Archive for the Travel Category

Wi-Fi in the Sky

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2010 by Ruffy Biazon

Anyone who has ever ridden on a plane knows the drill. As soon as you board the plane, the flight attendants instruct the passengers to turn off cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices such as MP3 players and video games until the “fasten your seatbelt” sign is turned off. But cellphones may not be used at any time. Upon landing, passengers are once again instructed repeatedly to only use their cell phones once inside the terminal building.

Of course, there are always some hard-headed passengers who simply ignore these instructions, to the irritation of the flight crew and the horror of some passenger who’s afraid that the electronic device will cause the plane to crash (like my ten year old son). During the last campaign, when I was able to ring up my frequent flyer miles due to the daily provincial sorties, I got used to other passengers continuing with their cell phone conversations even while the plane was about to take off and the beeps of incoming messages as they turned on their mobile units as soon as the plane’s wheels touched the ground.

You can’t blame the flight attendants if sometimes their reminder about keeping electronic devices off while in the plane already sounds like a teacher berating a noisy student. After all, it is already an established safety procedure.

Aerial shot I took of the Lincoln Memorial, Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument as we were about to land in Washington D.C.

But during our last trip to the United States last month, I was pleasantly surprised that one airline, instead of instructing you to turn off your cell phone and make you feel like you will be in a coffin cut off from the world for the duration of the flight, encourages you to use your wi-fi enabled device and connect to the world (and part with your hard earned money).

Delta Airlines offers Wi-Fi on board selected flights in the United States

Delta Airlines (are you paying attention, Delta?) has wi-fi enabled flights letting you connect to the internet while flying thousands of feet above the ground. Surfing in the clouds! I was so thrilled with the idea, I became the fool who parted with his $10 just to be able to go online and post a status in my Facebook and Twitter and share with anyone who cared that I was up in the high levels of the earth’s atmosphere while surfing the net.

Although the thought crossed my mind that it was a waste of money, I tried to convince myself that the three hour flight would have been boring if I didn’t purchase a connection.

They were also lenient in their rules, allowing the use of cellphones even while the plane was taxiing to its take off position, and allowing the use again as the aircraft taxied to the terminal after landing.

So, it’s not that dangerous to use cellphones after all. I guess the airlines here in the Philippines just want to be extra careful. One time, on a flight to Cebu, I gently reminded my wife (emphasis on gently) to turn off her cellphone because we were already taxiing to the runway for take off. I told her it was a safety rule.

She did turn off her cell immediately. After which she told me, “if these were really that dangerous, then why don’t the terrorists just ride the plane and turn their cellphones on?”

She was kidding, of course. But it did get me thinking.

Surfing in the sky with my iPad

During that mile-high wi-fi experience, I got to surfing about electronic devices on board airplanes. One site said that the Federal Communications Commission of the United States banned the use of cellphones on bard aircraft back in 1991 because there was a suspicion that the signals interfered with aircraft navigation and communications equipment. The Federal Aviation Administration agrees with the FCC and imposed the regulation on commercial aircraft.

Another site tells of an interview with a pilot over ABC News where in the pilot said that the rule for electronic devices to be turned off is meant to ensure that the passengers’ attention are exclusively fixed on the flight crew as they give the safety briefing before the plane takes off. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Some say that the suspicion that the electronic devices cause harm to the planes equipment has not yet been proven by tests, but it was decided that prudence dictates that it would be better to err on the side of safety. Hence, the ban stays, although various airlines have adopted various rules as to when the cell units should be turned off and when it may be turned on.

As for me, being an avid viewer of Air Crash Investigations in National Geographic Channel, I’d rather not risk my cell phone causing anything that would make the plane I’m riding in get in trouble so I’m obedient when it comes to instructions to turn off electronic devices. And if you’re sitting beside me, you will get a verbal reminder from me if you are not convinced by my accusing glare.

But if I fly Delta, I will happily get my credit card and iPad out and surf in the sky.


My Ho Chi Minh City List

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , on September 22, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

10 Things that Makes Ho Chi Minh City Better than Metro Manila

1. Their pedestrian sidewalks are wide.

2. They have tree-lined streets.

3. They have well-maintained and landscaping in center islands.

4. They don’t have ridiculously colored “roadside furniture” (pink fences and pink toilets), as MMDA calls theirs.

5. There are trash bins at almost every corner.

6. They have many parks with lush greenery and tall trees scattered around the city.

7. They don’t have traffic enforcers but somehow the flow of vehicles is continuous.

8. They don’t have maniacal bus and jeepney drivers clogging their roadways.

9. Even with the millions of motorcycles on the road, there isn’t a single one with a modified muffler to make the motorcycle noisier.

10. Even with the millions of motorcycles on the road, the air is much more breathable than Metro Manila.

10 Things I Observed as a Pedestrian in ho Chi Minh City

1. Motorcycle riders in Ho Chi Minh City, young or old, man or woman, are skilled at avoiding pedestrians.
2. Pedestrian sidewalks serve as alternate routes in case of traffic congestion.
3. A motorcycle can be used to deliver furniture, big boxes, flower arrangements and even a huge glass panes. No need for delivery trucks.
4. A family of four can fit comfortably on a motorbike. And it is allowed by the law, as long as the children are below 7 years old.
5. Few people use the pedestrian sidewalks walking to their destination. Motorcycles are the main mode of mobility. Even on sidewalks.
6. Even construction workers have their own motorcycles to go to work.
7. There is valet parking at some establishments. The valets are skilled not only in driving but also Tetris..that’s how they park the motorcycles.
8. The traffic lights are just a suggestion.
9. If you want to teach your child about how blood cells flow in the body, let them observe the flow of motorcycle traffic in the streets of HCMC. It’s pretty much like that.
10. There are many sidewalk eateries. But they all use kiddie size tables and chairs.

My Pedestrian Experience in Ho Chi Minh City

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , on September 20, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

It was a Sunday and my wife and I agreed that she could stay in bed longer while I go out for a photo safari in the streets of Ho Chi Minh.

I donned my most comfortable shoes, put a spare battery, memory cards, Vietnamese money in small denominations, cellphone and a small map in my multi-pocket cargo pants. I stepped out of the hotel around 7:00 AM, expecting to take photos of the empty streets.

But the moment I got out of the front driveway of the hotel, I realized that I was wrong. Early Sunday morning in Ho Chi Minh does not equate with empty streets. It was more like business as usual, meaning that the streets are still populated by the continuous flow of motorcycles. I guess taking a photo of an empty HCMC street is out of the question.

I walked towards the direction I plotted out in my map. Good thing I earned my orienteering badge when I was a Boy Scout. My first target was the Saigon Opera House which was just about a hundred meters away from our hotel. In our hotel room, there were a couple of old photographs of the Opera House taken several decades ago. I wanted to do some comparisons.

When I got to the building, there was a set up for what seemed to be a concert. Chairs were lined up like a theater in front of the main entrance, and a sound system set up with massive speakers was ready for the performance. There was no one else around except the sound technician, who apparently likes Kenny G. One of the jazz musician’s top hits in the 80’s was playing over and over again. The song filled the whole square, to the delight of no one in particular except the technician.

After spending several minutes and more than a dozen frames, I continued my walk. I passed what seemed to be a main avenue of the city with small parks in the center island. I came to a rotunda which I took a video of two days ago, amused at how the throngs of motorcycles weaved in and out of the rotunda in what seemed to be chaos, but at the same time an exercise of concerted riding skills of the riders.

blog_IMG_0007The rotunda is just a stone’s throw away from the People’s Committee Building, which I think is the City Hall. Beautiful architecture, European inspired. A statue of Ho Chi Minh stands in a park in front of the building, depicting the Vietnamese leader with a young child in his protective arms. Typical propaganda material.

blog_IMG_0033I took more than a few photos, including a self-portrait using my point and shoot held my extended arms. I had my bulky digital SLR for my more “artistic” shots while I used my digital point and shoot for my typical “tourist” shots. One more benefit with the point and shoot is that it has video capabilities.

My next destination was the Reunification Palace which was several blocks away. It was a pleasurable walk, however, because of the many sights and sounds I encountered along the way. As a photographer, it is always interesting to see the daily life of a foreign city, especially the areas outside the usual tourist routes. I took delight in watching Ho Chi Minh City life go by.

After several blocks and minutes, I heard loud music playing, the kind which I usually hear playing in Chinese variety shows on cable TV back home. I then notice that there was an increasing number of people on red shirts moving about. Being used to public gatherings, I sensed that there was something going on up ahead. Perhaps a political mass action? That would be an excellent photo subject. My pace became faster.

blog_IMG_0072Nearing a corner, I saw that a park was up ahead, one with big trees and lush greenery. More people in red. I then noticed that there was writing on their shirts. I strain to read it. I forget what was written as I do this write up, but when I read it, I guessed it to be some local bank.

blog_IMG_0062I arrived at the park where a stage was set up, and some children were performing a dance in front of about four hundred people in red shirts and more people who I presumed were regular park goers. I couldn’t make out what were written in the streamers and other posters but from what I saw onstage, this seemed to be some promotional event of an insurance company. I walked around in the park taking some photos before continuing with my itinerary.

blog_IMG_0074It turns out that the Reunification Palace was across the park. I walked to towards the building which was in the middle of a huge piece of land surrounded by tall fences. I could see the “palace” but to me, it didn’t look like a palace, or at least as what I expected it to be. Having seen the palaces in Bangkok, Thailand and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was expecting the same. The Reunification Palace looked to me like a huge embassy. I took some pictures and didn’t bother to go in. I did notice, however that there were some military relics scattered around the grounds.

I walked on to my next destination, the War Remnants Museum. That was actually my main destination, having been keenly interested in the Vietnam War even when I was a kid. It was about four more blocks away. Again, it wasn’t a boring walk, since there were sights to see along the way.

After a about 10 minutes, I arrived at the museum. I stood at the corner outside the museum compound to rest and watch the intersection. Somehow, Ho Chi Minh intersections has become somewhat of entertaining for me. Watching people cross the street and the motorcycles dodge each other through the intersections amused me.

Then a guy sitting on his motorcycle (he wasn’t riding, just sitting there) said, “Hello!…Hello!….War Museum there!”, pointing to the building. I smiled at him. Thn he said, “You can cross now”. I looked left and right and saw motorcycles coming toward the intersection without seeming to slow down. “You can cross now”, he repeated.

Is he trying to amuse himself by luring me to cross the street and see me get run over by a motorcycle? Or is he genuinely trying to help me. Well, I remembered the advice of other people people who have survived the streets of HCMC. “Walk…and they will swerve around you…”

So I took the step of faith…got off the sidewalk and fixed my eyes on the opposite corner, walking in a steady stride. After a few seconds, I got to the other side…like Jesus walking on water.

blog_P1020413I entered the gate of the museum, paid the entrance and felt like a kid in a toy store as I walked among the war relics there…reminders of a war where a poor nation of farmers beat a super power of the world. Of course, I took photos left and right.

After walking around the displays outside the building, I entered the museum proper where there were more displays of weapons, bombs, ammunition, clothing and photos of the war.

blog_P1020410I entered a room where a sign was displayed beside the entrance: “The Scars of War”. In the simple display cases in the room, photographs of the ravages of war were displayed. Most sobering were those of the effects of the Americans’ use of Agent Orange, an example of chemical warfare.

The high rate of birth defects among the people of Vietnam which were exposed to Agent Orange was shocking. Most of all, the photos of Vietnamese with grotesque deformities was truly moving. The photos of the devastated forests, farms and landscape were compelling. One will understand why there is pain among Vietnamese when they remember the effects of America’s intrusion into their lives more than four decades ago.

Makes you think about America’s war on terror and their presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

blog_P1020404I spent quite some time in the museum. My previous interest in the Vietnam War was now sobered by the perspective coming from the Vietnamese people. Yesterday I had seen how they were forced to go underground for their safety and protection, now I had seen how they had suffered during and after the war. Truly, this experience will be one of those which will be forever etched in my memory and serve as a lesson on man’s ability to be cruel and to be steadfast.

With more than just photos in my cameras to bring home with me, but more importantly lessons for my mind and soul, I began my walk back to the hotel.

I passed a different route, going through another park which was obviously a Sunday destination for many citizens of Ho Chi Minh City. I was headed for the Notre Dame Cathedral, located just after the park from the museum.

As I was going through the park, I noticed that more than a few times, groups of people, mostly young, sitting on the grass in the park, seemed to be looking at me as I passed by. I could sense that they were looking at me with interest, not a few times giggling as they looked at me.

I began to get conscious, thinking of the reason why. I could think of a few:

1. My fly must have been open. But no, I checked, it was closed.
2. They must be thinking how silly of me to carry two cameras, one hanging on my neck, the other in my hands.
3. They must be wondering how this Asian became so big. I did not see a single overweight Vietnamese man, while I am “American size”.
4. They might have been wondering why I was sweating it out walking instead of riding a motorcycle.
5. They might have wanted me to take their photo.

blog_P1020421I arrived at the cathedral. By this time, the sun was already shining high in the sky, so I kind of rushed myself in taking photos. Besides, I had to get back to the hotel to join my wife for lunch. After a few minutes, I continued my walk back to the hotel.

It was around 10:30 in the morning and I had been walking for more than three hours. I don’t know how far it was, but I’m pretty sure, it was enough to count as exercise. Along the way, I was able to take in Ho Chi Minh City more than what I could have if I had taken a cab to the places I went to.

Playing With The Sharks

Posted in Philippines and the Filipinos, Travel with tags , , , , , on June 2, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

Simplified, the idea seems incredulous, if not ridiculous. You look for a fish in the hundreds of hectares of wide open sea, jump into the 200-foot deep water and chase a creature which is in its natural element and you are not.

Sounds crazy, right? Well it may sound that way, but many have traveled hundreds of kilometers, spent a couple of thousands of pesos and braved personal fears to do just that. Together with my wife, my in-laws and some staff, I jumped into the waters off Donsol, Sorsogon, and swam with one of the most wondrous creatures on earth—the whale shark, or locally known as “butanding”.

“Butanding” has come to mean more than just a fish, or a variety of shark. Perhaps owing to the mild, docile nature of the creature that the word is attached to, “butanding” now seems to be a term of endearment, and a reference to a national treasure.

I’ve heard stories, saw photos and watched videos of other people interacting with the butanding. It certainly attracted my interest, so when I had an opportunity to visit Bicol as part of the Tour of Hope, I made sure to squeeze in some time to go to Donsol, Sorsogon, now tagged as the “Whale Shark Capital of the World”.

Actually, we were billeted in Camarines Watersports Complex in Pili, Camarines Sur where the Tour of Hope ended. Since our flight back to Manila was going to be from Naga City, our trip to Donsol was just a daytrip. We left CWC around 4:00 AM and after a leisurely drive of just over two hours, we arrived at Donsol in time for a good breakfast prepared for us by the locals.

Even before our trip, we were told that we might not have a good chance of encountering the butandings since the rainy season had already set in. The peak season for butanding encounters are said to be from February to April and that at this time, the end of May, we might not see any at all.

As we finished our breakfast and headed for the boats, I noticed that the sky was still overcast, in spite of the advancing time of the day. But the waters were still and the wind calm, so we were confident that it would get better as the day wore on.

There were fourteen of us in the group and we had to be divided between two outrigger boats for safety’s sake and for easier handling by the Butanding Interaction Officers. The “professionalization” of what I would call whale shark wardens is a step towards the right direction of controlling the interaction of tourists and whale sharks and nature conservation. Hopefully, it does not start and end just with the conferment of official titles such as “Butanding Interaction Officers”.

In the outrigger with me was my wife Trina, my sister in law Cila and her husband Jim, my wife’s brother and sister, Ichi and Michelle and staff Charina. In the other boat were my cousin Jomer and Rene, Andy, Roland and Bong, all of whom are my staff.

While the motorized banca was pushing out to open sea, the BIO gave us a briefing on what to do, what not to do and what to expect. After that, we were all excitedly chatting for about thirty minutes when the first sighting occurred. Another group was already at the site, but by the time we got there, the butanding already dove deeper. So we didn’t jump in yet. But at least we got to see what we’re supposed to do when we have our own encounter. I noted that the people in the water were all wearing the thick orange lifejackets which made it difficult to swim in the water.

Well, I wouldn’t blame them for making sure that they won’t go under the waters which was so deep it was dark blue in color. A thought crossed my mind…if it weren’t for the prospect of the thrill of seeing the butanding up close, I don’t think people would just jump into waters this deep for fun of it. It looked foreboding and evoked images of the movie The Abyss.

The anticipation of swimming with the whale sharks fueled our excited chatter as the outrigger cruised around the bay. There were other groups scouring the sea, about ten other outrigger boats loaded with tourists eager for the chance to have a close encounter with the butanding.

Off in the distance dark clouds began to swell and after a few minutes, what appeared to be grey curtains rolled down from the clouds and onto the distant land mass. Rain was falling on the shore, although from where we were, it was still clear.

For some reason which up to now I do not know why, the boatman steered oour outrigger towards the area where dark clouds loomed and rain fell in the distance. I didn’t bother to ask why, assuming that the boatman knew what he was doing. As we neared the swirling clouds and the pelting rain, we shivered in the cold wind that blew into the tiny shelter of the outrigger.

Soon the rain drops felt like tiny pricks of needles on our faces, and we got wet even before we dove into the water. We continued to cruise around the bay under the rainshower, which fortunately enough, did not bring with it strong winds that would cause the waves to grow bigger.

About a hundred feet from us we passed by a lone fisherman paddling his small outrigger, with no choice but to ride out the rain. I’m glad I didn’t have to make a living that way. But then again, I’m sure he’s also glad that he doesn’t have the complicated life I have, which is even made worse by the bad reputation that my profession has among the people. Maybe he’s better off than I am. Anyway…..

We cruised around for about 45 minutes to an hour until the sky cleared. Good thing it did, because otherwise, the money we paid would have been washed away without us getting its worth.

Not long after, our guide called our attention to get ready. I strained to look at where the spotter was pointing to but I couldn’t see anything. But after several seconds, I saw the brownish shadow lurking just under the surface, about 50 feet from our outrigger. I’m impressed at how they could see the butanding under the surface. But it’s what they do for a living so I guess they have to be good at it.

Just as instructed, we put on our snorkeling gear and sat on the edge of the banca, ready to dive once the signal is given. Immediately, it stirred my imagination to pretend that we’re a team of Navy Seals, ready to launch for a special mission. In my mind, I played a sound track appropriate for the scene. My heart was pounding, but I was very eager to get wet and meet the butanding face to face. I looked at the faces of the people with me…they’re all as eager as I was. Here we are, ready to rock and roll.

The boatman deftly navigated the outrigger in a tactical maneuver, placing us in a position that would rendezvous with the submerged creature. At the right moment, the guide shouted, “Talon! Talon! Talon!” (Jump! Jump! Jump!). After a fraction of a second’s hesitation, we all jumped into the water. The second I hit the water, I got my underwater camera and turned it on, ready to shoot and quickly swam after my wife who was being guided by the BIO. A strong swimmer, that BIO was.

The water was a bit murky, and in the wake of the BIO’s and my wife’s paddling, bubbles were obstructing my view, but a few moments later, I saw the distinct tail fin of the remarkable . I almost could not contain my excitement, although for a micro-second, I hesitated. But my eagerness overcame the hesitation and I paddled faster to catch up with the butanding.

I found myself swimming beside the big fish, although it did not seem as big as those I had seen in pictures which looked like submarines. But still the excitement of swimming alongside it overwhelmed me. I struggled to get my camera into position, but even though I’m a photography hobbyist, I couldn’t get an acceptable position. So I just clicked away, just hoping that I would eventually get a good shot.

My wife was better off since she was with the guide who managed to tug her to the right position. No sooner was I able to get a good frame of her and the shark when suddenly several people appeared all around and over the whale shark. Other groups had already converged on the butanding when they saw us jump into the water and the water was suddenly full of men, women and even children, all flapping and splashing to marvel at the creature.

Unfortunately, one swimmer couldn’t contain himself and touched the whale shark, something which was prohibited by the BIO’s. Perhaps sensing the violation, the butanding started to dive into the murky deep, escaping from the throngs of tourists.

It was just a short encounter but truly an amazing one, the stuff that unforgettable memories are made of. We all climbed back on board our outrigger, very much excited about the experience, everyone talking at the same time expressing sheer pleasure at the close encounter.

I quickly reviewed the photos I took. Although I was able to get a record of the encounter, the quality was something that left me unsatisfied. I needed to see another butanding.

After that first swim, we were eager for more. Our outrigger once again patrolled the ocean, our guides and spotters covering all angles watching for the telltale signs of the butanding. After a while, the spotter pointed to a dorsal fin protruding from the water. We all excitedly put on our gear while the boatman steered the banca towards the shark. The guides said this was a big one, judging by the size of the fin.

As we got near, the girls in the group jumped into the water ahead, with the BIO guiding them to the butanding. We followed them, but when we got to where they were, the butanding had already gone deep. But the girls were ecstatic since this was a bigger one, much bigger than the first one we saw. Unfortunately, the camera was with me so we weren’t able to take photos. Once again, I was left with the insatiable desire to see another one, hopefully a giant.

This time around, it took us quite a while looking for the next encounter. The excitement waned and the exhaustion brought about by the adrenaline rush and the early morning wake up call and travel from Camarines Sur to Sorsogon also set in.

We could see other boats patrolling the bay, once in a while gathering together in certain spots. It was also an amusing sight to see, the outriggers rushing towards a spot where there’s a sighting. Again, in my mind, a soundtrack played as I watched the motorized bancas racing along the water. “Ride of the Valkyrie”, which was played in a scene in the movie Apocalypse Now where squadrons of choppers flew in formation, was playing in my head as an imaginary background to the movement of outriggers.

After a while, we saw another dorsal fin, and our boat rushed to the spot. Other bancas raced towards the spot, but before we could jump in, the shark disappeared into the depths. We then saw another crowding of bancas so our boatman turned towards the spot. We got there just in time to see a big tail fin break the surface with some people on the water crowding around it. Our BIO told us not to jump in anymore since the fin indicated that the shark was diving deep.

We continued with our quest as the sun was climbing higher into the late morning sky. The heat was taking over and it was a good thing we were all wearing rashguards to protect us from the searing heat of the sun. But we just had to see one more whale shark. We just had to.

Finally we were rewarded with another sighting. We raced to the spot, along with about six more boats filled with tourists. We quickly jumped into the water and swam with all the energy left in us. Within a few seconds, I was right there beside the big fish, and made sure that I was able get a good video shot of the butanding.

The shark lingered long enough for me to get a good shot before it disappeared into the blue. I was very pleased. At least the experience will not just be in my memory which may be forgotten, but saved as a digital file which I can post, pass on and preserve.

We went back to shore just in time for lunch, which was also prepared for us as part of the package. As expected, we exchanged stories among ourselves, reliving and reviewing the wonderful experience. We all agreed it was well worth the effort to go there, and look forward to a future visit.

Truly, the Philippines is a beautiful country. The diversity in the people’s culture is matched by the richness of its natural resources. The encounter we had was just one of the many experiences that is available for us to enjoy. All we need to do is take it all in and enjoy them.

But more than the wonderful experience of seeing the country’s natural beauty, it is the realization that all these are there for us to enjoy, created by a Father who wanted the best for His children. The world is our playground. Thank God for His creations.

Of course, it follows that we should take care of it.

Planes, Trains, and Automobile…my trip to Gummersbach

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , , on February 3, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

It’s my first time to Germany. The land of the BMW, of famed engineering prowess and of impressive punctuality and clockwork, has always been of fascination for me. I don’t know if it is an offshoot of my fascination with World War II, but I have always looked at Germany and Germans with fondness and admiration. Not that I’m a fan of Hitler (which definitely I am not), but their adherence to efficiency and excellence is something that I look up to.

Not to mention that in spite of the short time in history when mention of Germans evoked images of stormtroopers, the holocaust and Hitler’s Third Reich, the Germans of today are strict advocates of democracy and liberty.

It is through the German organization Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) that I was given the privilege to participate in a seminar on Strategic Political Communication in Gummersbach, located in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW). The FNF, which is locally partnered in the Philippines with the Liberal Party, endeavors to spread and inculcate the principles of Liberal Democracy, which basically gives primacy to the individual’s right and opportunity to develop oneself and ensure others are able to do so too.

With that principle as a framework, the seminar intends to impart on the participants the principles and skills of conveying to their constituents the programs, plans, and platforms of their respective organizations back home. So with 21 other participants from countries in Asia, South and Central America, Europe and the former Soviet Union, I was selected as the Liberal Party of the Philippines representative to the seminar.

I left Manila on January 31, half eager and half reluctant (because I was going to miss my wife and kids for the next 9 days), but nonetheless prepared to learn new things which I can bring back to my party and my country.

The flight took off from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at 8:00 pm, for a two hour flight to Hong Kong, my first stop. Fortunately, due to my Mabuhay Miles membership and the vacant seats in the flight, I was upgraded from economy to business class. At least for the first two hours, I was comfortable in the wider seat of business class, since the economy class seats are not a good fit (because I fit exactly in the seat) for my wide body.

The one hour and a half stopover in Hong Kong was long enough for me to be able to prepare and stretch out before I board the Lufthansa flight to Munich, Germany. That leg of the trip was the dreadful part, since it was going to be a 12-hour flight in economy class.

As expected, the flight from Hong Kong to Munich, my port of entry into the European Union, took its toll on me. Although I was fortunate enough to be seated in an aisle seat, the narrow seat and the short legroom ensured that I had the best upright position not just during take-off and landing but also during the entire flight. Sleeping was almost out of the question except during the last four hours of the flight when I was able to doze off simply because I was too tired from trying to get sleep. I was able to get about an hour and a half shuteye.

After landing in Munich International Airport and checking through immigration, I had about three hours to spare before I get on another plane to fly to Cologne. I tried to sleep on the airport benches, but somehow, I couldn’t. It was around midday to early afternoon back in Manila and my body was still in that time zone.

The flight to Cologne was just about an hour, so even though I was still cramped in my seat, it was more bearable. If I could withstand the 12 hour trip, what’s an hour more?

When I arrived at Cologne, I got the first taste of the cold German winter weather. Although it wasn’t snowing, the cold breeze cut through my clothing, making it necessary for me to open my luggage and get the thick jacket I brought with me.

I was supposed to be met by a driver from the Academy, but unfortunately, I didn’t see him. I tried to call the Academy but somehow, I couldn’t get through the line. After concluding that I wouldn’t be able to rely on being picked up by the Academy driver, I decided to go to Gummersbach by myself.

At first I thought I can simply take a cab. But the Ilocano blood flows in my veins so I decided the more economical mode of transportation—by rail. Thankfully, the airport had a train station. After asking some general directions from the information desk, I boarded the S-Bahn in the Cologne/Bonn Airport train terminal to Cologne Central Station where I’m supposed to transfer to another train which will take me to Gummersbach.

It sounds simple, but when you’re in the train station in a country where it is your first time to go to, with some language obstacles, the simple becomes complicated, even intimidating.

As I was in the train, a certain part of me had the jitters that I might be in the wrong train and headed towards the bowels of Germany where I would definitely be lost carrying my handcarry luggage and a big suitcase.

But the beautiful scenery of the German countryside made the trip more interesting and enjoyable. It was made even more pleasurable when snow started to fall in a couple of towns that we passed through. In some places, snow completely covered the ground, although just several centimeters deep. Still, it was exciting for me since the lat time I saw snow was when I was six during our one-year stay in the United States while my father attended Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia.

After about 45 minutes train ride, I arrived at Gummersbach, which is just a small town outside Cologne. It was so small that when I walked out of the train station towards the bus station, I could count the people in the streets around me with just the fingers of my two hands. Being a Sunday, the establishments were closed with most of the people at home, unlike in the Philippines where the street and mall population multiply tenfold during that one day in the week when people can take time off from their busy week.
I tried to get a taxi to go to the Academy but the taxis were probably also on day off. I tried to call the Academy again, this time successfully and was able to request for someone to pick me up.

While waiting, it got colder and I had to open my luggage again to get my scarf and gloves. It felt like I was standing inside a freezer and the cold air was already permeating my head causing a minor headache.

After several minutes, my ride finally arrived in the person of an Academy staff named Denise. A German girl. Pointlessly, the song from the 80’s entitled “German Girl” came to my mind…

I arrived at the International Academy of Leadership in Gummersbach, Germany around 2:30PM local time. By then, I had traveled for 24 hours via planes, trains, and automobile.

As I entered my room and fell on the bed like a fallen log, I felt the fatigue finally seep through my body and slumbered off to Napland. But not before setting the alarm at 5:30 PM in time for our welcome session at 6:30PM. With much anticipation for what I was going to learn, I dozed off.

A Tale of Two Countries

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , on October 17, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

It’s good to be home. Well, after one week of being out of the country, I sure do miss my four boys. My wife and I just arrived from a trip to Cambodia and Singapore. I attended a conference on the Role of Parliament in Defense Procurement in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On the way home, we visited Singapore since the connecting flight was via Singapore Airlines’ hub. I haven’t been to the land Lee Kwan Yew built and this was an opportune time.

I had very productive conference in Phnom Penh. Aside from delivering a speech on Defense Procurement in the Philippines, I also learned from the processes and policies implemented in other ASEAN countries.

The trip also gave me an important insight on leadership and nationhood as I visited two countries with contrasting histories, characteristics and  destinies. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by Filipinos from these two countries.

First, Cambodia. I do not mean any disrespect to the Cambodia people, but I would say that a trip there would give Filipinos a respite from the depression that they have about their own country. Many Filipinos have many complaints about their own country–the poverty, the chaotic streets, the congested sidewalks, corruption in government, etc, etc….the list of complaints could go on and on…

But a visit to Phnom Penh would immediately give a Filipino a boost of pride on how “modern” and “orderly” our cities are. If you think that Metro Manila streets are a nightmare to drive in, wait till you experience the streets of Phnom Penh. Motorcycles are the kings of the road, with the concept of traffic rules seemingly alien to the riders. It could even be said that traffic signs and lights are mere suggestions, not regulations in Phnom Penh.

It is also apparent that the years of economic, political and social hardship has stunted the development of the city’s infrastructure. COmpared to Metro Manila, the Philippine capital gives you a sense of being in the First World.

On the contrary, our visit to Singapore gave me a feeling of envy. If I saw Phnom Penh as being behind Metro Manila, Singapore gave me a reality check…Metro Manila is still not First World.

First of all, Singapore’s cleanliness puts Metro Manila to shame. Never mind what others say that Singapore can do it because they are just a small country. The fact of the matter is that not any of Metro Manila’s 17 cities and municipalities alone could even measure to Singapore’s cleanliness and orderliness.

I have been to many cities with Chinatowns around the world — Washington D.C., Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney—but this has got to be the cleanest Chinatown I have ever seen! It’s so clean that it’s become so un-Chinatown!

Another thing that amazed me that in spite of all the development and the trappings of a modern city, they were able to maintain the healthy balance of greenery and concrete. The tree-lined streets gave the feeling of being in a garden, even though all around you are glass, steel and concrete buildings.

The contrast between the two cities–Phnom Penh and Singapore—went beyond the physical. You can also sense the difference in how the people put order in their lives. Phnom Penh is obviously still under the transition from having gone through a war-torn era while Singapore is already way ahead of their uncertain beginnings when they were separated from Malaysia.

But with their differences they also had their similarities. For one, both Singaporeans and Cambodians have a strong sense of nationalism. The Singaporeans, at the beginning of their nationhood, were like outcasts who had to fend for themselves. Through visionary leadership and a determined citizenry, they overcame the odds and even overtook many of their neighbors. Their accomplishment fuels their national pride and desire to maintain that feat.

The Camobodians, on the other hand, had a very traumatic history of violence and oppression marred by genocide. As a result, their country lagged behind, becoming the region’s basketcase.

But their experience gave them the resolve to never allow war to tear their country apart again. Their collective experience as a people led to a collective decision to shun division and move together forward. Although they are still behind in terms of infrasturcture and economic development, they are now at the beginning of a new revolution—that of taking their place in the league of countries that miraculously rose from the ashes and become one of asia’s wonders. It won;t be long before they will be at par with Vietnam and soon after that, Thailand.

With the examples shown by Cambodia and Singapore, one is compelled to ask oneself—how does the Philippines fare? If a visitor came to the Philippines, what would be the impression?

There are many things about the Philippines that make me cringe. But I think there are more things that make me hopeful. All we need to do now is get our acts together.

Land of Plenty, So Much Waste

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , on April 24, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

We’re about to end our short visit to what some call the Land of Milk and Honey, where dreams of prosperity have a chance of being fulfilled with the abundance of opportunities. In the world’s most powerful country, one can experience bounty to the heart’s desire.

It seems that everything is super-sized in America, from the very land that they live in to the chips that they buy in the grocery. One time I was buying supplies in the supermarket and was looking for nachos for our snacks in the hotel room, and was looking for small bags of chips that would be just right for Trina and I. But all that was available were bags of chips that could feed a bunch of college kids on a drinking spree. They didn’t have the tingi-tingi pouches that are so common back home.

Even the softdrinks (or soda, as it is known in the U.S.) are all sold either in bulk or in big containers. I had no choice but to get the 6-pack, although I foresaw that we would just have to consume quantities beyond our ideal volume, therefore adding unnecessary sugar in our system.

The Americans invented super size savings and the warehouse club stores. It seems that the prosperity of this country has led people to indulge in excess, with the seeming endless supply of goods and produce within their affordability.

IN the Philippines, we have done the opposite, specializing in the tingi and super-small-size. From toothpaste and shampoo to cigarettes, retailing has adapted to the Filipino’s buying capacity. Isang kahig, isang tuka, the saying goes. You can’t afford to buy a whole pack of cigarettes? Then buy per stick. You can’t afford a liter-size of shampoo? Then buy the sachet. That’s the Filipino way of life.

So as I was browsing through the shelves of the grocery, I couldn’t help but think about how my countrymen are living a marginal life back home. A sense of guilt nagged at me.

I also couldn’t help but feel a little envy at the Americans, who seem to be in ignorant bliss to the pangs of the third world countries. But then again, this state of plenty has also led to a rising percentage of Americans being supersized. Diabetes and heart disease are common, attributed to increasing obesity among them.

As I go to the check out counter to pay for my purchases, I noticed that the cashier placed the items purchased by the customers in plastic bags. Not much different from the Philippines, even during this time of environmental awareness, except that back home, the supermarket baggers packed the items in the plastic bags until the bags almost tear, just so that the customer will be given the least number of plastic bags as they could possibly give, in an effort to cut costs.

Here in the U.S., the supermarket clerks seem to not have a care in the world as to how many bags the customer is given, sometimes even placing only one item in a bag. I wondered if this practice affected the balance sheet of the supermarket, and added to the overhead costs of the business. Worse than that, I wondered how much of this non-biodegradable plastic will pollute the Earth. Or, I’m hoping, will be recycled. I remember the last time I went to the U.S. three years ago that I was asked by the supermarket clerk whether I wanted paper bags or plastic bags, in an obvious effort to give the customer a chance to be environmentally friendly. But now they don’t. I wonder why…

Of course, being appreciative of the culinary arts, Trina and I tried different restaurants and fast food outlets. The quality of the food varied, but there is one constant……you got it—-super size orders. Being used to the Philippines where one order is almost just enough for one person, we repeated the mistake of ordering separately. And one hundred percent of the time, we got overwhelmed by the size of the servings.

With guilty consciences, we couldn’t finish the serving given to us. We resort to doggie-bags but often, we end up not being able to eat the left overs because there’s no microwave in our hotel room. In the end, the food gets thrown in the waste.

In the fast food courts and restaurants, it is not uncommon to see lots of leftovers that are sufficient to feed a family of six. Two families even. Such a shame. Especially when I know that back home people are scrounging for the next meal.

But now there’s a bit of reality catching up with the Land of Plenty. Just this morning I heard in the news that two of the top warehouse club stores are rationing rice. Costco and Sam’s Club are limiting the amount of rice each customer can buy. Not a new story to the Filipinos. But I’m pretty sure to the Americans, it is something that is almost unimaginable. Indeed, how can this come to be?

But the rice crisis is global. Prices are rising not just in the Philippines but around the world as well. In the United States, the price of rice has increased 70% this year. Well, various explanations have been given, some of which attribute the rice crisis to increased demand in the “billion-people-Club” — China and India—-and others say it is the sudden shift from food crops to energy crops brought about by the trend of biofuels.

Whatever it may be, it sure is a cause of concern. Once again, as I prepare to go back to my motherland and back to my duties, I just hope that those of us who can do something to make the lives of our countrymen better will not fail the people’s expectations and hopes. After all, our country may not be a Land of Plenty, but the people should not be deprived of hope.