Here’s to the five years of blogging

I began blogging exactly five years ago. That night of 8 June 2008 when this blog debuted was like tonight; it was raining hard. Traffic of motorbikes scurrying to reach their destinations halted outside because the downpour was just too much to bear for the antiquated drainage system of that old district of Hanoi. The woman selling pho outside our compound was still there, seated in her red kiddie plastic chair serving bowls of steaming rice noodles submerged in that divine broth to stranded motorists who did not bother taking off their colorful raincoats and equally multi-colored helmets.

That night I was suffering from a level of boredom too extreme and painful it was one of those rare times I can recall I cried. I cried a lot. I missed home so badly. I felt invisible because I was indeed living invisibly. For the woman selling pho outside I was just “that” strange ngoui nuoc ngoai, for the rest I was a nonentity.

Writing down about those gamut of feelings  I knew I would never fully capture in writing, I thought, would be the best way for me to at least have some semblance of order during those months when nothing seemed to make sense. (It’s not as if things make more sense now. (Often they still don’t make sense, though I never stopped attempting to understand them.) I was twenty-two then. I could feel I was poised to realize whatever it was I was dreaming of. I have completely  convinced myself then that whatever inconvenience it was that I was going through in that foreign country was a way of gaining a foothold to something bigger. I didn’t know what that something was then, and I can never be less sure now.

I didn’t care that “Going Against the Current” was too corny a title. But it was the first thing that occurred to me. I subtitled it ‘thoughts of a twenty-something.’ I wasn’t aware then that I was having my share of quarter life crises. I didn’t know the term existed. But I knew there was something odd about that whole set-up. Living and studying in Vietnam was not part of my plan then. I only wanted to escape from the banality of my existence right after graduating from college that I was willing to be hurled anywhere, only to find myself hurled nastily in that blah. I was living by myself in that shoebox of a rented place on Tran Hung Dao Street in the old district of Hanoi, which only exacerbated what then was a terminal case of ennui. At that time, it was the aptest title I could think of for a personal blog.

I wrote this to console myself:

“On Being an Exile”

I have been reading a short essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, and he talked about how being an “exile” brings out parts of our personalities that is unknown to us, and will forever be unknown to us, unless we allow ourselves to be exiled or for us to be exiled by force (which can be in any form such as that of the state, an organization, or the bigger society).

Here, I shall be talking about throwing one’s self away, figuratively, that is, one chooses to embark on the feat of a self-exile. Consciously choosing to leave, and here it means physically deserting anything that has to do with a secure life, and living in a place that is foreign, a place where doing something for comfort will prove burdensome. Barriers will include inability to communicate one’s self, lack of cultural knowledge, ethnocentricity, etc.

Just like all ethnographic researches, the researcher, or as in our case the exiled, faces several stages of coming to terms with himself in relation to his environment and its actors. Roughly, there will be a period of much patronizing and romanticizing, that is, the exiled will think that everything around him is better than what he has left behind. It will be followed a realization that things around him are different and therefore will tax his understanding of all the cultural truths as well as subtleties in his new environment. This will awaken the hidden ethnocentric (and xenophobic) character of our subject which lead to a gap and further distancing from everything around him and creating a world of his own making. Although this may sound pessimistic, this is necessary for the subject to create a giant leap towards understanding and eventually living in harmony with the foreign people surrounding him.

The third period, which I will refer from hereon as ‘distancing’, is a very crucial step because this is where the hidden and repressed selves of our subject surface and thereby allowing different personae to make themselves known to him. Here, creativity, appreciation of one’s former society, and objective probing of the world in general are strengthened and are highlighted.

In distancing, the mind of the subject shifts from a passive, non-observer of events, objects, cultural truths and subtleties, and idiosyncracies into a more active, peering, and critical entity. Interestingly, this also leads to a blossoming of the artistic mind, scientific inquisitiveness, and more understanding of the inner self as well as the emotion. Distancing allows the exiled to have a hold of his world and shape it in a way that can be radical, sometimes, but most of the times more reformative, and in general beneficial. It can be in a form of literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Tolstoi’s novels War and Peace and Annakarenina, or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

It is, therefore, necessary, especially for the young people, to travel and to detach themselves from the mundane and the usual and immerse themselves in a world devoid of comfort and security.

No amount of feigned cockiness could hide the insecurity of my twenty-two-year-old self, of my inability to know where exactly I was heading. Still I treaded on because doing the most difficult was the easiest thing to do. And I never regretted having gone on with the journey. The ride has been exciting and I look forward to more years of blogging. I just hope that when another five years is done, I’d be a lot better.

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Three years since my last bike ride

At this time three years ago, you’d find me cycling in the busy streets of Hanoi in the dead of a winter night without any clear destination, only having that very clear purpose of getting my mind rid of prurient, malicious, tired, self-impaling, even suicidal thoughts by dousing them using the unforgiving, cold gush of December wind and the suffocating exhaust from motor bikes that went past me and my red bicycle I whimsically named Peggy.

I thought I have completely forgotten how to ride a bike after selling that red bike to my friend’s  mother and leaving Hanoi. But it seems that it takes longer than three years to forget something as rich in memories as the act of riding a bike.

So today because of lack of anything interesting to do, I took the rusty bike from the garage and cycled like it was my student days in Vietnam, when I spend the whole afternoon going around the neighborhood crisscrossing the maze-like Hanoian hamlets, saying ‘chao!’ to the woman who sold banh my, waving to the small children playing by the lake, and flirting with high school students on their way home from school, while doing my best to remember the way and to avoid, as much as I and my shamelessly poor sense of direction can, getting lost.

I was heavily perspiring after several pedals, but I was too happy to take notice of the dripping sweat. All I knew was during those brief moments I was transported back to a time when things were a lot simpler, when the biggest problem I had to solve was where to get the best my xao (fried nooodles) in the district, or having my bike washed, and when riding a bike could give me that unexplainable ‘high’ and a feeling of absolute freedom.

Many things have changed since (in fact, most did), but some remain simple, some remain the same, some becoming even more precious and worth-unforgetting.

Nhọ and Tẹt

Caught in my made up and self-declared ‘tumultuous’ daily existence, I tried to distance myself a bit from thinking too much and writing in the past week. But realizing that I can only survive without writing and blogging for five days, at most, I thought of having a line up of things to write about so that when finally I find enough time to write the things on my mind down, they’d come handy.

So a week ago I asked my Vietnamese friend, Chi Le, to send me pictures of her cats. In her email she promised to give me as pet her newest cat she named Nhọ, meaning ‘dirty’ in Tieng Viet, if I one day decide to live permanently in Hanoi.  Nhọ is a stray cat in the neighborhood whom she and her mom adopted.

And to make sure she’ll remain true to her words I’ll use this post and that email she sent me to remind her someday that she made this promise, that is, if I eventually decide the Vietnam is the place for me.

Nhọ looks like Puss ‘n Boots in Shrek. And who wouldn’t fall for a cat as cute as this cat? And besides, this cat does what chi Le’s other cat should have been doing but failed to do: ridding the house of mice.

Meet Tẹt:

Tẹt, her only cat that time when I was still staying in their house, was by default my favorite. This aging fat cat has grown too old, too fat and spoiled by my friend and her mother, Co Doanh, that it has completely abandoned its responsibility of catching little mice in the house. According to Chi Le, Tet has come to feel more superior now because of seniority, and he’s more than willing to show Nho who’s boss in the house.

Tet used to stay in my bedroom located just beside the kitchen except for times when my friend would carry the lazy cat upstairs. In the cold Hanoian winter of 2009 he stayed most of the nights with me, together with the big but docile dog, Gau. Tet always made it a point to sharpen his vestigial claws at midnight and gave out those scary wails to signal he’s in heat and ready for romancing (he’s a castrated cat, by the way). Still, I tolerated him.

This gave me enough confidence that if bad comes to worse and worse comes to worst, he’ll give up her old mistresses for my warm embrace. But I was wrong. No matter how much I goaded this black cat to take my side and come with me to the Philippines, he didn’t bother to consider my proposal and even thought of it as absurd by giving me that tired yawn and proud grin. He, of course, chose to live a comfortable, shielded, and lazy life in my friend’s house until this day.

Something from last year

From the web, I found this photo taken exactly a year ago when I left Hanoi. (Front) Duong, Le, Co Doanh (Le’s mom and my second mother in Hanoi), Chau. (Back) Son, JP, and me. I can’t believe it has been a year ago.

A visit

I left the city this afternoon for Miagao because the city, its noise and grimes, had been too much to bear. I sought refuge in the quiet of the boondocks and the monotonous sound coming from my laptop while writing in my room on campus. I brought supplies with me because nothing is sold anywhere within a three-kilometer radius of the university. The campus is like a ghost town. One will have to walk for twenty-minutes to reach the highway and wait at the corner waiting shed for passing jeepneys. I have to leave for the city early tomorrow if I do not want to starve.

This time, however, I am binging on canned goods, instant noodles, and 3-in-1 coffee, hoping that I am able to store enough food energy to last until nine in the morning tomorrow.

I browsed the net for six hours straights, read the news, and watched some irrelevant videos on Youtube. A friend complained how my posts have been so full of angsts these days. According to him they were shorter, sadder, and abnormally full of rage (as I am an angry writer). I disagreed. But he might have been correct.

I heard somebody saying that during Christmas, all roads lead home, but not, I think, in my case. This is my second Christmas away from home. Last year, I was in Hanoi washing my dirty clothes on the eve of the 25th. This year, I have no idea where I shall be, but I hope I will not anymore be doing my laundry on that day.

The man with a black umbrella

It has been raining since the time I woke up this morning. Atmospheric conditions such as today’s remind me of rainy November afternoons in Hanoi when all I did was to cuddle a pillow and bury myself with blankets my friend’s mom provided me or to bathe in the rain while cycling with my red bike around Ho Dac Di or Pho Thai Ha.

The_black_umbrella_by_TotoRino

Yesterday when I went to Inquirer office in Makati to get my prize and my friend’s for the Virgin Labfest theater review, I mentioned to Gibbs Cadiz, the man who organized the competition, in our chat that I studied in Hanoi for almost a year. It felt as if it was already a long time ago, and the people and the place more fantastic than real. It has almost been five months since I arrived here in Manila and decided to ‘test the water’. Nothing much has come up from this youthful adventure I am embarking on.  I could’ve directly gone home to my parent’s house in Polomolok.

Hanoi was the first thing I thought of when I woke up today. How I miss that city.

While exerting all my efforts to climb the steep stairs going to Boni MRT Station, the black umbrella I bought from 7eleven weeks ago when I got caught in a downpour in Intramuros, flipped a la Mary Poppins to the chagrin of the woman in front of me who seemed to have magnetized all the water soaked in the synthetic fabric of my umbrella’s canopy. She gave me a deathly and almost deadly look and proceeded unceremoniously, before I could say my apologies, to her despirited gaits up the train station.

One of the reasons I love rainy days: people are cool-headed.

Harry Potter

Although I have no intention of watching the latest installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to the 8-part movie, the film review by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times may help you put the film in a perspective using an unimportant critic’s critique  here.

How to choose the best carinderia/food stalls in Manila

For minimum wage earners with a family of four in Metro Manila, that is, those earning PhP 382.oo per day (roughly 8.50 USD) food options are narrow. It can range from eating two meals a day, which is not good for the health, or buying a recently advertised sauce-like concoction that can be mixed with rice called Sarsarap, which according to Jimmy Santos, its endorser, is at the price of one jeepney ride, that’s 7 pesos. If one is willing to risk diseases such as kidney stones, liver problems, and death of taste buds (as this product is in the lowest echelon of taste) then, by all means, go ahead.

But for those who have a money to spare for food which means a whopping 50 per cent of one’s daily wage spent on food, then the options are widened, a little bit, although not that much. Unlike in other Southeast Asian metropolis where street food are fairly decent, the array of food sold along the sidewalks of Manila is dangerous at worst and bland and oil-drenched at best. But good ones are not lacking.

Philippines Rice Crisis

Below is a simple guide that you can use to get the best out of the side walk culinary tradition of Manila:

  • The rule is, the farther they are from the main thoroughfares, the cheaper are the food. A price difference of four pesos per dish and one peso for a cup of rice will mean a lot if you compute your total consumption in a month. That’s 5 pesos a meal multiplied by 3 and again by 30. That’s 450 pesos of savings a month.
  • Look for a City Health Certificate or a Sanitary Permit or the equivalent. This, however, calls for discreetness. You don’t want to face the ire of the person selling the food by asking her at point blank whether she has those permits. You can make use of your observational skills by looking around. They are required by the local government to post these. If you find none, then I suggest you think twice in going there again for your next meal.
  • Look for clues on how they wash their plates, spoons and forks, and glasses. I have this horrifying experience in Hanoi when a woman serving me a bowl of  pho ga (chicken noodles) used a bowl reeking with detergent suds and then dipped in a grayish water and was rinsed with a little hot soup then without batting an eyelash gave me the pho. What made me almost regurgitate what I ate was when I saw after I finished the bowl that the pair of chopsticks I used were merely dipped in soapy water and was given to the next customer.

(But being a poor student, I was left with no choice but to smile and act as if I did not see a thing. I vowed never to let a similar death-defying experience happen again.)

If a carinderia does not show any evidence of running water, run for your life!

Bringing your own utensils, although a very smart action, may not be socially wise. It is a blatant assault on the food seller’s attempt on sanitation that can lead to really bad service, small food portion, or a scornful look.

  • The more food choices there are the better is the carinderia, generally.
  • But be careful with “recycled dishes”, e.g. sisig, lechon paksiw, dinuguan, menudo. These are dishes that can use ingredients from a previously cooked dish which has not been completely sold out. According to health authorities, dishes that were heated up several times contain more bacteria after it has cooled than those heated for the first time.

Spotting reheated dishes is fairly easy. Look at the pan used where the steaming dinuguan or caldereta is served. If there are marks of dried sauce or brownish hardened residue, the probability of it being reheated is high. Moreover, since they are left-over, the amount of the dish in the display will also give you an idea. Suspect if they are served in a small plate of a smaller pan relative to the rest of the dishes served.

  • Silog, a totally Filipino invention is a good value for your hard-earned money. And the best thing about this is the convenience, not to mention the price and the different combination of egg, friend rice, and meat. Almost all medium-sized and bigger carinderia have this.
  • It is not suggested to drink the cold service water provided by these stalls. It is unimaginable that they will bother boiling the water nor will they pay for water in containers that have undergone reverse osmosis. In your dreams. You can either buy a bottled softdrink, which is not good for your health and with mark up comparable to those in Hyatt Hotel (Kidding. But almost.) or just bring your own water canister.
  • Ask for free soup. All carinderia in the Metro have complimentary soup, with no exception. This soup is an equivalent of the French bullion or a lighter version of a bouillabaisse, if you’re lucky it can contain a small cube of meat or a few leaves of cabbage.
  • As a rule of thumb, the more suki or regular customers a carinderia has the more reputable it is. You may also ask the seller the province she came from. Filipinos are regionalistic, if you want to be a preferred customer, go to a carinderia whose owner, or at least the woman serving the food came from the same province as you did.
  • Establish friendship/network/rapport with the woman selling the food. engage her in a coversation about her family, politics, love, any topic that you can think of. This may mean bigger serving, a rare knowledge on what is the specialty of the house, and discounts. Addressing her using her first name will mean so much for somebody who passes the day serving strangers and nameless faces. It is discouraged to talk about the actual food you are eating (for reason you will learn if you indeed decide to talk to her about the food she is cooking).

TOP140795112A-01~Manila-and-Its-Environs-A-Foodstall-on-a-Street-Posters

An old print of a food stall during the Spanish era in the Philippines.