When in Rome

When in Rome, ape the locals.
Or go native.
Or at least try to act like you know your way around.
This is not difficult, especially for Filipino tourists visiting the Eternal City for the very first time.
Filipinos, after all, are to cultural adaptation as the Chinese are to producing pirated DVDs. And just like illegally-copied video discs, the said Filipino trait remains unfettered by regional restrictions.
But then again, this trait — as far as Rome goes — appears to be irrelevant.
Romans are still likely to be irritated whenever strangers interrupt their routines by asking them for directions.
Just like sharp-tongued New Yorkers, Romans have perhaps nurtured a dislike for tourists, simply because their city has too many of them, Filipinos or otherwise.
Besides clogging buses and trains, these visitors delay pedestrian traffic by reading street signs, studying maps, and posing for pictures.
How does it feel like to live in a city absolutely swamped with visiting foreigners?
I barely have an idea.
I live in a city notorious for being the Philippines’ squatter capital and I’m pretty sure that that’s not a top tourist attraction.

This picture was taken in Rome after being awed by the Fiat 500.

This picture was taken in Rome after being awed by the Fiat 500.

What I do know is that for the first half of 2006, approximately six million people visited Rome. The Philippines — which is 60 times larger than Rome — only had 2.8 million visitors during the same year.
So what does this mean?
There is a shortage of Romans patient enough to give directions to the next bus stop while there is a surplus of Filipinos — at least 30 to a tourist — all too willing to answer any questions under the sun, proud of their abilities to communicate using broken English, complemented by various hand and facial gestures.
This discrepancy posed a problem for my wife and I when we were about to leave Rome and the bus we needed to catch was running late.
If we missed the bus to the train station, it might take awhile before we could board a train to the airport. A later train to the airport might mean a delayed connection to Paris, compromising the last stop of our European adventure.
We had become so desperate that we considered taking a cab. The idea was quickly dismissed when I learned that it might cost me an arm, a leg, and my other organs, unsavory and otherwise.
Why was the bus late?
I didn’t know but I was tasked to find out.
Armed with my poor English speaking skills and my atrocious Italian, I ambled to the station attendant and asked when was the bus arriving.
She answered me in broken English and then she shooed me off.
Was this racism?
Were my questions being dismissed outright because I wasn’t white? Was I making a fool of myself because I didn’t know how to speak their language properly? Was I being treated unfairly because I was overweight and therefore used more soap than thin people?
I didn’t know.
But I found out soon enough.
As I sat beside my wife in the waiting area, I saw various other tourists — some of whom spoke in English — getting the same treatment that I got. They asked the same set of questions that I asked but they were summarily dismissed, like appeals of lawyers with losing court cases.
Not long after, the bus arrived, making us consider the incident with some measure of fondness. (We did catch the plane to Paris, after all).
My wife and I loved Rome — we still do — despite having stayed for less than a week. And no bus station attendant, no matter how ill-tempered, was about to ruin that memory for us.

(This piece was written after a trip to Europe in 2007. It was finished more than a year later when a temporary alcohol shortage prompted me to do something else on a Saturday night. It was also published in GMANews.TV)

Holiday Road Rage

For those unaccustomed to the intricacies of Quezon City traffic, C.P. Garcia is the fastest route to Loyola Heights, Marikina City, Antipolo, and even to the famed C-5.
Since the four-lane thoroughfare has become everyone’s little secret shortcut, C. P. Garcia has been transmogrified into the street that traffic regulations forgot. (Then again, that could be EDSA but I digress.)
During rush hour, C. P. Garcia is thoroughly inhospitable, a mish-mash of flashy SUVs, dilapidated trucks, overloaded tricycles, and motorcycles carrying everything from oven-hot pizzas to day-old babies.
The holiday season only made it worse.
Any vehicle that dared enter C. P. Garcia during rush hour immediately fell prey to a kind of mechanical catatonia, in which anything with at least two wheels were absolutely incapable of forward movement.
One morning, while on an errand to buy beer, I avoided C. P. Garcia with the stealth of an errant Ninong on the run from a long-lost inaanak.
Instead of taking the avenue on the way to Cubao — where I was headed to buy party provisions — I took Commonwealth Avenue from UP, where I had earlier dropped off my wife.
All I had to do was to make a U-turn at the nearest slot, make another U-turn at the intersection of Commonwealth and Quezon Circle, bringing me to the Philcoa area.
Once I made a right on Masaya Street, I would be able to reach Kalayaan Avenue, which would then bring me straight to Aurora Boulevard.
But on that fateful day, my short trip to Cubao seemed like the road to perdition.
As I approached Masaya, I hit the signal light, indicating that I was going to make a right.
My intentions were casually ignored by a bus that cut me off.
It cruised right by, confident that its sheer size and heft allowed it to flout road courtesy.
I stopped and immediately made a left, thankful that the brakes worked, allowing me to avoid a collision.
Besides saving my life, the strategic move helped me fulfill the important role of providing joy and goodwill to my wife’s beer-drinking buddies that night.
But that would come much later.
When I veered away from the uncouth six-wheeled behemoth, I struggled to keep my cool.
After all, it was holiday season, a time when road rage and murderous intent is muted because spending Christmas in a funeral home is not a fate wished on even your worst enemies. (The arrangement sits well with undertakers working overtime though.)
But I absolutely blew my top when another bus immediately came barreling down on my left, intending to invade the lane I had already occupied halfway.
There I was, avoiding a bus-driving jerk on my right, and here was another bus, on my left, driven by a similar Neanderthal, threatening to plow into an old, rickety Toyota.
What was I to do?
I went absolutely postal.
It ticked me off, got my goat, made me fly off the handle, and countless other idioms that pop up whenever I type in the word “angry” in my laptop’s thesaurus software application.
I swerved to the left — immediately blocking the bus’ path — got off the car, and showed everyone else why I was the best argument for tighter gun control, and to a lesser degree, legalized abortion. (I’m not a gun owner, never will be.)
I went up to the bus, pointed to the driver, and asked him to step out of his vehicle. Although apologetic, he refused to open his doors and his companions — a bunch of conductors and ticket inspectors — gave me a look that said: “Would somebody please give this man his medication?”
Now, what good did that outburst do?
Absolutely nothing.
By the time I simmered down and eased the car out of the bus’ way, I was too far off to take a right at Masaya.
I was forced to enter C. P. Garcia, the very same road I had planned to avoid minutes before.
As I sat there in traffic, looking at the congestion brought about by the holidays, I said to myself: “Bah, humbug.”

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Also published at GMANews.TV.

The Locked Restroom Mystery

C. in Milano

THE police officer didn’t understand the word “trapped.”
“What is trapped?” he asked me, giving me a slightly amused look, gesturing with his hands, which were wide apart, as if emphasizing a point in a high school declamation contest.
“Trapped,” I said, nodding, returning his gaze. “What indeed is trapped?”
I looked at the pigeons in the square, thinking how easy their lives were.
Every single day without fail, these birds got by on leftover pieces of bread people fed them.
Meanwhile, here I was, at Italy’s famous Piazza del Duomo, grappling with a quandary rarely experienced by anyone, both in Manila and Milan. No, I wasn’t hungry. Nor did I have to go to great lengths to get my next meal—it would come from my wife who held our cash and planned our no-frills vacation.
Despite the privilege of being in Europe, I still felt that the pigeons were luckier than me.
After all, as I was contemplating the various synonyms of the word “trapped,” my wife was locked inside a nearby restroom trying in vain to get out. So how do I tell a carabinieri in very simple English that my wife was trapped inside a cubicle with a jammed lock?
I was stumped.
But only temporarily.
After all, I was an English major.
And this was my one chance in a million to prove to everyone that a Bachelor of Arts degree—or at least the one that I had—was useful in real life.
It was very easy. All I had to do was to process the knowledge I gained in college and put them to good use. Except that I had extended my stay in college because I was always drunk and/or sleepy, which, by the way, explains why I also dropped my basic Italian language class.
Had I known that ditching Italian would prove crucial some fifteen years or so after college, I would have completely aced it, just like the time I got a 1.0 after taking a Philosophy course the second time around.
But then again, as the Romans say, praemunitos, praemunitas, a phrase which I occasionally use to show that I understood Latin. I don’t.
Which explains why I didn’t rely on my tertiary education when my wife called out my name the minute she discovered that she was locked in.
Like all neanderthals who mistakenly consider themselves heroes, I rushed into the ladies’ room, knowing that I was venturing into unknown and dangerous territory.
Fortunately, it was still early in the morning and the area wasn’t congested.
Of the three women using the facilities, only two were able to exit their cubicles with ease. None of them happened to be my wife.
To justify my existence inside the ladies’ restroom—and to avert any attack from formidable Italian women armed with thick leather handbags and stilletoes—I went to the cubicle in question and assisted my wife with the lock.
After a few minutes of fiddling with it, I gave up and told her that I would be back with someone to help us.
This now brings us back to my original quandary.
“Trapped,” I told the carabinieri. “My wife is in the restroom and she can’t open the door.”
Restraining his smile, the officer agreed to accompany me.
However, when we arrived at the scene, my wife had already escaped the clutches of the stubborn door lock. How she did it, I will never know. After all, she was the acclaimed poet in our family and I was just the useless English major.
“Grazie,” I told the police officer as he left, grateful that I didn’t have a hangover the day the professor told us how to express thanks in Italian.

———————
Photo above shows a cheerful Conchitina R. Cruz posing at a statue located at the Piazza del Duomo, unaware of the dangerous consequences that would befall her while inside a Vittorio Emanuele restroom a week later.

Blown away by Pakistan: A guide to scoring beer and avoiding suicide bombers in the Land of the Pure

YOU’VE got to hand it to the Pakistanis for sheer persistence.

A day or two after a terrorist blew himself up—together with 42 others—in a Pakistan army training camp early this month, the country’s prime minister launched Destination Pakistan 2007 in New York. The campaign invited American tourists to visit the South Asian country, which, a Pakistan newspaper said, “had great cultural heritage and scenic beauty that offered a unique blend to international tourists.”

While I had no doubts about Pakistan ‘s charm and the “unique blend” it offered to its visitors—whatever that was (curry?)—I knew that somewhere in Islamabad , the capital, bureaucrats were gnashing their teeth over how the attack squandered the country’s opportunity to promote itself.

However, I wasn’t overly concerned about the attack’s effects on Pakistan ‘s tourism industry. I was mainly concerned about the attack’s effects on myself. Sure, I wished to be blown away by Pakistan’s attractions but I meant that figuratively.

After all, when the suicide bomber met his Maker—in a manner that can be considered grand, depending on one’s interpretation of Islam—I was in Peshawar, some 100 kilometers away from ground zero, doing what self-proclaimed journalists do best: nothing.

Since I was a veteran Filipino parachute journalist—experienced in the ways of drinking beer, avoiding work, and producing dandruff out of thin air—I found it easy to survive, thanks to the impeccable accomodations at the Pearl Continental Peshawar.

The PC, as the famous Pakistani hotel chain was called, was where three other Filipino journalists and I were staying during the third day of our nine-day, five city tour across Pakistan.

Populated by 162 million people, the country has varying degrees of tension with some of its neighbors—a 50 year-old border dispute with India and the occasional conflict with Afghanistan. It is currently chummy with China, perhaps the only country in the world which has good relations with both the Chinese and the Americans.

Our trip, sponsored by the Islamabad Strategic Studies Institute (ISSI), was not a walk in the park. Or at least for individuals such as myself who occasionally enjoy cold, alcoholic beverages, especially after loafing around all day.

Pakistani beers

Beer is widely available at hotels as long as you show your passport—as proof that you're not a Pakistani citizen—and that you should place an order before nine in the evening.

Since Pakistan was an Islamic country, access to such drinks was difficult. But there were ways of wetting one’s whistle without getting a fatwa.

According to a Pakistani friend, alcoholic drinks were available in hotels but these orders need to be placed in advance and required immediate cash payment. This was the very first piece of good news I learned upon reaching Karachi, the city we visited during our first day.

Eager to confirm this new information, I immediately summoned our hotel’s room service and ordered three cold ones. Minutes later, the precious cargo—three half-liter bottles of locally-brewed Murree Hill beers—were delivered to my room.

As soon as I settled the exorbitant bill (approximately P300 per bottle), I gave a self-congratulatory toast and welcomed myself to Pakistan. It was a rare moment to be savored: not only was I visiting the country for the very first time, I was also drinking on the job.

Fun at the Jinnah Museum

KARACHI looks suspiciously like Metro Manila in the late eighties—old buildings begging for a makeover, antiquated taxicabs belching smoke all over the place, and colorful Japanese minibuses trying to run down and quite possibly, maim the occasional wayward pedestrian.

But if there is one thing that sets Pakistan ‘s financial capital from Metro Manila then and now, it is the Jinnah International Airport (JIA).

With surprisingly minimal traffic along roads leading to and from the said airport, the terminal also features a scanner—embedded inside a fairly large speed bump—along the entrance, allowing authorities to check for bombs underneath every vehicle. (At Islamabad International, besides the embedded scanner, there was a turret at the gates occupied by a soldier wielding a machine gun. He was prepared to pump heavy artillery into anyone who tried to make fun of Pakistani food or President Musharraf’s moustache. To play it safe, I only remarked upon President Arroyo’s height, Speaker de Venecia’s ears, and, of course, the importance of free speech.)

Message on the bus would have a different meaning in Metro Manila in this picture taken in Islamabad.

Message on the bus would have a different meaning in Metro Manila in this picture taken in Islamabad.

The airport named after Pakistan ‘s founder has its fair share of wide spaces, clean toilets, adequate seating, and—get this—free internet access via desktop computers at various departure gates.

If airports, in any way, help foreigners form a lasting impression of the cities they visit, the JIA was a good indication that I was going to enjoy Karachi.

During our second day, we were brought to the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who served as the British governor-general of a Indian province which would later be known as Pakistan.

In 1947, when India ‘s independence from Britain became imminent, Jinnah established Pakistan by separating from the former British colony due to fears that the Muslim minority may be oppressed under the Hindu majority. (Nearly three decades later, the area which used to be East Pakistan repeated history. After a civil war with West Pakistan, it separated itself from Pakistan and called itself Bangladesh.)

Jinnah’s mausoleum is located at the city’s highest point. It also serves as one of the spectacles of Karachi ‘s skyline, especially considering that the tallest building in Pakistan’s largest city has only 25 storeys. (Not surprisingly, the second tallest building has 24 floors.)

Built shortly after Jinnah’s death, the mausoleum is a testament to how Pakistanis give reverence to their Quaid-i-Azam (national hero). Surrounded on all sides by a sprawling park, the whole compound was clean and well-maintained, much like very own Luneta, without pesky photographers who stalk tourists until they agree to pay to have their pictures taken.

Meanwhile, Jinnah’s remains are inside a room 14 feet underground. Inaccessible to the general public, the room is decorated with white marble tablets, each piece lovingly hand-carved and hand-polished by hundreds of artisans.

A museum can also be found within the compound, featuring some of the leader’s clothes, his furniture, and his cars, a 1938 Packard and a 1947 Cadillac, which was a gift from the US government. Unfortunately, in their rush to show their generosity, the Americans may have forgotten that Pakistan, like India and the UK, drove on the right side of the road.

Safe shopping near the world’s ambush capital

OF Pakistan’s many cities, Peshawar perhaps is the most inured to massacres and suicide attacks, no thanks to its proximity to Khyber Pass, a trade and military route along the mountains near the Afghanistan border.

Famous for military encounters dating back to Alexander the Great, the route may as well be the world’s ambush capital.

Despite its bloody history, the Pass as well as Peshawar remains mainly populated by Pashtuns, who continue to oppose any form of central authority governing their affairs.

In a way, the Pashtuns are similar to your garden-variety, right-wing—and somewhat nutty—libertarian American (think Grover Norquist). Except that the Pashtuns are better at bucking the intrusion of central authority than the Americans, having successfully resisted British colonization centuries ago. Currently, tribal elders have grudgingly agreed to coordinate with Pakistan’s political agents regarding certain policies.

Shown are signs along Pakistan's Motorway, seen as an alternative to its train system.

Shown are signs along Pakistan's Motorway, seen as an alternative to its train system.

As we were waiting to board our flight to the land of Pashtuns, I stumbled upon another similarity between the the Pearl of the Orient Seas and the Land of the Pure: both our flag carriers had the punctuality of a Filipino congressman attending a House committee hearing.

Accustomed to a culture of tardiness, I simply sat down and waited, munching on a chicken sandwich so bland that I considered nibbling on my boarding pass.

An hour later, we found out that the delay owed to the plane’s flat tire. At least this was a good enough excuse. But more than that, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) also offered better value for money than their Filipino counterparts.

Although the Karachi to Peshawar flight took ninety minutes—just about the same it took to fly from Manila to Davao—the Pakistan government’s favorite airline served a full course meal: a curry-laced rice meal, drinks, the works. Compare that with Philippine domestic flights: passengers got a snack ration that would scandalize a United Nations refugee.

Upon arriving in Peshawar , our sponsors cancelled plans to visit the Khyber Rifles Mess Hall, no thanks to the suicide attack that very same day.

Since our hosts discouraged us from going anywhere outside the city, we managed to entertain ourselves by shopping at the hotel’s exotic shops which sold jewelry from Iran, Iraq , Afghanistan , and Pakistan .

Burning rubber in Bhurban

WHEN we left Peshawar the next morning, we knew that we were embarking on an adventure which we were way too old to enjoy. Two Toyota pickup trucks filled with half a dozen armed policemen stayed in front and behind our van as we moved in a convoy en route to Bhurban, a popular vacation resort similar to Baguio City.

Every ten or so minutes, the truck in front would slow down, take the road shoulder, and disappear from view. It would then be replaced by another truck, filled with the same number of rifle-toting policemen whose faces seemed to betray a sense of resignation owing to their simple yet tedious task: escort duty for a Filipino media delegation, including a bibulous deadline-beater whose military experience was limited to watching Police Academy: The Movie.

The changing of our guard went on until we exited the Grand Trunk Road and entered the Motorway, a highway network which connects the whole country to serve as an alternative to Pakistan’s comprehensive rail system.

However, just a few minutes into the trip, we became more concerned about road safety than a terrorist attack, no thanks to our driver who, from the looks of it, was previously employed as a cabbie in Manhattan.

Besides burning enough rubber to color the highway black, he never slowed down, even while ascending Bhurban’s steep roads, which had curves more dangerous than a female James Bond villain.

Whenever he gunned the engine and sped through an uphill blind curve, I held on for dear life, praying to all the Gods I knew, including Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Buddha, Brothers Mike and Ely.

Fortunately, except for nearly having a massive coronary attack, nothing untoward happened, enabling me to heave a sigh of relief, enjoy the cool weather and the offerings at the PC Bhurban.

Reportedly Pakistan’s most expensive hotel, the PC Bhurban featured a viewing deck connected to an al fresco dining area which gave guests—mostly newlywed Pakistani couples on their honeymoon—an impressive view of the mountains and hills.

In a country almost always known for conflict and strife, Bhurban proved that Pakistan had more to offer the world than just Kashmir or Khyber Pass.

I took in the view, had supper, and got myself a good night’s sleep. After all, we were going down the same route the next day with the same driver. And when we did, not even the Taliban could force me into skipping the seat belt this time.

Loving Lahore

VISITING Pakistan without dropping by Lahore is much like going to the US without experiencing New York City. Being the country’s cultural capital, Lahore is just about the most cheerful, most laid-back, and the most welcoming city in the country.

During our two-day stay, our delegation was stopped more than once by locals who wanted to know where we were from and why we visited. They also asked to have their pictures taken with us, a request we found odd because none of us could be mistaken for the next Pakistani Idol.

Surprisingly, we found it easy to pose and show our pearly whites in front of their cameras. After all, not only were we already charmed by the city’s pleasant weather, we have also become so easily enamored with its attractions such as the Lahore Museum.

The repository of more than 40,000 poems, the museum also displayed stupas, a number of which were reconfigured and enhanced by the museum’s staff, owing to their old age and varying stages of disrepair.

The preservation of these stupas—spherical towers which were erected to honor a devout Buddhist practitioner—only underscored Pakistani society’s tolerance for beliefs other than Islam.

However, the museum’s main attraction may very well be a painting by the famous Pakistani artist Ustad Allah Bux. Not only does the title exactly describe the work’s subject—Bull in Fields—it also showcases a captivating optical illusion.

When viewed on the left, the rightmost bull, pulling a plow, is seen headed westward. Conversely, when viewed on the right, the same bull appears to be heading straight towards the horizon.

Bux’s fascinating work meanwhile compares to the delights offered by the Badshahi mosque, the second-largest structure of its kind in the country.

Besides being a feast for the eyes, the majestic structure was an auditory wonder: whisper in any one of the nooks and you would be heard clearly in another corner. This made it easy for an Imam to lead the Muslim faithful in prayer, even without audio equipment and even in a packed crowd of 55,000, which is the mosque’s capacity.

Finally, no visit to Lahore is complete without experiencing the flag-lowering ceremony, an event that true military aficionado would appreciate.

Held at the Wagha border, the ritual, undertaken everyday since 1947, represented the bittersweet regret of both Pakistan and India after each went their separate ways. It also enabled both Pakistanis and Indians to show their sense of pride whenever they cheered on their soldiers, who marched and paraded in front of their gates, which secured their respective boundaries.

Although the ceremony bordered on the jingoistic, it nonetheless emphasized what Filipinos tragically lacked and what both Pakistanis and Indians have in abundance: a sense of country and a love for their motherland.

Pakistan, unlike the Philippines, may not be on anyone’s list of places to visit anytime soon. But with the kind of citizens that they had—proud of their unique national identity and their heritage—the Land of the Pure can teach the Pearl of the Orient Seas a thing or two about patriotism.