Sunday, December 30, 2007

Portraits in the Temple (Ngusabe Sukawati, part 1)

I travel to Bali at least four times a year. It’s work but going back to Bali is warm comfort. My close friends there are almost family, the places are mighty familiar and the language, at least the nationally spoken Bahasa Indonesia, is easy to speak (I only have a smidgen of Balinese).

So one hot and humid August afternoon, I found myself in Sukawati. I had one warehouse to inspect. That day also coincidentally happened to be the Ngusabe ceremony of the nearby big temple of Pura Dalem Gede Sukawati. My friend Komang told me that unlike other temple anniversary parades, the meped of Sukawati has a unique feature: the womenfolk actually would dress up in finery more grand than I would expect. I had to see it then. To most, women’s regular temple wear of kamben sarung (sheath or cloth wrapped or tied around the waist) and kebaya (long-sleeved top, often made of lacy, sheer or light material) is already not your typical Western Sunday dress. How more splendid can these costumes be?

Ulian Macekan Agung Klungkung, part 3
travel tip: For the foreigner, wear Balinese attire to get inside the temples.
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.025s, f/5, 14.7mm
women in traditional temple kebaya and kamben wear, Pura Gelgel, Klungkung, Bali, Indonesia

Just before 3PM, with the car parked by the warehouse, we walked to the temple, an easy 3 block distance. I already changed to Balinese getup – I always have one handy when in Bali – so I was able to go inside the temple with the templegoers who were filing in. I know the routine: people progressively enter a series of enclosed courtyards until they finally get ushered in the innermost square. The whole temple could barely accommodate a thousand worshippers at one time so the tens of thousands of people visit the temple at different times of the day on their own convenient time. Just like Catholic mass during Sundays in the Philippines, temple blessing rites are repeated in cycles the whole day.

phototip: Ask permission to take photographs. Balinese live under the periscope of tourism so often, they would be friendly to photographers and tourists.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.006s, f/5.0, 180mm, ISO 400
Sukawati, Bali, Indonesia

However, I was more excited about the late afternoon meped parade. After taking pictures of the rituals inside the temple, I waited outside the gate. My excitement was building up. Slowly, women of all ages started arriving and as my friend Komang warned me, in severely formal garments that I normally associate with wedding or tooth-filing ceremonies.

phototip: Crouch low to shoot girls at or below the kids’ eye level. The angle prevents distortion.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.025s, f/5.6, 18mm, ISO 100, uncropped
Sukawati, Bali, Indonesia

From girls as young as six to seniors in their seventies, the women were resplendent. Instead of a baju or kebaya, women wore the anteng, a long strip of stiff gilded prada/perada cloth bound around their torso like a tube. Some had part of the anteng fabric draped over the left shoulder and some wore a selendang shawl. Their kamben sarung skirts were long, punctuated with a mermaid’s tail that literally had to be dragged mercilessly on the ground. Some women even wore an underskirt tapih which only shows when walking. Their sabuk sash also had the same gold leaf pattern. Aside from traditional jewelry and makeup, they also wore gold or silver leaf hairpins arranged around bouffant beehive hairdos like a crown and I know that they are heavy.

phototip: I find most Balinese to have difficulty in smiling freely in front of the camera. It could be restraint, formality or just shyness. Coax and coach your subject.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/5, 135mm, ISO 400, uncropped
Sukawati, Bali, Indonesia

Balinese ceremonial wear is not a dictate of fashion but is a prescription of function and symbolism. Temple attire in Hindu Bali is strictly prescribed and followed. The belief is that there are body parts that should be exposed, harnessed, or covered up and the proper dress helps fulfill these conventional codes. Which makes me realize how meanings evolve over time as I’ve been told that up to the early 1900s, Balinese women went topless until the Dutch decreed them to go “moral” and cover up.

phototip: A pretty subject never hurts. This girl happens to be the granddaughter of a lady storeowner from whom I ordered wooden invitation boxes and souvenir gift chests for my wedding last April.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/5.6, 45mm, ISO 100
at Pura Delem Gede Sukawati, Bali, Indonesia

But how much does this getup cost? A lot. There are those who can afford and invest on their own garments. Nowadays however, families mostly rent the costumes and headdresses from local providers. Makeup often come with the package which can run from $15 to $25/day depending on the ostentation. One thing that needs to be said though is that the Balinese have adapted to the times. In the past I’ve read that perada fabrics really use real gold which means that they cannot be washed nor laundered. Nowadays, gold or silver paint is applied unto the stiff cotton so I am not sure about “no wash” part.

phototip: Switching to black and white eliminates the distraction of color and evokes timelessness.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.33s, f/5.6, 52mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV, uncropped
Sukawati, Bali, Indonesia

Part 2: The Meped Parade

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Monday, December 24, 2007

My Christmas nostalgia

Tomorrow is Christmas so there is that irreversible sense of anticipation. On the reverse side, there is an anticlimactic sense that the season for the merriment will soon be over. But I am no party pooper so my brain is all for the excitement that Christmas brings: the conspicuous parties, the visits with family, the over-the-top decorations and the consumption of way too much food.

Christmas will be different to everybody and in my case, celebrations has taken on different meanings over time.

the “ber” months

Filipinos love to celebrate and consider life as a series of one fiesta to the next. Christmas is notoriously celebrated early. Christmas starts when the months already sport a –ber, as in September when Christmas carols will be piped in by some enterprising stores. Even another competitively big holiday like November 1, when people flock to the cemeteries, could hardly make a break to the Christmas spirit.

Christmas is never far away. Flashback to April 2002, which in the Philippines is hot summer (and December is a cold rainy month). I was rummaging in a stall in the public market of Baguio when I saw something surprisingly familiar tucked at a corner: a traditional Christmas star lantern called parol. This was no ordinary lantern of paper, wood or plastic but the famous Pampanga capiz lantern, made of wooden and wire skeleton frame and covered with colored capiz (mother of pearl) shells. More distinguishably, this has built-in tivoli lights that chase and blink in a synchronizing dance. Of course I got a good discount as December was still 9 months away. Packing and getting it on a plane, first to Cebu and eventually to NY, was a pain though. The US Customs inspector eyed it with interest but at least now my sister has an authentic centerpiece in her apartment.

travel tip: Pack fragile items in a light box which shows the handlers what is inside. I wrapped this parol with carton that was thin, almost flimsy, clearly outlining the breakable package, so it was segregated from the heavy bulk of regular cargo.
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.5s, f/2.8, 7.1mm
Astoria, New York, the US

when we create our own parol

There is a subject for boys in Philippine grade school called Practical Arts. In this course, we were taught how to use the saw, the hammer and the paintbrush. Girls, on the other hand, were enrolled in Home Economics where they learn how to stitch, cook and clean house. (Later though in the late 80s, courses were turned coed). One of the few chores that boys and girls had to do together was making the parol. We started with paper and carton lanterns in early and graduated to fancy bamboo stars as you got older. I distinctly remember the trick to tidy up the cellophane covering the wooden frame which is to wipe the plastic lightly with water which tightens it up upon drying. When I saw this wet lantern that got rained on, I got a sense déjà vu.

phototip: Fill the frame with colors- so much like Christmas.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/5.6, 43mm, ISO 100, -1/2 EV
Mabolo, Cebu City, Philippines


We always do our own Christmas decorations at home. One of my most vivid memories was making our own paper snowflakes by cutting patterns on folded paper. My younger brother and I did not even use colored paper, just plain white bond paper which was what we can afford. We tried to fold and store them with the intent of reusing them the next year. We never did actually but the remembrance of fun lingers to this day.

Now grownup, I agree that convenience takes precedence. Depending on your budget, one can go simple or ostentatious. Ornamentation can literally be overwhelming, especially that in most Filipino households, decorations are recycled year in and out so the collections pile up. It still gives me some serious sense of guilt to throw away decorations that have seen better days.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.006s, f/5.6, 300mm, ISO 1600, +1/3EV
classy antiqued ornamentation at the Balay na Tisa, Carcar City, Cebu, the Philippines

Christmas caroling

Music is a part of Christmas. Before the advent of the internet, there were no available lyric sheets of Christmas carols. I raided the public library – I think I was nine then – but books on Christmas songs were scant. So my siblings and I tried to record the carols played on the FM radio and playback the cassette tapes several times to catch the lyrics of our favorite tunes.

Another experience every Filipino kid is sure to pass is caroling. Singing Christmas carols in the street is a ready fund-raising venture for everyone. My parents were fairly strict and disallowed me and my siblings from joining the neighborhood daygon (the Cebuano term for caroling). It was only when I was an adult that I got to participate in a more “pro” endeavor. Yes, caroling extends to all ages and cuts all social classes.

the lights

There was a time too when Christmas lights were not disposable. We call them series in reference to its electrical configuration. As the wirings were thick and sturdy, they were a tad expensive so busted lights are just replaced the following year and many a street repairmen could earn a nice living fixing “series” during the season. Now, lights come cheap and some 50 series lights can come by for only half a dollar. Repairing them is more expensive than a brand new one. Do be careful though as quality is wanting and they may overheat and cause a nasty fire.

phototip: For fun, there are cheap “neon” ornamentation like these divine blinking necklaces which cost P20 each ($0.50). Throw them inside an empty crystal ice bucket and take some photos at relatively slow exposure speed. The colors and lights will do choreography.
Canon EOS 350D, 2.5s, f/6.3, 49mm, ISO 100
Mandaue City, Cebu, the Philippines

the Christmas tree

In the Philippines, there would hardly be any live tree. The tropics are not known for evergreens and if there were some in the highlands, wouldn’t it be environmentally egregious to cut down what is rare? Anyway, we rely on everything but the real thing. There are mangrove varieties called pagatpat whose overturned roots make up a lovely form. It was popular then to cover it with thick suds of white soap (gladfully, this is passé now). Some preferred trees made of stiff grass (are they still around?) that can come in various heights. Spray-painted or dyed in green, they do resemble the fir tree but the “leaves” were so densely packed that ornaments can only be attached outside and none in the interior. Today, plastic is the norm and as everything else does, they come from China.

When I had my first Christmas outside of the Philippines, I finally had my taste of the first real tree. It was at my sister’s apartment in New York. I even helped choose and lug the real 7 foot balsam fir- a Frasier I think- on my shoulders 2 blocks to her home. Feels different, grand even. It is a living thing, for you have to water it daily (well, actually my brother was assigned that chore and not not me!).

phototip: Play with curves to convey movement.
Canon EOS 350D, 1s, f/5, 18mm, ISO 100
ornaments in a real Christmas tree, Astoria, Queens, New York, the US

the gifts

So they say that Christmas are for kids and in us, there is always that inner child wanting to come out of our cynical hardened shells. We probably may no longer share that giddy exhilaration of opening what’s inside a Christmas gift but hopefully, we can empathize in the joy of gift giving. Every year, we dig a deep financial hole for ourselves as we overspend for gifts for almost everyone - for our peers, family, friends or fkinugos or godchildren. I rather still like the tradition of opening any gift I receive on Christmas day. I may cheat and take a peek what’s inside but tearing open the packages on the 25th unleashes a primal joy that only that day can deliver.

Maybe this is what I felt in the photo below. There is something universal in the boy's wonderment. Oblivious to the chaotic shoppers around him, he stood transfixed to the speeding toy train. Neither his playful sister nor his parents had an easy time ungluing him from the frolic before him. To his eyes, this was the only world at that very instant. Maybe that is what Christmas joy should be.

phototip: Shooting through a glass is tricky because of glare. Keep your lens as close to the glass as much as possible to keep off stray light.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.25s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 400, -1/32EV, uncropped
at the MTA train exhibition at the Grand Central Station, Manhattan, New York, the US

Simbang gabi and the belen

There is one Filipino Christmas tradition that I am too lazy to join as an adult- the Simbang Gabi. It is that early 4AM novena mass leading to Christmas eve. I am sure I was dragged to attend some when I was a kid. Maybe I will resume the tradition when I will have a family of my own, I don’t know. What I am certain is that my younger brother is always quite up to the challenge, probably because he celebrates his birthday when the Simbang Gabi starts on December 16. (In the Philippines, you must hear mass when it is your birthday).

Christmas Day is a holy day of obligation. For Filipinos, Christmas is the biggest religious celebration (not Easter which orthodoxically should be) so religious services are said the whole day as if it were Sunday. And churches would be fully decked too. Featured most prominently would be the Christmas creche which we call the belen. The nativity scene is the centerpiece and as tradition calls, Filipino kids will often line up to kiss the baby Jesus.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.025s, f/4.5, 25mm, ISO 800
inside the Most Precious Blood Church, Astoria, Queens, New York, the US

the family

Traditions don’t just come and go. They evolve as you make sense of their worth. For five years, I have been celebrating Christmas in New York. My sister lives there and my brother always comes over from wherever he is, then in Texas, now in Seattle. My mom and I would then trek from Cebu to the wintry Big Apple to be together as families always should at this time of the year.

Things have changed. I got married this year and since she’s expecting, we cannot travel. Nonetheless, I still cherish the bond that ties us together. As platitudes go, Christmas resides in the heart and we still have many Christmases to share together in the future.

Photo tip: Incorporate reflections on the glass in the picture.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.017s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 1600, -1/2EV
window display at Teuscher Chocolates, 25 E 61st St, New York, the US

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Have Chocolate, Will Travel

I have a long sticky love affair with sugar. Torrid does not even approximate it. One of my earliest memories, dating back to maybe when I was five, was of my father scooping me in his arms to bring me to a doctor as I could no longer walk what with my legs covered with pus-laden sores. They probably were simply infected mosquito bite marks but I distinctly recall being admonished by my parents that my blood turned sweet from the excessive sugary food I consumed and henceforth became too much an attractive fodder for mosquitoes.

To my vain defense, sweetness is probably the most attractive of all taste. We just have too many sweetness receptors in our tongue and mouth that we cannot help but be predisposed to seek it. Simple sugar metabolizes so fast as well that almost immediately after consumption, you get a boost in energy. Sugar rush is not an imagined phenomenon but a real sense of well-being craved by many an addict including me.

oh simple sugar

What we refer to as regular sugar is in chemistry, sucrose, a disaccharide made of glucose and fructose. It is naturally sourced from plants like sugar cane and sugar beet. An easy example of a goodie made of pure sugar is cotton candy. First, powdered sugar is heated and melted in a compartment. Then, liquefied mass is extruded through tiny holes while being spun. When the liquid comes in contact with cool air, the melted sugar quickly turns solid and wool-like. You could not make cotton candy any sweeter. Except for the food coloring, it is pure sugar, plain and simple. I can only laugh now at the old myth-cum-joke in the Philippines that cotton candy is made from sugar and dust. Impressionable that I was, I believed this tale until I knew better. Talking about pure sugar, the guiltiest pleasure when I was a kid was neither cotton candy nor taffy (balikutsa in Cebuano) but bread sandwiched with a tablespoon of sugar! Take that!

phototip: Cotton candy makers are everywhere but I looked for an old traditional maker to evoke a timeless quality to the image.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.005s, f/10, 85mm, ISO 800
traditional cotton candy maker by the town/church plaza of Madridejos, Bantayan Island, Cebu, the Philippines

remembering when M&Ms were beyond our reach
Back in the 80s, imported chocolate candies were quite expensive and out of our reach. Candies like M&M packs or Baby Ruths came straight from the US and were not affordable at all. I could count with the fingers of my hand the times I was able to try these out. I don’t even know what chocolate kisses look like until I was in high school. There was not any wanting though of local chocolate. My favorites in grade school were Manorhouse and Serg bars. My sister has other favorites which I think were Curly tops (the local equivalent of Reese butter cups) and locally franchised Tootsie rolls. In the late 80s, a slew of others were introduced successfully and I favored Big Bang. Of course in the 90s, multinational manufacturers wizened up and entered the market with Asian versions of their staples like the Hershey bar which no longer melt in our 27-30°C temperatures. Now, in any store, Snickers, Kitkats and the like are abundant and in democratized market prices.

I ate 6
phototip: Create or capture a story. The empty slots in this candy box showed that I could not wait and ate some marzipan candies by the time I finished shooting.
Canon EOS 350D, 15s, f/8, 31mm, ISO 100
American marzipan candies, Astoria, New York, the US

my local comfort
What we missed out from the imported candies was more than compensated by a plethora of native sweets. Filipino sweet fare typically incorporates local ingredients, the most popular of which are cane sugar, coconut, peanuts and sticky rice. There are NO brands really just a reference to the origin where it is made. We are basically talking about specialty products often made by an old lady. My favorites were my yaya’s biko (sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and caramel), piñato from Mandaue (peanut brittle), calamay from Bohol (caramel paste of ground peanut w/ coconut milk), Nang Didang’s masareal of Basak, Mandaue (molded cake of powdered peanut and sugar), bucarillos from Carcar (sugared coconut candies) and the consilva of Dumlog, Talisay. Those are just samplings as I cannot even begin enumerating all the delicacies that I like. Choices in the Philippines run to the hundreds as each province, if not island, has its own sweet delicacies.

When I began to travel, I still get drawn to local delicacies and not surprisingly, the Philippines share a serious commonality with Malaysia and Indonesia where sweet snacks are called jajan. Below is just one sampling, the dodol Medan. It is a confection of brown sugar (gula merah), coconut milk (santan), vanilla (vanili), ground sticky rice (tepung ketan) and sesame seeds (wijen). Delicious!

dodol Medan
phototip: Ambient natural sunlight is not just dramatic but captures the colors as they are. This photo has no post processing at all.
Canon EOS 350D, 1.6s, f/11, 45mm, ISO 100, -1/3EV
bought in Sidoarjo, East Java but brought and photographed in Bali. Bali, Indonesia

the search for the sweetest fruits
One time in the 90s I attended a seminar and I sat beside one of the hosts who happened to be vegetarian. I remarked that his lifestyle must have made him so trim but he corrected me that not all vegetarians are thin. Some are obese too. How come? Well, carbohydrate consumption extraordinaire. I agree. If I were a vegetarian, I would be struggling with weight as I am now, probably because I cannot get my fill of fruits. Definitely, I always am on the lookout for the sweetest of anything be they mangoes, jackfruit, durian, atis, mangosteen or lanzones.

Fruits are sugar-packed and fruit sugar or sucrose is the sweetest of all natural sugars. Claiming which place produces which sweetest fruit is then like a wicked game. In the Philippines, I know that Cebu vociferously stakes a claim as having the sweetest variety but so does Guimaras. Personally, I would say that the sweetest mango I have ever tasted was in Selong, East Lombok. The household help in the staff house we were staying bought what they said were mangga madu (literally honey mango). When I first saw it, the fruit was unattractive. The pulp was pale and marbleized with unatttractive swirls of dark brown. But once I had a sample, I could not get enough of the concentrated sugar in those dark spots. It’s like eating precipitated caramel!

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to have mangga madu ever since and even now, I have my doubts whether that was its name. Some Indonesia friends said it must be manalagi from Probolingo (East Java) which also has some orange spots of concentrated sugar as well. The sugar punch was not as concentrated. Or is just memory playing tricks on my taste buds? One day I would sure like to find out.

mangga manalagi dan gadung
phototip: Arrange food around a curve.
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.167s, f/8, 12.3mm
popular varieties of sweet mangoes of East Java: the manalagi (foreground) of Probolingo with the orange spots of sugar and gadung (upper right, in bright orange) of Sitobondo, taken in Nganjuk, East Java, Indonesia

That said, I still will defend our very own Cebu mangoes as the finest overall. Certainly not a slouch in the sweetness department, Cebu mangoes are lusciously soft to the bite and not fibrous like the mangga manalagi and mangga madu. The skin is attractively bright yellow and the smell is sweet.

battling maladies
In tropical Philippines, sore throat is tonsilitis (inflammation of the tonsils). It is associated with eating too much sugar. For I crave sugar more than the next guy, tonsilitis became my personal perennial malady. Let’s just say that when I was growing up, I got sore throat attacks once every 2 months and the only 3 or 4 days in a year that I got too sick for school would be because of tonsilitis-induced high fever. I know the curative and preventive routine by heart: (1) skip anything sugary until the soreness goes away, (2) gargle hot saline solution for at least 1 minute immediately after eating something sweet and (3) sweat out the early signs of fever by exercise or massage; if not, the fever would only subside through medication. Antibiotics are the last recourse but I got too friendly with them that by the time I finally had my tonsils removed when I was 24 – that was when my EENT doctor finally diagnosed my tonsils as “too diseased to heal” – I already acquired immunity to at least 6 generic kinds. My bad!

Over time, I learned to eliminate certain sweet food groups to curtail my sugar intake. As young as when I was 8, I already decided to abstain from soda or softdrinks. I may get curious occasionally but in a year, I may only drink 2 bottles tops. By age 10, I voluntarily gave up sugar candies like lollypops, taffy, rock candies and licorice, even jelly beans. By high school, I limit my drinking of fruit juices– water was and still is my beverage of choice – although after college, I placed back fresh fruit juices in my diet and mind you, it is rather expensive getting fresh fruit juice (not reconstituted)! By the time, I already was working in my 20s, I realized that to remain healthy, I need to ration my sugar consumption so I eliminated the chocolates that commonly proliferate in the supermarkets, both local or imported, like Cadbury’s, Hershey’s and Mars. When I turned 30s, I added ice cream and ice sundaes to the eat-less category.

phototip: Try shooting straight up, or in this case, straight down.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.5s, f/5, 38mm, ISO 100, +2EV
imported jelly belly’s, taken in Cebu, the Philippines

Canon EOS 350D, 0.6s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV
imported jelly belly’s, taken in Cebu, the Philippines

Needless to say, I’m left with no choice but to be picky nowadays. Health is a premium so I cannot go on eating too much sugar. Although we have no diabetes in our family, I am vigilant in checking my blood sugar every year (all normal thanks God!). I only got down with sore throat-related fever twice in the past 2 years, down from twice a year in the early part of the decade. This is a step up to the right direction.

There no denying that I still indulge on fruits, pastries and native goodies. I do, but in moderation (or so I claim). I am also not into cookies and biscuits although I always have bags of Pepperidge Farm’s Milanos at home. I still enjoy an occasional scoop of ice cream but only if it is Mövenpick, Häagen-Dazs, Godiva, Ben & Jerry’s or artisanal gelato. This painfully “expensive” taste extends to chocolates as well.

Before anyone will brand me snobbish, I compensate cost with quantity. The more expensive the gourmet chocolates, the smaller the amount that I can afford. De facto, I am limiting my sugar consumption! So occasionally in my travels, you can find me grabbing a pack of Neuhaus (Belgian), Anthony Berg (Danish) or Storck’s Toffifee (German). If I could I would hoard Nidar’s Troika (Norwegian), a bar made of thin slices of marzipan, truffles and red agar gel delicately wrapped in milk chocolate. Too bad they are not found in airports outside of Norway. At home, I always have a stash of chocolates in the cupboard. Here’s this month’s inventory: 2 Godiva cans, a Mirabell Mozartkugeln (Austrian) box, a pack of Grand Belgian Specialties and Paton’s Milk Macadamia Royals (Australian).

Canon EOS 350D, 0.3s, f/1.8, 50mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV
Mirabell’s Mozartkugeln chocolates, Cebu, the Philippines

emergency calls
If there is one thing chocolate never fails to deliver, it is easy calories and you never know when you are going to need them. I learned the lesson the hard way in 2005.

The place was Madagascar. I thought I converted enough dollars in the bank at the capital city of Antananarivo but at the tailend of our weeklong trip in Vohemar, I found out that I just had the right amount of local currency to pay for the hotel. Now, northeast Madagascar is a place without any credit card facility or any foreign exchange shop. Without any money, my sister and I found ourselves hungry at the Sambava airport when our 2PM flight was delayed to 4PM. Good for her to have gifted me a box of English truffles. This then became the lunch we shared.

Melted truffles never tasted that good.

lunch at Sambava
travel tips: Always have a box of chocolates. That and some plastic spoons that are given out in the plane. They will be useful for some sweet melted lunch.
Canon EOS 350D, 0.017s, f/4.5, 18mm, ISO 400
our only lunch at Sambava airport, Madagascar

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

48 Hours in Zanzibar

Before my visit, Zanzibar exists only as an adventure destination. As the gateway of East Africa, Zanzibar island is historically and strategically important, renowned as the other capital of the Sultanate of Oman. Every corner in its commercial center, Stonetown, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage, is a discovery by itself, from old Omani palaces, to historical slave monuments, Persian baths and quaint mosques and churches. I’m not sure if I have ever been in Zanzibar for more than 2 days but having visited the island four times in the recent past, I will try to distill here what one should not miss.

Day One

the Slavery memorials
Do you know that Zanzibar was the major port of slaves in East Africa? Hundreds of thousands of men and women were auctioned off in the small island and sold as slaves all throughout its history, most recently and notably in the 19th century. If only to be reminded of the oppression and inhumanity of slavery, do not miss visiting the somber vestiges of the slave trade in a small area around the Anglican Church which was built when slavery was outlawed in the island. The memorials are grim and gritty. The auction site by the courtyard is nondescript. The adjacent slave dungeons turned museum are dusty and clautrophobic. The statuary memorial of slaves is graphic and without pomp. Even the church altar is dark and desolate, befitting of a former site of the whipping post. Slavery, after all, is not meant to be glorified and glazed.

travel tip: Do this in early morning or late afternoon. Most of these places get too hot in noontime. Estimated time of 1-1.5 hours

kumbukumbu ya historia ya watumwa
Canon EOS 350D, 0.006s, f/7.1, 30mm, ISO 100, cropped
”Memory for the slaves” by Clara Sornas, at the former auction square in front of the Anglican Church, Zanzibar

the spice trail
Zanzibar, is the SPICE ISLAND of Africa. Being on the equator, it enjoys a tropical rainy climate. Several reputable travel agencies in Zanzibar flaunt the island’s imminent status by offering organized spice tours in plantations. As every conceivable spice is crammed in one easily navigable area, you can conveniently see in their natural habitat patches of cinnamon, cumin, pepper, cardamon, and turmeric, among others. With matching commentaries on the uses and history of the spices, the tour also features visit to a small makeshift market of native delicacies, fruits and souvenir packs of spices (all for sale of course). And for a small gratuity, you get to leave with speedily woven coconut leaf items like a necklace wallet, a basket or a hat.

travel tip: If you are already familiar with tropical fruits and spices, you may skip this. I was there just for the photo ops. Estimated time of 2-1.5 hours


Canon EOS 350D, 0.008s, f/5, 40mm, ISO 200
starfruit for sale at a farm in Kzembani-Kdechi, Zanzibar, Tanzania, East Africa

the sandy beaches
Of course, do not resist the invite of the wide empty sand beaches of Zanzibar. Fortunately for me, my work requires plenty of duty calls to the beach. Having visited quite a fair share, I recommend Paje in the Southeast or Mchangani in the Northeast. For lunch, there are numerous choices of hotels and restaurants to enjoy both fresh seafood and the surf.

Zanzibar does not have lots of paved roads outside of the main highways so the peripheral villages along the coast basically use the white expanse of the beach as the convenient highway. The setup is perfect setting then for a stakeout of street photography. Think of hijab-wearing school children going home, wildly colored batik-printed cotton clothes being dried on lines, mothers bathing their babies and my favorite, seaweed being harvested.

travel tip: Check the tide table. Tide differences in East Africa are about 8 meters (compare that to 1 meter in the Philippines!) so be wary of tidal surges. There are a lot more action (fishing, beachcombing, seaweed harvesting) during low tide. Estimated down time is 3 hour, more if you do water sports.

woman, man, bike
Canon EOS 350D, 0.01sec, f/22, 18mm, ISO 100
pedestrian traffic at Paje Beach, Southeast Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa

Let me not romanticize Zanzibar. Poverty is pervasive and the life expectancy is short, a shocking 45-46 years. Jobs are scarce, especially for women. Take the woman below, for example. What she was digging out of the sand were coconut husks that she buried 4 to 6 months ago, marked only those old tires. The coconut coir fibers apparently already are “ripe” for harvesting. Soft and pliant, the fibers are wound as rope or sold as mattress fill. A few dollars can go a long way in Zanzibar.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.01s, f/22, 18mm, ISO 100
Paje beach, Southeast Zanzibar, Tanzania, East Africa

the sunset over the Zanzibar Channel
Just before sundown, head back to Stonetown and settle in a cozy spot overlooking the Zanzibar Channel. Probably the cheapest food you will find on the island is at the night market of the Forodhani Gardens. Local cuisine from seafood to pizzas to vegetarian Hindu dishes are available for the picking. Down them with juice drinks of fresh sugar cane, coconut or even hibiscus (red and sweet!). Another option will be Mercury’s Bar which literally juts over the sea. Watch out for the dhows going home for the day or leaving the docks with tourists out for a dinner cruise.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.02s, f/16, 52mm, ISO 100
a dhow sunset at the Zanzibar Channel , Zanzibar, Tanzania, East Africa

Day Two

On day 2, get a map of Stonetown and explore the unique UNESCO World Heritage city. It can really be explored by walking although you may need transport to zip from one end to the other. Zanzibar is generally safe, but as in any city, be careful and do not be an easy target of petty crime. Don’t mind getting lost in the winding narrow alleys- people are friendly. Besides, the next corner always promises another surprise. Hunt for old mosques, quaint coffee houses, bustling market squares, curious old courtyards, colorful art and antique galleries and of course, the fort-like cluster of stone houses. Start southwest and head north to pass by the Kelele Square, the Africa House, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the Arab Fort, the House of Wonders and the Forodhani Gardens. Further up the in the northeast are the Old Dispensary and the Mnara mosque (in Malindi) famous for its unique conical minarets.

the doors! the doors!
All throughout the walk, you will be greeted by the everpresent indelible symbol of Stonetown: the Zanzibar doors. Fused from the influences of the Arabic, the Indian and the native, these doors are deeply carved, expertly joined and smacked with studs and bosses of iron or brass. My favorite past-time is photographing these antique wooden doors, if only to commit to documentary evidence that once, they have existed. Restoration funds, like in any third world country, are wanting in Zanzibar and many a door lie wasted by time. If you can find a copy, grab the book, Doors of Zanzibar. Photographed by Uwe Rawu and written by Mwalim Mwalim, the book lays out a map of some 200 heritage portals in Stonetown.

travel tip: The town is safe so you can do without a travel guide if you choose. You may need local transport though like a motorcycle or a car to shorten your tour to 3-4 hours.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.25s, f/4, 18mm, ISO 100
the Simhogo Door, Baghani Street, Zanzibar Island, Tanzania, East Africa

Do not miss the grand St. Joseph Cathedral. One time I even heard a 6:30AM mass in this century old church in Swahili! I could not understand a word but the atmosphere was welcoming. The church interiors scream like a movie set to me: pillars of dark-veined marble, ionic columns in flashy pink, flaking murals on the ceiling, colorful European tiles and rare gothic pews in iron and wood. Gladly, Muslim Tanzania is admirably religiously tolerant.

travel tip: Befriend a nun or a caretaker in the St. Joseph Church. If you’re lucky, you may get ushered into the fabulous church choir loft to take in a more breathtaking view.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.6s, f/4.5, 30mm, ISO 100
St Joseph's Cathedral, Stonetown, Zanzibar, Tanzania

the palatial ruins of the Old Sultanate
Remnants of the Old Sultanate are everywhere. In the 1800s, the Omani Sultan, attracted by the booming enterprises of cloves, ivory and slaves, transferred the capital of the Sultanate to rich Stonetown. Several kilometers from Stonetown sit the ruins of what once was the Marhubi Palace. Grandeur lost can still be grandeur imagined. Built specifically for the sultan's harem, it used to be a glorious site of domed pavilions, manicured garden, fruit groves, fountains, shower rooms (which are domed roofs with holes for rainwater to “shower” down) and Persian baths. Water then was fed by an extensive aqueduct. Burnt down in 1890, it still is romance in stone.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 0.033s, f/22, 28mm, ISO 100, uncropped
the palace of Marhubi, Unguja Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania, East Africa

If I remembered right, near this palace is a dhow workshop. Up to now, dhow-making is a sustainable industry in Zanzibar where a sizeable commercial fishing vessel of teak construction may cost around $10,000. Watching how these boats made the traditional way is a treat.

To continue the tour of the Old Sultanate ruins, venture further to the Persian baths of Kidichi. Originally, these baths were open to both men and women only that they had separate hours of admittance – women in the mornings and men in the afternoons. It was (and still is) customary for married Muslim men and women to rid themselves of all body hair so shaving vestibules were provided within the bathhouse.

travel tip: Estimated travel and tour time is 2 hours

Persian Baths
Canon PowerShot S40, 0.001s, f/3.5, 10.3 mm
Persian Baths of Kidichi

the House of Wonders

The heritage trail will not be complete without the National Museum or the Beit al-Sahel (“The Palace by the Sea”), popularly referred to as the House of Wonders. Built in 1883, it was the town palace of the Sultan of Oman. The House of Wonders is a truly remarkable building which is now more than 100 years old. It is one of the largest edifices in the island and boasts of the first to have electric light and elevator.

Jozani Forest
Escape to nature. The Jozani Forest Nature Reserve is a popular trail which showcases local birds, the rare duiker antelope and the red Colobus and Syke’s monkeys. This is a separate tour itinerary which I purposedly missed out as I already passed by the forest on the way to Paje beach. There are also lots of baobabs around this area. Baobabs are like uprooted trees which seem to have the roots for their canopy.

authentic Zanzibari food and music
To end the memorable journey, splurge at the ocean-view Baharia restaurant of Serena Inn. Overlooking the Zanzibar Channel, it offers authentic African dishes, as well as international fare, under the ambiance of traditional African and Arabic architecture, complete with fantastically colored skylights and intricately pierced-and-cut tracery windows. The restaurant offers nightly authentic performances of a Taarab orchestra which is an amalgam of African, Arabic and Indian music favored by Sultan of Oman. If all else fails, music will transport you to an age that has almost been forgotten.

Canon EOS 350D Digital, 30s, f/8, 22mm, ISO 100
Taarab orchesta playing drums, the nay (flute) and the kanun, (zither) at the Serena Inn ocean , Zanzibar Island, Tanzania, East Africa

For arrangements, I highly recommend Fisherman Tours and Travels. The owner, Mr. Arif Mazrui, is a good friend.
Fisherman Tours & Travel Ltd
P. O. Box 3537
Zanzibar, TANZANIA.
Fax.: +255-24-2238790
Tel.: +255-24-2238791/2
Mobile phone: +255-747-440044/441144/412677

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Maria, selected photographs

Today, December 8, is the celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, one of the biggest Marian holidays in the Catholic world. Even up to now, Catholic schools in the Philippines would declare this day as a holiday. Too bad for the students that this year, the celebration falls on a Saturday – they would not get to have a free leisure day.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.02s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 400
at the Metropolitan Museum, Manhattan, New York, New York

The Immaculate Conception actually refers to the conception of Mary without original sin in the womb of her mother. This should not be mixed up with the dogma of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus, i.e., free from sexual intercourse.

In commemoration to this day, I am presenting a special tribute to the Blessed Virgin, in pictures, in the some of the numerous titles that she is known of here in the Philippines.

As the name implies, the Assumption portrays the Blessed Virgin as she assumed into heaven. Asuncion is the patron saint of several places in the Philippines, one of which is the municipality of Dauis in Bohol.

Canon PowerShot S40, 0.017s, f/2.8, 7.1mm, 1 EV, cropped
at the Marian Exhibit at the Ayala Mall, Cebu City, the Philippines, August 2005


The Nuestra Señora de la Consolacion is symbol of the Augustinian presence in the Philippines. Wherever the Augustinians go, they bring with them the veneration of the Lady of Consolations. Parishes, municipalities and schools are named after the Virgin. The Augustinians were among the first to establish an order in the Philippines- first in Cebú in 1565 and in Manila in 1571. In 1575 the Philippines became a separate Augustinian Province.

Canon PowerShot S40, 0.033s, f/2.8, 7.1mm, +1 EV
at the Marian Exhibit at the Ayala Mall, Cebu City, the Philippines, August 2005

One of the most popular Marian images in the Philippines is the Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. Replicas are all over the country and the one below is in Vigan, Ilocos Sur.

Canon PowerShot S40, 0.033s, f/2.8, 7.1mm
a replica of the Nuestra Señora de Manaog at the Museo San Pablo of the Saint Paul's Cathedral, Vigan, Ilocos Sur, the Philippines

One rare image of the La Rosarita is in Mahatao, Batanes. Reflective of the Formosan ancestry of the Ivatans, the statue bears distinct Chinese features: slanted eyes, the round face and light skin.

Canon EOS 350D, 0.25s, f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 100, -1/3 EV
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, San Carlos Borromeo Church, Mahatao town, Batan Island, Batanes, the Philippines

I have a personal affinity of the Nuestra Señora de Regla, as it is the black patroness of my hometown Opon (Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu). Every feast day in November 21, many devotees and pilgrims from other islands come to pay respect, ask favors and seek blessings. A big event in her feast day is the traditional procession. It is believed that the fresh flowers at her feet in the processional caro (cart) are miraculous, but ONLY if taken after the procession. A cortege of men has to protect the caro when she reaches the church to prevent a literal riot by overzealous believers.

Canon PowerShot S40, 0.033s, f/2.8, 7.1mm, +1 EV
at the Marian Exhibit at the Ayala Mall, Cebu City, the Philippines, August 2005

Immaculate Heart
The heart refers to the virtues of the Virgin. Part physical, part soul, the heart is a symbol of her love for God, her son and her people.

f/5.6, 0.013s,155mm, ISO 1600,+1/3EV, uncropped
an image of Mary in the Noel Ancestral house, the Carcar City, Cebu, the Philippines

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Monastics of Angkor Wat

Cambodia is the Kingdom of the Khmers, they who built Angkor, a city of stone temples and edifices so vast. Reputedly covering more than 1,000 square miles, Angkor is 20 times larger than the next biggest preindustrial city of Tikal in Mayan Guatemala. The most famous Angkor monument is the palatial complex known as the Angkor Wat. It is BIG. The outer walls encloses more than 82 hectares of land.

phototip: Rain can be your friend. It can provide a mysterious ambience, especially if the streaks are captured by fast shutter speed.
f/5.6, 0.004s, 155mm, ISO 100, -1/3EV, cropped
The west gate of Angkor Wat, as taken from the topmost level of the central temple,Siem Reap, Cambodia

What struck me most was the humanistic strand that helped keep Angkor Wat alive today: the religious. In all its 850 years of existence, the temple has never been abandoned, really. Ascribing its discovery to a Portuguese monk or a French explorer is a Westernized view, romanticized but distorted. While the temple fell into neglect after the 16th century, the temple has never really been empty. It has always enjoyed a throng, if not an encampment of Buddhist monks and nuns.

phototip: ….
f/5.6, 0.008s, 55mm, ISO 200, -1/3EV, cropped
Monks at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Without argument, monks and nuns are mendicants. They live from the benevolence of patrons. Begging for their daily needs, they do not work for their very sustenance in our accepted conventional sense. Idealized their roles may be, there is some dissent against their dependence on alms in Cambodia and probably in other Buddhist societies as well. The question begs: how could they remain “idle” amidst the growing poverty of the very society they mean to serve?

phototip: Most portraits become more effective if you get the subject look at you. In my case, the nun was tidying up the altar. I composed the shot while her back was away from me. I knew that soon she would turn. She did.
f/4.5 , 0.067s, 33mm, ISO 800, -1/3EV
A shrine at the uppermost central shrine of the Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

History provides the answer. Monks and nun are merely following norms developed along the centuries. Societies in civilizations as old as the Khmers were divided into classes. Each class had a role to fulfill. Without divisions that were almost so rigid to prevent someone from moving between classes, there would have been chaos. In a practical sense, artistic achievements, like that of the majesty of Angkor, would not have been reached as well.

phototip: Tight shots makes the message clearer.
f/5.6. 0.02s, 55mm, ISO 800, -1/3EV, cropped
A monk offering supplications at the central sanctuary tower of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Art cannot prosper in a vacuum. Only societies that have a great level of surfeit of food and riches would have the extravagance to commit sections of their populations to doggedly sole-minded pursuits like music, dance, painting and architecture. The Khmers did. How else could the grand designs materialize if the artists were not sheltered and allowed to do what they did without fear of hunger and want? By the same rationale, there rose a section of the society given the time and space to enlighten and spiritually “sustain” life- the monastics.

phototip: Watch out for stillness against speed. I set up a tripod at a doorway, waited for the nun to freeze in a prayer, while tourists passed by. The exposure of 1.6 seconds created the colored blur.
f/5.6 , 1.6s, 55mm, ISO 100, +1/3EV, cropped
at the central uppermost temple of the Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Today, Buddhist monks and nuns in Cambodia continue the tradition of alm-seeking and live only if the public sticks to the convention of support. I found out that there are rules governing this sustenance. For starters, the monks can only seek what are existential: food, clothing, shelter and medicine. All else are considered trivial.

phototip: White stands bold even if the subject is in a dark corner, especially when contrasted against the colored ornaments.
f/5.6, 0.01s, 49mm, ISO 400, uncropped
A nun at the Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

By leading a life of an ascetic, monks and nuns are examples to the masses of what can be renounced in life. By freely choosing to lead simply, they remind the people that enlightenment can only be achieved by giving up material things. That is how Buddhism’s concept of nirvana can be attained. I too am reminded of the biblical line of “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

phototip: The Angkor Wat’s central temple is notorious for the steep staircase. Don’t take unnecessary risk in getting the shot you like. I took the photo at the landing before I descended the steep stairs, with the camera safely tucked inside a padded and secured bag.
f/5.6, 0.008s, 37mm, ISO 100, -1/3EV, uncropped
The difficult descent from the uppermost central shrine of the Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

The normal title of "nun" is conferred to female monastics who may be considered equal to male ascetics. These ladies often wear robes of white or gray, as opposed to the saffron sported by the monks. Monks and nuns are expected to be totally celibate and generally avoid physical contact with the opposite sex.

phototip: Watch out for expressions that convey strong emotions and tell a story.
f/16, 0.2s, 55mm, ISO 400, -1/3EV, uncropped
A Buddhist nun and at a shrine in the uppermost central temple of the Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Meditation is associated with the monastics. Silence accompanies simplicity. Monks and nuns are considered to be in a different plane, having lived the “inner world”. People may chose to ignore them sometimes but ultimately, their presence fills in a need that no one else can.

phototip: Strong backlight creates bold shadows that can be an effective background for incense smoke.
f/5.6, 0.008s,55mm, ISO 800,-1/3EV, uncropped
Meditation scene in the uppermost central temple of the Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

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