Oh Canadian Rockies, how beautiful you are!

Banff, Banff, my baby shot me down. Canada’s Banff National Park in Western Alberta is a spectacular display of nature and wildlife spread across 6,000 square kilometers.  (Photos by Nic Soro)
Janice Soro, Tanya Lara and Chormela Santos in a 2011 reunion in Canada.

My high school friends living in Canada are telling me they have the perfect spot for taking pictures at Banff National Park, west of Calgary in Alberta province. Or what to my mind is Canada’s Freezer.

It feels like Alberta hasn’t been introduced to spring all these years.

Chormela, Janice and I are going to Banff, a two-hour drive from Chor’s house in Rocky Ridge, where from her terrace you can see the Canadian Rockies on a clear day. From Banff, we are going to Lake Louise and Jasper National Park.

My itinerary, which they did for me, has never been so full of nature (three national parks including Waterton) and just one city (Calgary) to explore.

I feel like a fish out of water.

Stunning views of the Canadian Rockies from the funicular at Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park, established in 1885.
Some of the wildlife we saw at  Banff and Jasper National Parks.

I live in the dense urban sprawl that is Metro Manila, which makes Banff’s 6,000 square kilometers of nature mind-boggling to me.

My two hands aren’t enough to count the billionaire developers in Manila that would merrily bulldoze these forests without a second thought to build condominiums and malls, and then call it “progress.”

Both of them and Janice’s husband Nic have been to Banff countless times to take visiting Filipino friends and they assure me that they know all the picture-perfect spots in the huge park.

So where can we take pictures with the Rockies in the background?

“In the parking lot,” they say.


True enough, Banff town’s parking lot is framed by the Rocky Mountains, that mountain system that runs from Alberta to British Columbia and in the  south borders the US states Idaho and Montana.

A glacial lake within Banff, Lake Louise is named after Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise Caroline Alberta.
Originally built as a base for outdoor enthusiasts and alpinists in 1890, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For 130 years, Banff National Park has been a protected wildlife park. Even though hundreds of thousands of tourists visit, it is as unspoiled as it has ever been when only explorers came here.

The few facilities they built are all geared toward the appreciation of nature. There’s a funicular with glass gondolas that let visitors see the mountain ranges from the top, there are the hiking trails and in winter the place turns into a skiing resort.

Lake Louise, located within Banff, is “the most beautiful lake in the world,” they tell me. Named after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, who married the governor general of Canada in the late 1800s, Lake Louise is a stunning emerald lake.

Nic Soro and daughter Hannah in Lake Louise.

Its water comes from the melt-water of Victoria Glacier and is so clear you can see the tiniest stones on the lake bed.

From there, we drive to Jasper and get lost finding our lodgings for the night called Pocahontas Cabins. I half expect a girl in braids to welcome us at the hotel, but no such luck.

The place looks like a movie set with the cabins  made of logs and topped with red roofs. Our cabin has one bedroom, which Janice’s husband and their daughter Hannah occupy, and the three of us girls share the king-size foldout in the living room.

It feels like a giggly sleepover in high school all over again.

Called Pocahontas Cabins, the hotel blends with the mountain scenery and is located near the hot springs of Miette in Jasper National Park.
Having arrived at night, we explore the grounds of Pocahontas Cabins as soon as we we wake up — still in our pajamas!

* * *

Jasper National Park is even bigger than Banff at 10,000 square kilometers. We drive to Miette Hot Springs, which has the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies.

Water comes from the mountain at 54 degrees Celsius (129°F) and is cooled down to 40 degrees for the pools.

They have to cool the water down.

The same hot water that comes from the snow-covered mountains. Go figure!

There are mostly elderly Canadians in the pools because the hot springs are supposed to be curative and good for your joints. They tell us they love our tan and ask where we are from. We laugh and say, it’s not a tan, it’s our color  (though Janice is so fair you could mistake her for another race).

I don’t know how my friends talked me into this. Because, seriously, every time I get out of the pool, I feel like five people are throwing buckets of ice water at me and yelling, “Suuuckerrr!”

Miette Hot Springs has the hottest springs in the Canadian Rockies. Every time I get out of the pool, it feels like five people are throwing buckets of ice water at me.

I don’t ever want to get out of the warm water. I want to live in this pool!

It’s June and it’s still incredibly cold in Alberta.

My friends have been living here from five to 11 years that they’re like Eskimos now, having survived winters of -45°C (-49°F). When the temperature dips down to 10 degrees, they call it a nice summer day.

They have saved their best Alberta joke for me at Columbia Ice Field on our way back to Calgary. The ice field straddles the two national parks, on the southwestern tip of Banff and the northwestern edge of Jasper.

Of all the archeological discoveries in Alberta (which include dinosaur fossils), the ice field was one of the last to be known to man because of the harsh weather conditions.

British explorer Norman Collie wrote in 1898: “A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks.”

Columbia Ice Field is located at the northwestern tip of Banff. Yep, that tiny thing on the ice is our snow-mobile tour bus.
The ice below the ground we are walking on at Columbia Ice Field is as deep as the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The ice below the ground we are walking on is as deep as the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (324 meters or 1,062 feet).

Oh but how beautiful it is!

It’s so white that you need sunnies because the bright light reflected just hurts your eyes.

The ice field was formed 230,000 BC ago. Just think about its age for a moment — and then think about humanity and the earth’s evolution.

Janice, her husband Nic and daughter Hannah are leaving after another night in Calgary.

They are going back to their hometown Hanna, which has fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, a town so small that the top gossip for the past months has been about a guy who was having an affair with an officemate, and the wife followed them to a motel where she got a spare key from the front desk, and caught them in flagrante delicto.

It is also the hometown of the band Nickelback.

I happen to like Nickelback back in the day — without shame — but I think with a town like Hanna I’d want to get out too…and it kind of explains their lyrics.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller has more than than 130,000 fossils. The dinosaur above me is in its Death Pose — head thrown back, tail extended, and mouth open. With humans, that’s probably the Orgasm Pose — if we had tails.
At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, where indigenous people without tools killed buffaloes 5,500 years ago by leading them to a chase off a cliff; Red Rock waterfalls; the Hoodoo rock formations; and the mountain border between Waterton, Canada and Montana, the US.

* * *

Chormela and I are in a deli ordering wieners for lunch at Waterton National Park when two white-haired old ladies come in and stand behind us looking at the menu on the wall, which offers choices from small to long and extra-long wieners.

I whisper to her in Kapampangan, “If we’re still traveling just the two of us when we reach their age, we’re gonna do a Thelma & Louise.”

She says, “Who are Thelma and Louise?”

I stare at her incredulously. “Are you kidding me? It’s just the best ending there is of a chick road trip movie!”

I explain to her that rather than get arrested for shooting a rapist, Thelma and Louise drive off the Grand Canyon on their 1966 Ford Thunderbird and the frame freezes on the plunge down.

“But why is that a good ending?”

She has a point there.

The Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, near the Canada-US border, is closed because of the weather — in June! — even though Waterton is warmer than Banff.

I couldn’t distinguish American and Canadian accents from each other until I am on a boat doing a tour of Waterton on my own. It’s a tour Chor has taken four times with visiting friends that she can’t stand another one or her head will explode.

I say, okay, I don’t want to drive back to Calgary with a headless passenger.

The Canadian tour guide is talking about the Rockies bordering the US state Montana, and somehow his accent is subtly different from the neutral American accent that I am more accustomed to hearing.

I can’t put my finger on it, but dammit, Canadians really do say “aboot” instead of “about.”

South Park was right all along.

Throughout this vacation, my friends have been telling me why Canada was their country of choice when they left Manila and Baguio (like hundreds of thousands of Filipinos). It’s a tolerant society like no other, they say.

Some landscapes in Canada’s Alberta region are so beautiful they don’t need description or a caption….also because I don’t remember where this is.
A happy reunion in Alberta — Tanya Lara, Chormela Santos, Janice Soro and little Hannah Soro.

In fact, when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed back to Beijing, most of the rich packed their bags and migrated to Canada instead of anywhere else in the former British Empire.

I mention this because my friends have been asking me to move to Canada for over a decade, and my answer has always been, “And do what? Every country has a surplus of journalists and writers. Besides, I like living in Manila.”

Chor and I have shared many happy, tough and sad times in our lives, including divorce, even as we live thousands of kilometers and thirteen time zones apart.

We Skype several times a week wherever I am the world and I think our closeness is partly because our lives have taken such different roads, and in our physical distance we know that we won’t hurt each other the way people around us could and would.

When she came home to Manila, she stayed in my house where we spent lazy days ordering pizza and pancit in between her schedule of seeing other friends, a high school reunion, a New Year’s Eve party at the Peninsula, and then flying to Hong Kong separately for another reunion.

With all my friends in North America, I laugh myself silly every time until it’s time to drive to the airport. In Manila, Calgary, Toronto, New York, San Diego, Boston, Baltimore or Washington, DC, it’s always the same scene at the end — tight hugs and tears and goodbyes.

Thinking of my friends in Canada and the US, my heart expands and contracts at the same time. Maybe this is why it’s taken me 19 other stories on this blog before writing about them.

Searching for Stalin’s Boots in Budapest

Budapest’s Chain Bridge on the Danube River — looking as blue as Strauss’ waltz at twilight — links what used to be two cities, the hilly Buda and the flat Pest. A cruise on the Danube is a great way to see the city.  (Photo from budapest4rent.net)
Unfortunately, this was the weather I arrived to in 2009 — a snowstorm. But still, I went to Statue Park (Memento Park), an hour away from Budapest, to see what I came here for: Stalin’s Boots and other Cold War monuments.

In 1956, about 200,000 Hungarian students and citizens demonstrated in Budapest to sympathize with the Poles, who had just won political reforms from their communist government and the Soviet Union.

The Hungarians wanted reforms, too, and one of their sixteen demands was the dismantling of Joseph Stalin’s monument in a park in Budapest, installed just seven years earlier, ostensibly a gift from the Hungarian people to the Soviet leader.

The statue was eight meters high and stood on a base of four meters tall. Thousands of angry Hungarians chanting “Russia, go home!” toppled the statue, which broke into several sections.

What was left on the limestone base were the boots, over which the revolutionaries draped the Hungarian flag.

Fast forward to fifty-three years later, in 2009, and I was  in search of this remnant of Hungary’s October Revolution, the surviving piece of this sculpture now known as “Stalin’s Boots.”

I couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it.

The boots from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Monument, which was toppled by Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956. And Vladimir Lenin, one of the dozens of communist monuments at Memento Park or  Statue Park.  (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
A giant replica of Stalin’s Boots in the indoor museum.

People go abroad to shop, to eat, to visit museums and landmarks. I do that, too.

But on two occasions, I’ve traveled abroad primarily to see statues. One was to Savannah, Georgia to look at the Bird Girl statue, which I first saw in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and which used to be installed on a gravesite in  Bonaventure Cemetery.

And the other time was this — in Budapest for Stalin’s Boots.

My fascination with the Cold War began when I was a kid reading espionage novels. My head was filled with the sufferings of revolutionaries, spies who fall in love, heart-stopping border crossings, and betrayals.

Later, when I was already working and whenever I had saved just enough,  I would go to countries in the former Eastern Bloc. The Berlin Wall came down when I was still in journalism school, and countries that I used to read about in fiction started to open up, and I followed every piece of news about this sea of change sweeping across Eastern Europe.

During the Cold War, there was very little distinction between art and communist propaganda. After the Berlin Wall came down, and communism along with it,  other countries destroyed their monuments. Hungary scooped them all up and put them in an outdoor museum — outside Budapest.

Hungary was one of those countries. The cheapest way to get from Manila to Europe was — and still is — during winter abroad. It’s also the time when the newsroom is quiet after the Christmas rush and it’s easier to take time off from work.

So there I was in Budapest, which was in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm, in February 2009.

More than a decade before I went to Hungary, I saw a show called Lonely Planet. It wasn’t even a channel then, it was just a show (later called Globe Trekkers) on Discovery Channel hosted by a gap-toothed British guy named Ian Wright, who ate yak brains in Mongolia or something gross like that (long before Anthony Bourdain started doing such things).

In his Budapest episode, he went outside the city to Statue Park (or Memento Park), where Hungary put together all its communist-era statuary. Unlike other newly democratized countries that destroyed theirs, Hungary had the good sense to gather them in one park.

Except, even decades later, this outdoor museum was still not as popular as it should have been. Not a lot of tourists knew  about it or cared to visit it.

But I did.

I don’t remember anything else about that episode except for Statue Park. He showed Stalin’s Boots — the actual ones from the statue that was toppled in 1956 — and the giant plaster cast in the dark indoor museum. There were also several statues of Lenin and generic communist propaganda in the park.

How different the world was before communism failed miserably. And so many people suffered and died because of it.

And then Wright made me laugh my ass off. He pointed to a giant statue of a man running and holding a piece of cloth that could have been a flag…or a towel.

Wright said something like this bloke seems to be yelling, “Your towel, your towel! You dropped your towel!”

Budapest had me at towel.

* * *

I arrived in Hungary after a night in Zurich (there were no direct flights from Manila). And in booking this trip I found a secret to traveling between European countries — always take the poorer country’s airline even if they are code-sharing.

Between Swiss Air and Malév, the Hungarian flag carrier was so much cheaper. I would experience this many other times later, like between Dusseldorf and Prague (Czech Airlines — cheaper than Lufthansa!) or Amsterdam and Rome.

The House of  Terror or Terror Museum on Andrassy üt, an avenue that is often compared with Paris’ Champs Elysées, is a repository of how Hungary’s Secret Police terrorized and victimized its own citizens. The tank is both a symbol of the Soviet Union’s power during the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc countries’ suppression of their people’s freedoms — and on the wall are pictures of the dead and disappeared.
Day and night, people come to light candles and lay flowers for the fallen on a narrow ledge outside the Terror Museum.
Teletypes, interrogation rooms, cells and uniforms of the Secret Police are among the mementos in Terror Museum.

There was an unexpected snowstorm in Budapest when I arrived.

My hotel was only three blocks from the Danube River, which was partially frozen, but I persisted on walking to Buda through the beautiful Chain Bridge and then quickly sought shelter in a museum.

So I discovered Budapest through its classical art and contemporary museums.

I went to four of them in the next several days in between hopping on and off the red tourist buses, to places like the Castle District, the gorgeous Parliament House, the Gresham Palace, Vasarcsarnok or the Great Market Hall, St. Rita’s Church and other sights.

But it was the museums that quickly became my shelter from the weather, like the National Gallery located in one section of Buda Castle, the National Museum of Fine Arts on the flat Pest side at Heroes Square, and the Terror Museum, which details the Hungarian people’s suffering in the hands of their Secret Police and the Soviet Union.

Terror Museum is located on Andrassy üt, kind of like Paris’ Champs Elyseés. This comparison carries throughout the two capitals, as Budapest is dubbed “the Paris of the East.” This beautiful avenue is topped by Heroes’ Square with statuary of royals and leaders past, its kings, rulers from its seven ethnic tribes and their horses.

Unlike Champs Elyseés, Andrassy Avenue is not bursting with shops. Instead, you find here private villas, some of them now high-end restaurants and coffee shops.

It seems a sign of how the world has changed drastically post-communism, that on an avenue where there was once a prison and torture chambers for those who opposed the communist ideology and a government largely controlled and influenced by the Soviet Union, there is now a Gloria Jeans coffee shop.

Hungarians still remember those times. Outside the musem, on every freezing night that I walked past it, people were lighting candles and leaving flowers on a narrow ledge for the fallen.

Roof outside the museum; and a section paying tribute to the priests that were persecuted and killed, accused of  inciting the peasants to rebellion.
Heroes Square has statues of the country’s Seven Chieftains of the Magyars (or the Seven Tribes of Hungary), other national leaders and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Photo from all-free-photos.com)
It was colder than it looks, so I said, “Dear Weather, my name is Tanya Lara and I am here for the first time! Please let me enjoy Budapest without a snowstorm!” Behind me, at Heroes Square,  is the National Museum of Fine Arts.

They did it perhaps for family members or friends — or for the unknown people who were murdered and disappeared. It wasn’t only the intellectuals or students that suffered this fate, there were also priests and peasants who spoke out and were accused of treason and sedition.

How could such an ideology founded on equality and love of country be so brutal and inhuman? The answer is simple: the most egregious sin and ultimate failing of communism is that it took out human emotions and needs out of the equation, and then enforced its own beliefs. Just like most religions do today.

Inside the museum, where taking pictures is not allowed (I did manage to snap a few grainy ones), the victims’ pictures are stuck on the wall, from the floor to the ceiling across three or four levels, along with a Soviet tank on the ground floor, uniforms of the Secret Police, teletypes, paintings, mock dossiers and interrogation rooms.

In the basement are the prison cells and some are literally no bigger than a cupboard for solitary confinement. These cold stonewalls tell the story of Hungary’s struggle and heartache, of dissidents and their families who grieved. I walked these halls and rooms, thinking, some of them are still grieving to this day, searching for closure.

Castle Hill on the Buda side of the city. (Photo by Kitsune Misao/wikipedia.com)

* * *

Budapest has one of the most stunning parliament buildings in all of Europe, one of the most beautiful rivers that run through a city, and a bridge that crosses it.

In spring and summer, tourist boats ply the Danube with live music; a marathon starts on the Chain Bridge and goes around both sides of the river, one I had wanted to do before I quit running.

It is a bustling, modern city of cafes, business and commerce that I want to go back to — but not in winter again. I want to see it when it comes to life as any city living in the present and looking at the future.

And yet…all of us are really just drifting on memories — and what is art if not for that?

Thinking about those days in Budapest, I realize that I was fortunate to be forced by the weather to take part in its remembrance of an era thankfully gone.

This painful, Cold War past, not its older, glorious royal past, but the one that still touches personally some of its citizens in their everyday lives. When they pause in the morning while pouring coffee and their hearts stop for a second or two, or when they walk home alone at night, and they are suddenly taken back to the past, by the remembrance of someone who by every right should be there but isn’t.

Budapest’s Great Market Hall or Central Market Hall i the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.

Santorini without the crowds

Sunset from the balcony of my hotel in Fira, the center and capital of Santorini (Thira), overlooking the whitewashed villages facing the submerged caldera and Aegean Sea. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Breakfast for one is served in my room. I don’t  usually have breakfast except for coffee, but with this view, it’s very hard to not get up.

A funny thing happens on my way to my hotel in Santorini.

The taxi takes me up the hill till where cars are allowed and the driver tells me that I’d find it on the face of the cliff, that I should walk up the road and then turn right.

It seems simple enough instructions.

So I drag my small bag onto a wide lookout (I left my luggage in Athens ‘cause I’m coming back for a group tour three days later), and I look down.

Below are white rooftops around several blue-domed churches and beyond these is the famous, disintegrated caldera of Santorini. There must have been 50 rooftops hugging the cliff, how am I going to find  mine?

I am in Fira, the center and capital of Santorini, but there is no one around to ask for directions. I mean, seriously, the place is empty!

After a few minutes of walking in the wrong direction, I spot some locals and they direct me to a steep, narrow road with half of it open as it is being repaired in the off-season.

The rock formations on Red Beach, one of Santorini’s most beautiful beaches — and most crowded in summer.
Church at Red Beach. Santorini has a local population of 15,000 — and 400 churches. That’s one church for every 37 people.

A woman at my hotel’s roof deck takes my bag and leads me to a room below. I say, wait, I haven’t even told you my name. She says, “You’re the only guest arriving today — or for the rest of the week.”

* * *

There are times when, despite knowing what to expect, you’re still pleasantly shocked when you get to that moment.

This is one of them.

I open my balcony doors and step out into the chilly afternoon. And there it is — the caldera submerged in the Aegean Sea, dark clouds above, and in half a circle surrounding it are Santorini’s islands. All around me are whitewashed houses, Cycladic-style hotels and churches as if cascading 300 meters down from the top of the cliff, and on the zigzag path below are donkeys, their bells clanging as they make their way down.

In Perissa. The enormous rock formations behind are part of Mesa Vouno, which literally rises from the sea.

I feel like I’m inside a postcard.

This is exactly why I booked this place — for the caldera view. There are so many choices in Fira and, as it turns out, there is a difference between a “caldera view” and a “sea view.”

In the coming days, I would get this sense of wonder throughout mainland Greece, especially in Athens while standing in the old part of the city, and then you look up and see the breathtaking Acropolis.

A few minutes later, George, the manager of Thireas Hotel, arrives and I give him the forms I had filled up. He offers to walk me to the town center as he was going to another hotel he is running, and shows me where to book boat tours and other activities.

It is raining by this time.

Santorini (officially called Thira) in January 2014 is deserted with only 10 percent of the restaurants, bars and shops open as winter is the time when business owners pack up and leave the island for their own vacations.

It lacks the energy of other seasons and other Greek cities, but its beauty is unchanged.

I had heard from people who visited in summer that they had to stand in line to take pictures of the famous spots overlooking the Aegean Sea. I have no such problem, the scenery is all mine — after all, the caldera and whitewashed villages don’t take vacations — except there was no one to ask to snap a picture of me.

The excavated city of Akrotiri. Never have I been in a museum where I was the only visitor, but this is the case in Santorini in winter. So I felt guilty when I entered and saw that it was empty, having used my press ID. I should have contributed to the Greek economy.
Some of the artificacts in the archeological museum of Akrotiri. Like Pompeii in Italy, Akrotiri was preserved due to  a volcanic eruption (Thira eruption) that covered the entire city.

At a travel agency, the boat schedules are printed and displayed on the window and taped over with the word “cancelled” because of the weather; the sea is too rough. The wine tours are cancelled as well. Even the bus schedules are irregular because what’s the point? There are no tourists!

In the evening, I go to the café-bar I saw on my earlier walk. I order a mojito and get to talking with a Greek woman sitting two barstools away from me. Katerina and I had been talking for about half an hour before I realized she owns the bar. Dora, a Romanian who moved to Greece when she got married, is making me one mojito after another. (I remind myself to not get drunk or I’d fall into the open holes on the way back to the hotel.)

Katerina is a tour guide during the tourist season. In her raspy voice, she tells me that there are only about 15,000 local people and sometimes it feels like there are a lot more donkeys than men on the island.

Churches in Perissa and Oia.
Two locals I strike a friendship with over mojitos and personal stories, Katerina Giannatou (right), who owns the bar, and Dora Dobrea, a Romanian who makes fabulous drinks.

The three of us giggle like old friends, making plans to meet again the next night.

By the end of this night, we already know each other’s life stories, relationships and opinion of men. And Katerina gives me a list of places to see. “Be  careful driving, you might hit an ass.”

“And by that you mean the animal, right?”

During summer, the population of Santorini swells to nearly a hundred thousand, most of them coming from cruise ships for day tours. And on a winter day like today? There are about only 250 tourists on the whole island.

I mention that my hotel is surrounded by four churches and their bells are pealing nonstop. Why wouldn’t they let me take a nap? There are more than 400 churches on the island, Katerina says. Most of them are small family churches, built for celebrations and thanksgiving.

I tell her that in Manila, we usually just book a table in a restaurant to celebrate.

View of the Aegean Sea from the top of the cliff in Oia.
The best seafood pasta I have ever had in my entire life is at Lotza restaurant in Oia. Maybe the dramatic views helped.

* * *

The car I rent for under 50 euros a day is a yellow mini Chevy.

Does it have GPS? The rental guy laughs at me and says Santorini is so small I don’t need one. Anytime someone tells me to “just follow the main road,” I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I am going to get horribly lost.

He hands me the keys and a cartoonish map.

Okay, fine.

Belonging to the Cyclades group of islands, Santorini today is what remains of one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions. What was one island before has since become several of different sizes. There are a few places on my map that I want to see: the excavated city of Akrotiri, Red Beach, Perissa, Firostefani, and Oia.

The lookout in Fira with views of Santorini’s caldera and smaller islands in the Aegean Sea.

Red Beach gets its name from its sand and the red rock formations. The beach is closed so I park in front of a church to enjoy a walk . The only other car here is a white one that’s heavily tinted and parked facing the sea, and it’s shaking once in a while. I know better than to knock at their window and ask them to take a picture of me.

There is a café not far from here, where I order Greek coffee and the lady serves it with kourabides, a walnut sugar cookie that’s popular for celebrations like Christmas, weddings and Easter. She looks like my grandmother and she  wouldn’t let me pay for either the cookies or the coffee. She says I have a lovely smile. I tell her so does she and we hug when I leave.

Sunset on a cold winter day descends on the southern Aegean Sea.
Empty alleys and empty churches.

I’ve been to a lot of museums in different seasons and never have I been to one where I was the only visitor, not even in the small ones in out-of-the-way towns. Never.

But this is the case for me at the Archeological Museum of Akrotiri, the site of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement that dates back to the third millennium BC. Like Pompeii, the volcanic eruption of Thira preserved the entire town, and excavations of Akrotiri began in the second half of the 19th century.

Back on the road, I see a teenage couple sitting on the side. I ask them if they need a ride back to town. They had been waiting for the bus for over an hour. They are Chinese exchange students studying in Stockholm, and are on vacation in Greece for a week.

Together, we go to Perissa. It is empty as well, save for stray puppies on the black-sand beach. We get lost for an hour going back to Fira, where I drop them off, and then I proceed to Oia via winding roads up to the cliffs.

Fira and Oia (pronounced ee-ya) have the most dramatic views in all of Santorini, but it is Oia that you see more in postcards and on book covers because it has the windmills. Some of them have been converted into houses or lodgings, but most remain simply windmills.

An all-white church, without the blue dome, is a rarity in Santorini.

The center of Oia sits on top of the cliff where, like Fira, shops and cafes and restaurants are scattered all around. Most are closed but thankfully the famous restaurant Lotza is open. I swear, this is the best seafood pasta I have ever had (yes, I have traveled to many parts of Italy and have had pasta in all those places). But this one is something else.

The terrace is covered with transparent plastic sheeting but you still have the stunning views of the caldera and whitewashed villages while eating. I can only imagine how lovely it must be in spring and summer, when the plastic sheeting is rolled up and you can enjoy the perfect weather and watch the cruise ships dock in the distance.

* * *

On my last night in Santorini, I get a call in my room from the hotel manager saying he didn’t want me to feel like I wasn’t safe.

Playing with stray puppies in Perissa, which has a black-sand beach and crystal waters

“Why would I feel that? Wait a minute! Am I the only one in the hotel?”

It turns out that I am. The Indian family that I had met when I arrived had already left and George was staying in the other hotel he was managing, in another part of town.

So this is how I enjoy Santorini — without the crowds.

Maybe I love it for that — the quietness, wandering alone and meeting locals who felt a bit protective of me.

I had never felt as free as I did on that tiny yellow car, driving on empty roads in a place that’s on so many people’s bucket lists, and seeing the landscapes that they line up for, for a selfie. I don’t really take selfies, so just seeing the scenery and storing it in my head is good enough for me.

For a few days, Santorini was mine. It was like being in on a secret that made me smile — and no one had an idea why.

Oia, Santorini
Oia at sunset with its famous windmills. (Photo from travel-to-santorini.com)

Even in miniature, France is larger than life

Sitting by a French town at Miniature France, an hour and a half from Central Paris. It is a five-hectare park divided into six regions with over 2,000 models at 1/30 scale. Easily one of my favorite trips to France. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Sainte-Croix d’Orleans Cathedral on Jeanne d’Arc street in Orléans, located on the Loire River in North-Central France. As you can tell by the street name, it is the church most associated with Joan of Arc.
The mini Eiffel Tower is true to the detail of  Gustave Eiffel’s iron lattice work.

My friend Nicole and I are going to France Miniature, which is, well, a park with France rendered in miniature models.

We have the directions on how to get there but we can’t find the right track for the train. Elancourt, where the park is located, is not linked to the Paris Metro, RER or the rail network that goes to the suburbs. Instead the nearest station from Paris is in the next town.

All in all, the trip is about an hour and half by train and bus from Central Paris.

It occurs to me the folly of this adventure when we get to the outskirts of Paris and there is an interminable wait for the bus in a desolate part of town, and I’m answering emails on my Blackberry (what can I say, I was a Crackberry even as late as 2012).

Why would I want to see a miniature Paris when I am already here…in life-size Paris, in real France?

Because miniatures are so damn cute, that’s why!

If only it were this quick and cheap to travel all of France in real life. My friend Nicole, who has lived in France for over 15 years, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and I at Le Mont Saint Michel in the Normandy region.
A typical Alsatian village in France’s eastern border and on the west bank of the upper Rhine adjacent to Germany and Switzerland.
I don’t know which region is this…any idea?

France Miniature is a five-hectare park divided into six regions with over 2,000 models at 1/30 scale.

Paris is in the North and Ile-de-France section. The East has the Alsatian villages, Nancy and Beaune, which is the capital of Burgundy wine (a year later, I would be in actual Beaune for the first time). The West has Normandy, Mont Saint Michel and the Breton coastline. The Center has the mountainous region and Limoges. The Southwest is Toulouse, Lourdes and Saint Emilion. The Southeast has the Alps and Saint Tropez.

I haven’t been to all the regions in real life and seeing the country in miniature, I realize that the Southwest was one of the regions I had seen on my first trip to France — on a pilgrimage to Lourdes as we went by coach from Paris; and some years later, on a short working trip, I went to Toulouse (I was on the plane longer coming to and leaving France than I was actually there), where I did a story on the Airbus factory putting together its first jumbo plane, the A380. One of those 24-hour work trips.

The section of the park I love best is North and Ile-de-France (Paris), one that I would grow most familiar with in real life and keep coming back to.

Southeast is a region I also love, having gone on road trips in different seasons to Nice and Marseilles, and last summer to Provence, where three of us friends literally drove across towns filled with lavender blooms.

The West is one I have never been to but I’ve been told by two Frenchies that this is the most beautiful part of France—the Normandy region. It’s famous of course for the Normandy beach landings in 1944, which helped turn World War II in the Allied countries’ favor. In modern life, my friends say, it’s still about fishing, cottages, farms and horses, and chilling.

Place Stanislas square in Nancy, Lorraine in Eastern France, which was built in honor of King Louis XV.
The Arles Ampitheater in the South of France.

The miniature models are very detailed, and not just the landmarks, even the small villages. Some vignettes have mini people, cars, boats in the Breton docks and yachts in the Saint Tropez marina—also an aqueduct, and a train line going around the park. They have boutiques and carousels—and children on the horses! Anyone who has ever been to France knows that their carousels are so pretty and fabulous, looking like they were gilded in gold.

By late afternoon, Nicole and I take the last scheduled bus to the next town and catch our train back to Paris.

Easily, this is one of the best attractions I have ever seen in France, but maybe it’s just because I love miniatures.

I never had elaborate dollhouses when I was a kid, but when I saw them in magazines, I always imagined little people living in those little houses with chairs you could push with your finger to rearrange, tiny teacups and plates on tiny tables.

Little people living perfect lives, content in the smallness of their world.

I wanted to live in a dollhouse.

When I asked a French friend to help me identify this cathedral, he said he couldn’t without knowing where it was. “It’s a typical Gothic cathedral found all over France.” Indeed, you see such grand churches all over the country, including in the small towns.
Now this one everybody knows: the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris or Sacré Coeur, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Great bistros and an art market on the top of the hill too!

* * *

I am staying in Nicole’s flat for a few days. It’s a walkup in the 18th arrondissement and when I arrived a few days earlier, we struggled to get my luggage up the small winding staircase after she met me at  Garde du Nord train station from  CDG.

I was jetlagged; she was pregnant.

When she was a teenager, Nicole (or Timmy as she was nicknamed) took care of my young cousins when they were toddlers and then she lived with my lola (grandmother).

In Paris, where she has been living for over 15 years, she has a one-bedroom apartment that’s a good size for the city, where the prices are so ridiculous Parisians actually leave for this reason alone. Like with any other woman living in this city alone, her flat is filled with clothes, shoes and bags. They are in her closet and under her bed, in boxes and unopened shopping bags.

And the must-see cathedral in Paris, Notre Dame, and across it Place Vendome. In real life, they are not so close to each other. Place Vendome square is in the 1st arrondissement while Notre Dame is in the 4th arrondissement., close to the Seine.
Versailles Palace. Isn’t it so grand even in miniature?
France has so many lovely little villages, some of them dating back to the Medieval times with the fortifications and other structures preserved so well.

I tell her I’m the same but have vowed to not shop anymore because, seriously, what a waste of money that is.

We have coffee and madeleines, and after I settle in, we look at each other and say, “Shall we go shopping?”

We do this for a few days. We scour the shops on Champs Elysées and La Défense. I go to the museums and parks and walk around the city.

One night we are too tired to find a good restaurant that we simply go to a supermarket and load up on raclette and blue cheese, mushrooms, foie gras, shallots, mini gherkins, tapas, salads and baguettes, and wine (for me).

We sit on her living room floor and put a raclette grill on top of her coffee table. We tear pieces of freshly baked baguette and slide the cheese off from the grill to our plates, talking about our finds for the day and the men and friends in our lives. We finish an impossible amount of raclette cheese.

I wonder if the little people in miniature houses sometimes eat at their coffee table, too.

Who knows about imagined lives? But to this day, in my real life, this is still one of the best meals I have ever had in Paris.

The first miniature town you see when you enter the park. I want to grow small and live in this park for a week!

The Paris I love

Paris’ Eiffel Tower, autumn 2008. Ridiculed by the French when it was first erected in the 1880s, it became one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved landmarks. Photos by Tanya Lara
…and in the winter of 2013. Still beautiful under a blanket of snow.

Like Hemingway said of Paris, “And then there was the bad weather,” at the beginning of A Moveable Feast, the only book that I try to reread every year.

In this case, the weather is merde.

Flights are cancelled in and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Paris is buried in snow, cut off from the suburbs and the rest of the world. It is a city fending for itself for the weekend.

But Paris is unapologetic about its weather. C’est la vie. Deal with it.

This is Paris, after all, a city that is still so perfectly beautiful even under a heavy blanket of snow that falls softly from the sky and settles with resignation on the ground.

Paris02_by_peter rivera:wikipedia
The Opera House (Photo by Peter Rivera/wikipedia)

The city that moved Nietzsche to say, “An artist has no home in Europe except Paris.” This is Paris awash in a strange green color by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in a golden hue by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris.

Even in this miserable cold in the winter of 2013, Paris has me putting her back on top of my list of favorite cities in the world (after a brief dalliance with Berlin).

Like many tourists, I think of Paris through a hopeful Hemingway and his merry band of creative misfits, through pop culture, through corny lines in film. I think of Paris when I was a younger writer and the smell of freshly baked baguette from the boulangeries gave me such hope.

Paris is a city for writers, lovers, artists, shoppers, wandering souls, and to borrow a literary phrase, for innocents abroad who, according to our local tour guide Mireille, pronounce Avenue des Champs Elysées as “Chumps Delysis.”

The arrondissement (district) that most tourists gravitate to is the 8th, home to Champs Elysées, inarguably the most beautiful avenue in the world with its wide footpaths and horse-chestnut trees (bereft of leaves in winter but still a breathtaking sight).

Champs Elysées is Paris’s busiest avenue, “12 roads and a circle in the middle,” and our Trafalgar travel director Hamish Wallace explains the 50/50 rule here. Since so many cars get rear-ended, the city simply imposed a rule that splits liability and fault 50/50.

The Louvre with IM Pei’s pyramid skylights. (Photo from aisweekwithoutwalls.com)
At Léon de Bruxelles on  Champs Elysées, Binky, Vangie, Gibbs, Anna and I — waiting for our mussels and fries. Winter 2013.

Talk turns to art when our coach snakes its way through the 1st. As we pass The Louvre, Mireille says, “The Italians are accusing the French of stealing the ‘Monalisa,’ but we say we didn’t steal it, we just lost the receipt.”

That French sense of humor!

Rodin’s stone sculpture “The Thinker”  looks to have become naked after a night of partying in Oberkampf and is now in deep thought as to where his clothing might be. “That’s why the Monalisa is smiling — she knows where it is.”

The Eiffel Tower, a stone’s throw away from our hotel for two nights, is in the 7th arrondissement. It is closed due to maintenance when we go in the morning, so we enjoy wandering through the snow-covered grounds instead.

Mireille says a lot of people used to commit suicide by jumping from the Eiffel Tower, so the city fenced off the platform.

“And tourists want to know, ‘Where can you commit suicide in Paris?’ They are very concerned about us,” she says dryly. “I tell them, ‘Just cross the street. If you’ve seen the traffic in Paris, you know what I mean.’”

Taken from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower — Central Paris’ 19th-century skyline, which hasn’t changed much even as its population has. The green park is Champ des Mars in the 7th arrondissement, between the Eiffel Tower and Ecole Militaire. Photo by Tanya Lara
Lunch in 2012 at the Michelin-star Le Jules Verne restaurant by chef Alain Ducasse. The views are actually much better than the food.
Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral (Photo by Corbis/National Geographic)

Amid the sludge and snow on the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, this is where we bond and laugh a lot — four Filipino girls and one guy from a group of 30. Binky, Anna and Vangie are from the travel industry whom I meet for the first time; Gibbs and I are newspaper journalists who have been bumping into each other at this or that coverage.

Two years later, we are all still trying desperately to see each other over lunch or dinner at least three times a year, because living in a city like Manila and having our schedules is like trying to find a Frenchie that doesn’t drink wine. It’s doable but close to impossible.

 * * *

For all the times that I have visited Paris, I literally followed the footsteps of the writers I worshipped as they walked all over the city in their books and during their lifetimes.

Sacre Coeur Basilica on top of  Montmarte, the highest point in Paris and part of the Right Bank.  Photo by Tanya Lara
Enjoying drinks with Olga and Alex in St. Germain, spring 2012.

From Montmarte’s cafes and bistros, the bridges on the Seine that connect the Left and Right Banks, the museums, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the boathouses moored on the Seine.

Obviously, Hemingway wasn’t the first writer to love Paris, but to my heart he loved it best. He articulated it in the way Van Gogh did to Provence on his canvas: with such tenderness and affection even if neither of them knew of how massive their influence would become. Their deaths, both from self-inflicted gunshot wounds (Hemingway to his mouth and Van Gogh to his chest), would not deter generations of painters or writers later.

They would all love Paris through its sadness, joy and beauty.

You always remember the first time you visit Paris like you remember your first kiss. I always go back to when the smell of baguettes brought inexplicable happiness to me, or that first time at the Louvre seeing the Monalisa and I didn’t have to line up or pay because I had a press ID as a newspaper reporter, or the first time I saw the Opera House and not far from it Galeries Lafayette with all its designer brands.

This district has always amused and baffled me. That the beautiful Opera House, center of the culturati and the well-heeled, is a short walk to the red light district and its supermarket-like sex shops. I’ve always wondered if this was by design or happenstance.

Paris03_by_serge_ramelli: pinterest
Pont Alexandre III connecting the Grand and Petit Palais on the Right Bank with the Hôtel des Invalides on the Left Bank. (Photo by Serge Ramelli/Pinterest)
Sunset descends on Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe. @iamtanyalara

I remember the first time I went to Paris alone and it really didn’t matter because despite its being the most romantic city in the world, it is perfect for loners.

You don’t need anyone to enjoy or fall in love with Paris.

* * *

In 2014, I would visit Paris twice. The first is with good friends Claudette and Steve for our road trip through Provence. We land in Paris in July to news that Russia had shot down a commercial flight over Ukraine. We had taken the same airline and friends urge us to change our flight back to Manila. A week later, when they are leaving and I am flying to Prague again, another plane from a different airline would crash in Algeria.

It doesn’t seem the right time to be traveling, but the three of us agree that no one can really predict such tragedies.

The second is over the Christmas holidays. I fly to Paris armed with my laptop and my external hard drive. In Manila a few days before, I decided to launch this travel blog on Jan. 1, 2015.

Stevie, Claudette and I buy saucissons at Bastille Market in July 2014. (Photos by Steve Villacin)

Like I told friends after: never start a personal project when you are about to go on vacation because it will consume you.

Paris is this city outside the flat I’m renting in Bastille where I am writing like crazy, it is the bustling place in front of me as I write in cafes and drink wine until my fingers are frozen from the winter chill, as I walk along Champs Elysees and look at the Christmas markets and can’t wait to get back to the flat because I’ve suddenly remembered some things from past travels.

For the first time, writing gets in the way of Paris and me.

It feels like I have wasted my time with Paris, but my friend Marta, a Polish girl married to a Filipino friend, puts things in perspective. She says, “Maybe you wouldn’t have written as much as you did if you weren’t in Paris.”

She is right, of course.

At our lunch a few days after the New Year with Marta and Hendrik is my French friend Cedric, who helped me with the tech details of doing a blog. We met the year before and he was so generous and patient in explaining things to me.

With friends Hendrik, a Filipino diplomat in Paris, his linguist wife Marta and their daughter Sofia after the New Year 2015; and Cedric after Christmas at the Mojito Lab Bar.

The irony is, even as I fall deeper in love with Paris, he can’t wait to leave it for Tokyo. I am struggling to understand how anyone could ever want to leave Paris.

One day after I arrive back in Manila, the Charlie Hebdo shootings would occur, less than a kilometer from where I had been staying for more than a week.

It fills me with sadness and rage.

* * *

Around 2008, my high school friend June and I are in the same city (Geneva). He gives me a book on which he writes and misquotes Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I tease him, “Dude, you can only use Hemingway as a pick-up line to girls who haven’t actually read him if you’re doing it wrong.”

Almost a year later, we would find ourselves in Paris, nearly missing each other by a day, but he redeems himself here having really read the book now. We spend the autumn afternoon walking around Trocadero and the Left Bank, go on a cruise on the Seine consuming a bottle of red wine each because it is so damn cold.

It is at this time that my crush on Paris becomes real, ten years after my first visit.

Hotel de Ville with the skating rink over the holidays, January 2015.
There is that one visit to a city when you fall completely in love with it. For me it was 2008, my fourth visit, when I realized that Paris is a place I will always find my way to.

Three years later, in the spring of 2012, I am in Paris for a work trip with Alex from the competing newspaper, Anna from a magazine, and Olga from the LVMH Group. Paris is a stopover. Olga and Anna have arranged lunch at the Jules Verne restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower.

I am looking out at the views from the top of the tower, and at some point during the Alain Ducasse lunch, say, “I wonder if Parisians realize how lucky they are to be living in Paris. Look at this!”

Below us is all of Paris, spreading its arrondissements outward like the shell of an escargot.

I realize, of course, that there exist two sides of Paris: one for those who live here, and another for those who visit. One for whom the French are an absolute nightmare, and another for whom they are darlings when you talk to them in your bad tourist French.

I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. The same Paris that Hemingway did before so many others like me, the Paris whose skyline hasn’t changed much even as its people and immigrants did.

Even have changed from when I was a tourist here for the first time in the 1990s, when Paris threw stardust in my eyes that I have never really been able to wipe away.

It is the same Paris even as I am older, a little wiser, not much richer because of this pesky need to travel.

But, unavoidably, still a writer.

I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. (Photo from mandarinoriental.com)


Where I’ve been wandering

Some wanderings in 2014 and 2013: (upper photos) Rome, Provence, Barcelona; (middle) Vienna, Amsterdam; (bottom) Marseilles, Paris, Paros, Prague. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and  forget all about it?

The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)

While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to  take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost  thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.

He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.

So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!

Istanbul: A story told in two continents

The majestic Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque sits on a hill in the historic part of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. It has one main dome, eight secondary domes and six minarets. It was built one millennium or 1,079 years after Hagia Sophia and derives architectural influences from it. (Photo from pichost.me)
The blue tiles on the ceiling and walls inside the Blue Mosque (Photo by Ben Morlok/flickr.com)


I didn’t fall in love with Istanbul until I was about to leave it. And by then, I was so completely enamored of the place that I would come back two months later when I was in Paris for the New Year.

Friends told me, “But you’re in France, why are you going to Turkey?”

It was as if leaving Paris was a mortal sin, as if I had just told them I was going into the nunnery.

But I saw a lot of similarities between two of the world’s greatest cities, most significant is that they are both defined by their waters — the Seine for Paris and the Bosphorus for Istanbul.

That’s how I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I went in October last year. I took a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait on my last day and didn’t want the day to end even as it rained as I walked two kilometers from Eminönü back to the old part of Sultan Ahmed. (I didn’t have an umbrella!)

The idea of one city straddling two continents is so romantic, so exotic and exciting to me, and as it turns out even for the Turkish people for whom this is an ordinary, everyday fact. They love this uniqueness and are proud of it.

Though only three percent of Turkey is geographically in Europe and the rest in Asia Minor,  historically and politically Europe is where it seems to belong.

Hagia Sophia, first built as an East Roman cathedral in Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), which was later converted into an Imperial Mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and is now a museum. (Photo from hdwallpapersos.com)
The massive interior of Hagia Sophia with its hanging chandeliers and medallions (Photo by Ben Morlok/flickr.com)

The day before, I was on SMS with Sami Bas, who asked me what my plans were before the evening. I said I was going on a “river cruise.”

“And which river is that?”

“The Bosphorus,” I said.

“It’s not river, it’s a strait,” he said. “How can you be a journalist and not know this, Tanya?”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’m going to take a cruise on that narrow body of water.”

The truth is, even though friends who know me to be an adventurous traveler had been telling me for years to go to Istanbul, it was never high up on my bucket list…it was just there somewhere on the list.

The author Tanya Lara at the Rahmi M. Koç Müzesi in December 2015, and with Sami Bas in Levent in February 2016.
A drive to the Asian of Istanbul in January 2016 with Sami.


I had taken a tour to the incredible Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with colleagues before they left for Manila, but it was the Bosphorus that I fell in love with — what it represented and what actually sat on the coastline: the Dolmabahçe Palace, the villas from the Ottoman Empire, some of which have now been converted into hotels or private properties owned by affluent Turks, sheiks from the Middle East, and Europeans.

From my hotel in Sultan Ahmed, I went to Eminönü following the tram tracks. The dock is dotted with fish and bread restaurants — and you can smell them even before seeing them. They catch the fish, cook it on the boats and bring it to your table or just peddle them around.

On the boat before the cruise started, I asked two elderly gentlemen to take a picture of me on my phone. They hardly spoke English, but they bought me tea from a waiter who was deftly balancing a dozen glasses on a small tray.

Author Tanya Lara on the Bosphorus Strait in October 2014. Is there a cooler cruise than seeing two continents all at once? Probably not.

People always say don’t accept anything from strangers, but in a way that I have grown accustomed to in all my years of traveling solo, I understood their kindness and hospitality.

Their wives arrived from the lower deck and one of them spoke English. The four of them were from the capital city Ankara and were doing the cruise for the first time, they said.

The Turks have an old proverb that says, “Every visitor is a gift from God.” Maybe that was what they were thinking. I was a visitor, all alone in their country, and so the wives bought me another cup of tea despite my protests that it was my turn to pay.

From the Bosphorus, you can see the Blue Mosque with its nine domes and six minarets, and across it Hagia Sophia with its four.  Catholic churches have bell towers, mosques have minarets. In the old times, the imam would climb a minaret to announce that it was time for prayer; there’s no need for the imam to climb now as loud speakers amplify this call.

Dome upon dome, big or small and with seagulls flying about, the mosques all over Istanbul look incredibly beautiful, their gold-tipped minarets puncturing the skies, the silhouette softened and balanced by the sandstone domes.

The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque got its nickname from the blue tiles used on its interior walls and ceiling. It is Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction and remains an active mosque.

Istanbul13_photo from wikipedia.com
The Bosphorus Bridge connects the European and Asian parts of Istanbul. Geographically, only three percent of Turkey is in Europe, but historically and politically this is where it seems to belong. (Photo by Jorge1767/wikipedia.com)
The waterfront House Hotel, a 19th-century Ottoman mansion in the Ortaköy district. (Photo from designerhotel.com)

It is closed to tourists for half an hour or so on each of the five times that Muslims pray, the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. Obviously, worshippers don’t have to stand in line but tourists have to wait up to an hour or more to get inside, which is the typical waiting time for most of Istanbul’s attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.

Across the Blue Mosque and a park between them is Hagia Sophia, older by a thousand years and originally constructed between 532 and 537 as a Greek Orthodox Church, a monument to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), then it became a Roman Catholic Church, then an Imperial Mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over, and now it’s a museum.

Hagia Sophia’s fate reminds me of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king took over and effectively erased all spiritual symbols of the previous religion.

Eminönü, where three bodies of water meet: the Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara. In the background is the 450-year-old Yen Cami, which means New Mosque. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Hagia Sophia is no different. Outside, you would never think it was once a Christian church even though during the Renaissance  churches also used domes as their main feature (Florence’s duomo and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica).

Its bells, altar and paintings and tiles depicting Christ and the saints were removed and replaced with Islamic elements like medallions with Arabic writing and the four minarets outside. All but a few Christian features were plastered over, one of them a painting of Madonna and Child above the southwest entrance.

* * *

Despite the fact that 98 percent of its population follow Islam, Turkey is a secular country — it is mandated in its constitution. That was what the protests in Taksim Square years ago were all about: to remain secular and fight the move to be more religious as a state.

Turkey is Middle Eastern in faith, but also European in its secularism. And there is no better city that exemplifies its being at these crossroads than Istanbul.

Galata Tower overlooking the Bosphorus (Photo from world-wallpaper.com)
Sami buys roasted castañas in Sisli. This and simit vendors (like pretzels but dipped in molasses) are all over the streets of Istanbul in December 2014. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Istanbul’s most famous writer, the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, once said, “Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than western cities: its disorder resists classification.”

Around Taksim Square and in the malls — in fact, in all of Istanbul — most of the local women don’t wear chador or burka but a lot of them wear headscarves.

My friend Sami took me for a walk to the medieval Galata Tower, a nine-story tower with a café on top overlooking the city and the Bosphorus.

The streets around the tower look like any modern city in the world — vibrant, filled with local and branded boutiques, pavement cafes, restaurants and bars.

In the evening, you see young locals enjoying wine and cocktails, and Sami taught me how to drink raki, an anise-flavored spirit that you chase with water.

During the day, people who are not rushing to or from work are leisurely enjoying cups of tea or the yogurt drink aryan. I had seen this in Greece and Italy — that laid-back attitude to life not dictated by the hours, men and women lounging around and enjoying the buzz of the city happening before their eyes.

Istanbul11_photo_by_ezgi_ünlü: theguideistanbul.com
Manuel Deli & Coffee, a typical café in Cihangir (Photo by Ezgi Ünlü/ theguideistanbul.com)

Pamuk, whose novels I love, wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy, a kind of sadness that pervades even  the waters of the Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus, he writes, is a reminder “of  the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”

I didn’t see or feel this melancholy in Sultan Ahmed or Eminönü, or the streets around Galata Tower, Taksim Square or Besiktas.

I did see it in the endlessly confusing Grand Bazaar when I took the wrong exit and got lost yet again. I found myself walking towards the water, the neighborhood blocks beginning to look more and more impoverished.

But that’s another story.

The Byzantine-period Maiden’s Tower on the Bosphorus Strait. Turkish legend says it was erected by an emperor whose daughter was prophesied to die from a snake bite by her 18th birthday. So her father kept her there, away from land. On her 18th birthday, he brought her a basket of fruits to celebrate. And guess what? There was a poisonous snake in the basket, which bit and killed her. (Photo from world-wallpaper.com)

Untangling Bohol

The so called chocolate Hills in the Bohol province of the Philippines
The Chocolate Hills of Bohol — yes, named after Hershey’s Kisses because they look like someone had dropped 1,700 geological formations that look like chocolates when they turn brown in the summer.   Photo by P199/wikipedia.com
Bohol03_by_ibarra tomas siapno
Doesn’t the little fella look like Yoda? The tarsiers, now found only in Southeast Asia, are the smallest primates in the world. Tourists have tried to smuggle tarsiers in bundt cakes and other knucklehead means. Photo by Ibarra Tomas Siapno/The Peacock Garden Resort

Of all places to plan a trip, we did it in a funeral chapel.

It was toward the end of March in 2011 or 2012. Some friends and I were at the wake for a friend’s father, and we got to asking each other’s plans for Easter. Holy Week in the Philippines is one of the longest holidays ever.

I work for a daily newspaper where public holidays don’t apply to reporters and editors (except for major ones like Christmas — and that’s only because I work in the lifestyle section and we print in advance. Editors at the news desk don’t get the day off even on Christmas Day or New Year).

But Easter Week is a different story. Good Friday and Black Saturday are the only two days in the year when there are no major newspapers printed. From Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, Manila is traffic-free and people drive around aimlessly just because they can.

It is also the only time when 95 percent of restaurants and bars are closed on a Thursday and Friday. Why? Because Jesus is dead.

So these friends and I, we decided to go to Bohol (the Tagalog word buhol means “knot”), an hour’s flight from Manila, and famous for its Spanish churches and the Chocolate Hills. My friends were friends with the Schoof family, who owns the Peacock Garden Resort, and they could book us for the long weekend.

The Loboc River cruise on a wooden boat passes through forested riverbanks.  Photo by Nucksfan604/flickr
Bohol05_by_peter cons
The infinity pool at Peacock Garden Resort looks out onto the Bohol Sea. Photo by Peter Cons/Peacock Garden
Bohol has several churches dating back to the Spanish colonial period, many of them destroyed by a massive earthquake in 2013. Photo from weesamexpress.net

Unlike the party island that is Boracay, Bohol is quieter and is weird in its natural beauty— and by that I mean the Chocolate Hills and the tarsiers — but more on these later.

We fly into Tagbilaran airport and I meet the Schoofs at their resort — Hans Schoof, a German fella married to Lani, and their son Chris who later married the lovely Amanda.

Their resort sits on top of a hill with gorgeous views of the sea. It is a veritable secret garden that has peacocks (hence the name) and villas that face infinity pools.

The hotel’s main lobby features — in all mind-blowing improbability — our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s furniture when he lived in Heidelberg, Germany, where he wrote parts of his novels that led to the Philippine revolution against its colonial master Spain in the 1800s.

Why are these pieces of furniture here? Because Hans Schoof is a fan of this country’s greatest hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. Because who will not fall in love with Rizal? The man was a doctor, a linguist, a revolutionary, a writer who wrote two novels that laid bare the excesses and ridiculousness of the Spanish colonizers.

And he wrote the most moving poem, Mi Ultimo Adios, as his goodbye to his county and hid it in a cocinilla, a small stove, on the eve of his execution (he wrote it in Spanish, as he did his novels).

His novels, thinly veiled roman a clef, were the 1800s’ equivalent to “F*ck you, Spain!”

Bohol and Rizal — you don’t think of this unlikely pairing unless you meet Hans Schoof and are staying at Peacock Garden Resort. And even as you stand in the lobby with the desk where Rizal wrote his poem “To the Flowers of Heidelberg,” it feels surreal.

But decades ago, the young Hans came to the Philippines and fell in love, and after running a German restaurant in Manila, he and his wife decided to build a resort in her home province, standing on a hill and looking out at Bohol Sea.

Bohol’s secret garden. Our friends Chris and Amanda Schoof marry in Peacock Garden Resort in December 2012.
The crew’s all here at Peacock Garden for Easter 2011 or 2012 with Hans and Chris Schoof (right and second from right) and our dear friend tito Donnie who has passed on (left).
Bohol06_by_peter cons
The balcony rooms at the 33-room boutique resort look out onto the pool and Bohol Sea. Photo by Peter Cons/Peacock Garden

* * *

Nothing quite prepares you for seeing the Chocolate Hills for the first time.

You climb one hill and see them from an elevated deck — they are beautiful and weird all at once. They are perfectly formed natural wonders named after Hershey’s Kisses because that’s exactly how they look — brown in the summer and green in the rainy season.

They are a freak of nature, all 1,700 geological formations that look like someone dropped chocolate kisses on 50 square kilometers of the island — five million years ago.

We visited the tarsiers at the conservation center, with their big protruding eyes and the attitude of sloths (they sleep all day). They are the smallest primates in the world and have been in existence for 45 million years. Today, you can only find them on some islands in Southeast Asia.

My mind can’t even wrap around how long ago 45 million years is. You might as well tell me they are a gazillion years old and my lack of understanding for this length of time would be the same.

* * *

We spent an afternoon drinking mojitos and whiskey on Panglao island, watching swimmers, snorkelers, and dive groups boarding boats. In the evening, Rhoda and I went for a chocolate massage at our resort, which was preceded by a wine bath. I told the girl at the spa, “Don’t you dare pour all that wine in the bathtub.”

Needless to say, I was tipsy and giggly even before dinner started.

The resort’s restaurant is called the Old Heidelberg and in the original wing of the hotel, the corridors display antique hand-drawn and handwritten menus from Europe.

You can easily imagine yourself being transported to those days when the men wore hats and the ladies wore beautiful gowns just to have dinner out. Hans, a true-blue collector (including Bentleys), has about 300 cookbooks from the 1700s to 1920.

Bilar’s man-made forest was planted by the Boy Scouts decades ago. It is a two-kilometer stretch that leads to the Chocolate Hills. Photo from everythingcebu.com

One afternoon, we drove a convoy of dune buggies through the forests and mountains of Bohol and our guide was a forestry major who was so passionate about every single plant and tree we saw.

By sunset, we were back at the Schoofs’ nearby private estate on a hill where we went skeet shooting. I shot a clay pigeon (or clay plate or whatever you call it), the recoil from the rifle taking me by surprise.

What was most memorable for all of us was cruising through Loboc River with other tourists. The modest wooden boat held about 20 to 30 people and served modest provincial merienda.

The boat went winding slowly through the brackish waters, flanked by forested riverbanks. It made a stop at a balsa (floating wooden platform). We got on it, and children came out singing — the young girls wore pink skirts and the boys pink pajamas.

It put a smile on everybody’s faces.

Chasing dolphins at Pamilacan island (Photo from weesamexpress.net)

If you take the river cruise or go kayaking at night, Loboc River is lit by thousands of fireflies. Unlike Manila, there is no smog here, there is no noise except for crickets, the skies are clear and the stars shine so bright.

It was a relaxing break that all of us needed from work, from our tangled lives. This was my last trip with three good friends who left the country to work as expats the following year.

The hospitality of the Schoofs, the simple living in the towns that we visited, farm huts against the backdrop of the magnificent hills, the five-star resorts, the churches for visita iglesia on days that we were supposed to be for reflection but we just couldn’t shut up or stop giggling, and the views as we drank vodka and watched the sun set on the Bohol Sea. And then there was a lot of laughter with friends.

In that sense, Easter became the celebration that it was supposed to be.

The Chocolate Hills during the Philippines’ summer months (March to June) look like Hershey’s Kisses, hence their name. Photo from globeholidays.net

A short post about Hobbits

A Hobbit Hole in the Shire, the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth: The Hobbiton Movie Set is on a 250-acre farm in Matamata, discovered by director Peter Jackson in 1998 when he was aerial scouting New Zealand for locations.  (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Hobbit houses are scaled in several sizes to make the Hobbits look smaller and Gandalf bigger.

One Sunday afternoon in September 1998, a New Line Cinema film executive knocked on the door of a farmhouse in Matamata, 175 kilometers from Auckland.

The owner, Ian Alexander Sr., got up from his chair in front of the TV reluctantly and answered the door. The gentleman from Hollywood told him he wanted to discuss the possibility of using the Alexander family’s cattle and sheep farm for a movie.

Mr. Alexander replied, “Can you come back later, mate? I’m too busy watching rugby.”

Henry Horne, sales manager of Hobbiton Movie Set, is laughing when he tells us this story. “That was a great way to start a relationship, eh?”

Well, it was. Everyone knows better than to get between a Kiwi and a rugby match (as it happens, it was Waikato vs. Auckland for the national championship). Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson — born in New Zealand capital Wellington — certainly knew this as he scouted locations for JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies were filmed entirely in NZ, more than a decade apart.
Three Hobbit Holes on a hillside. There’s really nothing inside the houses; all interior scenes were shot in a sound stage in Wellington.
Veggie props outside the Green Dragon Inn, real and yummy beef pies and Kiwi beer inside.

Until he signed a confidentiality clause, Alexander didn’t know what movie they were going to shoot on his farm — or that the filmmakers had a NZ$350 million budget and it would be one of the biggest movies in Hollywood history. He had no idea who Tolkien was — much less Peter Jackson.

And so the books loved by generations of readers became film legend, shot entirely in New Zealand’s North and South Islands, from up in Waikato and down to Queenstown. And at one time there were nine units filming simultaneously in the rugged landscapes, on this farm and in sound studios in Wellington.

Here in Matamata, one of the richest agricultural and pastoral regions of the country, lies the heart of Middle Earth: the Shire, home of the Hobbits.

“For the time will soon come when Hobbits will shape the fortunes of all,” says Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring. This has certainly been the case for the 250-acre farm of the Alexander family.

While Peter Jackson and his cinematographers may have fallen in love with the idyllic, rolling terrain of the farm, Hollywood still came with its idiosyncrasies. Even though the farm had 12,000 sheep, not a single one was used. Instead, they brought their own sheep and 34 other species of animals.

“Not one of ours was apparently good enough for the camera, they just didn’t have the right look,” says Henry.

Who wouldn’t fall in love with this? When Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson saw the farm during an aerial scout, he immediately decided to make it the Shire. (Photo by JV Malabanan)
Touring  Hobbiton Movie Set, which was rebuilt in 2009 for the filming of The Hobbit trilogy, (Photo by JV Malabanan)
A rainy day last winter in the Shire.  (Photo by JV Malabanan)

The terrain, however, was perfect for the Shire and the Hobbit Holes or underground homes found on hillsides. At Hobbiton Movie Set, which was rebuilt in 2009 for the filming of The Hobbit trilogy,  Hobbit architecture (round doors and windows with grass roofs) makes use of eye trickery.

The houses are scaled differently, from 35 to 100 percent, depending on how small they wanted the Hobbits to appear or how big they wanted the wizard Gandalf to tower over them.

Even if you are not a hardcore Tolkien fan and the first time you heard of the Hobbits was through the movies, there is a moment of amazement when you see a Hobbit house for the first time — or a few of the 40-plus houses sitting side by side as you are standing on top of a hill and looking down on the winding dirtroads. (Would you believe that 40 percent of those who visit Hobbiton haven’t read any of the books or seen the movies?) You feel like you are part of the movies which, more than a decade ago, had the most anticipated premieres around the world.

The Green Dragon Inn or where the barefoot Hobbits go and have a drink.
Outside the Green Dragon Inn. It would’ve been nice to sit here for lunch if it wasn’t so damn cold.
Green Dragon serves Southfarthing craft beer.

Indeed, you are in a movie set, a living one that is maintained all year round — the grass is real, it grows, it needs to be cut and in certain foot paths need to be replaced every two to four weeks especially during high tourist season (New Zealand’s summer months, December to April); the houses or at least their facades are real (they are empty and shallow inside, all interior shots were filmed in Wellington) and need repainting once in a while.

But there is a moment when for me reality becomes literally small. We are walking on a narrow path and Henry tells us this is where Gandalf rides in with his cart and sets off the first of his fireworks for the children when he arrives at the Shire.

It certainly looked bigger in the movie.

Before that scene, Frodo Baggins had been reading under a tree when he hears the wizard singing in the distance, “Down from the door where it began, now far ahead the road has gone…”

Frodo runs through the Shire and comes to a stop on top of a hill and after chiding Gandalf that he’s late, he jumps into the wizard’s arms and says, “It’s wonderful to see you, Gandalf!”

When Frodo gently chides the wizard for being late as he arrives on this winding dirt road, Gandalf answers, “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”

Because this is Boracay

Boracay’s four-km. White Beach, and the colorful paraws or outrigger boats getting ready for island hopping. You can rent one for the day for P2,500 to P4,000 ($60 to $90). (Photo from blog.gettourguide.com)
The private part of Puka Beach, which only about four hotels located far from White Beach have access to. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

In the morning, I open one eye and see my cousin Cheche on the bed next to mine reading a book.

I don’t know where I am.

Not knowing where you are in the morning is never a good sign for where you might have been the night before.

We are in Boracay for the weekend, the party island in the Philippines, about which a friend three years later would text me, “Hey, my brother and his girlfriend are in Boracay and they are playing a game called ‘Guess the age gap between the European and the Philippino.’”

My first instinct is to say, “Dude, you misspelled Filipino.” But I whatsapp him back, “I hope your brother’s Irish ass is having a great time anyway.”

Because, seriously, this is Boracay.

And that is the only explanation you will ever need for this island. It’s the best and worst island in the world — and incredibly people love or hate it for the same reasons. I’m a city girl who likes walking around centuries-old buildings, shopping streets and museums. But Boracay…it’s really something else.

A lazy afternoon on Puka Beach. Yes, that’s where puka shells, those small shells made into necklaces, come from. Or at least that’s where they came from before they all but disappeared. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

It is 2012 and it is an extra-ordinary year for me and Boracay. I would visit it four times with different sets of friends and family, which is what makes the year special. This trip at the end of March is the first in the next seven months, the only time and local destination I would make as many trips to in such a short space of time.

On our first night we join the Boracay Pubcrawl, which barhops across the beach bars and restos and plays games on the sand with rewards like shots of Boracay rum. The first rule of a pub crawl is this: Let your hair down and have fun. The second is don’t tag the pictures you upload online showing people getting shitfaced (everybody does eventually, including you).

At the first bar, we meet a gay couple that we bond with for the rest of the night. They are teachers from Dubai who are on vacation around Southeast Asia and meeting with their Filipino friends at another island here. There are honeymooning couples from abroad and groups of locals.

Boracay sunset — and you never really get the same colors every day. Best place to enjoy it is on White Beach — with the island’s favorite drink, rum coke (because it’s cheap), in the many bars along the beach. (Photo by Emer Ibabao/boracaysunresorts.com.ph)
All sorts of souvenirs and trinkets at D’Mall, an open market with local and branded shops. (Photos by Raymund G. Martelino)

At one point, I ask the American teacher, “I think they are watering down the cocktails, shall we order proper drinks?” So we do, which leads to a hazy remembrance of playing games on the beach involving wigs and hula hoops, and then a complete memory loss.

The last thing I remember is dancing at 2 a.m. in a bar where the pub crawl ends and we’re with the gay couple and I’m telling one of them, “I love you! Why are you such a great a guy?”

One of my last memories of the night is being put on a tricycle by my cousin and I am asking her, “Did I do anything I shouldn’t have done?” She is laughing at me and says no, “You were just flirting with a gay guy.”

The following day we spend the morning on a private beach reading books and swimming (me, trying not to drown). The beach is deserted. It doesn’t have the crowds of White Beach; it doesn’t have its energy either, but it feels good to be under the sun, away from people.

In the evening, we see the couple on White Beach again and invite them to dinner with a friend who owns a resort there. He had made us rosemary baked chicken. They are bonding, we are bonding, exchanging stories.

The author (red dress, front row) during a Boracay Pubcrawl. The pub crawl is run by a German guy, Oliver Köllner, and his Filipino partners. It costs about P790 for guys and P690 for girls ($15 to $18), and I’m not sure why there’s a price difference between the genders. The pub crawl fee includes a T-shirt, a shot glass and free cocktails in bars. You have to pay for more potent drinks. (Photo from Boracay Pubcrawl)
Sun worship on White Beach. (Photo by Emer Ibabao)

I am not very good with strangers. We do this —or I do this — only because this is Boracay, and I am just so happy being here.

* * *

A month later, I am in Boracay again. This time with friends from New Zealand.

We meet in the Manila domestic airport — they are coming from Singapore and  I from Paris — to go to Legazpi for the whale sharks and the next day to fly to Boracay.

We drive from Legazpi to Donsol, but climate change has made the waters of Donsol too warm for the whale sharks to breed and feed here. After hours in the open sea snorkeling and just lying on the boat, we give up.

I am very disappointed for my friends especially because they had flown here for these giant, gentle sharks. When we were planning the details of the trip a month before in Singapore and through email, I told my Kiwi friend that they were now breeding in Oslob, Cebu, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He said those were “tame and small,” they were being hand fed by fishermen and tourists, and it was true, but they were there.

Cliff diving at Ariel’s Point is a popular activity away from White Beach. (Photo from arielspoint.com)

Later, I realized why he was so stubborn about going to Donsol instead of Oslob. He had been to Donsol years ago with his father and they swam with 15 to 20 whale sharks within 20 minutes of being on the water. It was the year before his father died, and it was a memory that he carried in his heart so gently, so profoundly.

We fly to Boracay the next day. The island to them is a different vibe, not necessarily the most beautiful but different…mildly interesting because, after all, they are from an island in New Zealand with a hundred-kilometer beach.

Oh, but we we laugh a lot. We go bar hopping along White Beach until we get so drunk that all three of us end up arguing for different reasons.

But in the morning, when all is forgiven and we converge for the last time at my hotel, we eat local breakfast while looking out onto the blue sea, and then we swim right away because it seems disrespectful not to.

By lunchtime, I leave my Kiwi friends to their own shenanigans and fly back to Manila to join friends that evening for a weekend in Hanoi. I am still jet lagged from Paris and, when I meet them at the airport, I have those few seconds of standing in the terminal with my backpack and not knowing where I am going.

* * *

Away from the crowds. The sand at Puka Beach is not as fine as White Beach and the water goes deep real quickly. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

In July, I am back in Bora with a different set of friends. It’s my birthday weekend. Another ragtag group that I spent Easter with months before, swimming, skeet shooting and eating our way through Bohol, another beautiful island in this country.

There are six of us this time. The sunsets are gorgeous every single day. They are red and orange, they are pink, they are blue — sometimes all in one evening.

Fresh seafood at D’Market or talipapa (wet market). You buy your seafoods at market price and choose a restaurant to cook them for you for a fee. (Photo by Emer Ibabao)

Our friends Emer and Edd , who own several boutique resorts on the island, put us up at their hotel on a hill behind White Beach. Emer cooks us paella on our first night and takes us to a club where they bring out a cake with sparklers and a bottle of vodka.

The next day we spend lunchtime picking fresh seafood in the talipapa (wet market) and having them cooked in a restaurant, and in the afternoon on the beach we get massages, sleep and drink fruit shakes.

A tropical storm descends on the island that night. Some of our friends have gone back to the hotel but four of us stay behind on White Beach drinking vodka and rum coke. We are soaking wet as we barhop our way back. At one point, the rain is so strong the streets behind White Beach are flooded (July is wet season in the Philippines).

We are shivering from the cold and there is just no escape. We wade through floodwaters, taking shelter (and funny pictures) at  a hotel driveway. At this point the water is almost to our knees, and finally we find a pedicab to take us up the hill. Four basang sisiw that were wondering out loud: how can an island get flooded when the beach is not? Of course, everybody knows the answer to this.

* * *

And sometimes, the colors of paraws just reflect the blue waters. (Photo by Emer Ibabao)
Pink sunset taken from a beach bar. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

And the fourth trip of the year. An ordinary weekend because I just need to escape the toxicity that is typically Manila.

I realize that this is a special year. Some friends I went with are now living abroad and I haven’t been back to Boracay in almost three years, this beach that is so near and seemingly so far with local airlines jacking up their fares to Caticlan and without explanation just cancelling their flights back to Manila.

I am afraid to go back lest a trip would tarnish the memory of my perfect year with Boracay.

But the island has already changed a lot from the first time I saw it. About 15 years ago I  co-wrote and edited the first book on Boracay. I interviewed some of the first wave of Europeans that settled here and built resorts. They told me of a time, decades ago, when there was nothing on the beach — just a few thatch-roof huts with no electricity or running water.

They were young backpackers then, they ate the fish they caught and mushrooms that grew at the back of the beach. There was no tax, there was no government. Just another uninhabited island in the Philippines. And now the beachfront has fully developed with many structures violating building codes.

And yet, Boracay is beautiful no matter how or when or with whom you experience it. The sunsets remain gorgeous, the food and shopping are awesome,  the crowds are great and tolerable at worst, there are so many things to do here (cliff jumping, diving and snorkeling — or if you’re really drunk, get a real huge tattoo instead of henna!), and yes, young prostitutes with foreign tourists are sadly too many.

Boracay beach life. (Photo by Emer Ibabao)

On this island, you can be yourself or pretend to be someone you’re not. People care very little about who you are outside their beach. Because Boracay is what it is, just as you are who you are.

I can list a hundred reasons why I love Paris and they would all be true.

But with Boracay, I don’t need to make a list. I just walk out into the sun, feel my toes sinking slowly into the cool, powdery white sand, and know that I am home.

Architecture, love, loss & liberty

WTC, Silverstein Properties, New York
World Trade Center today. “Politically, there might be answers to the terrorist attacks or there could be military answers, but in architecture the answers are always in a positive sense of construction. That’s a healing moment. That’s what architecture can do that no politician or military can,” says WTC master plan architect Daniel Libeskind. (Photos from Studio Libeskind/libeskind.com)
Daniel Libeskind: “Because I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust, I understood that the most important thing in architecture and in life was liberty, freedom, and to offer that in every way you could as an architect. To emancipate people from just the same formulas is so important.” (Photo by Fernan Nebres/Philippine Star)

(I interviewed World Trade Center/Ground Zero architect Daniel Libeskind for my newspaper when he came to Manila at the end of May 2014. This story first appeared in The Philippine Star on June 7, 2014. All journalists hate transcribing interviews and this may very well be the only one in my 20 years as a writer where I didn’t want transcribing to end.) 

It felt like he was in a movie, says architect Daniel Libeskind on his first sighting of New York, a city that he has called his home since arriving here as a young boy fleeing Europe with his parents and sister in the 1950s. A city that, more than four decades later, would have a huge gaping hole and it would be on his shoulders that the task to fill it with people’s collective memory and hope would fall.

The Libeskinds — Dora and Nachman and their children Daniel and Ania — were, in fact, “among the last waves of immigrants to arrive in the United States by boat,” on the Constitution. Their journey took them from Poland to the Soviet Union, back to Poland, to Israel and finally the United States. Coming into the New York harbor, it also felt to him that they were “Israelites arriving in the Promised Land, but we were also Joseph, leaving it. Our real promised land would be New York City.”

“Reflecting Absence,” the fountains and pools at the 9/11 Memorial are surrounded by the names of all the victims, etched into a bronze parapet, of the 2001 and 1993 attacks.
WTC Site Day, Silverstein Properties, New York, USA
“After Ground Zero, no city planning in the world can ever be the same because now people know it is something important to them,” says Libeskind. “It’s something that cannot be done privately in a boardroom by politicians because it’s going to have a big impact on everybody’s lives.”

In 2001, the Manhattan skyline that he had grown to love would change drastically — as would the rest of the world because the attacks on the World Trade Center assured that nothing would ever be the same after the buildings and the people inside them came crashing down.

Libeskind was in Berlin that day to open the Jewish Museum, which he designed while living there. It wouldn’t open until three days after and by that time he was determined to go back to New York. In 2003, Daniel Libeskind’s firm won the competition to master-plan Ground Zero and a decade later the first structure, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, would be completed.

I expected Libeskind to be taller, to have broader shoulders — or at least the kind of physique that would move one to say that, yes, he could carry the weight of all that heartache and sorrow that warranted the construction of the memorials he has designed both in Berlin and New York. But he is neither tall nor big nor does he have a booming voice either. He speaks softly and warmly and with an accent that is distinctly New Yorker and Polish. (At some point during the interview, I even thought he sounded a little like Martin Scorsese.)

His home in New York is a constant reminder of how important memory is — and memory is a theme that finds its way into his architecture and his speech, as if telling us we must always remember and also hope. This is the nature of people. They move on. They rebuild. And one day they are able to look up toward the sky again.

In the mornings, Libeskind wakes up to a view of Ground Zero from his large picture windows in Lower Manhattan, and from his studio the view is also of Ground Zero but from another angle. And from the time he walks out of his front door and returns home at night, the light that drapes Ground Zero changes many times over, because the day progresses, the city is somehow altered, and no one day in New York is, after all, exactly the same as another.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin. Libeskind was here to open it on Sept. 11, 2001. It wouldn’t open until days after the terrorist attacks in New York.

Tell us about your experience in master-planning Ground Zero. You had about 15 to 20 million “judges” during the competition in 2003.

That’s true, maybe more! It was under high scrutiny, the highest level of interest in any project ever built in the world, and the highest level of emotion, too. And I think it was a project that changed the way people saw urban planning.

After Ground Zero, no city planning in the world can ever be the same because now people know it is something important to them. Something that cannot be done privately in a boardroom by politicians because it’s going to have a big impact on everybody’s lives. It was a very meaningful process. It showed how difficult democracy is, how important society is. Everybody has an opinion but also not everybody has to agree with what you do. Initially it was very controversial but now that it’s built, people see the harmonious design and it delivers something very important to the city.

During the construction, when you were seeing everything coming up together slowly, was it an emotional experience for you?

The courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

Very emotional. You know, I started when there was just a devastated hole, a void in the center of New York. It was very sad in the beginning, it was like a wound that people wouldn’t even come near it.

Then as I was working on it and my master plan began to take shape, you could see the change not only on the site but in people’s souls. Slowly, people would come to the site in a different way, they could look with their eyes, some of the sadness began to disappear, and something positive began to emerge. And that’s how I always see it.

Politically, there might be answers to the terrorist attacks or there could be military answers, which we have seen in the war, but in architecture the answers are always in a positive sense of construction. That’s a healing moment. That’s what architecture can do that no politician or military can because it can change people’s lives in a positive way.

And as I said, 60,000 people have moved to Lower Manhattan as a result of the construction. It’s a new city. Lower Manhattan was kind of a lost area, it was like Wall Street at night — empty — and suddenly it has become a new center of the city with schools and new families moving in, so it’s been a renaissance, the rebuilding of Ground Zero.

Your book Breaking Ground is a moving tribute not just to Ground Zero but also to your immigrant past. Visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague, I realized how much his being Jewish and being Jewish in that city shaped his literature. How did your experience as a Jewish immigrant in New York City shape your architecture, if it did at all?

Windows at the Jewish Museum in Berlin as part of Star of David matrix (Photo by Michele Nastasi/from libeskind.com)

Oh, definitely! If you don’t come from a privileged background, if you have hardship, it creates a very different sense — it’s not a sense of entitlement, it’s a sense of having to work, of having to do things, often to go against the current. Of course, your family, your circumstances, how you grow up shape who you are in every case.

That kind of influence can be easily discerned in literature, how does it manifest in architecture?

I think because I grew up in a totalitarian country, I grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust, I understood that the most important thing in architecture and in life was liberty,  freedom, and to offer that in every way you could as an architect. To emancipate people from just the same formulas, to extend a little more the imaginative horizon is so important.

The Run Run Shaw Media Center in Hong Kong (Photo by Gollings Photography/from libeskind.com)

Speaking of imagination, the world has seen, especially in China, buildings that are shaped rather absurdly like Rem Koolhaas’ “Underpants” building in Beijing. What do you think of this kind of architecture?

That’s a great question. I think that the computer has led to a kind of absurdity in architecture because with the simple operation of a finger, digitally you can create any shape you want, and you can also construct it because you have the method that the computer provides you, but that doesn’t make for good architecture.

It’s not enough to wave a magic wand and create a nice shape because architecture is not about shapes or about pretty elevations. It’s about the actual space, the atmosphere that the building provides. Atmosphere is not something that is on any calculation sheet, it’s not on any piece of statistic because it’s ineffable, it’s not something you can measure with an instrument, it’s something very human.

When you feel you’re in a beautiful space, in a room that makes you feel good, or you’re in a city that is dignified, those are things that you cannot statistically achieve by a computer or by any operation using just a couple of fingers to create a shape. Of course, there’s been a lot of excessive manipulation on the computer that produces shapes that are interesting for about five seconds and later on you wonder why.

Century Spire in Manila has a top whose shape “unfolds.”

Architecture is not like a piece of fashion that can be thrown away, it’s there for a long time. Architecture a cultural discipline, not a fashion discipline. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about culture and culture is deep — it’s about history, memory, ideas that have shaped people’s values. It’s not superficial or about creating novelty.

Did you see the skyline of Manila before agreeing to design a building here?

Sure, I was here many years ago. Today, Manila’s quickly growing, it’s very impressive. But it needs…

It needs architectural icons.

Definitely, a city needs iconic buildings and new ideas. I think this building will transform the skyline, give a sense that there is a future and it’s not just looking at what other cities are doing.

What is your favorite skyline in the world?

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Holocaust Tower in Berlin. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

I love the skyline of Manhattan because I live there. It’s a skyline that’s also changing all the time. Look at the skyline of London, just some years ago it was very static, until they allowed London to really develop in unpredictable ways, even the area near St. Paul’s Church. Versus Paris, which is a very set skyline that hasn’t changed.

So in a way you can see how London has outpaced Paris because its skyline has changed it. It has also signaled that London is developing in a much quicker and more diversified way and it’s not in a museum mold. Skylines are important signs of the development of cities.

Why is it that some buildings that are now loved were hated by people at the time they were first completed?  Most often they are ridiculed, such as “The Gherkin” by Norman Foster and yet it’s now one of London’s icons.

Always. Because they’re new and people are set in their ways, they know what they like, they’re habituated. Habit is a shackle for the free.  You know when it’s genuine — not everyone says “great.”

Have you had to battle this kind of attitude with your clients?

Oh sure, every project. Even a small house that I recently completed. In the beginning the Jewish Museum in Berlin was critically attacked by everybody. All the experts said it was terrible, nobody would come, nobody would understand, but they were proven wrong because the public grows to appreciate these things.

Zlota at night in Warsaw, Poland

That’s also the nature of art. Look at all the great paintings that we now see as great. When they were first painted people thought they were horrible — Van Gogh’s paintings were not considered good, the paintings of Picasso were sold for very little for many years, Andy Warhol was considered stupid. But now when you look at art museums, wow, those people that recognized the talent were very few.

There’s a famous quote of Picasso’s conversation with Gertrude Stein on his portrait of her and which is now at the Metropolitan in New York. When he finished painting it, she said to him, “You know, Mr. Picasso, it’s a very nice picture but it doesn’t look at all like me.” And he said, “Don’t worry, it will.” And now that is our vision of Gertrude Stein. That is Gertrude Stein. We don’t have any other Gertrude Stein. So that’s art. People see but art envisions how people will see in the future.

Ko-Bogen in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Photo by Kirscher Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

What are your top three favorite buildings in the world?

That’s very difficult to answer. As I said in my book (Breaking Ground), architecture is like a spectrum, like a rainbow. You don’t choose what color from the rainbow is your favorite, you choose the rainbow. It is the diversity, the whole range that makes the world beautiful.

Tampere Deck and Central Arena in Finland.

I like architecture across time, I like vernacular architecture, local architecture that doesn’t even have a name to call it, I like some of the great masterpieces in Asia, Europe, South America, some of the great wonders of the world that have been destroyed, like the Library of Alexandria, the fantastic Temple at Ephesus. You have to have an imaginative mind to navigate through this beautiful world.

I love that anecdote about Goethe choosing the rainbow that you quote in your book. And yet your designs for the Jewish Museum and Ground Zero show your fascination with light and shadows and time of day. How do you reconcile all this in your design?

We wouldn’t have any light if we didn’t have any shadow. Light and shadow intertwine. Every ray of light produces a shadow. And so we know that shadows are as important as light and we have to take account of that in everything.

Shadows kind of manipulate people’s emotions, don’t they?

Not only are we in the light but we are also in the shadows. You can say that life is a flame but there is also a kind of internal sun inside of us, the soul. Light and shadow are part of the images of the world for all eternity.

At daytime, Zlota in Warsaw,

People have a sense of what life in Manhattan is like from mass media, what is life like for you living there?

It’s fantastic. What I love about Manhattan, about New York is that it’s a macrocosm of the world. The truth is people may not love each other but they all live together very well and that’s the beauty of New York, that it’s a city of tolerance.

You can be from anywhere in the world and nobody sees you as an immigrant, you’re just part of the city. The beauty is not just its nice skyline but the attitude that strangers are welcome and that people of different religions, languages, places and beliefs can live happily with each other. That to me is a good model for the world.

Was there a discernible change in attitude before and after 9/11?

Sure. Before 9/11 people often took for granted what America was. After 9/11, we saw things — not all good things — like tolerance and bigotry but it also taught people what a democracy is, how to move society forward, how to take the memory of what happened and turn it into something positive. That was my plan.

There’s always a danger in such a thing, that you can unbalance a city. It can make a sad place of the city but it can also pay homage to these thousands of people from over 90 different countries that died. You can use that as a hinge to create a beautiful 21st-century New York, to affirm liberty and the beauty of the streets, of walking around the city and being able to be part of it.

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Studio Weil in Mallorca, Spain. (Photo by Bitter Bredt Fotografie/from libeskind.com)

I am reminded of the Cupola by Norman Foster on the Reichstag in Berlin. How do you feel about new architecture being added to centuries-old structures?

That’s a very good building and Norman’s a great architect and he did a fantastic job. I think it’s a creative way to use a traditional device with new technology and a new sense.

Was there resistance from your mother when you wanted to be a designer?

It was the other way around. I wanted to be an artist, she said no, as an artist you will be very poor, you will not even be able to buy a pencil. She said, “Be an architect because you can always be an artist in architecture but you cannot be an architect in art, and in this way you can hook two fish with one hook.” Very wise woman.

Do you still design manually?

Libeskind’s initial sketches for Ground Zero.

Only. I have many computers in my studios but I do design the traditional way. I start with a drawing and I make a small model myself. It’s a very traditional art; of course we have new tools but the  tools  cannot replace tradition in my view.

For instance, I have a drawing app and  I can draw with my fingers on the screen of the iPad and it’s so fantastic. When I travel around the world, I draw and send them to my office. And I can draw in a very primitive way — with my finger. How fantastic! People have not done that in thousands of years — in the sand with their finger and now to create a building or to respond to a shape, what a wonderful world.

* * *

(Link to the original version of this story: http://www.philstar.com/modern-living/2014/06/07/1331804/daniel-libeskind-ground-zero-manila)

A journalist’s Warsaw

The Old Town of Warsaw, Poland. (Photo from bitcoinexaminer.org)
The baroque-classical Fryderyk Chopin Museum (Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina). (Photo from Warsaw Tourism/warsawtour.pl)

I have been in a mall in Warsaw for two hours and I haven’t seen a single Asian, either as a shopper or a sales person, which in itself is incredible. All I see are tall white people who are looking at me like I am a goldfish in a fishbowl and I am having a strange feeling about being here.

Why am I even in Warsaw? Poland is in the middle of a cold snap and it is -12 degrees Celsius — the story hogging international news for this week in February 2012. My taxi driver from the airport says -12 is “swimming pool temperature,” that I should have been here a couple of days ago when it was -25, then I can actually complain about the cold.

I’ve come  from a three-day coverage in Frankfurt where I do interviews on design trends for the year, where I get lost on the train and two elderly teachers hop out with me at the station to show me how to backtrack to the city (the landscape was getting ghetto).

This is the story of my life. I get onto the wrong train and strangers come to my rescue. Either because I look like I can’t read a map or because I look so pathetically lost. I don’t care why, the point is they always do.

The Warsaw Presidential Palace. (Photo from http://www.panoramio.com)

I have never been to Warsaw and I have a journalist friend living here. I cannot think of a better person to show me a city than a journalist because they provide a different perspective — of both the history and the city. I know and feel this of my own, why wouldn’t they of theirs?

On my first day, everything is covered in snow. I arrive early in the afternoon and go to the nearest mall. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction — I have time to kill, I look at my map and the first thing I see a mall.

After Vadim has finished work in his newsroom, we meet up for coffee and cakes and gossip about friends that have stayed being journalists and those who have left the profession. It’s a very tight circle, this group of friends he and I made as journalism fellows five years ago. We laughed and sang through our homesickness in those days of being abroad — he and the others for their families; and me, I couldn’t find a more honest answer than that I missed work, editing and reading other people’s shit and walking up to the news desk to ask what was going to be on the front page the next day.

Inside the Royal Palace in the new Old Town. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
The Royal Palace was rebuilt by the Polish people after they had lost everything.
The Royal Castle during the Cold Snap of 2012.

Years later, Vadim from Gazeta Wyborcza and Yani from Jakarta Post, who by this time are on the management side of their editorial offices, would meet in Moscow for a conference, and Yani would travel to Beijing to see one of our friends, and to Seoul to meet with the kids who were our university guides and were now pursuing their doctorate degrees or doing their own startups in South Korea. Edu’s wedding in Sao Paolo — apart from his transfer to Google Brazil at some point — was the subject of many emails and teasing, but none of us made it to Brazil to see him wed.

* * *

I realize, of course, that Warsaw’s Old Town is actually new. Warsaw was the most bombed city during the Second World War (Manila was second). The war flattened the city and it survived nowhere near the way the Roman ruins did in thousands of years of looting and occupations.

In one world war, Warsaw was decimated, and Poland once again didn’t exist on the map.

And yet today the Royal Castle at the entrance to Warsaw’s Old Town is lovely and grand, largely through people’s memory. It was rebuilt by the Polish who donated the little money and gold they had left after the Nazis took everything away — possessions, artworks, bank accounts, gold teeth and family members. They came together with what they had to rebuild what they had lost — their historical center and their identity.

The author Tanya Lara and fellow journalist Vadim Makarenko having coffee and gossip in Warsaw.
In a Slavic bar, which serves only vodka from Poland neighboring countries, they serve boiled potatoes as bar chow. I don’t even dare entertain the thought of ordering a cocktail or vodka on the rocks — just straight up, neat.

Years before, we talked a lot about national identity. All eight of us journalists were under colonial rule at one time in our countries’ histories (except for the Russian; Poland at one point was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria). We were all coming from long histories of journalism that started as propaganda by the occupiers and despite that — or probably because of that — had developed a strong sense of revolutionary identity right after.

We wondered if the relevance of print journalism would continue or if we were going to be lost in the changing times where the sharing of unvetted stories would be normal. Needless to say, it was the subject of many debates. Half of us said readers would still care where stories were coming from and half of us said they wouldn’t care about good writing anymore. Guess which half prevailed?

And now, Vadim and I are discussing it in a Slavic bar — only vodka is served here made in Poland and its surrounding countries. And once again I am the only Asian, and one of the very few women around.

He orders bar chow and what the waiter brings out is boiled potatoes with white cheese. I begin to laugh. This is what you eat with drinks? Well, yes. I fear what he would think if he goes to Manila and bar food is actually a full dinner of pork knuckles, sisig and caldereta with a beer in a glass filled with ice. (A German friend is fascinated by how we can eat so much while drinking beer.)

In a pizzeria where we have Polish beers, he talks about a road trip he is taking to Ireland in a few months. Just he and his daughter — his wife would remain in Warsaw — and another friend with his daughter. I begin to understand how our cultures have such strong similarities in the way families are so tightly wound. Months later, after his Ireland trip and I am on my own road trip in France, he would say how he missed Ireland, how he felt that it was his spiritual home of sorts — the very same way I feel about France.

* * *

The Warsaw Uprising Museum is housed in a former tram power station.
Journals and letters in the Uprising Museum.

The subject of struggle seems to be the theme on my trip to Warsaw, the thing I am subconsciously choosing to see in my limited time here. I am heading to the Warsaw Uprising Museum instead of a mall or another “happier” museum. Located in a former tram power station, it shows the visitor life in Poland under Nazi Germany, under the Soviet Union, and towards the end a city in ruins after the city’s “liberation” in 1945.

The museum is all about hardship and remembrance, sadness and loss, one Warsaw landmark after another obliterated in an intentional effort to erase a people and their country.

In the afternoon, I am going to visit Vadim’s newsroom Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading newspaper. The taxi I am riding has a copy of the newspaper and I see his byline. I don’t understand the business story but it is so good to see it.

The newsroom of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading daily newspaper.
Layouts of the daily newspaper.
The radio station of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Gazeta Wyborcza doesn’t look like a newsroom at all; it looks like a swanky but laid-back corporate office with bamboos planted in mini gardens. (“Bamboo is exotic to us,” he says.) How different the two halves of the world live — an their newsrooms.

He gives me a tour around the different sections of the newspaper and the radio station. They even have a proper gym, sauna and a pool (if I remember correctly) and to me, coming from a newsroom without windows or a proper cafeteria (but we have the latest Macs!), this is really cool.

* * *

On the day I am leaving, I have time for one more place to visit. I look at the brochures and see that I can go to Chopin’s House or to the Copernicus Center and Planetarium. I cannot do both; they are far apart.

In my mind, there is no question where I should be heading.

Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a theory of the universe, that the sun was at the center and not the earth. Five hundred years later, Instagram selfies would disprove that — earthlings are the center of their own universe.

It is a weekend and the Copernicus Center is filled with schoolchildren. I am walking outside and looking at the Vistula River and beyond it you can see the National Stadium, which was hosting the UEFA Euro that year along with Ukraine. It looks like a very lonely place outside. Inside, I look at the robots and interactive exhibits waiting for the next planetarium show with my ticket.

Finally I am seated in a chair that tilts and forces me to look up. I adjust the earphones and the English narrative tells me how the universe was born, where I am in this vast world of stars, suns, planets and galaxies. As a kid, I always loved planetariums even if they made me feel small and insignificant. And yet I always thought that surely in this vast world of stars and galaxies, I had my own place.

The Copernicus Science Center on the banks of the Vistula River in Warsaw has over 400 interactive exhibits. Copernicus was never excommunicated by the Catholic Church or declared a heretic as many men in science were.
Between Chopin’s House and the Copernicus Center with its Planetarium, I knew which one I had to visit.

When the show is over, I go outside to find a taxi. There is not a single one in sight. Everybody here has arrived by car or school bus. I begin walking the snow-covered streets with a bit of panic — I have a hotel room to check out of and a plane to catch.

The Copernicus Center is far from the city center and even if I have the energy to walk I don’t know which direction to take, everything is covered in snow and I forgot my map in my hotel. But somehow, I am beginning to calm down about possibly missing my flight and I am starting to enjoy the empty streets.

Finally, I spot an empty cab and I get in. They all whiz past me — the houses, the buildings and streets, the people walking all hunched against the snow. This is Warsaw in my journalist friend’s eyes, someone who loves its history and its present, from the cabbie at the airport days ago that charged me double to the kind people I had asked directions from when I was lost in the Old Town, to even the way it has remained a homogenous society.

Seeing it now for the last time, it has, inevitably, become the Warsaw in my mind as well.

The 38th Parallel

The author Tanya Lara (fourth from left) with Seoul National University journalism fellows Vadim, Yani, Mansi, Eduardo, Sangnam Press Foundation’s Shanon, Han, Weitao and Svetlana in South Korea in 2007. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
South Korea and North Korea got into a contest of who could build the taller flagpole and the bigger flag along the 38th parallel or the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. NoKor today has the world’s tallest flagpole and the world’s worst haircut on a leader (who probably has the world’s smallest penis too).

To this day, when I hear Blind Melon’s No Rain, I think of the 38th parallel — the demilitarized zone that divides South and North Korea — and writing fiction on a bus.

On a clear day several years ago, eight journalists stood on the lookout at the DMZ and had a glimpse of North Korea, the most isolated country in the world.

That they even had tourist telescopes to view the control zone along the 38th parallel north was fascinating to me…and so was the fact that the blue skies extended into Pyongyang and did not end at the South Korean side of the border.

Only 44 kilometers from Seoul, the DMZ is a tourist destination complete with a park that sells souvenirs including blueberry vodka made in Pyongyang (or so the bottle says). It has two kilometers of buffer zone on both sides to prevent military collision and restrict civilian access and was originally established five years after Japan ended its colonial rule of Korea. Then the two countries went under the trusteeship of the US for South Korea and the Soviet Union for North in 1950.

How different the world was when that demarcation line was drawn and split families apart: a newly independent country “needing” trusteeship from two other super countries. And look where it got North Korea — headed by a buffoon with the world’s worst haircut, an ego the size of China and, in all likelihood, a very small penis.

Looking into the world’s most isolated country on a clear day.

What’s interesting are the many anecdotes coming out of this buffer zone. One is that when South Korea built its flagpole, the North built a taller one and hoisted a much bigger flag. Then the South built an even taller flagpole for its new bigger flag. This contest went on until NoKor built the world’s tallest flagpole and a flag that takes several soldiers to raise. At this point, SoKor just said, fuckit.

Apart from the daily stare-downs and trash talk between soldiers, a NoKor soldier once tried to pull his counterpart through a door that would have put the latter into the enemy’s territory and he would have been held a prisoner. The SoKor soldier managed to escape, kicking and screaming. Our guide also said that the conference desk is marked in the middle down to the millimeter to establish territory and bolted to the floor so no one side occupies the other’s land.

A mockup metro station at the DMZ
The buildings at the 38th parallel are guarded by soldiers from the two Koreas, whose daily stare-downs and trash talk are a mine for urban legends and tour anecdotes. (Photo from photo2be.com)

Another is that the tunnels dug up by North Korea to attack the South are unguarded on the other side because no one ever wants to defect to North Korea (except for that idiot who did everything to be thrown in jail so he could stay in Pyongyang).

Today, Pyongyang accepts tourists but they are highly restricted. You are never left on your own, a tourist guide is with you like leech that won’t come off no matter how much you try.

Two years ago, a friend showed me a video he took of Pyongyang from his hotel room, the only place he was unaccompanied by a guide. At 7 p.m., when the rest of the world is stuck in rush-hour traffic, the roads and highways of Pyongyang are empty. The only illumination is from streetlights, not from car headlights because there isn’t a single car on the road.

A capital city that feels like a ghost town. And yet, in its own bizarre reality, it lives on.

* * *

Lovely South Korean women wearing their traditional dress, hanbok (South Korea) or chosŏn-ot (North Korea). Divided even in the name of Korean clothing.

We had driven from Seoul to the DMZ — print journalists from Europe and Asia that were on a fellowship grant at Seoul National University. The routine was that after a week of lectures and talks, we would take off for the weekend to places like Jeju island, where we ate live octopus caught by the old women divers of Jeju (the youngest was 50 years old) with nothing but vinegar and chili sauce; second-largest city Busan, where we ate more seafood on the beach (cooked this time); and Pamunjon at the border of the two Koreas.

I was on a deadline with a magazine for a short story whose editor and I were mentored by the same man at different times. He had read the fiction I published when I was younger and working for a political magazine and compelled me to write fiction again — after 15 years! But I kept putting it off for months. And so on this road trip out of Seoul, I was writing on the bus.

It was nearing autumn and the weather was being eccentric and yet when we were about to step out on a road trip or go for a night out to eat “real food” (burgers and fries), the rain would become a slight drizzle and pretty soon the skies would clear up.

It was like that on that day at the DMZ. We had blue skies and then it rained while we were on the bus and then it let up in the afternoon.

Caught by the old women divers, the seafood on this Jeju island beach goes from sea to beach to your plate, eaten raw with vinegar and chili sauce.

One day, on a visit to a temple, the drizzle stayed with us. One of the guys started singing. All I can say is that my life is pretty plain, I like watchin’ the puddles gather rain. Pretty soon, we were all singing. And all I can do is just pour some tea for two and speak my point of view. But it’s not sane, it’s not sane.

It was nearing autumn and the weather was being eccentric and yet when we were about to step out on a road trip or go for a night out to eat “real food” (burgers and fries), the rain would become a slight drizzle and pretty soon the skies would clear up.

It was like that on that day at the DMZ. We had blue skies and then it rained while we were on the bus and then it let up in the afternoon.

The author (second from right) with fellow print journalists.

One day, on a visit to a temple, the drizzle stayed with us. One of the guys started singing. All I can say is that my life is pretty plain, I like watchin’ the puddles gather rain. Pretty soon, we were all singing. And all I can do is just pour some tea for two and speak my point of view. But it’s not sane, it’s not sane.

Some nights on campus (we were staying at the visiting faculty house), we would gather in one room with a guitar and drink whiskey and beers — having had our fill of soju or Korean vodka at lunch or whenever we sat down at a table. In Seoul, it seemed that if you went into a restaurant and ordered coffee, they would bring you soju instead and you couldn’t say no.

Back in 2007, the idea of reunification seemed like a real possibility. They said it was only a matter of time and diplomatic maneuvering. They said families would be together again. But in Seoul, the young Koreans were unsure — what would that mean to the economy, to jobs that weren’t easy to find, to the prosperity they enjoy?

Cooking bibimbap. Before you even get to your main entrée, you will be full from the small appetizers laid on your table.

In Pyongyang, the highway leading to their side of the DMZ is called the Reunification Highway. On it is the “Reunification Arch” — two Korean women symbolizing North and South and holding a sphere bearing the map of a one Korea. At the DMZ on South Korea’s side is the Unification Sculpture. They put it right outside the Third Tunnel of Aggression, which the North was going to use for an attack on Seoul (the DMZ is only 44 kilometers from the capital) and was discovered with the help of a defector.

I thought it was telling that they didn’t use the word “reunification,” which refers to restoring political unity, and instead used “unification,” which is the process of making something whole again.

The Monument to Reunification, south of Pyongyang, has two Koreans in traditional choson holding the map of a one Korea. (Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/wikipedia.com/http://bjornfree.com)
The Unification Sculpture at the DMZ on the South Korean side shows figures pushing a globe split in half to become whole again.

And that is what the sculpture represents. It is a globe split in half depicting the division of Korea. On both sides are figures of people, including children, pushing the two halves to make it whole again.

You’d think that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, previously divided countries would be whole again. Except the exact opposite happened. The Soviet Union fell apart, Yugoslavia split, and autonomous regions became independent republics — at the cost of bloody wars and so much human loss.

For the two Koreas, the Unification Sculpture might as well be a monument to what will remain a dream for broken families as long as Kim Jong-un is in power.

Because no matter how hard you try or whatever you do, you just can’t negotiate with crazy.

Chasing Kafka in Prague

The Franz Kafka Museum on the Vltava River in Prague, the Czech Republic.  Photos by Tanya Lara
“Piss” by David Cerny in front of the Kafka Museum

I am standing in front of two men literally having a pissing contest and I cannot look away.

By “men,” I mean two sculptures by the Czech Republic’s most famous artist David Cerny. By “pissing contest,” I mean their dicks are spouting water on the ground that is shaped like the map of the Czech Republic. It’s an interactive piece of art.

The statues are moving — or at least their lower bodies are — and they are actually writing with their piss on the fountain.They are writing lines from Franz Kafka’s work or stuff people text to a mobile number…while pissing on the Czech Republic.

It is May 2014, a cold spring day in this old city. It seems the perfect place to hide from new hurts.

On this holiday, I have given myself five days in Prague, which would stretch several more days but I don’t know this yet standing in front of the Franz Kafka Museum.

Kafka Cafe in Prague’s Old Town

For the time I have been here, I’ve been chasing Kafka throughout the city. There is a Kafka Café; there is a hotel whose name sounds like “Metamorphosis” and I text an American friend who is reading him in the original text to ask if guests might feel the urge to feed on garbage when they wake up in the morning; then there is the Kafka statue in the Jewish Quarter by Jaroslav Rona.

It is a strange sculpture. But then Kafka was a strange man — or at least his stories are. The statue is of a headless man dressed in a suit and a smaller figure of Kafka sitting on his shoulders. I suppose this could be interpreted in many ways: Kafka literally sitting on the shoulders of a giant is just another surreal tribute to him; or Kafka looking beyond his own perspective, his Jewishness, for the broad horizon.

Or it could be just how Kafka wrote it.

In an interview with Pavla Horakova in 2004, the sculptor Jaroslav Rona referenced the short story “Description of a Struggle,” where Kafka writes, “And now — with a flourish, as though it were not the first time — I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot. But since he stumped forward rather reluctantly and sometimes even stopped, I kicked him in the belly several times with my boots, to make him more lively. It worked and we came fast enough into the interior of a vast  but as yet unfinished landscape.”

The author Tanya Lara at Jaroslav Rona’s sculpture of Franz Kafka on Dusni Street in the Jewish Quarter.

This “landscape” is Prague, Kafka’s hometown — this city on a piece of land wedged between so many other republics that used to be part of one country. And in the Jewish Quarter, on Dusni Street, Kafka spent most of his time wandering about and presumably getting inspired and writing his stories, too.

He hung out in coffee shops along with other intellectuals. If the walls of Cafe Louvre on Narodni Street had feelings, they’d probably have collapsed during Kafka’s day from the weight of the existential angst being dissected by Prague’s writers and intellectuals.

Most tourists come to the Kafka Museum to see David Cerny’s “Piss” sculpture and spend time walking around the courtyard but don’t go inside the museum. It’s like going to the Louvre and walking around I.M. Pei’s Pyramids without going in to look at the Monalisa or Nike’s Winged Victory.

Okay, maybe not — because inside are mostly just pictures and his journals, not very attractive to people who like taking selfies against a stunning background. Plus, taking pictures inside is not allowed.

The museum is dark, the walls are black, the lighting is subdued. It is full of symbolism, things that Kafka rebelled against in his writing, like bureaucracy. One part of the museum wall is covered with filing cabinets, some of which you can open and take a peek at his writing or quotes from his work. The room feels claustrophobic, like someone is chasing you with a million forms to fill out so you can prove you have the right to live.

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Kafka’s grave at the New Jewish Cemetery (photo by Hynek Moravec); Franz Kafka in 1922. He died in a sanitarium in Vienna at 40; and the Old Jewish Cemetery (photo by @iamtanyalara).
Letters, journals and photographs of Franz Kafka at the Kafka Museum in Prague. (Photo from kafkamuseum.cz)

Kafka died in 1923, in a sanitarium in Vienna at 40, a full 15 years before Kristallnacht or “The Night of the Broken Glass,” when violence against the Jewish people broke out across the Reich, and in just two days 250 synagogues were burned and thousands of Jewish businesses were looted.

So much shattered glass from the store windows owned by Jews — that’s how those two days in Poland and Germany got to be called. Broken. Glass. The rage from both sides. The satisfaction on one side, the anger and helplessness on the other side. It’s not related to the museum, but I am thinking of this moment in history while I am here and I am overcome with sadness. Because Kafka is Prague, and Prague is Kafka, and the thing that shaped his writing strongly was being a Jew — a Jew in Prague.

What if Kafka had lived through that period in his own world, walking through the Jewish Quarter as he did every day? How would his stories, his characters, his real-life nightmares have played out? One of his nightmares, according to the museum, was about “a sinister machinery which subjected his body to interminable torment.” What if he had lived through the gassing of the Jews?

Perhaps what we’d be reading today in his book would be an entirely different kind of metamorphosis. From an entirely different Franz Kafka.

On the other side of Charles Bridge.

How I found my muse in Florence

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Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s bell tower glow in the evening. The entire city of Florence is one giant museum.  (Photos from Firenze Turismo)

For weeks, I had it in my mind that if I went looking for my muse I would find her. It was as though she were a physical thing that I would bump into on the streets or find sitting in a café sipping cappuccino and I would introduce myself and tell her: Will you please help me write?

This restlessness, this search for my muse had its beginnings in a missing flash drive. A layout artist in my newspaper borrowed it to transfer files from one computer to another, and the next day he told me he had lost it. The drive contained the only copy of a novel I had been writing intermittently for six years.

The only copy.

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Detail of the Duomo in Florence.

Somebody had stolen it from his drawer, he said. My mind refused to accept that it was lost; it was just misplaced. Sooner or later, it had to turn up. I didn’t want to think about the missing novel, which I was now itching to continue to write after having ignored it for six years.

But the flash drive remained lost in the black hole that suddenly contained everything I needed in my life. Like a lost love — I suddenly felt its absence.

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Giotto’s Campanile stands adjacent to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, part of the complex of Florence Cathedral at Piazza del Duomo. (Photo by Christopher Patterson/wikipedia)

An officemate, short of calling me an idiot, scolded me: Why do you have it on your flash drive and not on your laptop? Because I had been transferring files from one laptop to another. Why didn’t you print it out? Because it was not finished. I didn’t want to jinx it.

And yet, I’m not superstitious, I don’t even need ambience to write. In the office, we all work amid ringing phones, people dropping by inquiring about this or that press release, on desks that are so messy snakes might as well be hiding beneath the piles of folders. We multi-task — downloading e-mails and photos from columnists, editing, writing, ears half-tuned to the news on TV. If you can write through doomsday-scenario newscast style — you can write in a jackhammer factory.

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The capital of the Tuscan region, Florence was once one of Europe’s wealthiest cities.

But what my flash drive contained was fiction, the roots of my writing career. Six years of my life. Thirteen chapters. One hundred thirty pages. Written under moments of grace that no one can ever bring back.

When it became clear that it really was lost, I couldn’t breathe, my knees buckled. It felt like someone in my family had died.

I told myself: I had to find inspiration.  If I had to go to another country, I would do it. I thought of Italy, where I once spent an entire afternoon wiping pigeon shit off my clothes at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, searching for Harry’s Bar and trying to avoid the floodwaters that besieged the city when it drizzled late in the afternoon.

I thought of Italy and all those art galleries. My editor told me a trip to Florence is a cultural trip. So I went online and booked flights and hotels from London to Florence, then a one-way train ticket to Milan, where I would fly back to London.

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The Medici Park in Pratolino, north of Florence.

In England, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and his other houses. Maybe my muse would be here, hiding inside the 400-year-old Tudor houses. When the guide wasn’t looking, I ran my hands along the pockmarked and cracked wooden tables, the wooden doors and drawers. I pressed my nose to the Elizabethan furniture pieces and smelled the wood. I jumped up and down on floorboards that creaked. And I took pictures surreptitiously.

But my muse wasn’t in Stratford.

It was fall in Europe, that time of the year when it gets dark early. Shakespeare’s houses close at 4 p.m. the shops at 5, and everyone just wants to get inside and eat soup. It seemed everybody I knew was leaving or was at another place waiting for an epiphany.

Then on the plane to Milan for a layover, I felt the promise of something good. I looked out my window and saw snow-capped mountains, miles and miles of them, and then five minutes later it was farmlands — brown in the fall with patches of black and smoke rising from the dry fields. The Italians were burning their farms!

I changed planes at Malpensa Airport, where I saw Alessi kitchen accessories and debated with myself — a designer pepper mill to bring home or a bottle of expensive sparkling wine to consume alone? I went for the wine.

That night, when I reached Florence, I began writing fiction again.

* * *

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Uffizi Gallery has over 45 museum halls. Some of the must-sees are works by the masters Caravaggio, Botticelli, Raphael and Titian.
The author Tanya Lara at Uffizi Gallery.

Florence opened up to me like a book waiting to be read. In the galleries, it was a different kind of atmosphere — it was as if you were trapped inside a giant artwork. I looked at the Medici paintings and stood for several minutes in front of “The Agony in Garden” and wondered why nobody looked to be in agony — not even Jesus Christ. He and his apostles just looked very, very tired.

Unlike London, nobody was running in Florence. People were looking at me as if asking themselves: Why is she running when she could very well take the bus?

That’s how I first saw Giotto’s Bell Tower — in the cold, early-morning light of fall, when the street sweepers were preparing for the day’s tourists, and the only sound you would hear on the empty, cobblestone streets is your own shoes. The Duomo stood before me in all its bas-relief glory and beside it the painter Giotto’s campanile.

Of all the stories about painters, this is the one I love best. When Pope Benedict XI wanted to employ artists to work on the frescos of the Duomo he was building, he sent an emissary to get samples of their work. With the messenger in front of him in his workshop, Giotto took a sheet of paper and dipped his brush in red paint, closed his arm to his side and in one sweeping motion he drew a perfect circle freehand — so perfect it looked like it was drawn with a compass.

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“The birth of Venus” by Botticelli at Uffizi.

The messenger thought it was a joke: a drawing of a circle to prove his genius. “Is this the only drawing I’m to have?” he asked.

Giotto said: “It’s more than enough. Send it along and you’ll see whether it’s understood.”

The pope understood.

There is a kind of hushed atmosphere in Florence, the kind you see only in museums. And I liked that about the place, plus it’s a small walking city filled with art galleries and palaces and small winding streets. It’s so pretty that there’s even a name for the feeling you get when you’re overwhelmed by it: “Stendhal Syndrome,” a psychosomatic illness that “causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”

Michelangelo’s David at Accademia Gallery.

That was the atmosphere at the Uffizi Gallery, where “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli is housed, and at the Galleria dell’Accademia where Michelangelo’s sculpture of David stands.

The lines at the Uffizi were so long, I had to wait for more than an hour just to get inside the building. At Accademia, there were no lines, but there were a lot of students and artists with their sketchpads and backpacks, sitting on benches or on the floor, and drawing in front of Michelangelo’s sculpture.

I wasn’t the only one looking for a muse in Florence.

On the plane leaving Italy, I thought that of all the nine muses, all I really needed was one — just one muse to recover, to rewrite, to reclaim the contents of my missing flash drive.

But really, it was more than that. It was to recover myself.

In. f*cking. Bruges.

Atonement and existentialism in Bruges. Martin McDonagh’s film about two assassins hiding out in Bruges brought worldwide interest in this medieval town. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
The 13th-century belfry in the town center. (Photo by Brendan Divall)

I waited for years to get to Bruges after watching the dark comedy In Bruges.

The film is beautifully written, perfectly acted, and shot in the best place possible — a town that has been there for ages but didn’t get the attention it apparently deserved. The movie changed that.

Suddenly, people were interested and putting Bruges, the largest city in the Flemish region of Belgium, on their bucket lists. Martin McDonagh’s film (he wrote and directed it) did to Bruges what Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did to Savannah, Georgia.

I wanted to put as my Facebook status “In Bruges,” the way people do with their Foursquare check-ins in Rome or New York or Starbucks. But if I was really going to be true to the spirit of the film, it’d have to be, “In f*cking Bruges!” and let out a hundred more expletives before reaching my word-count limit.

The story of two assassins having to leave London and lie low in Bruges was filmed so beautifully that one cannot help but fall in love with the town and all its lakes, swans, bridges, restaurants and chocolate shops.

You think its people are quirky, then you realize you’re thinking of the characters in the movie.

The main protagonist hates it — accidental tourist Ray (Colin Farrell), and the other assassin loves it, happy tourist Ken (Brendan Gleeson) whose attitude is, “Now that we’re stuck in Bruges for two weeks, we might as well enjoy it.” Even their boss Harry with his anger issues (Ray Fiennes — what a superb performance!) has a soft spot for Bruges.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell ponder their career at Jan Van Eyckplein.

When Ken tells him that Bruges is not Ray’s thing, an incredulous Harry says, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?”

This is the guy who ordered the shooting of the priest and of Ray. Fine, he loves Bruges. In one of the movie’s memorable dialogues, Ray and Ken are in the town square, Grote Markt, and Ken looks up at at the belfry with its 366 steps.

KEN: Coming up?
RAY: What’s up there?
KEN: The view.
RAY: The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here. KEN: Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world. RAY: Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.

Ray Fiennes bristles at Minnewater Bridge.

* * *

The first time I was in Bruges was for work in 2013. The second time, months later, was vacation, and a friend living in Amsterdam and I drove to Bruges in his camper and recreated stills from the film on our DIY walking tour (the tourism office provides you with a map), but unfortunately we didn’t have a midget with us. It was a little less than a three-hour drive from Amsterdam.

I started a game called “You know you’re Asian when….” He responded with “You know you’re British when….” My first answer was, “You know you’re Asian when you take pictures of your food before eating it…and you know you’re a Filipino when you take five pictures from the same angle!” I don’t remember what his comebacks were.

The author in the belfry’s courtyard in 2013.

But back to Bruges. I love this town. I love it in a way that I could set my luggage and stay. And I really don’t say that of many places — not even Paris or New York or London. The only other big-small city I have ever said that of was Savannah with its squares every few blocks and its Bird Girl statue.

The walking tour starts, of course, at the 13th-century belfry in the town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and takes you all around Bruges, including the hotel where Ray and Ken are holed up, the Relais Bourgondish Cruyce Hotel; the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where they were not allowed to film (they filmed at the Jerusalem Church, also in Bruges).

It also goes to the Groeninge Museum, where Ray feels pangs of guilt as he looks at Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Last Judgment”; Jan Van Eyckplein, where the 15th-century painter Eyck’s statue stands; Cafedraal, where Ray and drug dealer on the set Chloe have a date; the Minnewater Bridge where Harry strides across, his determined face set with murder and a gun in his coat pocket; and Vismarkt, the old fish market, where Harry and Ray try to kill each other.

“How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?” says Ray Fiennes in “In Bruges.” Indeed, how can one be a grumpy tourist in this fairy-tale town?
Bruges is one of the best preserved medieval towns of Europe. Its town center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of the three main characters in the movie, my favorite is Harry. He’s the angriest, he’s got the funniest dialogues (especially when he buys a gun from the Russian) and even as he presumably orders the killings as the two assassins’ boss, he’s…well, principled.

HARRY: Not only have you refused to kill the boy (Ray), you even stopped the boy from killing himself, which would’ve solved my problem, which would’ve solved your problem, which sounds like it would’ve solved the boy’s problem.
KEN: It wouldn’t have solved his problem. HARRY:Ken, if I had killed a little kid, accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I’d killed myself on the fucking spot. On the fucking spot. I would’ve stuck the gun in me mouth. On the fucking spot!

Sometimes, you drive through Europe and the small, medieval towns all look the same. But not Bruges, not its architecture, history, residents or even the people that visit it.  In Bruges — the movie and the town — nothing is simple, especially not love, atonement or existence.

The Beguinage or Monastére De Wijngaard. Poplar trees surround the Beguinage, a group of houses now occupied by Benedictine sisters.

Two GPS and still lost in Poland

Krakow’s Old Town or Stare Miasto has a number of monuments and sculptures, including “Eros Bound” by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
The Garmin finally gets it right after seven hours of taking us in circles. Just one more kilometer to Krakow’s Old Town.
The Market Square of Krakow, the city that was formerly Poland’s capital.

My friend Gautier is on the phone with Andrej, whose flat in Krakow we are renting for the night. He’s telling him how desperately lost we’ve been all day.

The plan was to drive from Prague (my nth time in just a couple of months) to Wroclaw for lunch, buy shitloads of Polish vodka as we cross the border, and then on to Krakow.

And the next day, drive to the Tatras, the mountain range that sits on both sides of Poland and Slovakia, and just slum it there, and then return to Prague on Saturday. Well, that was the plan. And we all know what happens to the best-laid plans — they’re like the good intentions that pave the way to hell.

We pick up the car in Prague’s Central Train Station — a white Hyundai; don’t laugh, it is actually a fast compact car  — and things are looking good. The Garmin GPS gets us out of the confusing parking lot near the National Museum, and out of the city even with the many blocked roads due to construction. The highway signs are clear: to Wroclaw, to Warsaw.

Less than an hour later, the stupid GPS begins acting up, taking us off the highway and onto country roads. “In 500 meters take the exit.” So we do. We are using only one GPS at this time, I haven’t activated my phone’s GoogleMaps yet.

So we drive. For hours. On roads with nothing to see except roundabouts and farmlands growing what would eventually end up on the rocks in some bar in Warsaw or Hong Kong or Kansas.

We find a town and stop by a big supermarket for Gautier to buy Czech beers for Andrej, and I ask directions from two ladies in the parking lot. They don’t seem to understand my question, “What is this town, where are we?” It seems incomprehensible to them that someone is asking where she is. Finally they point to a sign. Apparently we are still in the Czech Republic.

More country roads. More roundabouts and the f*cking GPS is getting on our nerves (obviously its software hasn’t been updated). We are literally going around, driving by the same place over and over again, and trying different roundabout exits to see if they’d lead us to the highway.  I am this close to throwing this piece of shit out the window, but if there is anything I have learned from Gautier, it’s “That’s life.”

Seriously, Gautier was right. Soplica Hazelnut vodka IS the best flavored vodka in the world. It’s available in Alcohole stores in Krakow, which are open 24/7 and sell nothing but alcohol.
Rain and cold greet our arrival in Krakow.

I finally turn on GoogleMaps on my phone. Now we have two GPS (or GPSes I guess). And they are disagreeing like a divorcing couple — the Garmin tells us to turn right, GoogleMaps tells us to turn left. Garmin says we are 50 kilometers from taking an exit, GoogleMaps says we are 90 kilometers away. A difference of 40 kilometers — who can tell which one is right?

Gautier and I have a serious discussion on which one to follow. He is noncommittal, he says he’d leave the decision to me since I am behind the wheel.

Then he tells me the story of a tourist who fell off a cliff driving because he followed his GPS, which turned out to be horrendously wrong. I say I don’t believe him, he says google it.  (Days later, when we are stuck in traffic going back to Prague, I tell him about the traffic jam in China that lasted a week. He says he doesn’t believe me, I say google it. It turns out to be 10 days.)

Anyway, after several hours of driving and multiple stops to load on coffee, we cross the border. We buy the aforementioned shitloads of Polish vodka as planned. Gautier tells me that the Czech Republic — possibly Poland too though it is unlikely — has zero tolerance on drunk driving as he opens a bottle in the passenger seat. But we have crossed the border now, and anyway I don’t need to be reminded twice — I just want to get to our destination.

“Do you know how many people die from road accidents every year?” he asks me when someone cuts me off on the highway and I brake suddenly.

Well, no. I hadn’t exactly googled that in my spare time, but now that you’ve mentioned it, tell me, s’il te plait.

A lot.

* * *

We reach Krakow just before it gets dark, excited to finally be in the right city. We are fewer than five kilometers from our destination. At this time, the two GPS are agreeing on which exit to take to get us to the city center.

Gautier and I cheer — really, we yay!!! — and then they announce we are merely two kilometers from Andrej’s flat. More yay! Gautier takes another swig from the bottle of Soplica vodka (he’s not driving, don’t be alarmed). I can smell the hazelnut from the driver’s side and I can’t wait to park this car and see just how accurate his description of “this is the best f*cking vodka in the world” is.

The former Cloth Hall is now filled with stalls selling souvenirs, including pictures and figures of Pope John Paul II, who grew up in Krakow.
The brick gothic Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven a.k.a. St. Mary’s Church.

Then we are only one kilometer away at an intersection. Garmin says go straight, GoogleMaps says turn right. I follow my phone.

Six hundred meters, and the Garmin is adjusting its route.

Four hundred meters. They are starting to agree again.

Three hundred meters. My heart is pounding and my mind is pleading: Please don’t fight. Two hundred meters. They both tell us to turn right.

And this brings us to when Gautier and Andrej are talking on the phone. “We have two GPS,” Gautier is saying, “and they have been telling us to go in opposite directions all day  but now they are actually agreeing.”

“It’s like having two boyfriends,” I say, but no one is listening to me.

In total, we have driven seven hours and missed Wroclaw. But the situation is  finally starting to be funny to me. Like it’s not my fault that the stupid Garmin’s software is not updated. Like I haven’t been crap on this road trip. Like I’m not tired and sleepy. Like I am myself again — just happy to be in a new place.

So, we finally wind up near Krakow’s historic Old Town. It is raining as it has been intermittently going through the highways between the two countries.

He spots the street number and sees Andrej waiting in the rain with an umbrella, dressed in white linen trousers. He looks a bit like a modern-day hippie and speaks with a British accent which, he says later, he got from watching John Cleese. (What if he had watched Billy Connolly when he was growing up instead? Feckers!)

Gautier jumps out of the car and I parallel park, a task I am normally very bad at. But in one go, I fit the white Hyundai on a lovely, rainy street in Krakow on what, for the rest of Europe, is a blistering summer evening in July.

Things a Chicago local wants you to know

Chicago 1,000 feet from the ground, seen from the Hancock Observatory, now called 360 Chicago, located on Magnificent Mile. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

Randy Hunt has lived in many cities in the United States. A software developer based in Chicago for Discovery Channel online, Randy and his family moved a lot throughout his childhood, “bouncing between Chicago and other places.”

“My family is all from Chicago and though I’m not a ‘native  (he was born in Wisconsin), this has always been home to me,” he says.

Randy is also a polyglot who runs the popular blog yearlyglot.com, a language-learning site with thousands of regular readers (he believes anyone can learn any language within a year – and they don’t even have to enroll in expensive language courses). To date, he speaks about seven languages at varying levels — English, German, Polish, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Persian — some he can speak and write (Russian), others he can carry on hours-long conversations, say, about Pinocchio (Italian), the Grimm Brothers’ stories (German) or Kafka (the author wrote in German, rather than Czech), and some he can show people directions, and then sometimes it’s simply to greet and make the girl at his favorite coffee place giggle and blush (Persian).

Chicago local and software engineer Randy Hunt (yearlyglot.com) says, “Everything about this city is balanced between opposites.” (Photo by Marianka Campisi)
Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” (The Bean) is the centerpiece of Millennium Park.

All of which makes Chicago the perfect city for him — a city of natives, immigrants and ambition. (“There are more Polish people in Chicago than any other city in Poland except Warsaw,” he says.)

Over vodka cocktails (naturally, the European variety), Randy told me about Chicago’s duality and why Chicagoans would rather put a wet hand in a live socket than put ketchup on their hotdog.

What makes Chicago special to you personally?

Randy Hunt: What truly makes Chicago unique is that everything is a duality. Everything about this city is balanced between opposites: it’s a city with big skyscrapers, but it’s also made up of large sprawling neighborhoods. It’s the marriage of brick and stainless steel. It’s the intersection between nature and industry. You can find everything here, often just a few feet apart. I really prefer large cities and big architecture. Chicago is the birthplace of modern architecture, particularly the skyscraper (the Home Insurance building, built in 1884). I love being around the skyscrapers.

What is the quintessential Chicago experience? What are things that visitors should not miss?

Chicago is famous for its deep-dish pizza, and no one should go through life without trying it, because it’s something you won’t find anywhere else. But it’s not our best food. The best hotdogs in the world are Chicago-style dogs. We’re also well known for Italian beef sandwiches. And this is the home of the Kronos meat factory, which is the largest supplier of gyro meat in America. We’ve also got some slightly more rare items that are worth a try, like the pizza puff.

The Chicago Art Institute distinguishes itself for having some of biggest names in art through time, from the classical El Greco to Rothko, Turner and Monet.
Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, and a Jackson Pollock being dissected by art students.

For landmarks, obviously the Sears Tower — yes, it’s called the Willis Tower now, but Chicagoans refuse to accept the name change. It’s well recommended to wander over to Wrigley Field and get cheap tickets to a Cubs game from a scalper. Yes, it’s illegal, but the seats will be $5 instead of $100 if you buy them after the game has started. And one shouldn’t miss an opportunity to just ride the L train around and see the city.

I’m not a big fan of museums but those who are will find no shortage of interesting things to see. Definitely, the Art Institute of Chicago is a must for art lovers. And the Field Museum is great for natural history fans. But we’re also the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rhoe, so there are architecture museums, too. And while I hate to perpetuate a stereotype, there are also plenty of gangster tours for people who still think of Al Capone when they think of Chicago. But truly, perhaps the two best things in Chicago that shouldn’t be missed by a visitor are our live jazz and blues clubs, and our comedy clubs. Jazz and blues have their roots in this city and they’re still alive and well. And very few comedians have hit the limelight without spending some quality time honing their skills in the Windy City.

Why is it that every time Chicagoans find out you’re visiting the city, they give you a long list of food and restaurants to try even when you’re not asking? And what’s wrong with putting ketchup on a hotdog?

Chicago is one of the best food cities in the world. In fact, Alinea, the three-star Michelin restaurant of Grant Achatz in Lincoln Park known for its deconstruction of food, was recently named the best restaurant in the world for the third year in a row. There’s a lot of great dining here and Chicagoans are quite proud of that.

Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs, celebrated its centennial year in 2014.
The author Tanya T. Lara at Millennium Park in April 2014.

We’re also very opinionated about where to get the classic Chicago staples — pizza, hotdogs, Italian beef, etc. And the reason you don’t put ketchup on a hotdog is because it’s already got slices of real tomato. Why would you want to add some sugar-filled tomato puree?

What is your favorite place in Chicago?

I think my favorite place in Chicago would be on the river after dark. I’m always a bit more at peace when just walking along the river and seeing the city lights reflected on the water. I’ve done just about everything a person can do along the river’s edge — having dinner, reading a book, having drinks with friends, sharing a romantic moment with a girlfriend, or just walking alone and taking photos.

What are the tourist traps that visitors should avoid? I heard that nobody really goes to the Navy Pier.

Yes, locals definitely don’t go to Navy Pier. There’s really nothing there worth seeing, it’s just a name to check off on a destination list. Skip it and use that time for the city’s less obvious gems.

And don’t be that lame tourist walking around the city with a bunch of Garrett’s popcorn. Trust me, it’s just popcorn. There’s nothing particularly special about it, other than the hype.

Also, don’t wait in a long line to visit the Sears Tower. There’s no reason to spend three hours waiting for your opportunity to spend 10 minutes looking out the window. If you can see the line, it probably means there are hundreds more people ahead that you can’t see. Just leave and go back in the morning before the tour buses arrive. And if you don’t get a chance to visit the Sears Tower, you can always visit the Signature Room at the Hancock Center, which is almost the same height, and far less crowded. Plus, they have food!

One last bit of advice: there are people who insist that Malört is an integral part of the Chicago experience. Don’t be fooled. Malört is nothing other than the most disgusting liquor you will ever put in your mouth. Save yourself the torment and get a nice cocktail.

The Art Institute of Chicago. Unlike most cities that separately house the works of the old masters, and contemporary and modern art in different museums, Chicago has them all in its Art Institute — more than 300,000 works of art.
“Agora” by Magdalena Abakanowicz in Grant Park. (Photo from cityofchicago.org)

Chicago has a profusion of public art, which ones are your favorites? 

I honestly don’t pay much attention to the public art — it just sort of fades into the background for me. But I do find my head turning every time I go past Agora, the collection of headless iron bodies wandering aimlessly in Grant Park. The installation is comprised of 106 nine-foot-tall torsos made of cast iron by artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, her largest installation.

What is the best and worst time of the year to visit? Is winter really that brutal every year, like the one just past where you had the polar vortex?

The birthplace of the skyscraper, Chicago is home to architects such as Mies van de Rohe and Daniel Burnham.
My friend Simon took me to the Hancock Observatory in December 2013 and told me to go to the ladies room. I said I didn’t need to. Turned out it was for the night views.

Winters here can get cold, but this year was an anomaly. A typical Chicago winter may still be much colder than a tropical person can handle, but I think the average person from a seasonal climate could survive a normal Chicago winter. Of course, the best time to visit Chicago is summer, when we have tons of street festivals, free concerts in the parks, tons of outdoor activities, and endless things to do.

How do you feel about Chicago always being compared with New York — the skyline, the architecture, the atmosphere? What does Chicago do better than New York or any other city in the world? 

Chicago is the birthplace of skyscrapers. And while New York may have more, we still do it better. We also have alleys, so you never have to walk down a sidewalk littered with garbage bags, as you would find in New York. So basically, what I’m saying is, in summertime, our city looks and smells a lot better!

What are the off-the-beaten-paths that visitors should look up outside of downtown Chicago? 

First thing that comes to mind is Green Mill, a late-night jazz club on the north end of the city. It’s great any time you go, but on Sunday evenings they have the “uptown poetry slam,” which is quite an experience. And even better if you start that Sunday with brunch at Fadó with live music from a traditional Irish band. Also, if you’ve brought some nice clothes, Untitled is one of the nicest classic music clubs you’ll find, set up like a speakeasy with an old-school “rat pack” feel to it.

The blues at Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop.
The ornate and historic moviehouse Uptown Theatre in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, built in 1925, has more than 4,000 seats.

If you have a friend to take around and he/she has only 24 hours in Chicago, what would the day look like?

Assuming we start in the morning, from the hotel our first stop would be an old Chicago “greasy spoon” diner for some quick breakfast. Eggs and Polish sausage, if you want to do it right. Then off to Millennium Park to have a look at the famous “The Bean” by Anish Kapoor (officially called Cloud Gate) and the “Spitting Fountains” by Catalan artist Jaume Pensa and built by Krueck and Sexton Architects (officially called Crown Fountain).

And maybe a look at Buckingham Fountain. Then time for lunch. We’d walk up to River North and get deep-dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno. If there’s a Cubs game that day, we’d wander over to Wrigley Field and take in the atmosphere at one of the most famous sports stadiums in the world.

Then it’s not far to Kingston Mines where we could catch some Chicago blues music. After that it’s probably time to eat again, and I’d definitely suggest an Italian beef sandwich. After that, maybe back downtown to see the city lights after dark, check out the river, have a couple of drinks.

Finally, it’s off to Green Mill for late night jazz until 4 a.m. That takes you all over the city, gets you a chance to see several sights along the way, and lets you go home with a pretty good sense of what makes Chicago great.

The light of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a sprawling five-tower complex. Best time to go is at sunrise or sunset. (Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrisse/wikipedia)
Tony Leung whispers his secrets into a temple hollow in the final scene of Wong Kar-Wai’s critically acclaimed film “In the Mood for Love.”

There is an old folk tale that goes if you whisper your deepest secrets into a hole on an old tree and seal the hole with mud, your secrets will stay in the tree forever.

In one of the most memorable and heart-tugging movie endings in modern cinema, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai takes this legend to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia for his movie In the Mood for Love (2000).

Tony Leung, who plays a reporter that falls in love with the woman whose husband his wife is having an affair with, finds a hollow in a temple column in Angkor Wat. In the quietness of a dying day with only cicadas making a sound, he puts his mouth to the hollow and whispers all his heartbreaks, while a young monk in his saffron robes watches from above. Then he seals the hole with dry leaves and walks away and behind him the Siem Reap sky is a deep, dark blue against which the temple towers of Angkor Wat are silhouetted.

Pre Rup was built as the state temple of a Khmer king in 961  (Photo by Raymund G. Martelino)

Many visitors to Angkor Wat who have seen the movie try to find this hole — but not everybody finds it for two reasons: one, the movie — though critically acclaimed worldwide — is one of those films that not everybody has heard of (not like, say, Tomb Raider) and, two, because Angkor Wat is a sprawling five-tower complex.

I had been emailing with my friend Mansi of Fortune India in Mumbai weeks before going to Cambodia and I promised her I would find this temple column. We had been, in the past four years, talking about seeing each other again — in Manila or Mumbai or somewhere in between. Save a seat for me at Shantaram’s Leopold restaurant in Mumbai and I will take you to see a Manila Bay sunset. Our stories were aching to be whispered into that hollow.

The south gate of Angkor Wat. (Photos from siemreap.net)

So I ask Darith, the Cambodian tour guide, about it. He doesn’t know the movie. Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung are names he hasn’t heard of. And I couldn’t begin to explain to him this story that starts out in the dark, dinky streets of Hong Kong and ends in Angkor Wat with haunting music by Michael Galasso.

But seeing Angkor Wat makes you realize why Wong Kar-Wai chose this place to end his movie. It is the grandest of all the Khmer temples, one of the most beautiful and recognizable monuments in the ancient world (it was built in the 12th century), and the light here is fantastic — whether in the harshness of midday or the luminescence of twilight or the rosiness of early morning…and it looks sad.

Built by King Suryavarman as his state temple and Cambodia’s capital city, Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu (it later became Buddhist; in other temples the reverse is true, depending on the spiritual whims of the king in power).

Sometimes the temples started out as Buddhist and later became Hindu or vice versa. But it seems it was Buddhism that got the short end of the stick.
A waterfall of roots: In the middle of the jungle, the temple of Ta Prohm is choked by the roots of two trees — a kapok tree and a sacred fig. Today, it is popularly known as the Lara Croft Temple.

In the west gallery the bas reliefs tell the story of the Hindu epic Mahabharata in painstaking detail — clans battling it out on chariots, on foot, with arrows and the four-armed Krishna as a charioteer. Carvings of Apsaras, or nymphs practiced in the art of dancing, are found all over the temples — their bodies bent gracefully, their breasts full and their waistlines tiny. Of the thousands of Apsaras, there is only one in Angkor Wat showing her teeth.

In what can only be described as building frenzy, the Khmers built thousands of temples in Siem Reap and its surrounding areas between the 8th and 13th centuries.

Sometimes the temples started out as Buddhist and later became Hindu or vice versa. But it seems it was Buddhism that got the short end of the stick. Whenever a Hindu king came into power, he would have all the Buddhas removed, which is why some temples have the silhouette of Buddha on the walls but no Buddha.

In Angkor Thom (literally meaning Big City), the walkway leading inside is flanked by what must have been a beautiful sight before a Hindu king took over and before marauders began pillaging Siem Reap’s treasures during the civil war — rows and rows of Buddhas — all of them now headless.

* * *

Darith has been a tour guide for 11 years. He speaks excellent English and speaks softly when talking about the temples that you get a feeling he is a deeply spiritual man. Like many Cambodians and the kings who kept changing their minds, he practices a spiritual mix of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Banteay Srei is also known as the Citadel of Women, Women’s Temple, Citadel of Beauty, or simply the Pink Temple.
The author Tanya Lara  at Angkor Wat in 2012.

He has never seen the movie Tomb Raider yet he knows exactly what people mean when they tell him they want to see the Lara Croft Temple or Ta Prohm. It occurs to me: You’re not curious at all? Pirated copies of Tomb Raider DVDs can be found everywhere and on any given day he could’ve picked up one.

But he never has. And I’ve a feeling he never will.

Ta Prohm is a temple monastery whose hundreds-year-old trees have grown and grown and never stopped growing. To say that it is a tree that sprouted a temple would not sound totally idiotic because it looks that way. The roots have toppled parts of the temples and in one temple the roots look like waterfalls.

The temple that I liked most is actually outside Siem Reap, located a few kilometers from the foot of Phnom Kulen (Mt. Kulen or Sacred Mountain). Called Banteay Srei, it is also known as the Citadel of Women, Women’s Temple, Citadel of Beauty or simply, the Pink Temple.

It is one of the smallest temples around (it is practically miniscule compared to Angkor Thom) but it has the most intricate and detailed bas reliefs and carvings, which is why some people believe it really was built for women. Though the subject of its bas reliefs is also conflict (Krishna slaying Kamsa, Kama firing an arrow at Shiva), it all seems so gentle and this is because of the color of the temple especially in the late afternoon.

The soil here is reddish pink and so is the sandstone used to build Banteay Srei. If you wear white shoes, the dust will turn them pink instead of gray.

Banteay Srei to me is “the happy temple.”

And, to me, it is the only temple that seems…. happy.

The burning question on my mind, really, was: Was Pol Pot out of his f*cking mind? But I didn’t know if it was polite to ask Cambodians about the Killing Fields.

The guide spent his childhood under the Khmer Rouge regime and the rest under civil and guerrilla wars until only 13 years ago when the conflict ended in 1998, the year Pol Pot died. Was asking about the Killing Fields as rude as asking someone, “Tell me about the day your wife left you and your house burned to the ground?”

So I simply said: Can you talk about the Killing Fields? And he did. Estimates of victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge vary, from 1.7 to 2.5 million (out of a population of eight million) and in only four years, from 1975 to ’79. Almost a third of Cambodia’s population were killed — it would be as if 30 million Filipinos today were murdered.

The detailing of the bas reliefs is unlike any other temple in Siem Reap.

Under Pol Pot, Buddhist monks were executed, along with intellectuals — scientists, teachers, doctors — as he practiced his perverted principle of Marxism and extreme Maoism on his own people. In one Killing Field, Khmer Rouge soldiers bludgeoned to death thousands of their own people because they did not want to waste bullets.

Darith says during the unrest and power struggle after Pol Pot, he never went home from school without hearing a landmine going off, or people disappearing, or knowing somebody who knew somebody who had stepped on a landmine.

Ten thousand years ago, the king carved a thousand lingas and the figure of Buddha on the river of Mt. Kulen. During the years before and after Pol Pot, this mountain was filled with landmines.

Today, schoolchildren walk home from school — noisy and carefree, oblivious of the past.

The kings got into a building frenzy in Siem Reap.

He says when young Cambodians today hear stories about the genocide, Pol Pot and the landmines — they do not believe it all happened. How could this horror possibly have happened?

A visitor himself would have a hard time reconciling this brutal past with these gentle people, standing on Pub St. in Siem Reap, its rows of bars and restaurants and lines of tuktuks all lively, US dollars changing hands (the main currency here instead of the Cambodian riel), tired and dusty feet being massaged for $2, tourists hanging out in Red Piano, which gives away for free the 10th cocktail you order (assuming, of course, you are still awake), a tradition Tomb Raider star Angelina Jolie started.

You just find yourself shaking your head.

I never found that particular hollow in Angkor Wat. But I found hundreds of others. In one temple, I found walls and pillars so full of holes from the ceiling to the floor — holes where plaster had fallen off.

I flitted from one pillar to the next, whispering secrets in the last light of day.

A girl named Penny in Delphi

Delphi01_by_tanya_t_lara The Temple of Apollo at the most famous of Greece’s sacred sites, the Oracle of Delphi. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Delphi02_by_tanya_t_lara Delphi tour guide and historian Penny Kolomvotsou.

We have all fallen in love with our local tour guide in Delphi, Greece. Her name is Penny Kolomvotsou; she has curly brown hair and is wearing a beige leather jacket and jeans. Her phone is ringing incessantly and she keeps rejecting the calls and apologizing to us.

“Boyfriend?” I ask. “Go ahead and answer it.”

“I have a husband and two children,” Penny says with a laugh. “I don’t have to pick up my phone.”

But the caller is persistent. Penny finally answers. “It’s Sabrina,” she says, referring to our Insight travel director Sabrina Tsimonidis. “She’s asking where the handbrake is.”

Sabrina drives a manual; Penny drives an automatic. Sabrina is going to pick up some bottles of wine for a picnic in Thermopylae by the statue of King Leonidas of Sparta; Penny is orienting us at the Delphi Museum before we were to go up to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, located on Mt. Parnassos, home to the most famous of sacred sites, the Oracle of Delphi.

Sabrina tells us later that not too long ago she was in her living room with the History Channel on her TV when she heard a familiar voice. She looked up and it was Penny, who has been interviewed for several documentaries to talk about Delphi and why it was the center of not just Ancient Greece but the whole known universe.

Delphi03_by_tanya_t_lara The stadium on top of Delphi.

The Oracle of Delphi, Penny explains, refers to the whole complex— the series of terraces in the foothills of Mount Parnassos — and not just the priestess. From the museum we go up the archeological site at Delphi. This site was said to be determined by Zeus himself who wanted to find the center of the Earth or Gaia. Penny says that Zeus sent two eagles flying from opposite directions — one coming from the east and one from the west — and the point where the met was over Delphi, where the “navel” of Gaia was found.

The temple here is dedicated to Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto,  and it is also here where the Pythian Games were held, the precursor to the Ancient Olympics. The games did not have just athletes competing but also musicians, and the victors were presented with laurel crowns because Apollo believed they were sacred.

We climb to the top of the Oracle of Delphi, up to the stadium. It is so quiet here, surrounded by mountains, and it is nearly empty except for us. Below us, what  remains of the Temple of Apollo, where vapors once came out of the cracks in the mountain, which might partly explain the hallucinations of the Pythia, whose answers to questions of people’s future was anything but simple.

Delphi04_by_tanya_t_lara Delphi Archeological Museum.
Delphi05_by_tanya_t_lara Some of the treasures at Delphi were buried and forgotten for thousands of years.

The Oracle of Delphi was, if you will, a great equalizer. The kings sent their trusted people here to ask what they should do to win wars, to protect their thrones, the outcome of battles. The important stuff to important people, in short. But archeologists also found tablets on which ordinary folk wrote their petitions and questions: Is my wife cheating? Will harvest be plentiful? Is this baby mine? The important stuff to ordinary people, as well.

Penny tells us that the site was once occupied by a village until they were relocated and archeologists began a systematic excavation. They had discovered the Roman ruins before and what was under these? The Greek ruins. What a magnificent sight it must have been, you think, as you approach the mountains — 5,000 statues surrounding the Temple of Apollo and 500 bronze statues that were looted by the Romans. “The Oracle at Delphi was not just looted by the Romans and Persians, but also by bad neighbors — by the locals, by neighboring city states,” says Penny. But thankfully, some people had the foresight to bury some of the treasures — forgotten for thousands of years.

“Archeologists always make decisions on which layer to keep and which layer to damage,” says Penny. “When they first came to Delphi and didn’t have the big equipment, they made the wise decision to leave it as it is. In 1939, archeologists had to go back to fix broken stones, which gave them the opportunity to dig and this is what they found accidentally — gold-and-ivory statues of Apollo, his sister Artemis and their mother Leto.”

The ivory part of the statues is now black from the vapors, but the gold (reconstructed as it is — as most of the treasures they excavated) is as awe-inspiring as it must have been then — glittering in a temple dedicated to a beloved god.

It is only in Delphi that we understand what all this means to modern life, how mythology and Greek drama were and are relevant. Penny doesn’t quote Homer or Socrates or Plato. She quotes Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, whom I began reading at university in the early ‘90s, specifically his 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,” were Kazantzakis’s most famous words, now immortalized on his tomb as well.

Delphi06_by_tanya_t_lara What a magnificent sight it must have been then — 5,000 statues surrounding the Temple of Apollo and 500 bronze statues. Unfortunately, they were looted by the Romans.

Even when the Pythia at Delphi — presumably high from the vapors and ready to tell fortunes — told the kings and soldiers they would die horrible deaths in battle, they still picked up their armors and swords and went to war.


Penny points out something else. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was where Apollo was worshipped the most (the center of the ancient world, remember?) And yet he shared Delphi with another god — a lesser god no less — Dionysus (or Bacchus in the Roman version). Apollo was the god of music, poetry, catharsis, logic. How is it, in his biggest temple, he shares it with Dionysus, god of wine and merriment?

Penny says that in front of the temple of Apollo, the Ancient Greeks had inscribed two things: “Know thyself” and “Nothing to the extremes.”

Delphi07_by_tanya_t_lara In Delphi the kings consulted the Oracle about wars; the commoners about cheating spouses. Seriously.

“When Achilles was going to war, his mother asked him, ‘What are you going to do? If you go to war, you will die. Stay at home and become a normal person with a family.’ He said, ‘No, my decision is to become mortal and I am going.’ Remember Hector? When he was holding his baby and his wife tells him, ‘There are other brave soldiers who will go out and fight. Stay with us.’ But with his baby, he stood up and said, ‘I’m going because it is my duty.’”

Penny loves telling these stories. And in a few months she will be tour-guiding a group of philosophers from Germany. “They are discussing the European crisis, but not just economics, also principles and values.”

She makes a face and laughs. Thirty philosophers.

Oh joy!