Saturday, February 28, 2009


Finally! Click "Nepal" under categories on the left to see the earlier entries. If you're reading this in Facebook, click "View Original Post" at the bottom. If you're reading this in Multiply or somewhere else, better head to There will be about 50 blog entries for this Nepal series (this entry is the fourth). Hope I finish before the year ends!

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The first thing you notice when you disembark from your plane in Kathmandu is the air. For a Southeast Asian like me used to the humidity back home, the crisp midday air felt refreshing. I put my jacket on inside the plane, with thoughts of the snowy Himalayan mountains in my head. It wasn't that cold, but I'm thankful for my thick jacket.

Tribhuvan International Airport is a small-ish airport of red bricks. Definitely a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Suvarnabhumi, the airport reminded me a lot of the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, in the sense that it was quiet, not very modern, brown, incorporates traditional architecture, and therefore quite relaxing and refreshing, like stepping into a resort. I saw only two duty free shops, one selling liquor and cigarettes.

Some of the guys lined up to get their visa on-arrival. I got my 60-day visa in the Nepal consulate in Manila, so I breezed through immigration.

The airport sits on top of a hill, offering a panoramic view of Kathmandu. My first impression was, oh, I'm really in a foreign country. I could see a sea of small buildings made of concrete and red bricks. Definitely not the Manila skyline. I could sense poverty, almost the same feeling I get when I see a panoramic view of Manila's slums, but this is definitely better because of the cold-ish temperature, which reminded me of a mountain resort.

After a longish wait for my fellow observers (mainly the Indonesians because Nepal has no consulate in Jakarta where they could have procured their visa), we boarded the van sent by Radisson hotel to take us to our home in Kathmandu.

It was no drive to paradise. The view from the airport was nothing compared to the chaos of Kathmandu's roads. The number of people on the road, the heavy traffic, the dust, the decrepit buildings now seen up close, people trying to get on very full buses, the narrow crowded streets, traffic rules not being followed. It was all a bit overwhelming. It reminded me of all those footages of India, specifically Calcutta (though maybe not as bad) I've seen on TV. We were caught in traffic a few minutes after leaving the airport, caused by a demonstration being dispersed by the police (we later learned it was an anti-China protest by Tibetans). Our vehicle took us through narrow streets lined with small grocery stores, laundry, kids playing. It did not feel like we were at the capital, the main city of a country. It was like, if this is the capital, then how would the other places look, knowing that I may be assigned to a far-flung, problematic area to observe the elections. Although of course, I also know that a country should not be judged by how its capital looks like (like how Manila is NOT the Philippines). After several more twists and turns through what looked like dense, residential areas, suddenly the van pulled up into a driveway. We're actually now at the hotel? Really? The surrounding areas didn't feel like, you know, a hotel district.

We were met by ANFREL's Nepali staff, who helped us check-in and gave us our schedule for the next three days. A certain guy from India named Tenzing will be my roommate, has already arrived but wasn't around. Seeing my room reminded me of how I (believe it or not) miss living in hotels. The last time I stayed in hotels for an extended period was four years ago.

After freshening up a bit, I decided to wander around the hotel. I remember a picture from the hotel website of an outdoor pool with a sweeping view of the Himalayas. I realized that, no, that's impossible, because the Himalayas seem to be hardly visible from this part of the city. I asked for directions from the front desk on how to go to Thamel, Kathmandu's backpacker district, which I know is very close to Lazimpat district where our hotel is located. I decided to take a walk. On the way out, I bumped into a Thai observer whom I met at the airport in Bangkok with an ANFREL staff member. She was kind enough to give me a card with a small map of the area.

It was around 4:30 pm when I set out for the city. I didn't bring any jacket along with me because it wasn't cold. A few meters from the hotel I started to cough. The air was dry, mixed with what I think is air pollution. There were not many people and cars along the tree-lined avenue. This part of the city is modern, the road lined with low buildings with restaurants and shops, especially near the hotel. At my left was an area with high walls, which I learned later on was the king's palace. I was fascinated by the people walking. Are they Indian? Are they Chinese? Some looked Southeast Asian. Most of the old folks were wearing traditional clothes, the old men with vests and traditional caps, and the women with thick shawls over their long dresses. It was fascinating and at the same time disorienting, as it became clearer that yes, I'm in a foreign land, and I'm the stranger with the strange clothes and mineral water bottle. Where the heck is Thamel? I kept looking at the map and was convinced I was going the right direction. Go straight then turn right at the second corner. I've been walking for twenty minutes trying to find the second corner. By this time I began to realize that not bringing the jacket was a stupid mistake. By 5pm, the temperature dropped noticeably, and I could feel goosebumps rising. I started coughing again. I finally reached a commercial area but it didn't look like a backpacker area to me. Where are the fancy restaurants? Where are the internet cafes and the mountaineer shops I saw on the internet? I saw an overpass. Finally the second corner! I climbed the stairway and crossed the street. What greeted me at the other side was blissful chaos.

Women in traditional clothes selling strawberries on the sidewalk. Narrow cobblestone streets bursting with people, cars, motorcycles, vendors pushing carts of produce, walled by red brick buildings up to four, five stories high, some with balconies, with shops, gazillions of them, selling shirts, fruits, vegetables, copper and brass wares, lots of jackets, shoes, shawls. It was exactly my fantasy Middle-Eastern bazaar made real. Music blaring from radios. Relentless noise from the vehicles trying to get out. A few meters laters I started hearing live music. A street band was playing. Is there a parade? A wedding? I continued to walk, a crowd of people going both directions, employees coming home from work, teenagers in uniforms coming home from school, local tourists, white people with sunburnt faces in their shorts and hats with mineral water bottles in hand. The smell of spices and incense filled the air. I came upon some sort of a square. There was this small temple wherein people were circling clockwise and then striking the small bell by the door. More vendors sitting on the ground, selling chilis and other exotic spices bursting with colors. Men and women in their stalls selling different kinds of incense, flowers, candles. Watch out for the renegade motorcycles coming this way, jeez they nearly sideswiped me. There were also these shops selling exotic paintings. Are those Chinese? They look like Buddhist paintings? But isn't Nepal Hindu? Lording over this area is a very high pagoda-style temple? What country is this again? A man came out of nowhere and approached me, asking for a ticket? What ticket? No, I'll just turn back, I said, it's not tourism day today. I turned back to see three narrow streets in front of me. Which one to take? Who cares, just pick one. Don't worry getting lost, just take a cab back to the hotel. I passed through more narrow streets, with throngs of people walking or buying food, household stuff, people-watching. I lost track of how many alleys I dove into, with more shops. Jeez, I know a lot of people back home who'll go crazy in a place like this, where so much stuff, exotic and cool stuff, are being sold. I then came upon another commercial square, this time bigger, with the stores a lot more Western-looking, but selling mostly traditional textile (from India?). Many women in colorful saris on this street. And is that a German bakery? Are those pretzels? Pastries! More strawberries being sold on the sidewalk. Taxi. Now. I could feel my feet complaining. I bet I could pass as a Nepali, but the mineral water bottle is a dead giveaway that I'm a tourist. No, traveler. How much, I asked. Two-fifty. (Don't give me that crap.) One-fifty. I'm sure that's still expensive but I really don't know how much the actual fare is so take me to Radisson. It was six o'clock.

At night, we had a welcome dinner at the hotel. The core ANFREL staff from Bangkok - Sui, Ichal, Song - were all there, as well as the other long-term observers from Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (the group from Sri Lanka hasn't arrived, and there was still no sign of Tenzing, my roommate). My god are those gulab jamuns??!? With vanilla ice cream?!? I love gulab jamun, my favorite Indian desert which I buy at the grocery shop near the Sikh temple in Manila. I tried to convince my fellow observers to try this fab desert, with success. Mmm, a truly welcoming treat, and a perfect way to end my first day in Nepal. I'm excited with what's to come.

(Note: Yep, I did get lost and did not reach Thamel that day after all. I later realized that what I reached was the outskirts of Kathmandu's Durbar Square, or main square. What I thought was the first corner was actually the second corner. But who cares?)

Click any image to see more photos.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Of slumdogs and resurrections

Let me start by saying that the screenplay of Slumdog Millionaire was heavy-handed; in fact, I've never felt so manipulated by a movie's premise. The film is about a young man named Jamal Malik from the slums of Mumbai who joins India's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," telling us about his life in flashbacks from when he was a young boy and why he knew the answers to the questions during the game show. Fifteen minutes into the movie, you just know how the movie will unfold, everything conveniently falling into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The twist? There is no twist.

Having said that, the movie has a lot of things going for it. Scene for scene, the movie is truly one of the year's best-made. Almost all the scenes work, with Danny Boyle directing with equal parts energy and tenderness, like a cross between his previous films Trainspotting and Millions. The cinematography is striking, the editing, the music of Bollywood icon A.R. Rahman appropriately thumping, and the well-cast actors providing authenticity to the movie.

However, the true star of the movie is India. Slumdog Millionaire is probably a more authentic movie about the country than any Indian-made movie out there because Bollywood -- India's main film industry based in Mumbai -- is all about escapism, and more often than not, simply refuses to turn their cameras on the poverty and corruption that surround them. Which Slumdog does, that is why it has caught the ire of a lot of Indians.

As a fan of Bollywood, I am glad that Slumdog Millionaire has gotten all the attention because this is probably the closest that Bollywood will ever conquer Hollywood. And I'm just thrilled that a movie that prominently features Amitabh Bachchan can actually win the Oscar. Bachchan, as the movie points out, is the most famous man in India, probably the most famous actor ever, if you take into account all those who have flocked to his movies in South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Europe. At his prime, Bachchan's appeal to his millions of fans can only be accurately described as a cross between those of James Bond, Brad Pitt, Obama, and Jesus Christ! If you've seen the movie and you know Bachchan, you'd understand why that kid would willingly fall into a big pile of shit just to be able to get his autograph. In a country of almost a billion people, to have a one-on-one chance with its most famous son is truly worth all the shit in the world.

Amitabh Bachchan in Shaan ("Pyar Karne Wale"):

It is towards the ending that the movie truly flies. Suddenly, all thoughts of its imperfections fall away. As Jamal tries to answer the last question, we wait with bated breath, like the throngs in the movie held enraptured by this moment, watching the show in small television sets in the slums, stores, and outside electronic shops in Mumbai. This is why we watch movies in the first place, why among all art forms, movies have the ability to put a lump in our collective throats and sweat in our palms like no other art form can. This, among other reasons, is why Slumdog Millionaire will live long after this moment has passed. This is why Slumdog Millionaire, the little film that could, will win the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Wrestler, winner of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler twenty years past his prime, as he faces old age, health problems, loneliness, and, well, the fact that his glory days are behind him. Randy is played stunningly by Mickey Rourke, whose heydays were in the '80s.

Talk about underdog, but can there be a better example than Mickey Rourke? Rourke's film career was so over that I could not remember watching any of his movies ever since I started watching movies. Oh, he was in Sin City, but nobody under thirty would probably remember Rourke for his movies, than for his truly bad botox job. (First time I saw him on TV a few years ago, I was like, who is that man with the creepy face? He's an actor? Mickey who?)

The fact that the life and career trajectory of The Ram mirrors that of Rourke (Rourke also used to box) is not lost on a lot of viewers. But we don't really need the back story. The story of Randy's life is all there in Mickey Rourke's eyes, face, and battered body, in a very physically demanding, and at the same time very emotional performance. I believe there's nobody else among this year's Oscar nominees could have possibly played this role as perfectly as Rourke did (with the possible exception of Meryl Streep, if she chooses to step out of her comfort zone!). Rourke is ably supported by Marisa Tomei, playing a stripper who's Randy's last hope for companionship, as his grown-up estranged daughter has disowned him. Tomei's equally exceptional work in this movie is the year's best performance by an actress.

The Wrestler is hands down Darren Aronofsky's best work to date. I couldn't find any flaws in it. There are scenes that are just devastating, like when Randy was at this sort of meet and greet with fans (who came in trickles). He looks around the room, fellow wrestlers, past their primes, bandaged, physically incapacitated, selling videocassettes of their best fights to stay alive. Randy himself was reduced to selling meat and salad at a deli counter, and you just know that he'd rather be somewhere else, in a ring, fighting.

Many moviegoers might have been distracted by other filmic fares about men aging in reverse, robots in love, or forays into Bollywood, but what Aronofsky offers here is an unflinching, clear-eyed, no artifice, well-told portrait of a man just trying to do what he believes he was born to do. These, and other reasons, make The Wrestler, in my opinion, the best movie of 2008.

The lists

The best movies of 2008: a very good year

1. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)

2. Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea (Hayao Miyazaki) - The year's best animated film is not Wall-E. Hayao Miyazaki's interpretation of The Little Mermaid is full of life and brimming with ingenuity. Like his other movies, I don't think most adults who have seen it (myself included) understood it perfectly. Which is why people keep watching his movies again and again. Destined to become a classic.

3. Man On Wire (James Marsh) - A man, with a little help from his friends, goes through the pains of secretly setting up to walk across the top of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a tightrope. Here's a word I don't usually use to describe documentaries: enthralling.

4. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson) - Less a horror movie than a study on loneliness, to simply call this beguiling Swedish stunner a vampire movie is really to oversimplify it. Plus: since they're Swedish (unlike those Twilight kids), they're naturally pale!

5. Milk (Gus Van Sant) - Gus Van Sant's extremely well-made Harvey Milk biopic has 2008's best ensemble of actors, led by an astonishing (and atypical) performance from Sean Penn, truly one for the ages. This movie will be remembered for a long time.

6. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan) - Less a superhero movie than a prime example of modern film noir and of the gangster genre in the vein of The Untouchables and The Godfather, this could have been a true contender had the Oscars got the balls to nominate it for Best Picture. The question remains: what's up with Batman's voice?

7. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood) - It's one of Clint Eastwood's best acting-directing feats. The Oscars unbelievably snubbed it; the viewers didn't, and rightfully so.

8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher) - It's this three-hour-long period drama starring Brad Pitt. I almost didn't watch it, and I'm glad I did. The craftsmanship displayed in this movie is just undeniable. And isn't it thrilling that "edgy" filmmakers like David Fincher and Danny Boyle are being nominated for awards?

9. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton) - This movie could have ranked higher had Wall-E stayed on Earth! The first half is a masterful treatise on loneliness (there's that word again. Are these movies trying to tell me something?) But then it becomes this...Disney movie, not even a Pixar movie, if you know what I mean. Frustrating.

10. Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard) - I don't like Ron Howard as a filmmaker. His movies are mostly compromised, commercial outings pretending to be more important than they really are. This one didn't feel like that. It's probably Ron Howard's best film, I couldn't believe he directed it. Riveting.

The rest

11. Jay (Francis Xavier Pasion)
12. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (Guillermo Del Toro)
13. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
14. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
15. Kung-Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson)
16. 100 (Chris Martinez)
17. The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier)
18. Be Kind. Rewind. (Michel Gondry)
19. Australia (Baz Luhrmann)
20. Encounters At The End of the World (Werner Herzog)
21. Jodhaa Akbar (Ashutosh Gowariker)
22. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg)
23. Gomorra (Matteo Garrone)
24. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)
25. Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke)
26. Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King)
27. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris)
28. Changeling (Clint Eastwood)
29. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
30. Bolt (Byron Howard and Chris Williams)

Full disclosure: I have not seen some other supposedly good 2008 movies like Hunger, My Winnipeg, Rudo y Cursi, Trouble The Water, The Class, and Synecdoche, New York.

The worst: Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov)
It pains me that a lot of quality movies could not get screenings in the Philippines because of nudity, while this unnecessary ultra-violent drivel gets to earn a lot of money.


1. Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
2. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
3. Sean Penn (Milk)
4. Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler)
5. Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino)
6. Anna Faris (The House Bunny)
7. Baron Geisler (Jay)
8. Tessie Tomas (100)
9. Eugene Domingo (100)
10. Anita Linda (Adela)
11. Meryl Streep (Doubt)
12. Josh Brolin (W.)
13. Benicio Del Toro (Che)
14. Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder)
15. Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married)
16. Viola Davies (Doubt)
17. Colin Farrell (In Bruges)
18. Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon)
19. Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)

(You must be looking for Kate Winslet. I've seen the movies. She's not on the list.)

Special mentions

Cinematography - The Fall
Visual Effects - Speed Racer
Production Design - Be Kind. Rewind.
Costume - Jodhaa Akbar
Make-up - The Dark Knight
Musical Score - Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea

Theme Songs

1. Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea)

2. Deewangi Deewangi (Om Shanti Om)

3. The Wrestler (The Wrestler)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

25 things I'm letting Facebook learn about me

Aaargh! I did not want to be tempted by this meme but I couldn't resist a listing challenge. Hey Facebook, you may want to keep my stuff, but you can't own me.

1. My idea of a good weekend is staying home and watching five movies in a row. When movie theater tickets were cheaper, I would watch three movies back-to-back-back. Schindler's List? Saw that twice in a row in the theater (and did it twice). Fellowship of the Ring? Ditto. (And I saw that ten times in the theater). Actually I did that with all the Rings movies.

2. Star Wars never did it for me. Where do I sign up for the Fellowship?

3. Getting hitched (or "settling down") has crossed my mind, but I still want to go to Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Sudan, and Pyongyang. Having said that, indecent proposals are welcome.

4. I am a Filipino. I can't imagine myself being a citizen of another country.

5. I was crazy about vinyl records when I was younger. How crazy? Read on:

6. I've shaken hands and spoken with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former US President Jimmy Carter, but the person that made me starstruck the most upon seeing was Bella Flores.

7. The first memory I ever had was of me drowning. When I was about one or two, my toy fell into a big container of water. I tried to reach for it and went straight into the bottom headfirst. My yaya found me just in time. Every day has since been a gift.

8. I'm not supposed to eat anything sweet, salty, spicy, sour, starchy, fatty, caffeinated, and carbonated. Kill me now.

9. When I'm alone in my room, I try to enjoy myself by reading and listening to music. (I may be lying).

10. Indonesia is my favorite country besides my own, and my favorite city remains Yogyakarta ("Jogja") in Central Java (Ubud doesn't even come close).

11. I've thought about converting to Islam, but a life without dinuguan? It's just wrong.

12. I'm a huge fan of anything Indian. Except the caste system thing. You can't subscribe to that belief and be democratic at the same time.

13. I voted for the same person in the last two presidential elections. Even when he was already dying, I still voted for him. I seriously do not know whom to vote for next year. One thing's for sure though. I'm voting.

14. I've experienced being interviewed on radio, TV and print, but they weren't nearly as stressful for me as showing up in family gatherings, or doing small talk at cocktail parties.

15. I'm dying to study again.

16. You can assign me to dangerous places, or make me sing in public or force me to write a decent poem in an hour, but don't make me trek or enter a cave again. I, however, fancy skydiving, and have thought about doing that bungee jump near the Tibetan border. And I want to go scuba diving!

17. I have a ton of books, mostly second-hand classic novels, but I've never read most of them. Recently I've been more interested in non-fiction (which also explains the alarming number of old magazines at home). For me, at least right now, reading fiction is like willingly letting yourself be enslaved by somebody in his or her fantasy world. Which is actually the point, but I don't like doing it often. My favorite novel is The Catcher in the Rye, and my favorite writer is former New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

18. I was briefly hooked on Indonesian clove cigarettes ("kretek"), specifically Sampoerna mild menthol. I would love to smoke it everyday, except for the health and dying early thing. (Note: I don't smoke anymore.)

19. Until recently, my favorite movie for the longest time was Federico Fellini's "La Strada." I also admire Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salo (120 Days of Sodom)," not because I'm a perv, but because it was such a strong piece of work that successfully tried to depict what could happen if there is absolute power...(blah blah blah...). My favorite Filipino film is Manuel Silos' "Biyaya ng Lupa." Among the great living directors, I have a soft spot for Tim Burton. I'd gladly let Tim Burton film my biopic, starring--who else?--Johnny Depp.

20. I did everything in high school: I was a singer, dancer, actor, wrote for the school paper, drama club president, joined art and writing contests, won in scrabble and quiz bees, spelling bee champion, church choir member, and was campaign manager during the school government election. In college, I did none of these.

21. I love cats. We used to have 13 cats one time. I was that kid who would go out in the middle of the night to look for a crying abandoned kitten and feed it milk (the fact that they almost always end up dying is another story). I do think they're smarter than dogs. Truly, you don't own cats. They own you.

22. I have two ear piercings, and am now seriously contemplating getting my first tattoo.

23. I used to fancy myself as a member of a band, either a vocalist or a djembe player. If I were a rock star, I would love to have been Bob Marley. I like his music and his politics. The ganja thing I can do without, thank you.

24. My favorite album of all-time is "Circus" by the Eraserheads. (The only other album that made me weep as much was Radiohead's "OK Computer"). The Eraserheads sucked live, though. I'd drop everything to watch Prince live. Prince is a genius.

25. If I could go back in time, I'd go to Manila circa the late '60s to late '70s, perhaps join the protest movement, and buy all the vinyl records (Pinoy rock! Manila sound!) I could get my hands on. I'd also love to go back to Nick Joaquin's Old Manila before World War II, walk down Escolta and ride the tranvia.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Peryahan sa U.P.

U.P. Fair 2009
February 13, 2009
University of the Philippines, Diliman

There was a riot?? I left too early! The calm before the storm.

More photos.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Word of mouth

i was back in chinatown last sunday to look for this place that i've read a lot about it's called dong bei dumplings it's on yuchengco st. but i will not tell you exactly where on yuchengco st. because i got lost looking for it and so should you but it's totally worth the hassle so it's ok it's a new-ish place owned by a Chinese couple that has just moved from china to manila the place is small with only four tables not many people know it exists but almost everybody who has eaten there became instant fans i ordered the pork dumplings with chives at 80 pesos for ten pieces i took a bite and nearly lost my mind they were the most delicious dumplings i've ever tasted i also ordered those dumplings with water inside yummy many say the food in this unassuming place routinely beats those offered in fancier more expensive institutions the food was certainly very fresh don't you shy away from the chili sauce it's wrong to shy away from the chili sauce i'm definitely coming back hmmm maybe next week burp