Stories Travel

Benjamin Button and the Painter from Catalonia

I was finishing the last of my toast when I heard him say, “Your tattoo is beautiful.

I looked at him just in time to see him pointing on the side of his neck to identify which tattoo of mine he was referring to.

I said thanks and wondered if I should carry on the conversation. He has dark curly hair that goes below his ears, big round eyes that are very expressive, and he has a mustache and beard. His facial hairs were not able to obscure his good looks. I’ve seen him in the hostel a couple of times during my time in Penang, but we never really talked until that day, just as I was leaving the hostel in which we were both guests.

It’s a symbol for a Leo,” I heard myself reply, deciding to keep the conversation going, “I’m a Leo.

His lips broke into a big smile.

What about you, what’s your zodiac sign?

Leo,” he replied.

I let out a little laugh, “So that’s why you liked my tattoo. You’re also a Leo.”

Leos fall from the 22nd of July to the 22nd of August. I happen to believe that the stars affect people’s characteristics, hence the ink. Sometimes I could even tell a person’s sign without even asking. People of my sign are known to be charismatic, self-confident, and sociable. I think I failed in the sociable part, I am selectively social. He, on the other hand, seems to tick all three.

Have you celebrated your birthday already or you’re going to celebrate it any day now?” I asked him curiously.

He said that he already did and asked me the same question. I told him that I’m heading to Singapore to celebrate my birthday on the 19th and that it’s the first time I’d be spending my birthday in another country.

He nodded, “Wow, did you plan it out?

Yes.”

You’re going to get a bit older,” he said.

Ah, yeah, we all grow old, that’s okay.”

Yes, unless you are Benjamin Button.”

Aha, a Benjamin Button reference. How interesting.

Why, if you have it your way, do you want to grow backwards?”

He said yes.

You want to die as a baby?” I asked, amused.

Yes, I think it’s better to die as a baby instead of an old man.

So you want people to take care of you?”

It’s the same if I die really old. I will still act like a baby and people have to take care of me.

And then he proceeded explaining to me in his thick Spanish accent that old people, at least those who reached their 80s up to a hundred start acting like babies; they unlearn the things that they do, they forget things, they could hardly walk, some have become so weak they cannot even feed themselves; basically, like babies. The guy has a point.

It was the 17th of August, in 2 days, I’d be 35. It’s not the kind of conversation that you would want to have when you are starting to feel ancient, but I love having deep conversations, especially when I don’t get to have it a lot. When I’m with some of my friends, we were always talking about other people we know and I am seriously getting sick of it. I am tired of talking about the same shit over and over again. Most of the time I wish I have a recorder with me, so when there’s a friend who would mention something that she has already discussed in the past, I’d just play the freaking recorder as a reminder that we’ve had this talk. I wish I could have more people in my life like this guy, those who see things differently. I long for this kind of conversations, funny how I usually get it from people I hardly know.

Life is like when you’re drawing a circle,” he said.

Now, this sounds interesting. I met his gaze and waited for him to explain. He drew a circle in the air with his finger. He said that when we draw a circle, it’s never perfect, that the first stroke would be bold and towards the end, the stroke would be lighter. He picked a brochure on the table and asked for my permission to use it; I said that it’s not mine. He shrugged and opened the brochure anyway, it’s one of those Penang guides that you could get from the airport. He picked a pen and drew a circle on top of the brochure. And just as he was trying to explain, I noticed that the stroke has gotten thinner by the end of the circle.

I think life is like this circle. When we are young, we’re strong, we can do many things, just like the beginning of this circle; you see the stroke is thick. But as we grow old we start to fade away, we become physically weak. Just like the end of this circle, the stroke is thin or fading.

I nodded in understanding and remembered the old people in my life and how I watched them fade. My grandfather died a few years ago; the last time I saw him, he couldn’t recognize me anymore. His body was all skin and bones, he had sunken eyes and pale complexion. Gone was the man who used to drink a lot and sing his most heartbreaking rendition of Visayan kundimans. It’s as if he was a completely different person. He has faded, it was inevitable given his old age, but knowing the inevitability didn’t make it any less easy for me to witness it.

I noticed some dirt on the guy’s hands and realized that they were paints. Could he be a painter? Where did he come from? Judging by his accent, he could be Spanish. I asked him if he was, and he looked at me surprised.

How did you know?

It’s in your accent,” I replied.

Yes I am from Spain, but I am a Catalan. Are you familiar with it?”

As a matter of fact, I am; Catalan people are from Catalonia, a region in Spain; but that’s as far as my knowledge goes. He was happy to share some facts. He said that although they are part of Spain, his people like to be referred to as Catalans instead of Spanish. Their language is also a bit different from the rest of Spain; a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

So you speak French?” I asked.

Un peu.”

Moi aussi. Je parle un peu  Français.”

The corner of his mouth lifts in amusement, “Where are you from?

I dared him to take a guess. He paused and stared intently on my face. If I were capable of blushing, my face would definitely be red right at that moment. His brow wrinkled in concentration trying to figure out my nationality.

You’re unlike any of the girls I’ve seen here, let me see.

Come on, it’s in my accent, a bit similar to yours,” I told him.

I gave him some clues, to not go beyond Southeast Asia and that my country has been colonized by his country for centuries. The Indian guy on the other table let out a small laugh; apparently, he was listening to our conversation and based on his reaction, he already knew where I came from.

I saw it on his face before he even said it. He finally got it.

Philippines.

I nodded in confirmation.

Filipinas are beautiful,” he said.

Why, have you been to my country?” I asked, ready to discuss the places that he might have visited.

He shook his head.

Then how did you know Filipinas are beautiful?

I’m looking at one right now,” he replied.

My mind went blank. I honestly didn’t know how to respond to that and I can’t remember now if I ever did. I could have sworn the temperature has risen in the room. My face felt warm and my heart started to race a little bit.

I looked at my phone and saw the Uber driver has arrived. Sadly, it was time for me to go. I wish we had an opportunity to talk in the few days I was there, why did I meet him just when I was about to leave? I picked up my suitcase from under the table and told him that it was nice talking to him.

His name is Jordi and just as I thought, he is a painter. I waited for him to ask for my name but he never did. I left Penang that day remembering the story of Benjamin Button, and his hands splattered with paint.

Malaysia Travel

Searching George Town’s Street Art on Foot

Because renting a WiFi device is more expensive than my kidney, I had to do a Magellan type of exploration in which I used a printed map to see the street art in George Town, Penang. The map is distributed for free at KLIA2. I went to the front desk of my hostel and asked how to use a bus to get around the town. The receptionist advised against it because of traffic and said that it’s better to go about it on foot. (more…)

Malaysia Travel

5 Flights, 3 Airports: the horrors and wonders of flying

I took an evening flight to Kuala Lumpur on the 14th of August. I wasn’t pleased to find I got an aisle seat, but my mood easily improved upon seeing I had no seatmates. I waited for the plane to close before taking the liberty to switch to the window seat. I prefer sitting by the window because the sight of clouds does wonders in managing my flying anxiety. It was nighttime, I knew I won’t be seeing a sea of clouds, but I wanted to lean on the window in the hopes I could get some sleep.

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Travel

El Nido Tour A Islands: the beauty, worth the return

I don’t like repeating things; I don’t reread books, I don’t rewatch films, I don’t travel to the same place, at least not if I can help it. My reasoning is I got more books waiting to be read, I already know how a movie is going to end, and I will not live forever to waste time revisiting places when there’s so much more to explore in this world. But some things in this life are worth repeating especially if it’s something beautiful. That’s why I didn’t mind taking the Tour A in El Nido despite doing it in 2014.  

Admittedly, I had another reason; I want a better memory. The first time I took this tour my phone got water damaged that I didn’t have photos of the Big Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon, and 7 Commandos. That’s 3 islands out of 4; I know right, it sucks. I’d been presented a chance to do over, I could only be grateful. [Read: What to expect on Tour A in El Nido Palawan]

It is easy to find the best deals for El Nido tour package because El Nido is a popular tourist destination. In our case, we went with Sealand Venture. We found its little kiosk in front of Ocean Vista Inn being manned by a woman. We approached her, introduced ourselves, then we wrote down our names on their log book.

The day was overcast, it had been raining a little on the first day of our island-hopping tour. We prayed for a nice weather; cruises tend to be canceled when the rain is too strong. The heavens seemed to have heard our prayers because even when the sun was hiding behind the clouds for the better part of the day, the rain was kept at bay.

We were kept entertained by one of the boat crew, a dark-skinned skinny guy who kept on shooting pick-up lines to the women on our boat. For example, when we went to the Big Lagoon and I said, “Wow, this is really beautiful.

I heard him say, “But not as beautiful as you.”

At other times he told me, “Ma’am your smile is brighter than the sun,” and his favorite line, “Your smile is enough to make my day.

At first, I didn’t know how to make of his random compliments, but like I said, he’d been using the same lines to the women on the boat (save for those who came with their partners) so  I decided to just laugh it off and play along. I do not think he was doing it out of malice, maybe he was just trying to keep everyone in the right mood.

The first island of the day is the Big Lagoon, one if not most picturesque island in El Nido. I still remember the time when I stared longingly at the other tourists who were having a grand time doing their mini photo shoot by the nose of the boat, with the two looming limestone cliffs and the bluest of water as their background. Back then, Big Lagoon was the third island in our itinerary, and my phone died on me after getting short circuited. Because of that I made up for lost opportunity and took as many photos as possible. I think I have more photos than anyone else on that boat. See that smile on my face? That’s the smile of success, lol.

Then off we went to the second destination, Secret Lagoon. In 2014, I was on my period (sorry if that’s TMI) hence, I skipped the foray to this lagoon and stayed on the boat. If you think about it, technically, I haven’t really been there. As the name implies, the lagoon is hidden and one must pass through a narrow opening through the rocks to see it. It is a small body of water secluded by towering rock formation. We didn’t go far beyond the opening and proceeded into picture taking. Interestingly, the water doesn’t go beyond chest level. Inside, it felt like we were in a different world, our excited voices were the only sound that I could hear. That’s it about giving some places a second chance, you get to discover marvelous things that you might have missed in the past.

In my previous tour, lunch time was held on Payong-Payong island. This time, though our meal was prepared on Shimizu island. It’s worth noting that this island was not included in my 2014 trip, for reasons unknown. Shimizu (sometimes spelled as “Simizu”) was named after a Japanese diver who died on this island.

The food was great, or maybe I was just too hungry that everything tasted perfect. But my favorite moment of being on this island really was doing a photo shoot. While my friends were busy snorkeling, I was running back and forth to this one spot on the shore taking photos, thanks to my friend’s tripod, lol.

Next was Payong-Payong. Having been to this island before, I took the time to just relax a little bit. We then continued our tour to the Small Lagoon where we rented a kayak to explore the place. Lara was our captain, but I tried my hand on it after a while and I realized I have the potential. There was a moment when I steered the kaya for like 15 minutes. Pretty soon my arms were burning from the effort, but I welcomed the physical strain to compensate for my missed workout routine.

The remaining hours of the tour were spent on Seven Commandos beach. My friends and I enjoyed a chat by the beach with our halo-halo and shake. I saw a few locals playing with a long rope tied to a tree. I wanted to give it a try, but I wasn’t too eager to make a fool of myself (pretty sure I’d fall flat on my face) so I passed.

There is a saying, love is sweeter the second time around, and it couldn’t be more true with El Nido. The memory is more vivid, the experience more luscious and meaningful. I am a person who doesn’t like to repeat things, but for El Nido, I’d be willing to do it all over again.     

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