighting, crystals, blown glass, religious crap, housewares, appliances, plastic fruit, real fruit, silk flowers, real flowers, buttons, baubles, bangles, beads, trinkets, real gold jewelry and gems, food, meat, little birds, puppies, kittens, tropical fish and bunnies in Little Dresses. (Not joking: look at the photo grid above.)

And much more.

These soi are divided by three major roads with a clocktower in the center. Somehow this is, I guess, supposed to be a beacon for the disoriented traveler. But the market’s so crowded that you can’t actually see it from anywhere else. So… not helpful.

We entered the market a the stalls were being set up—very early; Savvy Tourist I, right? Mom: “Where do we meet if we get separated?” “Here at the entrance.” Okay.

Ten minutes later: we’ve gotten separated. NO IDEA where the others are.

One hour later: still separated.

In the meantime, Much Shopping Is Done. A passel of T-Shirts that I find absolutely hilarious on an early Thai morning. Sunglasses. A bogus white Chanel watch for mom. (“Is not fake. Is real. You first customer of day—you lucky to get such good price.” “Uh-huh.”) A coupla bunnies in dresses.

Okay, no bunnies in dresses. I’m not that much of a goddamned idiot.

Plastic bags upon plastic bags. And more plastic bags.

Two hours later: we find each other at the clocktower. We’re all exhausted.

Shop shop shop. Bag bag bag. Socks, souvenirs, little tchotchkes. A vendor opens an umbrella for mom and peels her a Mandarin orange. For mom, this is like the scales dropping from the eyes of Saul of Damascus. The vendor is her new Guardian Angel. Buy buy buy. The vendor throws in two HUGE calendars featuring… wait for it… The King of Thailand. In a bookish pose. We offer profuse thanks before throwing them away. (Sorry, but where were we supposed to put TWO HUGE PHOTOS of an old Thai guy again?)

“Wait, I need…”
“Ooooh, look at the…”
“We want to stop here. No, we WANT to stop here…”

By noon, it’s stifling, the crowds are shoulder-to-shoulder, we have had to buy bags to hold our bags. The merch is dirt cheap, but we’re all dickered out. Frankly, it feels like we’ve just run a triathlon. 1) Wander. 2) Dicker. 3) Pant.

Around 1pm, we finally find the major food section. And the food! Noodles, seafood, barbecued skewers of ???, fruit, vegetables, puffy fried things, steaming boiled things, things that will melt your palate, sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy all jockeying for position.

Street food in Thailand is not fast food. It’s possibility. And it’s gooooood.

But by now we look like this:

For the sake of her vanity, I won’t even share with you what mom looks like.

It’s a combination of the wild postcoital look she gets after rampant shopping (think older Filipina Brigitte Bardot) and a more recent look that she’s developed that says, “I’m an old woman. What have you done to me? I’m about to have a stroke and it’s YOUR FAULT.”

So I slip the waitboy a 100 Baht tip (He literally does an openmouthed doubletake and looks at me like I’m J.P. Morgan. 100 Baht is… a little over three dollars.) and I say, “Taxi. Where taxi? Please. TAXI!”

He looks at me as though I’m Gracie Allen, but I’m in the body of a 6’2″ bald Westerner, and that confuses him. But he points, and of course there’s an escape route and a taxi stand not 100 yards from where we’re sitting.

For mom, I’m pretty sure that was like the Trail of Tears.

Bye bye, Chatuchak. I’m pretty sure that if I lived in Bangkok, we’d see a LOT of each other.

Many naps later, it’s time to say goodbye to BKK.

I have arranged a New Year’s Eve dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya. None of us has ever had a foreign New Year’s Eve, so I thought something special might be in order.

And it was special.

It was on a converted rice barge—a boat built entirely of teak, and shaped not unlike an inverted armadillo. (Have you ever inverted an armadillo? You really need to ask permission first.)

And we drifted up and down the river with several dozen other New Year’s Eve cruises. All the boats were decked out with lights for the holidays (The Thais celebrate the Solar New Year on Jan 1, the Lunar New Year later in the month, and the Thai New Year in Spring, so their holiday season is INTERMINABLE.).

There’s something amazing about a bunch of boats drifting on a river, glowing like luminaria. Magic. Haunting.

And impossible not to think of in metaphor.

All of us drifting down a river, separate but together. Some of us quietly floating. Others loudly singing karaoke. All vulnerable. But so wrapped up in the enjoyment (or the drunkenness or the seasickness) that our vulnerability is a secondary concern. It’s all about the ride. And we’re all headed in the same direction: into the dark and unknown. But there are lovely, bright things to look at all along the way.

And every once in a while, we all stop together to witness something truly amazing.

Have I mentioned that I love Bangkok?

Happy New Year.

Get on the Bus…

Okay. Motor coach tours. I think we’ve all had to endure at least one. Like childhood diseases. Bus Tour=Chicken Pox.  I think it’s just part of traveling. A bunch of tourists band together and brave the wilds of foreigner-land en masse (except that they don’t really like each other).

The last motor coach tour that Pete and I were on was to Stonehenge and Salisbury in England, and at the time I was about 400 pounds, and the bus was really more of a mini-van. Fat man. Mini-van. Scenery or not, that sucks.


This tour, however, was actually quite a delightful day-trip to the Thai countryside.

Mr. Pole and the flood level. Why the hell is he smiling?

One of the options when deciding where to go after Bangkok was Angkor Wat in Cambodia—a sight, like the Great Pyramids, that I’ve always wanted to see in person. The Thai equivalent is the ruins at Ayutthaya, which served as the capital of Siam from the 14th through the 18th centuries, when Siam/Thailand was more or less constantly at war with its neighbor to the West, Burma.

Ayutthaya was hit hard by the Thai flooding in November. In the photo to the right, our Tour Guide, Mr. Pole, shows us the mark left by the highest level of the flood waters. As you look at these images, bear in mind that a month before we arrived, this area was in water over six feet deep.


Mr. Pole was a delightful guide. Our first stop was the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace on the way to the ruins.

Um… Have I mentioned that the Thais love their king? Here he is again, greeting us at the entrance to the Palace. For an 84-year-old, he really does get around.

Unlike the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the Summer Palace is indeed vast, in the style of Western summer palaces of the Victorian Era. Think of Livadia under the Romanoffs. It’s glorious.


We were able to rent a golf cart so that mom could more easily access the grounds. They rent golf carts. I know… It’s slightly surreal. I mean, I won’t pretend there isn’t a slightly Disneyland-ish feeling to the procedures.

But it was a lovely, lovely morning, and we had a lot of fun just tooling around the beautiful grounds. Cue slideshow:

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I mean, how can you not love a place where there are herds of topiary elephants roaming the gardens?

Also worthy of mention is that this (like, say, Windsor Castle in England) is a working Royal Palace. So it’s rather heavily guarded by the King’s Private Guard. They’re everywhere. It’s a little unnerving.

I call this one "Mongo."

And this is "Butch."

To be honest, I could have tooled around this place for hours. It’s quite serene, a nice break from busy Bangkok, and I didn’t catch a fraction of the history that I should have captured.

Still and all, it was soon time to go. So we drove our little Royal Golf Cart back to the entrance and re-boarded the bus for the trip to the meat of the excursion: the ruins at Ayutthaya.


Drive drive drive. Bus bus bus. Did you know they drive on the left in Thailand? Singapore, too. And there’s always a small, irrational part of me that looks out at the road and wants to scream, “YOU’RE ON THE WRONG SIDE! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!”

But in case you were wondering what Thai highways are actually like, they’re quite nice. And Thais, like Americans, seem to rely on Road Talismans.

I’m sure you’ll all remember this one:

“I don’t care if the rain gets ruder
Long as I have plastic Buddha
Walking on the doorframe of my bus…

You may think that you’re a goner
But floods just float you to Nirvana
When Buddha’s truckin’ with you in your bus…”

But on to the Ruins. The ruined city at Ayutthaya, like the Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat, Macchu Picchu, Stonehenge and the like, is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it’s absolutely breathtaking. A great deal of it is brickwork, and the maze of temples, stupas and headless Buddhas actually stops you in your tracks.

Did someone say slideshow?

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Frankly, even without the rest of the ruins, this tree would be enough to merit UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The story is that the buddha’s face just grew there.


Okay. so we all tell the occasional fib.

But it is perfect placement, and a beautiful, compelling image. The Buddha Tree. An excellent thing to have seen with your own eyes.


So, we’re walking around, exploring like everyone else, and my little knapsack brushes by one of the bricks, and it falls to the ground.

Let me repeat that:

I visited a 700-year old UNESCO World Heritage Site.


This is why they hate Americans.

By this point, the day was getting hotter. We’d seen a LOT of beautiful, beautiful things and my capacity for Thai history, culture and religion, I will completely admit, was breaking down. Honestly, I couldn’t really tell where one temple ended and the next began. And, again, honestly, I couldn’t hope to begin pronouncing even the first of them. Ratchaburana Temple, Phra Sri Sanphet Temple, LokayasuthaTemple,  Phanan Choeng Temple, Sha-Lee Temple…

(Threw that last one in just to see if you were paying attention.)

Our next stop was a relatively more modern temple complex where there was some mild coercion to contribute to the temple funds and the monks. What the hell—these people live on alms. They don’t eat otherwise. They hardly eat as it is. How can you begrudge them?

For example, this tiny little temple is inhabited only by a MONUMENTAL buddha and a single monk in a saffron robe who beckons you forward and beatifically places a nylon bracelet on your wrist.


Behold the Transplendent Nylon Wristlets!

There is a conveniently-placed basket of money in front of the monk, to suggest that you might donate something in exchange for the nylon bracelet. I don’t know what place nylon has in Thai Buddhism, but I am led by this experience to believe that it holds some great mystical significance.

Rama rama polyesta rama.

At another temple, we were encouraged to use the “Mystical Fortune Machine” to foretell our future (for only 10 Thai Baht—about a quarter). San Franciscans who know the old Playland at the Sutro Baths and its Museé Mécanique will recognize this type of machine instantly.

“Sure,” you figure, “I’ll play along.” Like fortune cookies, you assume that these fortunes will be innocuous and vague, or at least rosy and pleasant. Sure enough, Peter draws smiles and happy puppies and shit when he spins. What do I get?

“Like being dumb?” “Illness?” “Forthcoming child shall be a baby girl?”

No offense, but Fuck You, Buddha Machine. At the very least, you should be able to recognize a big queen.

In fairness, the icon in this temple was described to us as “one of the most beautiful Buddhas in the world,” and it really is.

It just needs to calibrate its machinery.

The last stop on our little cultural tour was to see another Reclining Buddha.

I know. Buddha Buddha Buddha. Temple Temple Temple. (Just like Rome is Jesus Jesus Jesus, Church Church Church.) But this Buddha was really monumental. Look at Pete in this shot for an idea of the scale. It’s the second of the Three Great Reclining Buddhas of the world. We saw the first at Wat Pho the day before. They never told us where #3 is. But I think I can wait awhile to see it. This guy was outdoors, so bear in mind, again, that a month earlier, it was reclining in six feet of water.


Buddha say whaaaaa???

Plus, in the nearby gift shop, there’s a whole shelf of carved wooden penises, so you can always shop if you’re not into the whole Buddha thing.

(I’m sure that, like nylon, this has some religious significance that is lost on me, a heathen westerner.)

Anyhow, as we left, I couldn’t resist snapping this Reclining Pooch right in the shadow of the Reclining Buddha.

I call this "TourBusFace."

At this point, like the Buddha and the Pooch, the Motor Coach Folk were really starting to look a little wilty. The English man across from me who’d recently had knee surgery looked like he might faint if he wasn’t given a sausage, and quickly. His wife had already melted into a lightly-tuberose-scented puddle of Caucasity.

Luckily, the ride back to Bangkok was by boat along the Chao Phraya, the “River of Kings.” It was just lovely, and very restorative after an extremely active morning of sightseeing.

Slideshow? Well, if you insist…

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It’s always good to have a captain who can sit at the bridge with his feet actually touching the floor. Oh, wait…

Oh, And mom got absolutely shitfaced on mai tais.

Just kidding.
(Or am I?)


Shall We Dance?

Have I mentioned that I love Bangkok? Something about that city raised my confidence level considerably. Or maybe it’s just a spirit of exploration that I haven’t been stirred by since I was doing the semester abroad thing in college.

We’d been guided around the Philippines and most of the trip was old family and friends, so there was really very little of the excitement of discovering a new city. With me as de facto leader of our little group, I found myself playing Cruise Director Julie, and kind of getting off on it.

Which brings me to the subject of Thai names. This is the only country on our odyssey where English isn’t a dominant language. Thai doesn’t even use our alphabet. So, though most people do know English, the language barrier can be difficult.

And then there are the funny names. Now, I fully realize that in the Philippines, we had lunch with two women named Baby and that I have two cousins named Twinnie and Twinkie. But in Bangkok, we had a tour guide named Mister Pole. We had a Taxi Driver named Mr. Suckwang. (God forbid he should move to the states and enrol his kids in school. “Class, meet our new students. Jimmy and Tod Suckwang.”) And we had a waiter who charmingly said to us, “Hello, I’ll be serving you tonight. You can call me Milky.” Peter and I, in unison: “I’m sorry?” “I’m Milky.” He points at his name tag: Milky.

Things You’re Supposed to Do in Bangkok, Part Two: Shop

In Bangkok, merch is cheap. Really cheap. The three of us spent a morning trolling the wholesale shopping district and picking up wonderful things. Among the booty: A flight bag with a photo of Audrey Hepburn on it (from a selection of Audrey Hepburn flight bags), A bronze statue of a fat lady doing yoga, loads of funny T-shirts, and a lime green silk elephant. This doesn’t even include mom’s considerable haul.

I also ordered some custom shirts. Bespoke (custom) tailoring is very cheap in Bangkok, so I thought, “What the hell.” There’s a shirt I’ve longed for but can never find: long sleeves, yummy color, a placket covering the buttons and a TALL Mandarin collar. (Lately, I’ve developed a Katharine Hepburn thing about high collars.) So, since I can never find it, I decided to have some made.

With mom tuckered out by the morning’s shopping, we needed to get home. Unfortunately, the only cabbies we found in the shopping district insisted on either charging us twice the going rate or taking us to a “special gemstone shop” to “get a great deal.” Which is a well-known Bangkok scam. So I said Fuck It, loaded us OUT of the cab and hailed a tuk tuk. If the jeepney is the signature conveyance of the Philippines, the tuk tuk is the signature conveyance of Thailand. They look like this:

And when you squeeze three big people in one and it hurtles through potholed, shortcut alleyways, you look like this:

But we arrived intact.

Mom bowed out for the evening, so Pete and I did some of our own sightseeing.

Things You’re Supposed to Do in Bangkok, Part Three: See The Red Light District.
I haven’t trolled a lot of red light districts. Amsterdam, London, a bit of Paris. But Bangkok is, well, Bangkok.

Patpong is regarded by many as a sort of “entry-level” red light district. It’s where the tourists go for their first taste of Bangkok sleaze. (The more experienced sleaze cognoscenti apparently go to Nana or Soi Cowboy.)

But Patpong plays host to the Patpong Night Market, a tumultuous two-alley squeeze of stalls selling every sort of crap imaginable.

Then there are the clubs. True to what we’d been told, there were hucksters about every five feet trying to get you to come in and see the girls.

“You want girl? See Ping Pong Show. Best in town.”

Given the sampling of the girls in the street… I don’t know about that. I like my Ping Pong performers not to look like walking Hepatitis.

Of course, the girls aren’t the only ones being hawked. Bangkok also has gay red light districts, though they seem to be rather set apart from the girly shows. This alley, for example, was a block away from the Patpong throng. And it had MUCH better lighting.

The fare here is twofold: gayboys and ladyboys. Ladyboys are just what you’d expect them to be. Only less convincing.

And before you ask, yes, we took in a show. In the interest of being discreet, I’ll say this: there were no ping pong balls or (shudder) animal acts, and the show on the whole (divided into acts like an old Burlesque revue) was totally ridiculous and ultimately boring… if, um… gymnastic. There were two shows on offer, one right after the other, and we left shortly after the second one began.

The last thing I’ll say is this: I have a TOTALLY new perspective on how to think of the houses I play in as a performer. These guys and gals have a LOT to deal with. I mean, if I ever think to myself from now on, “This lighting is so unflattering” or, “I can’t make this quickchange” or “this house is terrible,” I need only think of Patpong and count my blessings.

Things You’re Supposed to Do in Bangkok, Part Four: Get a Thai Massage.
Not that kind, you sick people.

Peter’s the massage guy in the household. He really likes having strangers dig their elbows into his back. I don’t see it myself, but he loves it. So he went to the Hotel Spa and had an hourlong session. And before you ask about Happy Endings, the whole thing was done with great propriety by US standards. They even made him wear little pajamas.

That’s what he told me, anyway.

Things You’re Supposed to Do in Bangkok, Part Five: Get Inked.
I’ve been thinking of a tattoo for years, and I finally went and took the plunge. I mean, Bangkok, right?

Bangkok has some Tattoo legends. Jimmy Wong and Mr. Tung are both very respected Tattoo Artists, and they both have great reputations for their beautiful, original designs.

But I’m a noob, and I had something very small and very specific in mind. I found a tattoo parlor with a great reputation for hygiene, and a tattoo artist who seemed to get universally good marks for her precision and quality. The consensus seemed to be that “She uses the right ink, and she goes deep. Real deep.”

Okay, sure! Her name is Jeans. She’s a tiny woman, and her shop is in the shopping district, not far from our hotel. So I hoofed it over there.

She squeezed me in—the last appointment of the year. That’s kinda special, no?

As for the design, as I said, I wanted something very specific. I’m a big Type Geek, and I’m absolutely in love with one glyph in particular, which will seem extremely weird to the uninitiated: it’s the ampersand (“&”) of the typeface Caslon 540 Italic. Not Caslon, not Adobe Caslon, not Big Caslon—Caslon 540 Italic. It’s a typeface cut for the American Type Foundry, which was founded by the great American type designer Morris Fuller Benton based on original type specimens by William Caslon I, the dominant English typographer of the late 18th century. Caslon’s type is the type that the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution were printed in. That means a great deal to me. (I teach typography, so I’d better know my stuff inside and out. I can give you a nine hours of extemporaneous lecture on this shit, easy…)

And the ampersand means a lot to me, too. In my formative college years, when I first met Pete, we were both steeped in the Del Close school of Improvisational Theater. And the primary tenet of that school is, “Yes, And…” You must accept any reality your partner creates unreservedly (“Yes”) and you must add to that reality (And…).

“And…” means a lot to me. My partnership with Pete has defined my life in every aspect, and “And” is a representation of that. “And” is also a symbol of continuation for me. There are no happy endings, only happily-accepted continuations. Everything moves on (And…). We have to contribute to the world (And…).

Beyond that, the Caslon 540 Italic ampersand is a goddamned sexy motherfucker of a glyph. I’ve got a huge painting of it on the office wall.

I was very nervous. About the pain. About where to put the damned thing. I conferred with Jeans about it. “I was thinking either the shoulder or the forearm.” “You want people to see?” “Only if I show it to them.” “You wear lots of sleeveless?” “Never. I’m a prude. I never show anything above the elbow or below the knee.” “Then you do shoulder. If you want people see, you show them.”

Fair dos.

“Is it big enough?” “No. We make bigger.”

She painstakingly reproduced the glyph and transferred it to my arm. “Good?” “Perfect.” Then she methodically changed her needles and filled a small pot of ink. “I try one line first. You tell me if it okay.” It was. Actually, it didn’t hurt at all. She outlined the whole glyph. In minutes. “It okay?” “Shit, yeah.” Then she filled it in.

Okay, that hurt.

But it was perfect, meticulous, blacker than black.

As I was leaving, Jeans asked me, “Where your friend you come in with earlier?” “He’s back at the hotel having a massage. He’s my husband.” “I thought so. I like gayboy. I have many gayboy friend.”

You rock, Jeans.
Yes, and…


Bangkok! Oriental setting…

…and the city don’t know what the city is getting…

If you’re at all a musical theater person (or if you spent any time dancing in the 1980s), then Murray Head will be singing in your ear the entire time you’re in this city. “One Night in Bangkok” is one of the curses that Westerners have placed on this town. But it does contain such deliciously ridiculous lines as “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine!” and “Tea, girls, warm and sweet. Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham Suite.” Oh, ABBA, what can’t you do?

When you go to Thailand, everyone says, “Oh, you’re going to Thailand? Where are you going? I mean, besides Bangkok? You really should go to Chiang Mai or Phuket or… anywhere else.” This town has something of a bum rap.

For the record, I love Bangkok. I think a city should have a bit of a seamy side. Otherwise… well, look at what Giuliani did to Times Square. It’s great for the crime rate, yes, and the area was hellacious in the ’70s and ’80s, but it feels like EPCOT now. Bangkok is all smiles. Even when they’re ripping you off. I appreciate that.

Or maybe it’s the monarchy. When I lived with two dear friends in San Francisco for a year, we decided that one of us—very peacey-lefty—represented Communism, one of us—very Ayn Rand—represented Capitalism. I represented Monarchy. I like a country with a royal family. It’s ridiculous, but it’s terrific. And the Thais looooove their king. Rama IX is everywhere. His face peers at you from every street corner and in front of every edifice. His face is on all the bills you put in your wallet and sit down on. Now that’s Love of Country.

Which brings us to one of the other curses that Westerners have imposed on this place: The King and I. Now, I love me some Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I never understood why the Thais hated it so vehemently. I mean… Yul Brynner! But Rama IV (King Mongkut) was a scholar, a monk and a warrior who kept Thailand free from foreign rule when every other southeast Asian nation was bending over for Papa Europe. To imply that the dominant influence on his life was Deborah Kerr in an oversized hoop skirt is… well, it’s presumptuous to say the least.

Things You’re Supposed to Do
in Bangkok, Part One: Palaces and Temples

Our first morning in Bangkok was spent doing what I imagine most tourists do on their first morning in Bangkok: seeing the big temples and palaces.

The King and I, even in Glorious Technicolor, does not prepare you for the Grand Palace and its surrounding temples in the least.

There seems to be absolutely nothing minimalist about the Thai aesthetic. More is more. Build a temple? Sure! But wouldn’t it be better if we tiled the entire thing in 24-carat gold? Knock yourself out. Jewel the whole thing up? Love it! How about some gold statues of half-human, half-animal creatures? Bring it on. And the style. Let’s toss Sri Lankan, Cambodian and Chinese into the mix, shall we? What the hell, it’s Tuesday!

When you visit the Grand Palace, everyone tells you, “Look out! There are scams everywhere! Chain yourself to your wallet! Don’t get in a taxi! Don’t buy from the vendors! Never trust anyone!” As the primary orchestrator of the trip, I took this to heart.

So as we entered the Grand Palace, I was on guard. I was going to trust no one. Especially anyone trying to sell me something. I was going to be an impregnable wall.

“Hi! Hi! You want tour? I make very good tour for you? Trust me! Trust me! Not a scam!”

“Well… Okay!”

And thus it was that we got a tour guide with the mellifluous name of Mr. Boonsong. (In fairness to myself, I wasn’t entirely Gracie Allen about it. He had an official badge and seemed to know the guards well.)

I mean, this is how they label the trash cans. Seriously.

He was incredibly gracious and informative, and I’m not for a moment going to pretend that I absorbed every Rama he threw at me. More the better for you, Constant Reader.

Everything in the Palace and temple complex is… well, it’s Grand. I’ve visited a lot of palaces, and often you marvel just at the vastness of everything. Here, there is no vastness. The grounds are small. And the kings of Thailand have built UP, filling them to choking with glitz. This temple shows the influence of Ceylon. This huge replica of Angkor Wat (stuck in the middle of three other temples) shows Rama IV’s conquest of Cambodia. You get the picture.

No you don’t. You really don’t. Not until you’re there.

I can tell you this much: there apparently is no adequate Thai translation for, “Please, tourist lady, do not wear hideous clothing. It makes Lord Buddha want to puke and the King in His Wisdom has made it a punishable offense. Please present your Credit Card Hand to be chopped off.”

(Let’s pretend they’re not Americans, shall we? Let’s blame it on Australia.)

Anyway, all three of us just wandered around gawping like… well, like tourists. Sue us!

In addition to taking us around, Mr. Boonsong happily indulged us in picture-taking. “You want picture with Demon? Sure, sure, I make for you!”

Then, of course, he proceeded to tell us what the demons were all about.

It’s all to do with the Ramayana, apparently, the Hindu epic (wait, I thought This was all Buddhist?) in which Rama descends from heaven and… um… this… um, king  decides to wage war on… um, this other guy and his army of demons, and there’s a monkey-guy and a guy with a lot of arms and… um…

Well, for us foreigners who are too dense, the Kings of Thailand were kind enough to paint the ENTIRE epic onto a wall for easy reference.

And it goes on.

And on.

And on.

As epics do.

(A note to anyone who may be scribbling The Next Big Religious Text: Keep it short. All we really need is the Golden Rule, right? So, may I suggest, in the vein of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other.”)

I don’t want to stifle anyone’s creative urges. Throw in Monkey Gods if you want. Forget I said anything.

But back to Buddhism. The complex houses one of Thailand’s greatest treasures: The Emerald Buddha. That isn’t made of emerald. It’s actually made from one huge two-foot-tall piece of jade. Every season, the King dresses it in an outfit appropriate to that season. The Buddha has one suit for Summer, one for the Rainy season, and one for Winter.

I really don’t know why they stopped there. If I were the King, I’d have a Stewardess Buddha and a Malibu Fun Buddha and an Oscar Night Buddha…

But that’s probably why they haven’t made me King.

The Buddha sits atop a glorious mountain of gaudy wonders. I couldn’t find him at first, such was the splendor of his setting. Actually, he seemed quite small there on top of everything. Like he’s thinking, “Hey, remember me? The BUDDHA? I’m up here! Yoo-hoo!”

In my mind, the Emerald Buddha apparently sounds like Nathan Lane.

You have to remove your shoes to visit the temple, which we did, and you’re not allowed to take pictures. Apparently the Buddha is pap-shy. Instead… You guessed it! You can buy some on the way out.

You can, however, take a picture of this elephant:

So we did. Let’s say he’s the Buddha.

The Grandest Palace was built by Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn, who musical theater fans will remember as the boy prince in The King and I. He was the great Westernizer of Thailand, and built his palace in Edwardian style, but with a Thai roof, because no European power had ever ruled over his country. Go, Chulalongkorn!

The actual Palace part of the complex is really quite grand. There’s one palace where the King is crowned, one where he lays in state for 100 days (ew) after he dies, and one where his ashes are kept.

Wait… What about the middle part… You know, his LIFE?

Well, he spends that in a different palace entirely. Go figure.

A short drive from the palace complex brings you to Wat Pho (temples are Wats in Thailand). Which inspires infantile jokes like “What Pho you bring me here?” and the like.

Wat Pho’s star attraction is the Reclining Buddha, one of three monumental Reclining Buddhas in the world. There is a temple entirely devoted to this statue, and, frankly… he looks cramped. I bet he has a crick in his neck.

Again, the picture doesn’t nearly give you a sense of scale. This Buddha is 46 meters long (meters, again). ENORMOUS! The photo on the left is three photos stitched together.

My favorite attribute of this Buddha is at the other end of the temple, though.

They’ve given him toeprints. HUGE, Buddha-sized toeprints. It’s the most goddamn cute thing I’ve ever seen on this planet.

So… on the way out, I think to myself, “A whole day of touring and I haven’t been fleeced! Good for me!”

Which is when the guy put the snake around my neck.

You know, as in “Here, put snake around neck, take picture!”

I mean, as tourist traps go, it’s about the dopiest one around and the easiest to dodge.

So I decided not to dodge it. I figured, let’s get the fleecing out of the way. I’ll pay for him to take the picture and I’ll spend a few more bucks than I wanted to. But I will already have been Taken in Bangkok, and I won’t need to be anymore.

I don’t mind being humbugged when I’m in on the humbug. Barnum, you know?

So, having been happily fleeced, it was off to dinner. I had heard of a little seafood restaurant on the river. One of those places that doesn’t have an actual adress—just an alleyway that you walk down hoping it doesn’t lead to an Opium Den. And I’ll be goddamned. There it was. Full of locals. No one spoke English. And it was the best Thai meal of our lives.

I get my kicks right AT the waistline, sunshine!


Comfort and Joy.

Christmas Day: back to Tiwi.

The same traffic conditions apply. It’s just crazy. And we’re hurtling along in the little van we rented (with driver). And occasionally, the roads have been washed out by mudslide.

Reunion, Part Two: The Departed
A stop before Tiwi. Mom visits the graves of her parents, which she’s never seen before.

Tiwi’s graveyard has a large section devoted to Clutarios and Corrals. Those of you who live in waterlogged states like Florida and Louisiana know what above-ground graves are like. But in a third-world country, an above-ground graveyard can end up looking like this:

Mom’s parents, my Lolo Lino and Lola Yaling (Sulpicia), as well as my Uncle Oriel and my Cousin Iole’s husband, are buried in a foursquare family plot that is distinguished by being below ground and having a good deal of space around it. Suitable for two former mayors of the town.

Migz tells us that on All Souls Day, November 1st, the entire graveyard is lit up by candles and everyone comes and picnics on the graves. Sort of like the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. I smile and pretend that it’s an idea that doesn’t make me want to scream.

Pith of the Pili.

But they’re Filipinos. Eating marks everything.

Have I mentioned that this whole trip has been an eatfest? We were fed like piggies going to market. Breakfast becomes Merienda (snack, sort-of) becomes Lunch becomes Merienda becomes Dinner.

First stop is Auntie Mina’s house (the remains of the Old House where my mother grew up).

At Mina’s, last night’s leftovers—TONS of them—have become today’s feast, with the lechon remains transformed into several additional pork dishes: a paksiw (pork with vinegar and garlic), fried rice, pork ribs, rice, pancit, pork, rice, pork, fermented little fish, pork and pork. Heaven.

Going for it.

Worth a mention: The venerable Pili Nut is a staple and a point of pride in these parts. Like many island nuts (the candlenut, for example, and the macadamia), the Pili is very fatty and very delicious. As its name might suggest, it’s indigenous only to the Philippines. These are Pili Nuts in the raw. They’re soaked, which makes them soft and then the white pith is eaten. Below that is the nut’s shell, which needs to be whacked with a machete to loose the nutmeat. (Yes, I just said, “loose the nutmeat.”)

After that, the family had their Christmas Day gift exchange, which included the kids taking part in the Filipino equivalent of a piñata: bags of goodies tied to a bamboo frame. The kids have to jump for them.

While the family had their celebration, we went off to explore the town. Much of it is like the other towns we saw: ravaged by weather and time. Tricycles and pedicabs everywhere.

But we found some wonderful things, too. Like the ocean. Yes, Tiwi’s on the ocean. Not that you’d know it: because of the dangers of flood, typhoon, et al., it’s separated from the sea by a seawall. Our little walk took us right up to the wall. We peeked over, and… who knew?

And on the way back, we found another Tiwi surprise. It’s known for its halo-halo, a confection made with ice, jelly, condensed milk, beans, cheese (stay with me, here), young coconut and sometimes ice cream. Suffice it to say I’m not a big halo-halo fan. But this was by far the best I’ve ever had. It even got the thumbs up from Pete.

Pete, by the way, was a big novelty in Tiwi. I guess they don’t get too many white guys around here. Little children would run around the street corner and literally gasp and say “AMERICAN!” Like he was Bigfoot.

As we walked into the halo-halo shop, a group of bolshy teenagers at a table near the front greeted him with “Frodo, is that you?” I thought that was hilarious. I’m not entirely sure Pete did.

And everyone was all smiles and “Merry Christmas!” Christmas parols everywhere. The town square was very festive. Mom attended mass at her childhood church (which is now surrounded by market stalls). It’s very pretty, and apparently it’s been renovated on the inside.

On to… you guessed it. Another meal.

Uncle Moring had a big Christmas Day blowout at his house. No karaoke or dancing this time (thank god), but there was a seemingly endless loop of Filipino Christmas Carols, some of them sung by what must be the Filipino version of Alvin and the Chipmunks. And what English carols there were had strange new lyrics. “We wish you a lot of presents, we wish you a lot of presents…” Really?

Of course, there was a lechon. (For those keeping score, yes, that’s two pigs in two days.) The guests this time were like a school of piranha, skeletonizing the poor beast in what seemed like minutes.

And then I had my reunion.

Reunion, Part Three: Tita.
Filipinos always have “helpers.” And the “helpers” are being equally helped. It goes like this: Filipino makes good. Filipino shares the wealth by taking another Filipino into their household—free room and board, help with their education, and maybe help getting work overseas. In exchange, the “helper” often helps around the house—watching the kids, etc. Sometimes the “helpers” are family. My extended family have helped lots of folks better their lot. Nieces and nephews, cousins, friends of the family, sometimes more-or-less strangers. And sometimes “helpers” who aren’t family become family.

Teresita Aznar (TIta) took care of me from the time I was born to the time I was eight years old. In many families, she would have been called a nanny or an au pair. My extended relatives would have considered her a yaya. In my family, she was my sister and my parents’ daughter. No questions asked. That’s how she was introduced. As my mother says, “she was more than family.” With two parents being busy doctors, Tita was a huge part of who I was as a kid. She raised me as much as they did.

There were two big revelations in my childhood: the first was that my father had been married before and that my siblings were actually, technically, my half-siblings. The other was that Tita wasn’t actually my sister. But none of that mattered, really, because all of them were my brothers and sisters in a much truer sense.

Anyway, Tita was a constant, and she loved me fiercely. And then one day when I was eight, she was gone. She had demons of her own and trouble getting residency in the States, even though she had an entire family willing to sponsor her for citizenship. She wound up back in Albay, and for many years, my parents kept track of her and helped her in any way they could. Then, eventually, she just… disappeared.

My mother and I saw Tita again for the first time in 28 years on Christmas Day. She looked good. Very good. She walked into my Uncle Moring’s house and I stood bolt upright. My mother shouted, “Tita!” And she came to the table and said, “Is that David?”

Pete, me, Tita and mom.

When a Filipino (a real, native Filipino, usually a child or young person) meets an elder or a person of respect, they make a mano po, a gesture of respect. It’s a little bow, taking the elder’s hand and kissing it—or, in modern times (“for hygiene purposes”), touching it to their forehead. I had forgotten this custom until I had a gaggle of little Filipino cousins do it to me when I first met them. So… out of respect for what she had been to me, I very awkwardly bowed, took her hand and kissed it.

There was awkward embracing and some attempt at catching up. But it was difficult, because, first, Tita seemed guarded and ashamed the tough times she’d gone through, and, second, she had lost her English almost entirely. And she had spoken English like an American. We haltingly spoke of what I had become and what she had become. I introduced Pete. She proudly announced that she knew I would be turning 37 because she remembered my birthday: January 30, 1975. She’s 63.

It was really wonderful seeing her again. She and mom spent much of the evening reminiscing in Bikol about what had happened to the rest of the family. By now, I can make out Taglish (or Bikol-ish) fairly well, and when Pete went to get drinks, my mother told Tita, “I live with them now. They take me to the market, to the movies, to dinner…” Tita looked at Peter across the room, smiled and said, “Mabo’oton.” Which means “Very sweet.” That made me very happy.

And that was Christmas in the Philippines. On the way back to Legazpi, we stopped and looked at all the Christmas displays in the little towns along the way. The best one by far was in the city of Tabaco. Santa Claus in his sleigh being pulled by the closest thing the Philippines has to reindeer: six pedicabs.


The road home.

Mom’s home province, Albay, is a beautiful place. A seriously beautiful place. Not pretty, but beautiful. It’s dominated, as I said by Mount Mayon (“My own,” Not “Mae On”), the “most perfectly symmetrical volcano in the world.” That has always sounded to me like a Tourism Board grasping at straws for a superlative, but it’s true: Mayon is the perfectly-drawn volcano, even more perfect in form than Mount Fuji.

Unfortunately, though, two hours after our arrival, it decided to go into hiding and never show itself again. It was a wet Christmas. Our hotel is in Legazpi, about an hour south (30 miles) from mom’s hometown, Tiwi. Legazpi is one of only three cities in Albay, and it’s by far the biggest of the three. This is exactly how big it is. You’re looking at Legazpi from the airport to the suburbs and from the Philippine Sea to the foothills of Mayon.

Mater at her Alma Mater

Not exactly a metropolis. But it’s where Mom spent her formative years. She went to high school there (Albay High School, rah rah!), and because of the distance between Legazpi and her hometown of Tiwi, she roomed with (and was doted upon by) the faculty.


Once upon a time, the area outside the high school was completely clear, affording a perfect view of Mount Mayon. Now, there are trees, mini-malls, and additional, hideous, concrete additions to the campus, which is now Bicol University. Here’s a picture from mom’s graduation so you can see. Mom is third from the left.

The road to Tiwi is a two-lane highway. Well, we wouldn’t call it a highway. We’d call it a road. And (at least at Christmastime) it’s filled with Jeepneys (the elaborately decorated bus/taxis that are the national Philippine vehicle), tricycles (motorcycles with roofed sidecars), and pedicabs (tricycles with a bicycle in place of the motorcycle). Because many parts of the road are periodically disabled by little inconveniences like flooding and lava flow, the traffic periodically attains the ridiculousness one associates with Philippine transportation.

But the vast majority of the road is encircled by trees and rice fields. When we visited with my father in 1981, he was certain that my mother was taking him into the very depths of the jungle. Not so. But it’s certainly the sticks. The towns you encounter on the way to Tiwi  (Santo Domingo, Malilipot, Tabaco, Malinao) are composed largely of dwellings made of cinderblocks, bamboo, tin roofs and reclaimed vinyl. The difference between these dwellings in Manila and the provinces seems to be that the vinyl reclaimed in Manila comes from Marlboro ads. The vinyl reclaimed in Albay comes from agricultural sacks.

Which is not to say you don’t encounter friendly faces. You might get, for example, to moo with a carabao, the Philippines’ ubiquitous beast of burden. You might even get to meet her daughter (don’t approach: carabao mothers are protective!)

The carabao are surrounded by friends: roosters and hens, goats, cows and geese, and through out the rice fields, snowy egrets feasting on the little frogs and things in the water.

First stop in Tiwi: mom’s ancestral home. Once upon a time, Mom’s house was one of the only two-storey structures in Tiwi. Her father, my Lolo Lino, was mayor for a while, and he brought in many innovations—some in his own house, like the first flush toilet. On the left is the Clutario house as it stood in the 1930s.

Today, time and termites and weather and mildew have taken their toll on the house. Nothing lasts forever in the tropics. In 1968, my Uncle Oriel had the upper story torn down after it was damaged in a typhoon. Now, the house is worse for wear, and only a few relics remain. The only part of the old house still standing is one sliding door. But the lot is still lovely, with vegetation taking up where architecture failed. This is now home to my Auntie Mina, the matriarch of the Clutario clan, and Lulu, one of her six children, who has built a lovely thatched-roof addition off to the side. It also houses (like many Filipino houses, some dogs and some very skinny (and very wary) kitchen cats.

No, they don't eat them, you racist pig. I don't think so, anyway…


(l–r): Cousins Migz, Dennis, Debbie, Victor, and mom and Pete.

Next stop, my cousin Victor’s house, which is built, like many modern provincial dwellings, entirely out of concrete. This saves it from the aforementioned architectural maladies. Victor built it himself, and it has three bathrooms (one for every bedroom). That may sound incidental, but it’s a huge luxury in these parts.

Victor, his wife, Mary Ann, his kids Mavic and Anthor, and their two Maltese dogs, Tim and Tom, gave us a beautiful luncheon of mud crab and local greens, tuna belly, tuna steaks in sour-soup, HUGE shrimps, ribs and rice. My mother was in heaven. Show that woman a mud crab and stand back. She starts to sing (see previous post).

This, gustatorily, was only a fraction of what was to come.

Reunion, Part One: Auntie Luly

"It's me, BELLA. Your SISTER."

The next stop was my Uncle Moring’s house. Uncle Moring is married to my mother’s sister, Olga, whom everyone calls Luly. When Auntie Luly’s health began to decline, Uncle Moring decided that it would be easier to find her caregivers in the Philippines, so he built her the grandest house in Tiwi.


Mom hadn’t seen Luly in ten years, and during that time, she changed a great deal. Luly was a firecracker. An indomitable woman. Now, she can’t walk or communicate much. She’s twelve years older than mom, and that twelve years feels like an eon to look at the two of them. She mostly speaks Bikol—she seems to have forgotten most of her English, even though she spent a huge part of her life raising her children in the States. But with some prompting, she remembered mom. And she’s very happy.

Seeing the two of them together again: fantastic.

Mom and Auntie Luly with my Uncle Ofel's family: Cousin Leni, Cousin Gina, Cousin Trudi, Leni's daughter Aileen and her son Adrian, and Aileen and Trudi's daughters.

That night, Cousin Lulu organized a fiesta for mom’s homecoming that was truly spectacular. They held it in the party space above the mini-mall that my Uncle Moring owns. Among the highlights: the entire Clutario clan in the Philippines—acres of them, much of the Corral clan (Uncle Moring’s family), a feast that, by Tiwi standards, was absolutely monumental.

Pete's new friend.

Standouts: well, the lechon. The roast pig. Stop it. Just stop it. I guess no feast in the Philippines is quite complete without the lechon. It has been a standard joke of mine that the Philippines is the only country where pork fat is considered a sauce. That sounds like a slam, but it isn’t. Escoffier couldn’t do better.

I get the ear and the face. That's a GOOD thing.


Other standouts: There was karaoke. Okay, I’ve never done karaoke before, and I HATE being put on the spot in social situations. So I started with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Judy, right? Can’t fail.

Wrong. Lukewarm reaction. Especially when my cousins Bella and Gyro are rocking it out like Celine Dion. Okay… So Pete gives them his standard Karaoke go-to: “From Russia With Love.” Big hit. I can’t be outdone that way.

So I pull out something I’ve always wanted to sing but never quite had the cojones to do. Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round).” This song is probably most famous for its use of the word “ACK-SHAWN!” which is meant to pass for “action.” I figure: white disco queen trying to be a Sassy Black Girl. Can’t fail, right?

Right. People start dancing. Thank you, Polydor records! This is especially heartening when Moring and Luly take the floor. They used to be a king and queen of the dance floor: Rhumba, Foxtrot, you name it. Their signature song was “Spanish Eyes.” Especially amazing considering that Moring is 94 years old and has moves better than anyone else at the party. ANYONE. Peter included. (Sorry, Pete. I know you want to be a ’60s Black Girl really bad.)

Here goes nothing. Top row: Cousin-once-removed Kevin, Cousin-once-removed Gyro, Cousin Totoy, Cousin Bella, Cousin Elmo's son, Cousin Guy-with-Long-Hair, Cousin Iole, Cousin I-Can't-See-Her-Well-Enough-to-Tell. Second row: Cousin Young-Guy-I-Don't-Remember, Pete, Cousin Gina, Cousin Trudi, Cousin Lulu, Cousin Iole's daughters with their three daughters, Cousin I-Can't-See-Her-Well-Enough-Either, Cousins Debbie and Dennis (Moring's son and his wife). Row 2.5: Trudi's daughter, Cousins Twinkie and Twinnie (twins) and... um, their baby? Third row: Cousin-once-removed Migz, Great-Uncle Ing's son, Cousin May (Moring's only daughter), Cousin Leni, Mom, Auntie Luly, Auntie Mina, Uncle Moring, Cousin Carmen, Auntie Corette. Bottom row: Me, Cousin Darryl, Cousin Victor, Cousin Little-Girl-Someone, Cousin Mary Ann and her children Mavic and Anthor, and Cousin Goddamn-It-Why-Didn't-I-Take-Notes?

And that was just Christmas Eve. Christmas day coming right up…


Still waiting…

Just arrived in Bangkok and haven’t yet had a chance to write.

So… what’s waiting without hold music, right?

Here’s something you’re sure to like.


Krismas Balikbayan

Yesterday we left the Shangri La to travel to my mother’s home province of Albay for Christmas with the family. Albay is on the Bikol peninsula, and the dominant language here is Bikol. (The rules of Taglish still apply, though: “#!%@^ @!^ #&*&! blood sugar testing #$!%”) In the Philippines, a homecoming is called a balikbayan. The people making the homecoming are also called Balikbayans. That’s mom. We’re staying in Legazpi, one of the larger cities in Albay—which is not very large. And from there to Tiwi, the town where my mother grew up and where much of the family still lives. Not large… at all.

This balikbayan involves several shifts in scale. The Makati Shangri-La is a five-star hotel in the heart of Manila’s business district. It’s… Well, it’s big. It’s in a big city. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels. In a lot of grand hotels. In a few Grand Hotels, too. And this one… well, it’s Grand.

The Grand Lobby of the Shangri La. It's hard to convey just how big this is. Suffice it to say that this is not one image: it's nine wide-angle shots stitched together. The tallest christmas tree here, in the back, is easily 30 feet tall. Women in full Bellhop regalia open the doors, and taller women dressed in very sleek full-length gowns greet you. I think that's their entire job. To greet you. Like at Walmart. But prettier. MUCH prettier.

The Grand Lounge behind the Grand Staircase is four storeys high and has an artificial tropical forest fronting the panoramic windows. There are Grand Ornate Shades pulled halfway down, so that people don't have to look at the Less Than Grand Highrises across the way. For scale, check the Greeter Lady at the back left. That dot. She's actually nine feet tall…

I’m only really mentioning this because the Shangri La will be our last taste of Five Stardom on the trip. We may have spoilt ourselves horribly. From here on in, it’s a liiiiitle more rough. Certainly by our bourgeois standards. But, anyway it was Grand!

And all this Grandeur is even Grander because it’s Christmas. Have I mentioned that Christmas is big in the Philippines? It’s slightly ridiculous, like being trapped in one of those Holiday Stores. But it’s also pretty damned festive.

You can buy a four-foot-tall gingerbread house—snack-size. You can buy cookies featuring Santa Nikolaus and the Christmas Kampus, a little horned creature that looks like a Wild Thing.

The Kampus is on the right. I have absolutely NO idea what this is or what it has to do with Christmas. Neither does my mother. I'm up for suggestions…

The rest of the trip will not be so Grand.

But we were talking about balikbayan. This is mom’s day for that. We begin to see the family.

Which brings up an interesting subject: my husband. The Philippines is an intensely Catholic country. Well, those parts that aren’t intensely Muslim, anyway. I mean, this is a country where divorce is illegal. My mother always said, “There’s no divorce in the Philippines.” I thought that was just a statement of prevailing conventions. Nope. Divorce is illegal. I suppose if you’re going to natter on about the Sanctity of Marriage, you may as well not be a hypocrite about it. But the queer thing… ?

Before we left, the subject of What To Call Peter got brought up, and my mother said, “to the ignorant ones, he’ll be your partner, to the educated ones, he’ll be your spouse.” I had been ready with arguments like, “I’m NOT going to make MY HUSBAND a second-class citizen just because THAT COUNTRY won’t accept it!!!” No arguments necessary.

Still, Peter’s my husband. It’s just a fact. And unless the situation is overtly hostile, I’m not going to edit that out.

The amazing thing is the natural way people here have of preëmpting the question. Hostesses seem naturally in tune with How To Be Discreet About the Queers. “This is David, Bella’s son, and this is Peter!”

Are people wondering about who the hell Peter is? Does everyone bring a Peter home for Christmas? We wear wedding rings, call each other “dear,” talk about how long it’s been since we did [fill in the blank] together… we sound like The Weintraubs from Down The Block. And no one finds it strange.

I can’t stand “being discreet.” I’m damned proud of being Gracie to Pete’s George. But it’s just how things roll here. And the amazing thing is that I haven’t had to be. And at least I haven’t been forced to call him my “friend.” That’s just creepy-fake.

So, aided by Migz, who was acting as our Fixer with intrepid ease, we went to the airport and boarded the plane to Legazpi. Well, after two or three hours wait in a crowded airport lounge, we boarded the plane to Legazpi.

Mention Provincial Travel in the Third World, and the go-to image is… yes. Women with Chickens. (What? That’s the go-to image for me…) Not so, here. We had a small Airbus (with more flies than might have been accommodated by JetBlue). As you get on, there are blowers shooting freezing air from the vents above and below the overhead compartments. It’s so hot here that the air actually steams. I don’t mean little wisps, I mean the plane fills up with fog. It’s weird and theatrical Loved it.

An hour later and we landed.

I love airports where you have to disembark down a staircase. It makes me feel like Mamie Eisenhower. (It’s not hard to make me feel like Mamie Eisenhower.)

Manila’s hot. Bikol is hotter. And this isn’t the Hot Season. We drove into the city and checked into the hotel. (The bellboy, Gerald, was so gay that he actually set off fire alarms as we walked to the room. I wonder what he calls his husband?)

From there, we visited my Cousins Leni, Trudi and Gina at my Uncle Ofel’s old homestead in Legazpi—the house he built and where he raised his children—eight girls and a boy. They stuffed us silly, and the house is really small (especially considering the number of daughters), but old-school charming. A real atrium where it rains (when it rains), plaster walls with little lizards running up and down. Real wood-paneled walls. Lots of lace and furniture full of Catholic tchotchkes… My cousins May and Dennis, and Dennis’s wife, Debbie, were there—this is my Auntie Luly’s family. You’ll meet Auntie Luly later.

In fact, all the introductions will come later, after Christmas Eve dinner with the whole clan.

Deep breath!


Arriving home. No, we weren't the only ones on the plane: Mom was the last to leave. What you're not seeing is Mount Mayon, the most amazing feature of the Albay landscape. It's on the right, outside the frame, and it LOOMS over everything. More on that later, too!

Admission, please.

Okay. Time to come clean.

Admission #1: I’m a Bad Son.
Well, tonight, anyway. We’re supposed to be at a party tonight with my mother and a bunch of her fellow alumni, but we bowed out. I don’t know if it’s jetlag or a case of White Man’s Tummy or what. But we relinquished mom to the good care of her old friends and retired for the evening.

Admission #2: We’re So Lame.
This clearly follows straight on the heels of Admission #1. We have officially been out-partied by my 78-year-old mother. I have nothing else to say here. It is a sad state of affairs. But go mom!

Admission #3: I Feign Dumb. But Sometimes I AM Dumb.
I tend to have two M.O.s: I’m either super on top of things and micromanagey (Director Mode) or I’m completely indecisive and passive (Gracie Allen Mode).

I often exploit Gracie Allen Mode in social situations. I find that perpetuating an air of bemused ditziness eases a lot of social burdens. It makes the person you’re talking to feel important and superior, it allows them to be completely free to give their opinion (especially when you don’t contradict them about their errors or express chagrin or shock at their biliousness or ego). It’s my way of being pleasant and tactful.

Incidentally, it’s terribly easy to affect Gracie Allen Mode: you simply relax your face, make direct eye contact, go blank and say, “Oh really?” and “My!” a lot. When you do speak, make it a quip, land a laugh, make the other person feel smart, and retreat into bemused blankness.

Why the hell am I going on about this? Because sometimes I go into Gracie Allen mode for reals. True Gracie Allen Mode. Like today. When physically exhausted (or faced with something like Math), my capacity for making decisions flies right out the window. So a question like, “What do you want to do today?” prompts a response like, “My!” Not helpful.

Today started with breakfast at the Absolutely Overwhelming Hotel Buffet. I’m almost positive that’s its actual name. Since Pete was off his feed, and I was mostly into noshing little mini-pastries, I composed a plate simply for this shot. (Do you love the tall coffee mugs or what?) I think it needs a name like “Bird-of-Epicure Has Left Nest. Please Call Again.” For the record, yes, I ate the eggs, noodles, asparagus and cucumber juice. I’m not sure there’s room in the world for art you can’t eat.

Then mom’s friends Nora and Deo picked us up. Nora is a pediatrician and Deo is an oncologist. Like all her friends from The Good Old Days as young doctors in 1960s New York, these folks are sharp as tacks and strongminded Movers. Great folks.

That, of course, makes you a damned fool when they ask you what you want to do today and you say, “My!”

So we went to Old Manila to see a bit of history.

Nora hired a little horse-drawn cart to take us around the historical sites. Or perhaps it was an ass. It was lovely and quaint, and given its burden, I felt quite bad for the animal.

Then I felt bad for the driver. In an attempt to keep the streets free of horse manure, the drivers appear to be required to… um… catch the horse’s droppings and immediately sweep up anything that actually hits the street. See the little white buckety-thing? When the horse raises its tail, the driver has to drop everything and position the bucket so that the horse can… drop everything. I got to sit by the driver. So I got to witness this little ritual numerous times. (Have I mentioned that I really appreciate my job? For one thing, it doesn’t involve… catching warm shit.)

In addition to the driver, there was a tour guide who was both phenomenally knowledgeable and phenomenally loquacious. Unfortunately, though, I was in True Gracie Allen Mode, so when given a detailed lecture on the this and that of the significance of a particular building, I widened my eyes and said, “My!” A lot.

I did catch a few things, though.

The oldest building in the Philippines, the St. Augustin church, is a baroque masterpiece that has survived 400 years. Well, almost. It lost one of its towers to earthquake damage in the 19th century. When this thing was built, Shakespeare was busy thinking up a catchy title for The Tempest.

The doors are two massive slabs of wood, ornately and beautifully carved. Unfortunately, the folks in the carvings don’t seem terribly happy about it. I think the lady on the right might also have severe jetlag. Or shiplag, as the case may be. Or she might still be pissed off at Magellan.

Old Manila at its height had a church every 200 meters. I’m American, so “meters” is a concept I haven’t fully grasped. I think it’s somewhere between a Cubit and a League.

In any case, it’s a lotta churches. As the tour guide said, “Catholicism was very appealing to the natives. Their choice was The Sword or The Cross, so you know…” Yes, I think I know.

Which brings us to the subject of crèches. At Christmastime, Manila is chock full of Nativity scenes. Big ones, small ones, plastic ones, wooden ones. Many are on rooftops, which I find odd. Because you can’t see The Baby Jesus from ground level. For all you know, the angels and saints may all be gathered around a lovely Bundt Cake.

My favorite crèche today was one that depicted The Usual Suspects: Joseph, Mary, the Herald Angels, the Three Wise Men, shepherds, and the usual gaggle of Adoring Animals. Including a water buffalo. I didn’t think that water buffaloes were around in first-century Judaea, but I stand corrected.

Some of the folks in Old Manila are dressed, Williamsburg-style, in Old Regalia. The gentleman in this photo was dressed as a 19th-century guard. Apparently they wore comfy pajamas and a Sam Browne belt. Deo’s being very accommodating here, wearing the guard’s Silly Hat.

The part of Old Manila we were touring is called Intramuros, having been built built between huge stone walls as a fortification against sea attack. Which seems odd, because the bay is half a mile away. Since the Good Old Days, it’s been filled in and built upon. So the wall in the pic on the left actually now faces the Manila Hotel, a landmark which is best known for being Douglas Macarthur’s Manila residence. Once, these walls were surrounded by a moat filled with crocodiles. Now, the moat has been replaced by… a golf course. (Sometimes, when I’m in Gracie Allen Mode, I’m not sure if I’m actually seeing these things correctly. You can see why I feel justified in my bemusement sometimes.)

There’s a small park with bronze friezes of all the Filipino presidents since the republic gained independence. After World War 2, the country was apparently offered U.S. statehood, but declined. Understandable after 400 years of rule by the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese.

The Presidents on the right are Ferdinand Marcos and Cory Aquino. If I were Cory’s ghost, I’d be so pissed off about the hair. Just sayin’.

Which leads me to…

Admission #4: It’s All About the Gift Shop
I love museums and historical sites. Given the choice between clubs and hotels and museums, I’ll choose the museum every time. I’m a sucker for zoos and aquariums. Botanical gardens, too. I love seeing art and history preserved and the painstaking care that goes into its display. That’s a level of love and devotion that I think is so special.

But what ignites my lust is the gift shop. I don’t care if the merch is crappy. In fact, the crappier, the better. And Old Manila is full of gift shops, mostly selling traditional Filipino handicrafts, like lace fans and Shell Art (because they don’t have macaroni here). And some of the gift shops have what I consider rather unusual items:

Hewwo, I'm Nancy Kwan for Peww Cweem. Did you eva wonda why Oriental women wook so young? Dis de ansa.

So, that was our morning. And, like all Filipino mornings, it ended in a Substantial Lunch. Nora and Deo provided a lovely spread.

And I’m getting to understand Taglish.

Taglish is the funny hybrid of Tagalog and English that many Filipinos speak. Because Tagalog and English are taught concurrently in school, and because there are many phrases which don’t adequately exist in Tagalog (just as there are many phrases which don’t adequately exist in English), Filipinos pepper their conversation with English all the time.

This is what Taglish sounds like to me:

“&@!$%@ @^ #@&!*@^ #%!$ half off.
“^#@% !%@ urine sample &@*!%$& &@ @^%#* *#$^.”
“!@$#&s !@^% #!%&!@^ #! *&#^!#% Class Virgin ^#%.”

Clearly, you can make your own story. And it’s rarely a dull one. The trouble is that because the conversation drifts from Tagalog to Taglish to English, you’re never sure when you’re supposed to be listening. So Gracie Allen Mode kicks in.

Okay, here’s my final admission.

Admission #5: These Pix Are Such Crap

In no way do any of the pix I’ve been snapping do justice to what we’ve seen. There are so very many moments, people and lovely shots that pass right by me. I’ve been trained in photography. I should be capturing those, right?

Trouble is, when I concentrate on composition and lighting and capturing the Little Moments that I love so much (the curve of a niche, the moss on a well, the gesture of a passerby, the colors of a jeepney), I obsess over them and the whole trip becomes a photo session and I stop being where I am.

So you’re missing out. I apologize. These are stagey snapshots, not Photographs.

But I am where I am, with those I’m with. And it’s better that way. I just hope I’m sharing the story adequately.

Now we wait for mom to get home from her party to hear more stories.



The Ladies Who Lunch

Well, here (as at home) I don’t seem to be able to sleep past 4am.

Yesterday, we spent time with the women of the Protacio family, old friends and benefactors of my mother from her early days in Manila. The family runs, among other things, a hospital. Which happens to be next door to a hotel they also run. “Come stay at Nichols Hotel—Free Blood Pressure check!”

These gals are forces of nature. Baby Socorro, Baby Carmencita and Mia are three dynamic Manila women who’ve got it going on in spades. We spent the afternoon tooling around Manila together… and eating.

(l–r) Migz, Baby Carmencita, Mom, Mia, Me, Baby Socorro, Pete

Filipinos love to eat! Our afternoon started with a magnificent Chinese lunch of dim sum, braised lettuce and pork pork pork shrimp shrimp shrimp. Americans think they know Chinese food. Bay Area folk especially, since we’re at the “Gateway to the East.” No. This was some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had outside China. And it was “just lunch.” Magnificent. As Baby Socorro says, “Chinese food in America is a whole table of so many dishes, so many colors—One Flavor Only!”

Peter and I also indulged a little. We’ve decided that our No Drinking rule applies only in the Continental United States. (Considering that this is the third time in twenty years that we’ve been abroad, that seems safe!) So it was San Miguel Superdry beer with lunch, at Mia’s suggestion. I don’t drink beer. But, like Piper Laurie in Carrie, I have to sweatily admit that I liked it.

The evening ended with a “snack” of Filipino food. The snack consisted of platesful of pancit palabok (noodles), lumpia (spring rolls with fresh hearts of palm), dinuguan (blood stew), and sweets—bibingka cakes with salted eggs and cheese, glutinous rice in piles of sesame and fresh coconut. Fabulous stuff. Good lord, these ladies know how to entertain. These are women who can casually and unaffectedly drop things like, “Imelda loved my puto bumbong. She would ask and ask where I got it, but I wouldn’t tell her. It was my trump card!”

In between meals, we had a car tour of Manila. And we sang show tunes. Broadway babies. (One of my strongest memories of my last trip to Manila—I was six—is singing showtunes with the irrepressible Baby Socorro.)

Manila. A beautiful city, and an absolutely heartbreaking one. We saw four more supermalls today (some of them lit beautifully by our hostesses’ lighting company), including the Mall of Asia, which is simply staggering in scale. It’s a small city on the waterfront. Jose Rizal park, with its eternally-guarded bronze statue of the national hero, facing bronzes of the national animal: the burden-laden carabao, or water buffalo. So many buildings of absolutely monumental stature built during the Marcos dictatorship. And Dewey boulevard, running along Manila Bay, which, yes, has a simply bewitching sunset. There’s an almost terrible beauty to all of this. And it’s an old city rebuilding itself on a grand scale. Construction everywhere.

And traffic. The infamous Manila traffic. Cars and jeepneys careening by in every direction. Or simply stopped. For hours at a time. When traffic stops for so long that vendors laconically sell their wares between lanes (barrowsful of roasted peanuts, sweets… feather dusters), it’s traffic.

And poverty. It’s a famous saying that “In America, poverty is a problem. In India, it’s a fact.” That holds true here. Shanty towns along the river. Long stretches of houses built from cinderblocks and tin. Poverty on a scale that is just simply beyond our ken. I don’t really have words for it right now. Peter and I just looked at one another. Speechless.

But the city—even the poorest parts—is absolutely decked out for Christmas. Coconut palms festooned with explosions of lights. Trees dripping with twinkling, electric Spanish Moss. And everywhere, shining parols, lit Christmas stars made from bamboo and paper. Manila is just waiting to celebrate.

Manila Bay sunset from Dewey Blvd.


Magic to Do

So, with this long evening going on, you’d think they’d try to keep the program short, right? Leave the rest of the evening for the attendees to socialize with long-lost friends. Right? Wrong. There was lots of entertainment. And that entertainment consisted chiefly of various graduating classes performing choreographed routines.

Which really begs only one reaction: Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

Middle-aged medical professionals cutting loose not just in the traditional “I’m at a convention” sense, but in dance. On stage. With electronic lights and fog and everything you might expect of an evening at Celtic Women V, This Time They’re Really Celtic.

And that, for the first few numbers, seemed to bespeak a wonderful sense of whimsy: here were old friends performing together in a congenial atmosphere. And that was certainly true when the Class of ’86 took the stage in full 1980s regalia to “dance us down The Memory Lane.” We got “Thriller” and “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go)” and “Conga.” And it was unexpected and fun. Then when the Class of 1961 got up on stage to do a big rhumba en masse, it was really touching.

But then things turned kind of sinister. The Class of ’86 took the stage again to dance a routine to “Just the Way You Are.” (Bruno Mars, not Billy Joel) The emcees asked the audience to stand and dance along. Then, when not enough people stood… they got insistent. “COME ON, DANCE! YOU’RE NOT DANCING!!!” People started to dance uncomfortably. “YOU HAVE TO DANCE!!!” “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!?!?” So we all danced. But it wouldn’t end… It was like a special circle of Hell for older Filipino doctors.

But the capper was the final entertainment sequence, in which the Class of ’86 took the stage to share The Story of Their Year. Which took place in front of screens projecting news images from 1986. Fair enough. But that story was set to… wait for it… a lipsynched, fully-choreographed medley of songs from Pippin.

I. shit. you. not.

A guide to Pippin, for you civilians: it’s a Bob Fosse musical from the 1970s about a young medieval prince. The show is presented by a Brechtian troupe of players who seduce the prince into believing that, because he was born in extraordinary circumstances, he must search for a Great Meaning to his life. He tries to find it in politics, in religion, in sex, in war—and he ultimately learns that the search is completely fruitless. He’s not special. It’s all been smoke and mirrors. Life is disappointing, and the only real options are either to accept the happiness that comes with simple human connection or commit suicide. It’s a dark show, thematically. And it relies on spectacle a lot. (It gave the world Fosse’s most famous use of “jazzhands” in its opening number). So… natural choice for this event.

I repeat: Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

And, yes, folks, we have video. Click here if you’re on a mobile device that can’t play it.

For the record, I actually really like Pippin. Its secular humanist message (and rejection of hypocrisy and cynicism) really speaks to me. And these folks (god knows how) rehearsed this for a year.  They’re wonderful people dedicated to practicing humanitarian medicine in a developing nation.

But I am still… gobsmacked.


The Main Event

Okay… I know this is all a lot to digest, and it hasn’t even been 24 hours yet. Like I said, Blog=ZZZZZ. But this first day in Manila is really what the trip was all about, so it merits going on about, don’t you think?

Yeah, I thought you’d agree.

Okay, so we’re in the Jose Rizal Ballroom of the Makati Shangri La.

Mom, cousin Lulu and her son Migz (Jan Miguel), UP Medical School Class of 2011 and a world-class-surgeon-to-be. Thank god someone in the family is carrying on the Hippocratic torch, 'cause… well… it wasn't me. Cousin Victor is off snapping far better photos than these.

Let’s tell the truth, shall we? It’s a long ceremony. A LOOOONG ceremony. With three emcees who clearly felt they missed their calling by attending medical school instead of playing the Catskills. By the time they’d finished calling up everyone from the Golden Jubilee class of 1961, I think everyone was ready to hang themselves.

But mom got to reconnect with old friends, which was wonderful to see. So, while the smoke machines and electronic lights and cheesy, overproduced music and bad motion graphics were going on in the background, mom was busy chatting it up with the girls.

For you Anglos, the man on the right in this photo is wearing a Barong Tagalog, the traditional, gauzy Filipino dress shirt. It’s the equivalent of super-formalwear. And it makes a HELL of a lot more sense here than a suit and tie. Anyone who wears a wool suit and necktie to an event in Manila is a damned fool. (Guess what Tweedledee and Tweedledum here were wearing?)

But like I was saying, there were some lovely, poignant reconnections. Here’s an example: Mom’s friend Lily is a tiny lady, and mom’s pretty tall for a Filipina. When they were in school together, they got called Mutt and Jeff. Here’s them then (graduation, 1959) and them now. Either Lily’s gotten taller or mom’s gotten shorter. Or they split the difference.

So, mom’s anxiously awaiting her award. See? And while she’s waiting, the topic of conversation among the guests at the table is: what the hell are the graphics they’ve put on everything? All the reunion materials are adorned with yellow worms. WTF?

Worms. Sure.

Okay, so the event was sponsored by the Class of ’86 (MUCH more on them later). 1986 was the year the people ousted Marcos and elected Aquino, and one of the symbols of that movement was… um… a yellow worm. True story… We didn’t have a lot to talk about.

Aaaaaaanyway, there’s waiting… and more waiting… and finally…

Click here if you’re on a mobile device that can’t play YouTube video.


Putting it Together

Okay, so it’s yesterday afternoon, and it’s time for mom’s salon experience. It is, I believe, written into the Philippine constitution that all Women Of A Certain Age must have Hair Above A Certain Height. You can check that if you like. Get back to me.

Mom gets a Pilipina pace.

So, mom hits the salon. She gets the hair. Check! PLUS, she gets makeup. This is an event. The last time mom had her makeup done by someone other than herself was in the 1980s, when, in a fit of whimsy, she allowed a Bloomingdales salesgirl to turn her into an Asian Joan Collins. She immediately went home and wiped it off.

(Ironically, in recent years, Joan Collins has also had facial work that turned her into an Asian Joan Collins.)

So, they teased and sprayed and teased and sprayed. And then they teased and sprayed. Meticulously and beautifully. And then they painted. And she looked gorgeous! They even gave her eyebrows right out of a Hurrell photo of Joan Crawford. My mother, it seems, must turn into a Joan when she has makeup applied.

We’re all suited up. On to the Ceremony.

Obligatory posing. Click on the thumbnails for The Big Pix. XOX, DC

He went to art school and he shoots in front of a gauzy window. Genius.

What a cutie. Isn't he a cutie?

Mom doesn't really like to smile in photos. I consider it a personal triumph when she does.

I really wanted her to slide down the balustrade like Lucy in Mame. But who wants to emulate Lucy in Mame?

Nothing snarky to say here. I like this one.

Rare to catch mom preening. It's a nice moment.


It’s about 6am Manila time, and Peter is happily snoring in the bed behind me. Naturally, I’m screwing about on the computer, seeing if I can set up this blog for family and friends to follow this crazy adventure. This is new. To paraphrase Catherine Tate, “Who, dear? Blog, dear? Us, dear? NO, dear…” But what the hell…

First of all, to all you folks who expressed concern—we love you. Thankfully, we’re in Manila, on the island of Luzon. The devastating floods happened on Mindanao, to the south. Terrible, awful thing. But we’re okay.

SO… I really can’t believe we arrived here just 24 hours ago. I feel like we’ve been here a week. Of course, we left on Sunday and now it’s Wednesday… Say whaaaaa? Rod Serling is our Travel Agent.

Me and Miss Mabuhay!

16 hours on the plane. Thank heaven for Mabuhay Class. (Mabuhay class is represented in this post by the pubescent 2D lady in the photo… the one who isn’t me. I call her “Miss Mabuhay.”)

Strangely enough, the flight to Manila gave me and Pete the best hours of sleep we’ve had in weeks. The days leading up to the trip (Pete’s run in Three Sisters, my finals period, getting client work out the door, prepping the house for the kitchen demolition…) had made us slightly, um, comatose. Plane+Ambien=Good. Woke up in Guam. Thank you, Miss Mabuhay!

Arrived in Manila, were whisked off by Cousin Lulu and Cousin Victor and Cousin-Once-Removed Migz, and checked in to the Makati Shangri-La. Crazy gorgeous. While mom napped, Pete and I went across the street to the Glorietta and SM malls. Um… These are superinsane malls on steroids. Local crafts, high-end scent knockoffs, baked goods, clothing, luggage, fruit, electronics, all jumbled together for miles. More on that later, I hope, with pix.

We stopped in the hotel salon. Richard, our über-charming grooming specialist, shaved our faces (and my head) meticulously while charmingly trying to get us to hire his brother to tour the local scenic spots. All while winking a lot. Charming.

That said, I must say that Filipinos are the most fantastically gracious people ever… No, seriously.

And then on to The Big Event. Mom’s award dinner. That comes in the next post.


Oh no. They blogged.

Hi! Well, Tremendo’s on tour!
Okay, we’re not on tour. But we’re touring.

We thought that since we’re making this Great Asian Trek, we’d use this webspace to post photos, videos, experiences, etc.

It’s a blog. So… I know… ZZZZZZ.

But we’ll try to keep it zippy. Since it’s in story form, latest posts will come last. If you’re checking in, scroll down.


Please note that because of the verbosity of these posts, we’ve subdivided the Asian Adventure into subcategories. Click on Tremendo Oriento 2011 in the menu above and you’ll find subsections based on Country!