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.

This trip is unlike any that I’ve taken. I wasn’t just leaving for a holiday, I was leaving a problem. 3 days before my vacation, I found myself in a bad situation. Logic dictates that I cancel the trip and deal with the issue, but f*ck logic. I felt bad already and canceling the trip would only add insult to injury.

[Read: My Biggest Learning at Age 35: Do More Regrets than What Ifs]

I turned to my left and saw this man who seems to be Chinese on the row across mine. He was wearing a blank expression, busy tinkering with his tablet. He looked like he just stepped off the office, donned in dark-colored jacket and trousers, and black shoes. His hair was neatly combed and he was wearing spectacles. I wondered if he was working even during flight. As I thought of this, his tablet tilted a little bit, allowing me a glance on the screen and an answer to my question; he was playing a game.

It was a 4-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, I desperately hoped for sleep. The first hour went on just fine despite the slight jolting of the plane. Two hours in the flight and my nightmare has begun. The turbulence was stronger, it felt like the plane was hitting solid bumps along the way. I remember thinking to myself if I should start worrying. I glanced at the Chinese guy, he was still busy with his game and looked rather unfazed. I took a sigh of relief. Somehow his calm demeanor kept my fear at bay.

Did I just close my eyes for a very long time or did I manage to get myself to sleep? I’m not really sure, but when I opened my eyes, the plane was already heading on to one of the worst turbulence incidents I have ever experienced. The C130 ride where my fear of flying originated came to mind; it felt a lot like that. Imagine being on a boat, sailing on the sea, and you are heading on a big wave, so tall that riding over it feels like a roller coaster drop. Well, that’s how it felt like. The plane was making a lot of sudden dips that gave me that funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I gripped the edge of the arm rests, my knuckles turning white.The turbulence was so severe I half expected the oxygen masks to be released.

[Read: 7 Tips to Conquer Fear of Flying]

My eyes wandered to the other seats and I saw a few passengers still sleeping. The Chinese guy, on the other hand, was no longer playing. On his face I read something that I’d been dreading to see; worry. Just like that, fear took reign over my heart. I begged the gods, the angels, and the saints to make it all stop.

It was a ride from hell but despite it being bumpy and very traumatizing, we landed on Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 in one piece. It made me dread the 4 other flights that I had to take for the entire trip. Yes, you read that right, all in all, I took 5 flights on my Malaysia-Singapore trip.

This is how I designed it;

Manila – Kuala Lumpur (Cebu Pacific)
Kuala Lumpur – Penang (Air Asia)
Penang – Singapore (Jetstar)
Singapore – Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia)
Kuala Lumpur – Manila (Cebu Pacific)

For someone who has a flying anxiety, I sure flew a lot. But for all the horrors of turbulence, I cannot argue against the benefits of flying over land travel. If like me, you could only take a few days off from work, then time is of great value. I would only take the land option if the airfare is too expensive, but in this case, the domestic flight in Malaysia is cheap, so is the flight option to go to Singapore. That deal cannot be beaten; not only did it save me a lot of time, it also didn’t put a great dent in my budget.

Because of this I’d been to 3 airports, and taken the service of 3 different airlines. That first flight from Manila to Kuala Lumpur is the worst, and the best one is when I took the Jetstar flight from Penang to Singapore.

It was my first time to ride Jetstar and I didn’t know what to expect. Jetstar is stricter when it comes to phone use, while Air Asia and Cebu Pacific disallow it only during take-off and landing, Jetstar forbids the use of it in the entire flight. At first, I was a bit upset because I play music to help calm my nerves. The good news is, this flight was so smooth it was easy to believe we weren’t thousands of feet off the ground.

Air Asia takes the cake for having the most good looking cabin crew. I swear to you I have never been on an Air Asia where the flight attendants are not beautiful. It’s like if you don’t look better than most people, you have no chance of getting hired here.

Cebu Pacific, on the other hand, has the friendliest crew. I wish they could improve on their uniforms though especially for international flights. I just think they are dressed too casually compared with the other airlines.

Now let’s go to the airports.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport

Kuala Lumpur International Airport is one of the major airports in Southeast Asia. It was inaugurated in 1998 and it has two terminals, KLIA1, the main terminal and KLIA2, the low-cost carrier terminal. It is located in Sepang, Selangor, Malaysia, about 45-km away from the city center. My plane landed on KLIA2.

I hate to make the comparison but I couldn’t help it. Facilities wise, KLIA2 is way more advanced than NAIA. The first thing that I noticed is the prayer rooms, intended for their Muslim passengers. Note that over 61% of Malaysians follow the Islam religion. Among their facilities that are not available in NAIA are the baby rooms, bus services, security pass counter, train services, storage & locking services, and massage chairs. You can also take a train to travel between KLIA1 and KLIA2, a necessity that unfortunately, is not available at NAIA.

One of the best things that I love about this airport is that the WiFi is fast and reliable. There are even computer machines that are placed strategically in several places within the airport so if for some reason, you cannot use your mobile phone to access the Internet, you can use these computers for free. The boarding gates are also much more organized. They are divided into small rooms with seats, and they only open an hour before the departure. There are seats, however, outside these boarding gates where travelers can stay and wait.

Penang International Airport

Penang International Airport is a medium-sized airport and it looks new. Wikipedia says it had a major renovation between 2009 to 2013. It serves as the hub for low-cost carriers, AirAsia, Firefly, Malaysia Airlines, MASkargo, and Malindo Air. I like it, it’s clean, modern, pretty impressive for a small airport.

Singapore Changi Airport

One of the reasons I opted to fly between Malaysia and Singapore is to have an opportunity to visit the 5-time winner of World’s Best Airport by Skytrax, Singapore Changi Airport. Changi is by far the most impressive airport I have ever set foot on. This airport is a destination on its own that many travelers recommend to spend at least half a day to explore it. My friend advised me to stay there for 6 hours, a suggestion that I found to be ludicrous at that time. Turns out she knows what she’s talking about because there is so much to see at Changi.

It has many elements that I never thought I’d find in an airport, like an entertainment deck, beautiful gardens, swimming pool with jacuzzi, movie theater, koi pond, butterfly garden, the world’s tallest slide in an airport, self-service kiosks, and hundreds of shops and restaurants. Every corner is a delight to the senses that I lost count of the times I uttered “wow”.

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Two of my favorite things in this airport is the massage chairs (I used it for like 2 hours, it was pure bliss), and sleeping lounges. I was happy to see that there is an area where travelers can sleep more comfortably, something that I wish all airports have.

I was particularly mesmerized by the kinetic rain art installation. It’s 1,216 bronze droplets, which you can find at Terminal 1. The droplets move up and down in a slow, fluid motion, and if you look closely, they form some patterns such as a plane, a kite, or a dragon. It is seriously one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fully explore the airport because it was hard to walk around with a suitcase in tow.


A friend told me, “You’re the only person I know who hates flying but still travels a lot.”

I know right, but then that’s the thing; when you are doing something you love, you are more than willing to make a sacrifice and face your fears. This is true even in other aspects of life. It’s like falling in love with someone who is clearly no good for you, but you love the person anyway. It’s like having food that you know is bad for you, yet you eat it anyway. I like to see flying in the same manner (although, of course, it is not really that bad). It gives me anxiety and I will never get used to it. It makes my heart pound, it makes my palms sweaty, it makes me atone for my sins. But a few hours of discomfort cannot be compared to the reward that I get from seeing new places. So I will continue taking those flights, turbulence and all, if it means I’d get to do the one thing that truly gives me joy.

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Philippines 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 re-watch 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.

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, “Beautiful, 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 what to make of his random compliments, but like I said, he’d been using the same lines to other 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.

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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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