That night was especially cold in Osaka. It was my first Christmas Eve away from home; I had always celebrated the occasion with family. That night, however, there won’t be any noche buena or wine or reunions for me.
I picked up my luggage at the hotel and made my way to Umeda Sky Building where I would catch the overnight Willer bus to Tokyo. Yes, I would be welcoming Christmas on the road. Merry Christmas to me indeed.
I enjoy planning trips, but I refuse to be overly meticulous about it. What greeted me at the Umeda Sky Building is one of the reasons why. I didn’t know that it hosts one of the city’s biggest winter events — the German Christmas Market. I was so pleasantly surprised that I felt my insides turn liquid. In my stomach were not butterflies but fairies, determined to shoo away the holiday blues that had overtaken me. For a split second, I believed in magic and all the crazy, juvenile delusions that the season brings.
“We’re on the wrong boat,” he shouted in utter exuberance as he turned his gaze back to the nearby junk. The other boat was having a party, complete with loud electronic dance music that reverberated onto the walls of ours. Kid — his name was Kid — posed as though he was ready to jump into the water and swim to the “party boat”, as what he called it. The only thing that stopped him was the humongous jellyfish that Matt caught earlier that night. “There might be plenty of them where it came from,” Matt warned.
“I’m right where I want to be,” I said joshingly as I climbed the stairs in search of a little quiet. This was exactly how I imagined my day would end — lying comfortably on the top deck of the boat, with a drink in one hand and a Neil Gaiman book in the other under the velvet skies. Starless — stars have become as elusive as peace of mind these days — but the emptiness was oddly therapeutic.
We almost skipped it, and it would’ve been a mistake.
Stupid as it sounds, what to wear is one thing that I usually do not pay attention to when planning for a trip. I would check the weather, directions, admission fees, but not the dress code. So basic but often gets overlooked by me. This flaw became obvious when I visited the Grand Palace.
The sign by the entrance was clear as day. No shorts. And that’s exactly what we were wearing that afternoon. A guy by the gate was renting out pants, but my thinning wallet was adamant in saying no. I proposed to my friends that we skip it and continue the temple-hopping another day, when we are better dressed; they agreed in a heartbeat. As we walked away to the pier, I felt my feet get heavier in every step. A nagging thought screamed that there might not be a next time. I halted, asked my friends to head back with me, and checked if there was a workaround somewhere. The pants vendor by the gate was forceful in stopping me from entering — “Shorts not allowed. You have to buy!” — but I waltzed into the site anyway. Good call. Visitors can actually borrow pants! A 200-baht deposit is required, but it is refundable. In no time, we were lining up for a wardrobe change.
With a paper plate of chocolate-banana chocolat banane waffle in one hand, I surveyed the park for a vacant seat and found one punctuating a grove of manicured trees. Sweet, I whispered as I pulled a chair and settled. The scene was just as cliché as I imagined, but, heck, I was loving it. I was enjoying waffles in one corner of the Tuileries Garden and listening to Lana del Rey while keeping my eyes on that pointy metal structure that poked the Parisian sky — the Eiffel Tower.
But the world-famous landmark would have to wait at that point. It was my first day in Paris, and the tower was not yet part of the plan. That afternoon was reserved for Champs-Élysées, ending here at the Tuileries Garden. Just in front of me was Place de la Concorde, Paris’s largest public square. The place is peaceful now. Over 200 years ago, however, it was the site of one of the most important events in French history. This was where King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine. Today, the only commotion that occurs here is that of tourists finding a good spot for a quick rest after hours of sightseeing.
My walk began at the other end of Champs-Élysées, a 1.9-km long boulevard that connects Place de la Concorde and Place Charles de Gaulle. A stroll along the famed avenue introduces many of the city’s most popular tourist spots. Here are some of them.
I was given a small sack to put my shoes in as I was approaching the door. Despite the big crowd outside, I was delightfully surprised to see the hall almost empty. Too bad it lasted for only a minute as others flooded in immediately.
Wat Pho is famed for the enormous reclining Buddha that it shelters. The 15m high and 43m long image rests inside a well-decorated hall. While I was expecting the image to be big, I was shocked to stand before a massive, massive figure. Its highly ornate feet alone are 3m tall and 4.5 m long. (Can you picture that?) The statue itself is covered and surrounded with Buddhist and Thai symbols.
Two years ago, I was already halfway when I decided against climbing all the way to the top. The gloomy skies were starting to spit showers, and I was terrified that the floor would turn slippery any moment. The stairs of Wat Arun were rather narrow. I was as clingy to the hand railings as I was to my ex. But that’s for another story.
When I returned to Bangkok this year, I paid this temple another visit, only so I could finally reach the top level of the site’s main spire.
Located on the west bank of Chao Phraya, Wat Arun Ratcha Wararam Ratchaworamahawihan is dedicated to the second reign of the Chakkri Dynasty. Known to locals as Wat Chaeng or Temple of Dawn, it is believed that King Taksin, after escaping Ayutthaya which was attacked by the Burmese, reached the place just before sunrise. He then made the place the chief temple. It once housed the precious Emerald Buddha and the Phra Bang (another important image) which were moved from the Lao city of Vientiane.
They were in Manila for business. Saritha was from Bahrain and Scott from the United States. How I ended up in their company was the result of a friend’s blackmail spirited persuasion. My friend Grace wanted to show them around as it was their first time in Manila. With Scott serving in the military in the past, Corregidor was an easy pick. But Grace thought that me tagging along would make the trip more insightful. Silly her, it was my first time in Corregidor, too!
I have lived in Manila for almost a decade now, but I had never left footprints on Corregidor Island. It was one of those plans that I often overlooked because of proximity. (I always had an excuse along the lines of I-can-visit-it-anytime-anyway.) It just won’t happen. But with a friend constantly bugging me, it finally did.
Corregidor was officially called Fort Mills during the American era but was also commonly referred to as “The Rock” for its terrain and fortifications, and “Gibraltar of the East” for its resemblance to Mediterranean Sea’s peninsular fortress. Strategically located at the mouth of Manila Bay, it is the biggest of the heavily fortified islands that make up the harbor defenses of the capital.
It played a pivotal role during the Pacific War, with its fall signaling Japanese victory and the start of their occupation of the Philippines (1942-45). We all know how horrible that turned out to be.
I picked up the paper-thin slice of fish and silently hoped it wouldn’t be the last thing I would do. That night, I did not plan on having fugu, Japan’s deadly delicacy. I did not plan on dying, either.
How I ended up at a fugu place was a matter of fate. Like the last time I was here, I could not choose where to have dinner. Picking a restaurant is never easy in Dotonbori. Osaka is the center of the Japanese food culture, and it can’t be any more evident in Dotonbori. Dozens of food places, from small kiosks to proper restaurants, flank the main street and its inner alleys, bombarding tourists with countless options if not blinding them with giant electronic displays. I checked out one menu after another and still could not pick one, for the life of me. It was only when I felt my knees begin throwing curse words at me that I finally declared to enter whatever establishment was behind me. I looked up and found a giant pufferfish lantern dangling overhead.
They say I should look forward to the journey from Batan Island to Sabtang. They say it is unforgettable. The waters between Batan and Sabtang Islands have a reputation of being rough, turbulent, frightening. This is where the currents of the vast West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and the even bigger Pacific Ocean clash. Sabtang is accessible via a 30-minute ride aboard the faluwa, the bigger traditional Ivatan boat. Like the tataya, the Ivatan dory, they do not have outriggers (katig), either. They say every ride is quite an experience.
I slept through it. Dang it! Blame the weather.
I arrived at Ivana Port as early as 6:30am. The balmy morning turned drizzly in an instant. From the port I could already see the dark clouds hovering over Sabtang Island. When we landed at the San Vicente Port in Sabtang, drizzly turned rainy. But the trip must go on.
I was greeted by our guide, driving a unique tricycle. In Sabtang, their version of the trusty tricycle has a cogon-roofed sidecar. Our first stop was the Tourism Office, where we registered and paid the P200 (USD 5) Environmental Fee. One can easily complain it is a steep rate, but considering that none of the attractions on the island collect entrance fees and that Sabtang will wrap and smother you with all kinds of beauty, I believe it is more than fair.
Tourists are encouraged to spend at least one night on the island for a fuller experience, but day tours are a good option for those who don’t have time on their side. However, given that the last trip back to Batanes is at 1pm, day trippers will find themselves staying shorter at each stop and haunted by the threat of missing the last boat.
We waited for the rain to subside a little, and when it did it was on! Here are the highlights of the tour.
There’s a lot to be envied about lighthouses. They exude a kind of charm and enigma just by standing still. They command attention without even trying. And they always have the best view.
There’s even more to be envied about those that stand proud in the hills of Batanes. They are relatively new and well-maintained. They are never lonely, sought by rabid tourists, and photographed by those who wish to immortalize their moments with them. And as sentinels of the northernmost province, they face no existential dilemmas for no one can deny their importance.