Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Escape from Dakar


May 23, 2010


I sat on a hard bench at the port police station, wondering what was going on. I didn’t even know why I was there. Why was it so complicated to fly out of Dakar, Senegal?

The previous week, with my ship’s contract about to end, I had requested that I disembark the M/V Ocean Princess in Funchal, Madeira, a Portuguese territory, instead of Dakar. I was anticipating complications inherent in trying to get out of a corrupt, 3rd world country. The ship's doctor wouldn’t have any of it because she said my BP readings were too high. She did not want me to keel over of a heart attack on her watch. I had to go on schedule, in Dakar. My flight was for New York City. After six months on a ship, I was glad to go.

My disembarkation started on an uneventful note. A van fetched me from the ship. Joining me was Richard, a magician, who was returning to Paris that afternoon, having already done his act on the ship. Our vehicle sped its way through a dusty-looking landscape of tin huts and nondescript concrete buildings. The Senegalese were everywhere, snacking at roadside stands, waiting for rides, walking. We passed by an impressive soccer stadium. Then the van entered a section of the city that looked like a rundown version of a French provincial town, with the same lay-out you’d see in any old town of France or in the former colonies: palm tree promenade, a park here and there, and French colonial buildings. I’m sure that there were charming spots in Dakar, but they eluded me, and anyway the speed of our progress through the city precluded any leisurely, exploratory ramble.

The van deposited Richard and his luggage in front of the Dakar airport. My turn would come later because my flight to New York wasn’t happening till 1 AM. It was only 1 PM. Thankfully Princess had booked me for the evening at a hotel in town. One thing that Princess could be relied on was provide its crewmembers comfortable temporary quarters either before or after joining a ship anywhere in the world. This was no small convenience. How often have I landed on an airport with nobody to meet me, no idea where to go or how to get there because the company I worked for was disorganized? Princess was always reliable with regards to accommodating crewmembers.

The hotel I was booked in had the somewhat Thai-sounding name of Sokhamon Hotel. You had to go down from the parking lot via steps carved into the hillside and into the lobby. Then you had to go up again to your room. The elevator wasn’t working, so after checking in, I had to carry my luggage up to my third floor room.

The room was a minimalist concrete-meets-Africa-meets-the-tropics affair. It wasn’t luxe by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t wretched either. The simple, unadorned cement terrace presented a view of the Dakar sunset that made up for the inconvenience of disembarking in this somewhat dubious port. There was an island off Dakar, the Ile de Goreé, that I wished I had the time to visit. This was the island where slaves were held before they were shipped off to the Americas. The faint silhouette of an island rose across the bay. I wondered if it was the slave island.

Feeling hungry, I went down to the lobby. The hallway outside my room was dark. You had to press little glowing buttons to turn the corridor lights on, which turned off automatically after a few minutes. I understood it was an energy-saving mode of lighting, but it certainly gave the hotel a creepy feeling. The non-functioning elevator certainly didn’t help.

The lobby was deserted. I noted the décor. It was moderately funky, like a poor man’s Philippe Starck, with touches of African ecologic art. Tables and chairs were made of burnished driftwood and distressed bronze, some of which I would have loved to place in my living room. If there were people here, it would have been a fun place, but as it was, save for a couple sitting on a distant sofa, the whole place, though well-appointed, was just empty and forlorn. I went outside to the pool area. I had espied a barbeque pit. Nothing going there. Ditto a restaurant that jutted out into the sea. Nada. What’s going on here?

There was, however, a space that was well-lighted near the poolside that looked promising. It was a kind of courtyard where various artwork and sculptures were exhibited. An art gallery? In this ghost building? I was intrigued.

I examined the artwork. Not bad. But where was the artist? And where were the patrons? I peeked into a side building that had an open sliding glass door. Paintings were hung on the walls inside. Colorful modernist abstracts. No one there either.

I went back to the courtyard. The couple I’d seen in the lobby was examining the sculptures. They were giggling.

I went back to my room, unable to find a dining place in the hotel. Fortunately I had a sandwich and two cans of soda in my knack sap. I made a supper out of them and turned the TV on.

It was incomprehensible Senegalese stuff in French. I turned the TV off. I would have to be at the airport in four hours time. I took a nap.

At 10 PM, I was in the empty lobby once more. The driver arrived punctually and helped me lug my two bags up the flight of stone stairs. What an inconvenient hotel, I thought! A non-functioning elevator, dark corridor, no open restaurant, and you had to carry your baggage up from the lobby. All things considered, it was a pretty hotel, but with sketchy service and an eerie atmosphere, one I wouldn't recommend to any traveller.

Off to the airport then, but not just yet. We made our way through the darkened streets of Dakar and stopped across from a dingy building. It seems I had to go report to the port police, have my passport stamped.

Dutifully I tagged behind the driver and went up a flight of stairs to the second floor of the aforementioned building.

A group of uniformed men, some wearing flip-flops were staring at a TV. A soccer game was going on. Senegal is a soccer-mad country. The driver brought my papers to an officer who was seated at a desk. I sat on a bench, waiting. The men were yelling at the TV. This was the port station? It looked and felt like the waiting room of a jail.

Minutes passed by. What was taking so long? The driver was watching the TV.

I called the driver over.

“Problem?” I asked.

Pas probléme,” he said and went back to the officer who was still sitting at the desk ostensibly examining my papers. He called me over.

“Mr. Manuel Panta?”he said.

“Ah, Filipino? Mahal kita," he said, grinning.

I grinned back at his black, sweaty face. It was a warm night, even at 11 PM.

He made a big show of flipping and unflipping the pages of my passport.

I started to feel like I was in a Kafka story.

After a while, he nodded his head and said, "OK". He didn’t give my passport back to me.

I looked at the driver. He beckoned to me to follow him back to the van. I was confused, but complied. In the van we waited for a while and soon the officer came down wearing his official cap, took the front seat and ordered,”Allons!”

It was evident that he was going to accompany us to the airport. This was getting interesting.

The driver didn’t go straight to the airport. The officer had him stop at a street corner. He bought a packet of roasted peanuts which he generously offered to share with me. I declined. Soon we were off, to the airport this time. The officer was trying to make small talk with me, which didn’t make sense to me. I thought he was just hitching a ride to the airport. It became increasingly clear to me that he was acting as my escort and facilitator. His presence was no happenstance.

We arrived at the airport, greeted by a throng of baggage handlers.

The officer appointed a porter for me. Before parting, I gave a tip to the driver, as much as I thought reasonable for doing what Princess had already paid him to do. He had no problem with it. Au revoir, Princess Cruises driver!

We went inside the airport lobby, the officer leading the way, still bearing my passport and papers. Usually, at this time, my passport would be handed over to me and goodbyes said. Nothing of the sort. The officer directed me to the immigration and customs line. The baggage handler deposited my luggage on the floor. Another tip for him. The officer gave my passport and papers to the immigration officer. He stamped it. Finally the officer gave me back my papers. He followed me into the airplane waiting area. The moment of truth.

I handed him $ 20.

He looked indignant.

M’sieur, I think you should give me $50.”

Was it worth it for me to scream and yell at him right there, in Dakar, surrounded by formidable looking security people, in their own country?

Not if I wanted to find myself in a detention cell in a West African country.

I gave him his $50. Even if I had ranted and raved and scared my self-appointed facilitator off without me paying him his extortionate tip, who can say if the opposite had not happened, and I'd be clapped into prison for whatever trumped-up reason the airport police could come up with? I'm sure this man had friends in the airport. Who would they believe, him or me?

When the Continental plane finally rolled down the tarmac and took off with me in it, I breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Shaken and stirred but glad to have escaped the rotten, shakedown city of Dakar.

The Ile de Goreé can wait, forever.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflections on a Blind Universe

I have never been in a disaster. The nearest I came to experiencing one was when, as a student in a Catholic seminary, I would go off distributing relief goods to victims of flooding in remote mountain areas in the Philippines. The victims were generally very poor people who lived in bamboo huts that typhoons and floods easily demolished and swept away.
The nearest I came to being involved in a full-scale disaster was when a flashflood occurred in my hometown of Ormoc City, in the island of Leyte, the Philippines in 1991. I was nowhere near my hometown when that happened. I was 7000 miles away in Los Angeles, California. There was mention in the TV of a storm that struck the central Philippines with some casualties, but I thought nothing of it because typhoons were a common occurrence in my country. It was not until my sister called from Sydney and said that she couldn’t get a call through to our place and that many people were rumored to have died. Apparently, after an intense rainstorm, two rivers that bisected our town had risen above their banks and inundated the city. Our family house was just several meters away from the river bank. Fortunately it was on elevated ground, which helped to keep the floodwater at bay and confine it to the first floor. Nobody in our household was injured. Many others were not so lucky. The flooding had occurred in the middle of the day, when students were coming out of schools. An estimated 3000 to 7000 died in that flooding, most of them children. A classmate and a local millionaire disappeared in the waters.There were mass burials because under the tropical sun, the corpses rotted quickly. My nephew and niece developed breathing problems from the ensuing dust and whatever else came with it. Even though I wasn't in the city and saw no actual scenes of destruction, I had nightmares about the disaster.
On being confronted by the apocalyptic scenes on Japanese TV, rendered more horrifying because such scenes would not normally be captured in such detail by cameras, I came to an understanding of how that flood in my hometown could have transpired. The current destruction in Japan beggars the imagination. Recovery and reconstruction would probably be on a gargantuan scale.
Japan is a rich and technologically well-developed country. In fact, after the floods in my hometown, the Japanese aid agency called Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) funded the construction of solid dikes to contain the two rivers that contributed to the flooding. Since that time, no flooding has occurred in my town.
I don’t know what the Filipino people, a recipient of Japanese aid, can do to help in the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan.
What they can do, probably, is pray that the Japanese people will pull through this calamity. With all their resources and tenacity, I’m sure they will.
This is also an occasion for mankind to reflect on how puny and helpless we are, rich or poor, 3rd world or 1st world, against the might of nature.
We may be something in our minds and beliefs, but in the grand scheme of a blind universe, we are nothing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Night with Horace Silver

Back in the summer of 1989, I lived and worked in Manhattan.
In those pre-internet, pre-Craigslist years, if you wanted to find a job, you bought the New York Post and examined the classifieds.
“Piano Player Wanted”, said one item. The place was a restaurant on Mulberry St., in Little Italy. Off I went and auditioned for the job. The piano was a battered upright. The restaurant was called PJ’s. I got the job. It was quick and easy, not like the convoluted job-seeking musicians in New York undergo nowadays. I was paid $75 per day for three days in the weekend, which may not seem much, but in those days, a subway token cost a mere one dollar and I paid just three hundred dollars rent for an entire attic room in Queens. Later, I was also able to snag another regular gig at a retro- bar on Christopher St. playing a sixties electric organ, so I was good to go in New York City. Plus I was getting tips from diners, who were usually tourists with cash to spare. I wasn’t getting rich, but I managed comfortably in a city that was, and still is, one of the most expensive cities in the world. I could even afford to watch Broadway shows regularly, because you could still watch a top-notch show for half-price starting at $15. Try that today.
One of the perks of my job as the resident pianist of an Italian restaurant in Little Italy was that I was entitled to whatever meal I wanted on the menu. My favorite was the stuffed squid.This was over and above my afternoon snack in Chinatown before my gig. At a Chinese teahouse that no longer exists, I usually ordered the most scrumptious steamed buns and oolong tea. The memory of those buns still brings tears to my eyes.
I played from 7 till 10 PM. Sometimes, after all the customers and tourists had gone, bartenders from other restaurants who had finished their shifts would gather at PJ’s and have a sing-a-long. Those were the days before karaoke, so I was busy accompanying bartenders from “Azzurro”or “SPQR” as they sang Frank Sinatra songs till 2 AM. They were pretty good, and I was getting a name in my little corner of New York. That of course ended when I decided to go back to cruise-ships, but that was in the future.
Working in Little Italy meant that I was within walking distance of Greenwich Village, and Greenwich Village was where all the famous jazz clubs where: Blue Note, Village Vanguard, Arthur’s Tavern. After my gig ended at PJ’s, I’d walk the few blocks to Bleecker Street and catch the last set at 11:00 PM. at any of the clubs. You bought a drink at the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard and that was it. I don’t remember paying any cover charge.
One Saturday evening, after my gig at PJ’s had ended, I hurried to the Blue Note. Horace Silver was performing there, had been all week long. He loomed large in my list of influential pianists, and therefore I obligated myself to listen to him in person. Anyone who has played “Song for my Father” can understand this feeling.
I arrived at the club a few minutes before the start of the last set. I went up to the restroom, which was on an upper landing, to freshen up after my breathless walk. At the vestibule stood a lanky black man with a slight stoop and longish hair. For some reason, I immediately recognized him. Horace Silver. I went up to him.
“Hi Horace,” I said.
“Hi man,” he replied smiling.
“Love your work,” I said, feeling stupid.
“Great!” he said. “ Did you buy my record?”
“Yes I did,”I said. I lied. He looked so amiable.
“Good, good,”he said as he made his way down to the stage.
At the club, I stood at the bar, listening to Horace play the piano in his odd, funky way. The jazz aficionados of Manhattan clustered around him in rapt attention. They were there not to drink, but to listen to a great jazz artist.
Today Horace is 83 years old and has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t perform anymore.
That summer in New York, when the Dow Jones gained 2800 points for the first time and Wall Street was on a multi-billion dollar high, I did not gain any riches.
That summer in New York I chatted with, and listened to, Horace Silver.
That, to me, is a memory as rich as any other.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Day I Fell on Perseverance Trail

Juneau, Alaska, Summer 1991

The mine entrance gaped like a dark, open wound on the wooded Alaskan hillside.
It sloped downwards for a few yards then disappeared into a dark vertical shaft that was surely deeper than I could imagine.
I pulled back, shivering slightly in the cool breeze of a sunny summer’s afternoon in Juneau, Alaska.
Rubber boots, broken bottles, rusted cutlery and various garbage littered the ground outside the mine. They looked like they had been there since this mine was abandoned.
I came to this lonely place not because I knew I’d find it there but because I was wondering why a little red ribbon would be tied to the branch of a cottonwood bush beside the Perseverance Trail.
The trail starts off from the town of Juneau and brings you to wild country that about 60 years ago used to be a gold mining camp. One minute you’re sipping coffee at the Heritage Coffee shop on Franklin St., and minutes later you’re outside town, walking on a gravel road that follows the course of a raging river. You can follow several offshoots from this trail. One brings you to the summit of Mt. Juneau, the peak that beetles above Juneau town. Walk another and you end up in a Salmon Bake campground. Follow the trail without deviating and you start climbing through dense forest stands and soon start to hug the side of a cliff. A waterfall appears round the bend, noisily cascading down a narrow gap between the rocks. You pause to rest and, gazing at the panorama of mountains and blue sky behind you, note how the leaves of the aspens ripple like silver in the wind; how blue bell-like flowers peep from the sides of the cliff; how the mossy undergrowth under the pines is so lush and green and carpet-like (and could a bear be hiding behind those giant boulders there?); how there are very few hikers the further you go on this trail. There’s one, maybe two, then it’s just you. Occasionally a rider slides down the gravel on his mountain bike. Veer just a few feet from the trail and you can get lost and never be seen again. Time and time again it’s happened in the Alaskan wilderness.
The putative end of the trail is the boggy meadow called Rainbow Basin where most of the gold mining was done. It is now overgrown with vegetation, but this valley used to ring with the clang of machinery and the shouts of men as they tried to extract precious gold from the rocks. There are still signs here warning you that there are poisons imbedded in the soil, unfortunate residues of all that mining activity.
I noticed the little red ribbon sticking out from the branch of a cottonwood. I knew that this marked the beginning of an unseen trail leading to some interesting sight. I followed this ribbon, which pointed me to another and another. Pretty soon the ribbons led me through basically the bed of a stream. After fifteen minutes of trudging through terra incognita, I stumbled on the mine shaft. Briefly I toyed with, and immediately rejected, the idea of entering the mine. If some accident befell me there, chances were no one would know. Ribbons aside, the trail I followed was non-existent. No other hiker showed up at the mine. Nobody knew where I was going. They would not know where to look, because there simply was no path to follow. I’d be royally lost, Alaskan-style.
I retraced my steps back to Perseverance trail and started my way back to town.
This was one of those days in Alaska when you feel nature singing in full cry and you feel glad to be young and strong and alive. The bluest of skies spreads above you while the joyful sound of rushing water accompanies you on your walk. A vista of snow-capped mountains and glinting rocky cliffs unfolds before and around you, and dense stands of pine and spruce lend the cool, breezy air the perfume of their resinous exhalations. Birds sing and white fritillaries catch the sunlight on their wings. You almost wish a bear would amble in sight (this is why you bought a bear bell at that tacky shop) but, on second thought, better not. The day was already beautiful and glorious as it was.
There is a section on the trail where you start to make a descent from higher country. It is above the Salmon Bake park ground. This is the place by the river where tourists go to have barbecued ribs and salmon, quaff beer and maybe pan for a little gold. I’ve been there twice before. In this place I discovered that there is nothing like the taste of fresh-caught salmon grilled in mesquite or hickory. Nothing -- not your canned or frozen or smoked varieties --compares with the taste of salmon caught off the bay just a few hours before you eat it. I was partial to fatty salmon belly, not unlike bears. By this time of the hike, I was tired, sweaty and hungry. As I started my way down the incline, I caught a whiff of grilled salmon in the air. The smell propelled my hunger to overdrive. I must go down to the salmon bake before it closed shop!
In my haste and with my nose up in the air, I forgot to look down and notice a root sticking out from the ground. What happened next was a painful and surprising lesson in physics and physiology.
My boot caught on the root and I fell down like a log. So caught unaware was I that I did not have the time to cushion my fall with my arms. My chest slammed on the ground full on. The impact caused the air to rush out of my lungs so suddenly that I could not breathe at all. I thought that I had broken my ribs and that my lungs had collapsed. I lay there on blessed Perseverance Trail, struggling to breathe and unable to stand up. I may have passed out for a few seconds.
I’m a goner,” I thought dimly. And all because I wanted to eat grilled salmon.
Then I heard voices.
“Are you all right man?”a guy said. Three hikers had come down from the trail. Just in the nick of time. He helped me to my feet. I squatted on the ground, trying to catch my breath. One, two, three.
“I’m okay. Just had a bad fall,” I gasped.
The hikers turned out to be crewmembers of a Holland America ship that was in port beside my ship, the Dawn Princess.
“Are you sure you’re all right? Do you need anything?" the guy asked.
I took rapid stock of my chest and my ribs. Sore, but intact. And I was breathing.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Thanks. I’ll just rest for a while here.”
The hikers left me and soon I was alone again. I sat on the same root that caught my foot. All thought of grilled salmon deserted me.
This fall was part of the deal of all this hiking through this Alaskan countryside, I thought. It could have been worse. I could have fallen in the mine shaft, if I had chosen to explore it minutes earlier. I could have fallen down the cliff, or been sucked down the chute of a waterfall. It was all about choices. The ones you make determine your fate and state of being in this world.
Sometime later I read of the discovery of the remains of a hiker who was lost and had starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness. Even as I pitied the hiker his fate, I understood the impulses that impelled him to be with nature, in the wilds of Alaska.
I was glad, even if it took a month for my bruised lungs to heal, that I walked on Perseverance Trail on that sunny summer’s day in Juneau, Alaska. It takes an injury like that to make you realize how precious and beautiful and unpredictable life, and nature, can be.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ambling, Briefly, into the Amber Room

Amber is the translucent fossilized sap of ancient trees. They are regularly coughed up by the Baltic on the shores of countries ringing it: Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark. It is not a particularly precious gem, but in the hands of skilled jewellers and craftsmen, objets d'árt made of amber have commanded prices in the thousands of dollars. Plus, there is always the possibility that a mosquito trapped in amber could contain the DNA of a dinosaur that could then be cloned and put in an island in Costa Rica. Great idea for a movie, don't you think?

Imagine, then, an entire room whose walls are inlaid with nothing but the purest amber of every shade : lemon, honey, canary-yell
ow, gold Such a room was built and decorated for Russia's Peter the Great, expanded and transferred later to Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. It was the wonder of Europe in its time.

Then World War II came, and with it the invading Germans who promptly dismantled the Amber
Room and shipped it back to Germany where it remains hidden and presumably lost to this day.

To make amends, present-day Germany financed the reconstruction of the Amber Room at the behest of Vladimir Putin, then mayor of St. Petersburg. Once again, the Amber Room gleams within
the confines of Catherine the Great's lavish palace. I was determined to see it.

Normally, if you work on a cruise ship, you can avail of free tours by acting as a so-called "escort". This consists of presenting yourself to the tour guide and offering any sort of assistance he or she may require. The only time that my assistance was needed during the times when I was an escort was to search for a woman who was lost in the Rijkmusem in Amsterdam. Not even her husband c
ould find her. She turned out to be in the museum store happily examining the wares and oblivious to the fact that she had been keeping us waiting for thirty minutes.

This tour however to Catherine's palace and the amber room was so popular and competition for spots so fierce among crew that I decided to go on my own.

After my passport was stamped by the usual mousy Russian immigration officer, a protracted busin
ess as anyone who has been through it can attest, I walked from the ship's dock all the way to Nevsky Prospekt. There I intended to join a bus tour to Catherine’s Palace. The palace was located in the town of Pushkina (originally Tsarskoye Selo), a town named after the great poet Pushkin. When I turned into Nevsky Prospekt , I saw a dirty cloud hanging over the street beside the Church of Kazan, a church modelled after St. Peter's Basilica. My first thought was: fire! Actually it was not. An armada of bulldozers was compacting freshly-laid asphalt in the middle of the road on a busy day! The black cloud came from the noxious diesel fumes the machines were belching out.

I managed to locate the tour buses in a sectio
n of Nevsky Prospekt behind a department store. Normally there would be a bus tour for English-speaking tourists but on this particular day, none was immediately available. So, without pausing to worry about it, I bought a ticket on a Russian-only tour. It was just as well, because the bus left at 11 am and would be back at 4 in the afternoon, plenty of time for me to get back to the Royal Princess, which was sailing at 9 PM. The ticket cost 1700 rubles (or, at 23.30 rubles to the dollar, roughly $70, cheaper by half than what the ship charged.) Our guide was a big-bossomed grandmotherly woman of around 50, sweaty and looking harried. She was infinitely solicitous towards me, and seemed worried for me. I assured her that I was all right. Thus, regaled by the sounds of Russian conversations and tour pronouncements of which the only words I understood were "da"and nyet", I went my merry way to Catherine's Palace and the Amber Room.

Catherine’s Palace is 25 km inland from St, Petersburg. It is located on a low plateau. St. Petersburg’s suburban skyscrapers are quite visible from the road going to Pushkina. The highway was free of traffic, something I found refreshing if a bit odd in normally traffic-crazy St. Petersburg. At the entrance to the palace, I bought an illustrated guidebook in English so I could understand what happened where by whom, because the tour within the palace was going to be conducted in Russian.

Catherine’s Palace is a confection by the Italian architect Rastrelli. It is similar to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but in white and blue and gold and just as extravagant. We went in and donned obligatory shoe-wraps to avoid damaging the parquet flooring. A different tour guide took over our group. She was a handsome, tall and slender woman with an aristocratic nose. Her hair was swept back tightly, like a flamenco dancer's. She spoke Russian with what seemed a little more finesse than my friendly bus guide.

After a procession through the usual gilded receiving rooms, ballrooms, and a large ceremonial room that was modelled after the one in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the guide ceremoniously ushered us into the Amber Room
.

A hush fell on the group.

A red velvet rope cordoned off the walls to prevent people touching them. The room was, indeed, magnif
icent in its own right.

And yet, for me, it was something of a letdown.
Yes, the walls of the room had all this amber stuck on them. Pictures made of Florentine pietra dura (stone mosaic) were the centerpieces of all these AMBER. But, in the dim light of the room, kept that way to protect the panels, the amber looked so much like ordinary yellow plastic. Maybe if they had allowed us to peer closer, then we would be able to appreciate the preciousness of it all. No such luck. The babushka who guarded the room was fierce as a hawk. Perhaps it would have been better to leave this room bare, like those empty spaces in the Isabella Stewart-Gardiner museum in Boston where the stolen paintings used to hang, to remind us of what was lost and thus tantalize us with their absence. Here all I saw were a quantity of amber in a high-ceilinged medium sized room that did not hear or witness palace intrigues of yore. Only one piece from the original ensemble was ever recovered, a pietra dura picture entitled “The Senses of Touch, Taste and Smell.” The Amber Room, for all its opulence, had a faux feel to it, like the Las Vegas Venetian.

The Palace grounds were a different matter.
They were beautifully laid out. In the middle of the park was a large artificial lake with an artificial island in the middle on which was a Palladian-style folly and a tall column raised to commemorate some Russian victory or other. Everywhere there were statues, bronze copies of Graeco-Roman masterpieces now patinated green with age and the elements. Various splendid buildings rose here and there . One looked like a Greek temple: Cameron’s Gallery. Another was called Petite Hermitage, because the queen liked to sit here and write her correspondence. The Chinese pavilion was wrapped Christo-like: it was being restored. There were various garden ensembles and tree alleés,. Catherine the Great certainly knew how to live.
I could stay in this place for a week or two, just ambling around or painting, I thought.
Waiting in the park outside for the bus back to St. Petersburg, out by the statue of of Pushkin, I saw some people from my tour sitting on benches.
A woman was cutting a paper silhouette of the girl beside her.
A teenager sat on a bench staring at the ground, completely lost in his own thoughts.
One bench was occupied by a man making and selling portraits engraved on small buttons, a Russian verison of the Chinese guy who etched portraits on grains of rice.
Ordinary Russian folks in an extraordinary Russian landscape.
More precious, I guess, than any room made of amber.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Day I Nearly Disappeared in the Mountains of the Philippines








Sagada, 1978

He’s going to kill me, I thought.

The man gave me a cold hard stare.

What are you doing here?” he barked.

“I came to visit the falls,” I said, my voice quaking.

“You’re not here to see the falls. You’re here to spy on us!”

I eyed him with alarm. I felt the blood drain from my face and pool in my nether belly where it started to do a queasy minuet.

The man seemed to have just arisen from a bad sleep. He was pale, thin and unkempt. Pockmarks cratered his face. Scars ran down his arms. There was a black gap where his front teeth should be.

He stood in the middle of a group of Igorots, natives of the area. Some of the Igorots were standing while others squatted. They looked at me curiously. I had stumbled into some kind of a meeting.

I leaned mightily on my walking stick.

An elderly Igorot man gave me an inscrutable look.

“You have to sacrifice a chicken to the gods of the falls,” Scarface barked at me again.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

I was aware though that in the past month a Swiss backpacker went missing in these mountains, high up in the north of Luzon island. He went off one evening to have a special dinner, reportedly featuring dog on the menu. He was never seen again. Police searched for him. His brother flew in from Switzerland to join the search, made a fervent appeal for his recovery. It was all to no avail. The man simply disappeared.

Please God, let me not be next.

A small brown dog shuffled by. It stopped to regard me with sad, rheumy eyes and feebly wagged its tail. Wrapped around its neck was a wooden contraption that looked like the cage of a tennis racket. What it was for, I did not know.

That I was here being confronted by a wild-eyed man surrounded by Igorots was the unforeseen consequence of a decision I made to journey to the newly-discovered vacation spot of Sagada high up in Cordillera Mountains.

I had read about the beauty of Sagada in newspapers and caught glimpses of it when a hotshot director used it as a setting for a hip, coming-of-age movie. Evidently foreign backpackers, not Filipino tourists, discovered this heavenly spot.

Reports were that the rice terraces in Sagada were prettier and more spectacular than those of Banaue. Add to that karst rock formations, hanging mummies, limestone caves and its remote location and you have all the ingredients of a place where the sights spelled “exotic” even to a Filipino. I had to visit Sagada. I was vaguely aware of the missing Swiss, but that did not deter me from going. I was a Filipino. I was confident that nothing would happen to me.

On the long Holy Week weekend of 1978, I packed a duffel bag and boarded a bus for Baguio City. The trip from Manila to Baguio City took four hours. I was able to get a room at a motel for the night. Very early the next morning, I boarded another bus for Sagada, three hours distant from Baguio. This is the only economical way to get to Sagada. The bus rolls to Sagada via vegetable farms, mountain passes, single-lane roads, and army checkpoints (there were communist rebels in the area, though they didn’t bother the riding public. Rockslides and detours were not uncommon.

Benguet pines sprang from the rocky hillsides. An agreeable scent pervaded the air. Waterfalls tumbled down rocky precipices. Large portions of the mountains were bare of trees, the result of unabated logging.

For a large portion of the journey, the bus followed a highway that ran beside the turbulent Chico River. The road was paved only in part; most of it was gravel and sand. Our aged bus broke down once. A comfortable ride it was not, but the scenery was breathtaking.

It was 1:00 in the afternoon when the bus chugged into Sagada. A German backpacker who I met in a roadside stop had suggested that I seek lodging at St. Joseph’s, a hostel run by Anglican nuns. The bus stopped right by its gates. The hostel was a two-storey American-style wooden clapboard affair. My room was small, serviceable and cheap (10 pesos). When I looked out the window, I saw a panorama of pine-clad mountains and curious rock formations, white and jagged like dragon teeth. The scene was so alien to me that I could swear I was in a country other than the Philippines.

In a way I was in a different country. Everything about Sagada was different. The houses were not the breezy nipa huts of the sweltering plains. They had steep thatched cogonal roofs matted thickly for insulation against rain and cold. The Igorot spoke a language that might as well have been Greek to lowland Filipinos. Here an independent ancestor-worshipping culture had arisen and flourished for centuries. They had their own particular architecture, customs, literature, gods and deities. Later, most of the people converted, not to Catholicism, but to the Anglican faith. In fact, Sagada’s prettiest building was an English-style church complete with an English garden. A noble fir tree grew up beside it. Needless to say pine trees and their sweet smell were everywhere. Christianity, the Anglican variety, laid its mantle on the populace, but the Igorot cultural underpinnings lay strong and unmissable.

The most telling feature of the Sagada landscape was its karst formations. These are limestone rock that extreme weathering and erosion have transformed into organic- looking structures resembling pinnacles, bleached vertebrae and ruined castles. Their stark whiteness contrasted dramatically with the dark-green of the pines. Limestone being calcified sea creatures meant that Sagada, which is thousands of feet above sea level, was once underwater and therefore incredibly old. The whole area was honeycombed with caves, some of which the ancient Igorots put to good use by using them as repositories of their dead.

Herein lay another reason to visit Sagada, it's so-called “hanging” coffins. The ancient Igorots did not bury their dead. They mummified them and hung them on ledges on hillsides or inside caves. Burial of this sort continued till early this century when the American missionaries and officials put a stop to the practice.

I had immediately gone exploring Sagada town the afternoon I arrived. I had gone into a deep cave with two local boys as guides. Armed only with a petromax light, we had eased down rocky gullies in pitch-black darkness then clambered up slippery limestone rocks to get to a huge space they called "The Ballroom". The ceiling was heaving with thousands of bats. One of the boys threw a rock at the throng and brought down a bat with a little one clinging to it. I felt sorry for it and chided the kids.We clambered down again and presently found ourselves in a clear pool with a stone formation in it that resembled a crocodile. Then a further walk in the darkness brought us to a series of limestone steps down which a stream rushed and disappeared into a hole in the ground.

I had walked outside of town as far as I could go and found a series of majestic rice-terraces dominating the countryside, lushly green because it was the start of the planting season.

Back in the hostel, the Anglican nuns fed us boiled rice and sauteed stringbeans freshly harvested from their gardens . I had never eaten a tastier meal.

At the dining table,a guy from Tel Aviv told me about the waterfalls of Banga-an, a town about 15 kilometers from Sagada. He said they were magnificent.

This was the reason why the next day, I walked the distance to Banga-an, armed only with a walking stick, and now found myself being confronted not five minutes into my descent into the valley floor by an alarming looking man whose designs I did not dare imagine. The thought of the Swiss man who had disappeared in these parts a month previously had fleetingly crossed my mind. I leaned so heavily on my stick that it snapped in two, producing a loud "crack!"

The sound seemed to startle everybody.

"See," snarled the wild-eyed man,"that's how they do it, pretending to be tourists."

I had no idea what he meant.

An older and more kindly looking man addressed me:

"You should take a guide to the water fall. " He called out to two little kids, a boy and a girl, who looked not a year older than ten.

" Go with him to the falls,"he said in Tagalog. The wild-eyed man seemed to have calmed down and brought his gaze elsewhere.
It was understood that I was to pay a little bit of money to the kids for their guidance. Relief must have shown on my face when I gladly accepted the kid's services.

Off we went, down steep rice-terraces. Truth be told, I wouldn't have found my way down to the foot of the waterfalls without my little guides.

When I did reach the foot of the waterfall, I found that the water that rushed down from a great height was a mere trickle.

" There's not much water now because it's still summer. Wait till the rains come,"said the boy.

Still there was enough water in the river in which to immerse myself and take a mountain dip.

I was happy where I was, surrounded by cliffs and rice terraces, listening to the chatter of Igorot children. I was, in a sense, lost in a place where, despite the risks, I wanted to be.


(All accompanying photos were culled from the internet and not my own. When I trekked to Sagada, cameras were not digital so all the photos I took that time were lost to mold and time.)