I went to Dumaguete and brought home a yoga mat

Edges of yoga mats made on Apo Island are specially designed, making them more flexible than regular mats. (AC Dimatatac)

Edges of yoga mats made on Apo Island are specially designed, making them more flexible than regular mats. (Photo by AC Dimatatac)

ORIGINALLY, I wanted to title this piece, “I went to Dumaguete and all I got was a crummy yoga mat.”

It was funny but untrue; an exaggeration.

After all, the yoga mat wasn’t crummy—it is a product of a tradition that, if left unsupported, will die and wither away like careers of certain pseudo-professionals such as, for instance, myself.

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Five reasons why I am addicted to Granta

The very first Granta I ever owned and read (Tinzeen.com)

(WARNING: This piece is roughly 1,800 words long and reading it may interrupt your Facebook status updates. It is recommended that you read this at the office while pretending to work since doing so at home may reduce time for casual surfing.)

Granta doesn’t call itself the Magazine of New Writing for nothing.
Through the years, it has published many young writers, introducing the world to the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeanette Winterson, among others, through its Best of Young British Novelists issue, released every decade since 1983.
However, a few volumes have been underwhelming. Or at least to me they were.
Take Granta 45 which carried the theme Gazza Agonistes.
Half of it is devoted to football player Paul Gascoigne, which I’m sure would be a hit among fans but not to this reader, who knows next to nothing about sports. I tried to read it twice — promise! — but I was unable to finish it. (Sorry, Ian Hamilton) [See: Paul Gascoigne]
Another such issue is Granta 106: New Fiction Special.
More than half of the stories in the issue failed to impress me, a person who reads for entertainment more than anything else.
But then again, that’s another story.
Nine times out of ten — probably even more — the contributors, editors, artists, and staff at Granta produce a volume of writing so refreshing that readers are prompted to store and collect them as “books,” not as magazines, which are likely to be disposed of as soon as the new issue arrives.
This explains why I have more than 40 volumes of Granta “magazines” on my shelf, which have been bought from Booksale, a used bookstore in Paris, and
through a subscription in the US.
The collection includes volumes published as books, such as The Granta Book of Reportage, the Granta Book of the Family, and Joan Didion’s Miami.
To this day, I have yet to personally meet someone who has a larger Granta collection than I do.
And so, as an indulgent tribute to my collection, I have come up with five reasons why I remain grateful to and for Granta Magazine.

1) Granta publishes good writing. Period.

A chunk of readers still distinguishes fiction and journalism, as if one was a diametric opposite of the other. Granta makes no such distinction, offering to publish good writing. To this end, it has published pieces of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who also wrote a non-fiction book, News of a Kidnapping) and Salman Rushdie, Ryszard Kapucinski, who went to Ethiopia in 1974 after the downfall of Haile Selassie, and James Fenton, who covered the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. (Another Granta contributor, James Hamilton Paterson, who shuttles between Italy and the Philippines, has written a Granta-published book about the Marcos family entitled America’s Boy). [See: America’s Boy]

The special Granta issue featuring james Fenton's coverage of the EDSA I revolution

In his introduction to the Granta Book of Reportage, Ian Jack refers to the so-called demarcation between literature and journalism:

“Are they to be described as ‘writing’ in the sense of literature, or as ‘journalism’? I have never quite known where one begins and the other ends and…the question is neither interesting nor meaningful — literature not being an ‘objectively ascertainable category to which certain works naturally belong’ but more or less what ‘culture-controlling groups’ decide it is.”

2) Granta offers both history and geography lessons.

The magazine is decidely British but its outlook is global.
Its latest issue is about Pakistan, which was recently reviewed by the New York Times. [See: Blown Away by Pakistan: A guide to scoring beer and avoiding suicide bombers in the Land of the Pure]
The Magazine’s Pakistan-themed Autumn 2010 issue is “a good place to start…if cross-cultural interaction can play a part in minimizing anomosities and encouraging amity,” its reviewer Isaac Chotiner says. [See: New York Times Review of Granta’s Pakistan issue]
Based on its previous issues, the magazine will continue to cover other countries below the radar of privately-owned international news companies.
In its Travel issue (Granta 26), Jeremy Harding wrote about the Polisario (Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia El Hamra y Rio de Oro), a movement that sought to liberate two Western Saharan provinces — Saguia El Hamra and Rio de Oro — from Spanish colonization.
But in 1975, when Western Sahara was decolonized — coinciding with the end of Francisco Franco’s term — Morocco and Mauritania claimed the territory.
Polisario’s guerillas were later able to debilitate Mauritania, prompting the country to give up its claim, Harding writes in the issue.
But not so with Morocco.
With US support, Morocco was able to build a wall — known as the Berm of the Western Sahara — that not only protected its territory but encroached on the claim of Polisario and its independent state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. [See: Western Sahara Wall]
In his piece entitled Polisario, Harding continues to say that:

“[t]he great success of the wall, it struck me, was to assert its presence to such an extent that you seldom felt unseen or unaccounted for. It had imposed its own order on the desert by turning vast, homogeneous tracts of rubble into an arcane grid of concourses and pathways, some brightly lit and therefore dangerous, the others dark and apparently safe.”

3) Granta rarely repeats its themes.

And when it does, it’s an improvement over the original.
Take its Travel issue, which came out in Spring 1989, with four contributions from travel writer Bruce Chatwin. (If you haven’t read him, he’s the guy that Moleskine uses to advertise its notebooks. Chatwin loved them so much that when its store was about to be shuttered, he bought nearly all their supplies. Or so Moleskine claims.)
The Travel issue was so successful it was repeated nearly two decades later with Granta 94: On the Road Again: Where Travel Writing Went Next, released in Summer 2006.
I preferred the sequel because the original had one Chatwin piece too many and the former featured one of the best short stories I have ever read in Granta entitled How to Fly, by John Burnside, which begins thus:

“I flew for the first time when I was nine years old. Nobody saw it happen, but that didn’t bother me: the Wright Brothers’ earliest ascent had also been conducted in the strictest secrecy and, until public pressure forced them out of hiding, any number of successful flights had gone unwitnessed. Of course, Orville and Wilbur hadn’t attempted to do what I was doing: like Bleriot and Santos-Dumont, they were changing the known world, but they weren’t committed to flying in the purest sense. They were mechanics, not angels; and what I wanted was something that they had never even considered and, though I knew I was destined to fail, I wasn’t prepared to settle for anything as mundane as a flying machine.”

And speaking of Granta themes, I have a couple of favorites, including but not limited to Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater and Murder.

The former wasn’t actually a theme — it was a mishmash of stories and pieces, including one about the Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi, who was an apprentice of Max Vargas, the father of Alberto Vargas, who would become famous for stylized drawings of pin-up girls, also known as Varga girls. [See: Alberto Vargas]

Alberto Vargas' pin-up girls were the Anime of the 1950s. (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com)

Meanwhile, the second theme featured the Murderee, a novella by Martin Amis that later became the novel London Fields. In 1989, it was delisted from the Booker Prize because judges disliked the way women were portrayed.
I have yet to get myself a copy of the novel because the story’s structure and the language is highly original, as indicated in its first few chapters published by Granta:

“Nicola knew two strange things. The second strange thing was that she must never tell anyone about the first strange thing. The first strange thing was this: she always knew what was going to happen next.”

“…the shrieking gossip of the yard — with a cluck-cluck here and a whoof-whoof there, here a cheep, there a moo, everywhere an oink-oink.”

4) Granta helps with playing Trivial Pursuit.

Yes, it’s true.
Some four years ago, when friends regularly played the 20th edition of Trivial Pursuit during weekends, I was asked to identify a South American country whose leader was named Stroessner. (I forgot how the question was phrased exactly and I’ve searched far and wide on Google for it to no avail.)
I was able to answer the question immediately, to my rivals’ disbelief.
“Paraguay,” I said.
“How could you know that?” I remember the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Alcuin Papa asking me, right palm on his forehead.
“Simple,” I told him and his teammates who couldn’t believe their bad luck. “I just finished reading Granta, which did a feature on Paraguay.”
Granta 31, published in Spring 1990, was entitled The General, referring to Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator of Paraguay, who ruled for 35 years from 1954 to 1989. [See: Alfredo Stroessner]
In an 82-page piece written by Isabel Hilton, she says:

“When he fell, thirty-five years later, he held a number of records. He was the longest-serving dictator in the western hemisphere and the second-longest in the world.: only Kim Il-Sung outlasted him. The world had lived through thirty-five years of history, but three-quarters of the population of Paraguay had known no other leader, and there was not an institution or political party in the country that had not been shaped by his presence…Television began and ended with his heavy features and a march named after him. There was a Stroessner Polka, for more light-hearted occasions. The airport was named after him. The free-port on the Brazilian frontier was called Puerto Stroessner. There were Stroessner statues, avenues, and roads, and official portraits of him hung in every office and school.” [See: Isabel Hilton]

5) Granta has yet to gain a following among Filipinos.

Many Filipinos hooked on Western publications read New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, Esquire, and the usual glossies (i.e., Time, Fortune).
Once, more than fifteen years ago, I walked into an upscale magazine store in Makati and asked for the latest copy of Harper’s Magazine.
“We have Harper’s Bazaar,” the salesperson said, dismissive. “And sir, there’s no such thing as Harper’s Magazine.”
I let it go, despite the fact that I knew all along about the magazine that Lewis Lapham edited and that years before, my grandparents bought me a year’s subscription of the magazine, which, surprisingly, was delivered to my doorstep a month ahead of the issue’s date.
Ignorance is bliss and I wasn’t about to get in the way of her Nirvana.
So what’s my point?
Some people — even those who read New Yorker — may not know about Granta.
As far as I know, it’s not even available in Solidaridad Bookstore, owned by writer F. Sionil Jose, which is frequented by the likes of Supreme Court Justice Adolf Azcuna. [See: F. Sionil Jose, Adolf Azcuna]
Which is a good thing.
It means less demand for Granta in the Philippines, and more chances for me to buy it, whether on Booksale or Fully-Booked.
Granta may not like that but hey, that’s the way it is.

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.