Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Love is in the Air

My first helicopter ride happened a few days before Valentine’s Day and in the company of dating couples. The Euro Chopper, which can carry six people including the pilot and in other days is used for traffic reporting, waited at the rooftop of the Hotel InterContinental Manila for the excited passengers.

Being in the chopper was like being inside a glass bubble that floated over the city. The "back seat" was elevated so that passengers had the same view as those in front. The takeoff gave us a rush of feeling -- a mix of nervousness, anticipation, excitement and elation. The city revealed it, bathed in the late afternoon sun, like never before.

From the take-off point in Makati, we passed by buildings and surveyed the highway and the flyovers of Edsa. It was disorienting at first, trying to figure out the place. We saw the expanse of green we thought there wasn’t and an urban sprawl bigger than we had imagined. The huge block of SM Megamall was not that huge after all, facing now an expanse of green that was the Wack Wack golf course. Couples in the helicopter might have a Superman moment, where Superman takes Lois Lane for a ride over New York City at night, and before she knows it, she has fallen in love.

For five years now, Trapik.com, the traffic information provider, and Flowers Express, the on-line flower provider, together other partner companies, have been creating these Superman moments with their "Date in the Sky" gimmick, which they created to veer away from the usual Valentine ritual. They take couples for an eight- to 10-minute helicopter ride over Metro Manila and a poolside dinner afterwards. Very neat. Imaginative and unusual, the concept, however, is not altogether new. A great romantic moment seems to require a grand and awe-inspiring view. It seems that the feeling inside must manifest in the physical world. The feeling requires it to be beautiful.

The chopper flight provides the opportunity not only to fall in love with a partner, but also to fall in love with the city we move and love in. The chopper flight is a manifestation that love is something like flight.

(The Daily Tribune, February 14, 2007)

PICTURE: The Pasig-Mandaluyong area with SM Megamall and Wack Wack Golf Club (Feb. 10, 2007)

PICTURE: The Pasig River meanders through the metropolis (Feb. 10, 2007)

PICTURE: An aerial view of southern Metro Manila from a chopper (Feb. 10, 2007)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

PICTURE: Old Eaves Against Eternal Sky (Vigan, Nov. 2006)

I was walking around the Calle Crisologo area one hot afternoon. After checking out the Syquia Mansion, the ancestral house of Philippine president Elpidio Quirino, I noticed another old house at one corner. It seemed desolate but you could see the former grandeur, now sagging under the eaves, worn by time and battered by the weather. What stories it harbors in its crannies? What events it has witnessed. The windows looked out to the neighborhood. The eaves protruded to the sky, the sheets of roofing almost falling from their shingles. The picture is nostalgic. Sad but at the same time hopeful. Just like Vigan.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Spectacle That is the Amazing Philippine Theatre

The Manila Film Center, inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex, looks less abandoned now. Posters of pretty women in gaudy costumes adorn the facade together with the blemishes of weather and age. The garden lights are much brighter, lending the building a sense of grandeur at night. Occasionally, the tourist buses arrive but not for the history of the building nor for films, for which the building was originally intended. The Marcos-era building now houses the Amazing Philippine Theatre, which produces the all-male, song-and-dance spectacle The Amazing Show almost every night for five years now, mostly for tourists.

What proves to be remarkable about the show is that it is performed by transsexuals. This fact is a drawing factor as much as the ostentation and the entertaining nature of the show. The men, lithe, statuesque and beautifully made-up, parade in gowns and whimsical costumes. They dance with an amusing grace. Women in the audience regularly joke about feeling insecure. Garbed in flamboyant costumes, these men are more beautiful than they are and carry themselves with such aplomb that leaves observers astonished. More likely, the description “amazing” refers to this fact.

But it also refers to the show, according to William Lee, the Korean chief operating officer and director of sales and marketing of the Amazing Philippine Theatre. The Amazing Show can rival, if not surpass, the ones being put up in Thailand, well-known for musical shows featuring transsexuals and to which the Philippine show took its inspiration.

The wealth of talent as well as the beauty of transsexuals in the country inspired Korean investors headed by its chairman and owner Lee Jong Hyun to put up the Amazing Philippine Theatre in 2001. At the first audition, they hired 80 performers to make up the first pool of talent. Investors decided to rehabilitate the Manila Film Center to make it the venue for the shows with an initial capital investment of about US$ 1.4 million. The selling of the show was concentrated to the Korean market.

At the start of the venture, business was slow. There were times when the show opened to small audiences, even once to only one customer. But the show pushed on. Over time and with perseverance, the Amazing Show is slowly gaining more audience and a respectable reputation.

Formerly with the Dulaang Universidad ng Pilipinas, Elmir Castillo is currently responsible for the choreography and the production, which is frequently likened to the Thailand shows.

Currently, the Amazing Philippine Theatre has about 60 performers. About 25 of them perform male roles while about 35 female. Castillo admits they are having difficulty in creating a substantial pool of talents. Many of them leave for a more lucrative job in Japan. They regularly hold auditions for new talents though. Aspirants usually range from 19 to 35 years old or as long as they look young. And the company put an emphasis on beauty over talent. After all, they can teach and train them.

The Amazing Philippine Theatre also holds an annual beauty pageant, and winners are given contract to perform with the company. This is one way of discovering new talents. The winners are also fielded to an international transsexual beauty pageant in Thailand.

Despite their looks, only a few of the performers have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS), though many are planning to have one. One post-operation transgender is Lena Macarasig, one of the beauty queens of the Amazing Philippine Theatre. The surgery was performed in Japan. Christina (Christopher) Dandan, the tallest and one of the most beautiful performers, had a breast enhancement operation fiannced by the company. Her operation was financed by the company. Although the Amazing Philippine Theatre does not sponsor SRS or any kind of operation of their talents, Dandan’s operation was a gift of the company for her good work attitude and excellent performance.

Every night, Dandan performs at the Manila Film Center, whose lobby area, 850-seat theater and second level office spaces are rented by the Amazing Philippine Theatre.

The lobby still has its old grandeur. The company has built a café for the visitors. On the left wing of the building, there is a restaurant that looks like a cafeteria but serves delicious authentic Korean dishes. The theater has also been renovated. Decrepit chairs were replaced and re-upholstered. The stage has also been renovated to accommodate the lavish sets. There are many set changes during the show, which last an hour and ten minutes.

The show is made of several sequences and concepts in a vaudeville or Las Vegas style. Cultural references and styles are used liberally and with modifications.
The prelude features a gowned performer lip-synching to “Kiss Me Once.” “This sequence is intended to warm the audience and enchant them for them to stay for the whole duration of the show,” the company explains.

The first sequence is their trademark Egyptian-inspired spectacle with a Sphinx monument and a parade of men/women is glittery costumes. Called “Serpent of the Nile,” the sequence is said to tell the love story of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, with the dead Cleopatra brought to life by two goddesses of love and beauty.

Another sequence is inspired the Ramayana, particularly the love story of Rama and Sita, who find themselves in a magical forest, and Kali, an evil sorcerers tries to kill Sita to have Rama for herself.

A medley of Philippine folk dances from an Igorot ritual to the singkil forms one of the highlights of the show. Equally delightful is their Arirang Korean fan dance. The gentle movements are accompanied with a fast-paced pop tune. The performers use only fans as props, collectively forming waves and flowers that glow in the dark.

On the other hand, the popular Chinese love song “Wa Ai Ni” is lip-synched. This is punctuated with gigantic flowers and little butterflies illuminated by black lights.

The show also excerpted for the movie Moulin Rouge, with the dancers doing the cancan. The rest of the performances incorporate Hawaiian and Latin pop themes. There are also a tango sequence and a medley of ballroom dances. The finale is a rousing contemporary dance spectacle to the tune of “If You Could Read My Mind.”

The Amazing Show is mounted twice, at : 30 P.M. and 9 P.M., from Tuesday to Sunday. Every three to four months, they add or change something in the sequences.

Lee said they plan to have a night market and build an “Oceanarium.” This is part of their thrust of enlivening the tourism activity in the area, and of the Philippines in general.

The Amazing Show is mounted by the Amazing Philippine Theatre at the Manila Film Center, Leona Florentino corner Dela Rama Streets, Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex, Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City. For information and reservations, call (632) 833-5758, 833-5785, 832-9866 or fax (632) 832-9866. The Amazing Philippine Theatre Cebu office is at 9-2 Hadsan Cove Resort, Agus, Maribgao, Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu. For information, call (6332) 495-2592 or (6332) 495-2593, 0917-8072713, email
95020265@hanmail.net. Log on to www.amazingshow.co.kr.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Mundane Pleasures at the Foot of the Mystic Mountain

Pilgrimage and tour to Mount Banahaw, considered mystical and sacred by many, may not be possible right now because the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has closed it off to visitors in order for the mountain and its ecology to recover, one can at least explore the springs and enjoy a stay in a quaint café in Dolores, a town in the province of Quezon at the foot of the mountain. It is a popular jump-off point of pilgrims and climbers.

We went there after a stay at the acclaimed The Farm at San Benito, where de detoxified and ate raw vegetarian food. We plunged into the bustle of Lipa proper and headed east to Dolores for Kinabuhayan Café Bed and Breakfast. It was an uneventful hour or so drive through the towns of Padre Garcia and San Antonio and entering Quezon province through Tiaong. Dolores was a quaint town with narrow, sloping roads.

On Dejarme Street in the quiet neighborhood of Barangay Bayanihan stood Kinabuhayan Café, equally quaint as the town, near a chapel and an elementary school. A big tamarind tree marked its location.

Opened in the Holy Week of 2003, Kinabuhyan Café is owned by buddies Jay Herrera, production designer, and Winston Baltasar, motoring journalist and former managing editor of Top Gear magazine. It stood on Herrera’s family property, which was before an empty lot with a garage. The two established this only bed-and-breakfast place in the area with Herrera designing and acting as chef. Herrera lives here while Baltasar goes home to Makati. The café is named after the barangay at the foot of Banahaw where some natural sacred shrines are located. The name means “place of resurrection.”

The café in white paint was charmingly accented with details like numerous different windows, which Herrera collected along the way. In the yard, there were two open-air, two-story huts as accommodation plus a nice three-level tree dwelling at the tamarind tree. The tree was in full bloom, thus anyone sleeping here would be sprinkled with tamarind blossoms upon waking up. The huts had bamboo slats flooring and an open-air bathroom at the side with its own garden. Each hut can accommodate two to eight persons. A bathroom and toilet with hot water are very welcome amenities in this part. Now, mountaineers, trekkers and pilgrims to Mount Banahaw can journey with relative ease. But Kinabuhayan café itself is fast becoming a destination.

In the café, you dine with their black, fat, laidback dogs lounging around. They were so people-oriented, that is, ultra friendly even to strangers and unmindful of the passing and going of people. The fattest was called Chongki. Herrera, who wore his salt-and-pepper hair long, liked telling us how, when calling the dog, some people would look up. A pregnant black cat also stalked the whole area. She was friendly too.

The food prepared here they call “Pinoy gourmet,” Filipino dishes with European touches. For lunch, we were served a large plate of treats: risotto with black mushroom, slices of singkamas and chayote, mung bean sprouts, fresh pako or young fern, and best of all, baked chili chicken. Dessert was sweet potato cooked in pandan and vanilla-flavored syrup, served on crisp open fried spring roll wrapper and topped with cream. This was concluded with cups of Quezon barako coffee flavored with pandan.

Winston told us that Jay grows a chesa tree in the backyard. I don’t know of anyone who likes chesa, that deep-yellow, heart-shaped fruit. Perhaps, Jay might be one. He makes samosas out of them stuffed with ground pork, chili and oyster sauce. He calls it “chesmosa.”

Along the way, I saw several angel’s trumpets, small trees with large, pendent, peach-colored flowers, which seems to have a fondness growing in mountainous areas. Sandy told me that the local name is talampunay and is said to be hallucinogenic. The leaves can be dried and made into cigarettes while the flowers can be boiled and drank as tea.

Jay and Winston like to tell a story about how musician Joey Ayala got stoned drinking a concoction made from angel’s trumpet flowers that he ended up putting his shoes inside the refrigerator.

But a more acceptable way to get high is with lambanog, which flows ceaselessly in this café during full moon nights. With the smoking and talks and intoxication, I wondered about the wellness aspect of this place. Most probably, it is the energy from Mount Banahaw, which Winston believes in and gushes about. He also said that the water that springs from the mountain is therapeutic.

Off we went to the mountain, about 15-minute drive from the café. We fetched our guide Minda Godoy, a sixty-ish Rizalist, in barangay Santa Lucia. We passed by the large compound of the Rosa Mistica religious group. Banahaw harbors multitudinous religious groups and cults. Kinabuhayan proper is a thriving community with a basketball court. Rows of stores selling fruits, vegetables, souvenirs and herbal cures lined the narrows steps towards the church of Tatlong Persona Solo Dios. A left turn would bring you to the foot of the mountain itself. Because of human traffic had taken its toll on the mountain, Banahaw, a declared protected area, is closed for five years, starting 1994 to be able to recuperate. We could go as far as the Kinabuhayan complex where the Kinabuhayn spring was with a large submerged stone bearing an imprint of a foot. The site is called Yapak ni Kristo (Christ’s footprint). We lighted some candles. Nearby was a cave with a stone and an image of Mary at the entrance. As we go inside the dark cave, our lit candles revealed many religious images, mostly those of Virgin Mary and Santo Ninos. Aling Minda was chanting as we went along. After visiting these sites, we wade into the gelid water. Winston filled his plastic containers with spring water. Around us, there are several religious images tucked in crevices. Also there were empty sachets of shampoo, wrappers and other garbage items. Serious mountaineers and religious members are okay, said Winston. It’s the jologs crowd that throngs the mountain and leaves heaps of trash including pornographic materials and bottles of liquor.

Body wearied but soul replenished, we sank into the comforts of our car seats as we headed home.

Prior booking in Kinabuyan Café is required. Contact Winston Balatasar through mobile phone numbers 0917-3271106 and 0917-5241106, or e-mail kina_cafe@yahoo.com. Visit its website at www.klar.us/kinabuhayan_café for more information, tour packages, pictures, detailed directions for going there and prices.

An Old Picture of the Cape Santiago Lighthouse in Calatagan