A Taste of Kapangpangan Country Life (unedited)

Edited Version published on Expat Newspaper Nov 9- 22 Issue

Text and Photos by Loraine Balita

Thanks to my uncontrollable curiosity and short attention span I didn’t even find out who Abe was until I left the place and read the short write up. Throughout the tour and yes, while we were all supposedly listening to the guide, I was roaming around popping my head in and out of rooms, opening doors, getting lost and finding my way back behind the group. It’s hard to concentrate on the tour when you’re surrounded by interesting antiques and trinkets contained in an equally amusing farm.

Abe’s Farm located in Magalang Pampanga offers a window to the Kapangpangan country life to city dwellers and an engrossing experience to city slickers who, like me, are easily amused. It’s like a day in the national museum only here you get to experience Kapangpangan cuisine, get a massage and dip in the pool, take a hike or sleep in one of the artifacts.

Right after passing through the wooden sign that welcomed us we were given a prelude to the whole country life experience with a wood plough sans the Carabao pulling it accenting the manicured lawn. After entering the main guest house I was taken aback by the huge carabao skull hanging right above the main entrance “So that’s what happened to the carabao”, I thought to myself. Like a girl from the province feeling out of place in Makati city, I felt like an urbanite out of place in the country. Our cameras and cell phones and even we, in our jeans, looked odd amidst the rustic background.

Wooden posts and bamboo railings line the veranda that is wrapped around the entire house. Antique chairs and huge wooden tables are scattered all throughout, the rustic design extends up to the rooms and even up to the bathroom. A winding staircase made of wood leads up to the second floor with four beds divided only by curtains. Not exactly the type for honeymooners but could be perfect for a family of four or a group of friends who would like to chat untill they fall asleep. After going farther up the staircase I was led to the attic which offers visitors a real taste of country life. And when I say real I mean bamboo lining the floor and wall and no air conditioning system just windows that invite fresh air in and afford a view of the garden the lawn and the greenery outside. Another staircase leads down to the basement which is off limits to guests and is reserved for the owner’s family. After going around the main guest house we were taken out to explore the rest of this four hectare property.

It was not the pool that caught my attention but the small huts surrounding it. I was told that these are called Ulog, traditional Ifugao huts brought here from the Mt. Province. And if you think seeing these huts up close is already thrilling trying sleeping in it. Guests can rent these huts that can accommodate up to two people. A sign which states the obvious reminds guests not to smoke inside the Ifugao huts. There are three Ulogs in Abe’s farm that can be rented by guests. All with authentic artifacts attached on the sides, proof of the ways of living of the Filipinos up north. Stuck onto the sides of these huts are wooden spears with pointed metal blades, Ifugao head ornaments wrapped in feathers and weaved cloth and my favorite item—Ifugao Samsonite. These water-proof backpacks are made of woven rattan covered with extracted plant fibers that look like fur. Some call it sangi others call it pasiking but in most Ifugao regions it is commonly called bango.

Just when I thought I could finally listen to the guide a monkey stole my attention. Yes, a monkey named Dagul is kept here. The small primate seemed gentle enough so I came closer. Dagul on the other hand seemed eager to pose for my camera. Just as I was about to head back to join the group and listen we were called back to the main house to have a taste of Kapangpangan cuisine Abe’s Farm have prepared for us.

The sumptuous dishes were all good. Although the Paco Fern Salad was a bit too fresh for me, the smell and texture reminded me of the Ferns we brought to school for our Biology class. It could need some getting used to for people with a fast food trained palate, but it could be perfect for vegans and those looking for a healthy way to experience Kapangpangan cuisine.

After finishing the gastronomic treats we were off to another section of the farm. Abe’s Farm has teemed up with Nature Spa. The latter has huts located within the vicinity where you can get your massage. What makes Nature Spa in Abe’s Farm different here is the signature Kapangpangan Spa Treatments. Tumayla for example is a relaxing Kapangpangan massage reminiscent of a mother’s caress done to the melody of a Kapangpangan lullaby. Hilot on the other hand involves techniques practiced by grandmothers to cure common ailments like colds, sprains, and fever. These signature treatments are created by incorporating local massage methods done by Kapangpangans with other techniques. Guests can also stay in one of Nature Spa’s huts and avail of packages that include accommodation, meals and spa treatments.

A section of the farm can also be rented for events and occasions. If you need a place to detoxify and recharge your employees for the next team building sessions or you have always dreamt of a nature themed wedding, then Abe’s Farm could be a good option.

After getting a sample of Nature Spa’s Sese ng Ima, a traditional Kapangpangan head massage, which almost lulled me to sleep we headed back to the main house and spent the afternoon chatting over merienda. Because I was too sleepy after the massage, too full after munching on the sinfully good merienda treats and was too preoccupied with the trinkets and interesting pieces scattered all throughout the farm it was only after we left that I realized how ungrateful a guest I was. I forgot to ask who the man behind Abe’s Farm really is. It was only after I read a write up that I found out that the late artist and writer Emilio “Abe” Aguilar Cruz is the man behind this place. His artworks adorn the walls and trinkets which amazed me all through out my visit there are some of the memorabilia he collected from his travels here and abroad. And his son, the late restaurateur Lary J. Cruz of LJC Group of Restaurants, is the one who started this events village.

Beyond Chocolates and Cuckoo Clocks (Unedited Version)Edited version published on What's On Expat May-2006 Issue

Text by : Loraine Balita Photos by: Arlene Rossi

I will forever remember this country as the place which almost gave a me a heart attack.

I have never said ‘Wow’ and ‘Oh my gosh!’ as many times as when I was in Switzerland. Tourists are confronted with amazing natural beauty at every turn.

Up until my last days there, I was waiting for someone to shout ‘Cut!’, for the lights to go out and for people to start dismantling the set starting with the snow capped mountains, the perfectly mowed green grass carpet, and flower beds followed by the crystal clear lakes (swans and ducks included!).I kept asking myself if it was just a movie and everything was just put there on display, because it all were too beautiful to be true and too perfect to be real.

Being in Switzerland is being in the middle of everywhere. Landlocked in the heart of Europe, it is only a few minutes away from Germany in the North, Austria in the East, Italy in the South and France in the South West.

It has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, which explains the long translations of ingredients and instructions at the back of chocolate bars and Swiss watch manuals.

Aside from army knives, cuckoo clocks and their uncanny ability to organize everything, they also boast of their excellent and reliable transport system. With trains, trams, boats and buses arriving on time. Hence you’d often see a marathon of women in four inch heels, desperately dashing towards the station, because trains and buses almost always leave on time. Not even Helen of Troy, who’s face launched a thousand ships could make a train here wait.

The Swiss Youth pass sold at major train stations enabled me to go around and discover what treasures this quaint little country has to offer, starting with its most popular resort.

St. Moritz : Top Of The World

The posh St. Moritz true to its reputation is a leisure tourist’s haven located on the Southern side of the Alps. Being in the middle of the Engandine region, skiers have access to local ski areas where snow is guaranteed. Other activities offered here include snowboarding, Sailing, Windsurfing, tennis, horseback riding, golf and even paragliding.

Not being a fan of any of these I went on to do what I consider is my favorite sport, the only exhausting and time consuming activity most girls can do—window shopping.

The town has some if not all of the most popular and expensive shops in the world. No wonder everybody walking down the street wore bumble bee-eye-sized sunglasses. Not only were these used to shield the eyes from sunrays reflected by the snow, it also serves its purpose of shielding the eyes from the blinding sparkle of rocks, gems and jewels, laid out on display inside glass windows in shops along the streets.

The stores lining the foot of the mountain made the place look absolutely surreal giving it an overall dreamy atmosphere. People from all over the globe, who’s got a little more to shell out, flock this place to relax and unwind.

From the laid back atmosphere of this ski resort, I moved on to see the more upbeat, busy, coffee frenzied town up North.

Zurich : World’s Banking Capital

With coffee shops at almost every corner, university students with bulging backpacks, trudging the city with their laptops, and men in business suits glued to their cell phones, swinging leather briefcases, you’ll know what this city is all about.

This is no place to spatter sun tan lotion and frolic under the sun. With its fast paced atmosphere, this city clearly epitomizes the Swiss’ passion for neatness, precision, punctuality, and hard work.

But despite the impression of Zurich being a city so prim and busy, I have discovered quiet the opposite.

It is the city where people would happily volunteer to take your picture, when they notice that you’ve been desperately trying to take a shot of your face with the background. It is where people would stop pedalling their bicycles to help you find your way back when they notice that you’ve been staring at the city map upside down. And it is the city where I met a friend who took some time off from school to show me around.

The best way to tour Zurich is on foot, which would give you ample time to marvel at the architectural treasures found within the city, starting with the Grossmunster church . Its twin towers now serve as the most recognizable landmark in modern Zurich. Devoid of its original embellishments and interior grandeur it still holds historical and architectural significance. It was founded by Charlemagne in the ninth century and it is where Ulrich Zwingli initiated reformation in Switzerland.

“You have clocks everywhere!” I exclaimed, as we went pass the fifth clock I’ve seen that day. The next one becoming the sixth, is Europe’s biggest clock face situated atop the St. Peter’s church tower.

Right across the Grossmunster is the Fraumunster church founded in 853. It is made popular by its magnificent stained glass windows by Marc Chagall designed in 1970.

My tour ended with a long walk along Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main shopping street. It is famous for very high –end shopping at designer boutiques. Hence it is one of the world’s most expensive shopping streets.

From the German speaking part of Switzerland up North, I went down the next day to the South West, a few mountains away from France, where French is spoken.

Montreux : Chateau De Chillon

After going around the famous Olympic museum in Lusanne, I grabbed a copy of the ship route map from the tourist office and hopped on board one of those little ships cruising around Lake Geneva. With absolutely no idea of where to go, I decided to just enjoy the breeze and calm ripples of the water as the ship cruised its way towards its destination.

“This has got to be fake!” I continuously told myself when the boat approached the next stop in Montreux. A medieval castle built on an islet, facing a spectacular view ushered me to get off.

Snow capped mountains lined the other side of the lake with its feet gently dipped in the waters. Sunrays peeked from the mountain sides, caressing the surface of the lake making the water sparkle. Add that to the already astonishing view of Chateaux De Chillon (Castle of Chillon) makes a seemingly fake, right out of the postcard, scene that would make anybody want to rub their eyes in disbelief.

This, I thought would make the greatest reason to stay single, I could now say that I fell in love with a castle in Montreux. And just like discovering substance behind a pretty face, I discovered the historical significance of this place.

The rock upon which the castle stands is said to have been occupied since the Bronze age. Nobody knows when the first medieval walls were built, but it was partly enlarged from the 11th to the 13th century.

Francois Bonivard was held prisoner by the Duke of Savoy in its chilly castle prison. The earlier was a lay official at St. Victor’s priory in Geneva and was shackled here for four years because he was in favour of the reformation.

Bonivard was immortalised in the poem “ Prisoner of Chillon” . It was written in the 19th century by Lord Byron who carved his name on the third pillar in the castle prison. Other 19th century poets and authors enchanted by this castle include Shelley, Victor Hugo, Hans Christian Andersen, Flaubert, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens.

The huge chambers and courtyards are filled with medieval finds and centuries old artefacts. Knight’s armours, swords, silver spoon, plates, treasure chests and paintings stood witness to the lifestyle of the Dukes and Counts who lived here.

“Now this explains why royal duchesses and princesses looked so slim” I joked as me and a group of tourists went up the endless staircase leading up to chambers and towers. Imagine climbing up these staircases everyday in those bulky long dresses, talk about exercise.

After days of going from North to South and East to West I decided to settle midway and discover the country’s capital.

Bern : Switzerland’s Capital- UNESCO World Heritage Site

Happily situated where German speaking Switzerland meets French, Bern is a melting pot of cultures and people. Going around the city, I discovered that here, there is also a mix of the old and the new.

Kids seemingly lost in time, in their low waist pants, I-pods and piercings are back dropped by 15th century structures inside Bern’s old city.

The perfectly preserved limestone edifices, medieval arcades, and Rennaisance fountains convinced UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) to deem Bern a World Heritage Site, placing it among the ranks of Florence and the Taj Mahal. The nation’s capital is also home for the bundeshaus or the Swiss House of Parliament.

I must have spent half an hour staring at the St. Vincent Cathedral in awe. This gothic structure towers high above the rooftops in Bern. Narrow, winding stairs, which I thought was also never ending, lead me up the top of the tower where I had a perfect view of the entire city.

Wanting to satisfy the kid in me, I ran off to the Bern bear pits where European brown bears are kept. Here, for 3 Swiss francs (aprox. $2.5) you can feed these lazy, brown, fur balls whose only job is to be cute.

After running around in cities, I decided to get a glimpse of Switzerland’s Italian speaking part in the South East.

Lugano: Dolce Vita

Much of Lugano’s success as a centre of tourism can be attributed to its mild climate, moderated by the presence of lakes with a high proportion of sunny days. It borders Italy which is only a few minutes away by car. This lake-side city with its laid back atmosphere, intricately-adorned structures, and sunny climate, clearly has an Italian flavour.

Lugano offers an oasis of peace and beauty for people looking for a place to relax, away from the bustling cities and busy streets elsewhere. This is where people spend their hard earned cash for a ticket to indulgence.

Cafes, shops and restaurants line the lake side where outdoor tables and chairs invite tourists to soak up in the gentle heat of the sun. Unspoiled, lake side villages lay nestled at the foot of the mountain.

After hours of window shopping along Lugano’s arcades, I decided to take a long soothing walk by the lake side.

These were all too much for me. The colourful and sweet smelling flowers lining the walk, the soft green grass, the warm, calming wind brushing against my face, almost lulled me to sleep. And after only a few minutes of walking I finally gave in. I sat amidst the tranquil greens of the lake side park, soaking in the relaxing scent of the flowers. Resisting the urge to lie on my back, I told myself what this place would prompt everybody to say ; This is dolce vita (sweet life)!

After weeks of going around this blessed little country, my fun trip came to an end. Dragging myself lazily to the airport in Zurich, I took a last glimpse of the place. Just before boarding the plane, I smiled at one of the airport staffs, and whispered “You have absolutely no idea how lucky you are to be living in a place like this!”


Hackwriters.com The International Writers Magazine- May 2007

Beijing and My Pseudo Sign Language Skills
• Anna Loraine Balita
Who says you can’t survive in a country where you don’t speak, read and understand the language? I did, for one whole week! Being an Asian in Beijing was not like going to a slumber party at the neighbor’s.

Just as how it is for any other foreigner, the Chinese characters on street signs all looked like chopsticks glued together to me. I too entered through exits and had to learn the art of pseudo sign language, pin pointing (facial expressions included) my way through a McDonalds meal. It was here, in Beijing where I learned to order food without uttering a single word.

Much has been written and told about the dynasties, the imperial palaces, and the vast history of this culturally gifted city. But not even the longest running Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee Kung Fu movies will be enough to let one truly experience the richness of Beijing’s heritage. There is nothing like seeing the intricate details of historic structures that movie cameras fail to put on film. And nothing beats walking along the same bricks and fortresses that the emperors and empresses once walked on.

My cultural journey started in the country’s most famous landmark. A mammoth structure spanning thousands of meters.

What’s so Great About the Great Wall?

This must have been the reason why I shed so many pounds during my stay in Beijing. The long walk from the Badaling gate section of the Great Wall up to the roller coaster-looking cable cars along some steep brick-covered floors almost made me give up and just wait in the shuttle. I was so sure that I was the youngest in the tour group but I was always left behind catching my breath, running and calling on them to wait up.

Metal creaks echoed around the dark cave-like structure that our seemingly theme-park-inspired cable car passed through, as it slowly inched its way up the steep wall. The excitement came to a halt upon reaching the top. We were all taken aback, silenced by the mammoth structure lining the mountain ranges like stacks of giant dominoes made of age-old bricks and stones. “Everything that the sun touches and your eyes can gaze upon here” I finally uttered while extending my hand to the right, “is not mine.” I continued in an effort to break the ice.

The Badaling section, we were told, was the earliest section to be opened to tourists among all the parts of the Great Wall. 130 Million tourists including 370 foreign leaders and famous people have come to climb this ancient military defense project used to protect the Juyongguan Pass. The watch towers sitting proudly atop the mountains provided tourists their well deserved shade after a few meters or so of walking along the brick-lined walls. “This must be the worlds most pictured wall”, I told myself as I watched tourists snap and pose behind, beside and all around the brick structure.

Descending was much easier as gravity pulled what’s left of my weight and my backpack down the Great Wall. Going back to the shuttle we eagerly showed each other trinkets that we bough on our way back. What ever happened to the legendary emperors who ruled this land hundreds of years ago? That question brought me to my next destination.

Ming Tomb’s Quality Control

Just like the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Chinese emperors’ belief in the afterlife pushed them to build magnificent tombs that now house their corpses and treasures. During the reign of the Ming Dyanasty, 13 emperors built palatial buildings and complexes in the Northwestern Suburbs of Beijing. These complexes were later called Ming Tombs. It is the burial site of 13 out of 17 emperors of the Ming Dynasty.

The day started with raised eyebrows from the wives in my tour group who gave their husbands pierced looks, after we were told that not only the empresses were buried here. A separate site was also reserved for the emperors’ concubines. The intricately ornamented structures house treasures such as gowns, costumes, weapons and coins displayed inside glass casings. These stand witness to how China’s legendary people lived on Earth.

Trailing behind the group I couldn’t help but notice the Chinese characters carved on the old bricks. “What are those Chinese characters for?” I curiously asked the guide. What he told us silenced the noisy crowd. These, we were told, are names and the locations of the people who made the bricks. This made it easier for the emperor to locate the makers who were called and punished, for every bricks that were poorly made. A form of quality control in the old times that proved effective considering how much these structures have withstood the tests of time. A maker would undoubtedly pour time and effort in every single brick if his life depended on it.

After shopping for silk cloths, plates and trinkets, the black and white stuffed toys displayed in stores reminded me of why I wanted to see Beijing so much in the first place.

Beijing Zoo: Happy Feet Has Got Nothing on Me

“Where can I see a panda?” I smilingly asked people around the hotel. I spent my last days in Beijing embarrassing myself, asking people where I can see those cute little black and white furry animals. I finally grab a hold of a map with the address of the nearest zoo and bugged the receptionist to write it down for me in Chinese characters.

I excitedly ran to the entrance, map in hand in search of my second most favourite animal. A clear glass separated tourists from the pandas. Stuffed toys lined the stores right beside the cage. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference because the panda’s looked like giant stuffed toys moving lazily around.

The Beijing zoo is home to 7,000 creatures of 600 different species including the giant panda, red-crowned crane and Pere David's deer-all unique to China. My Happy Feet hysteria then pulled me inside the part of the zoo where penguins are kept. Swimming around the waters, greeting and happily entertaining tourists behind the glass-covered aquarium, these famous little creatures were also a sight to see.

I spent grueling hours hailing a cab to get back to the hotel. My pseudo sign language skills finally got me a deal with a nice cab driver who smilingly drove me back. I was brought around the site where constructions for the 2008 Olympics are being made. One can just smell the excitement in the air as the locals anticipate the flocking of tourists from all parts of the globe.

Going around the busy streets of this city, covered from head to toe with only my eyes and frozen nose poking out the hood of my heavily stuffed jacket, I realized that Beijing at first glance is just like any Asian city catching up with the modern times. But not until I started observing details that it finally dawned to me. There’s more to Beijing than just the traffic jams, shopping frenzies, and sub-ways packed with chinky-eyed people. It is a city so willing to open up to the world and to modernity but is held humbly to the ground by its densely rich cultural heritage.

© A Balita May 10 2007 Anna Loraine Balita is a 23 year-old freelance writer taking up her masters in Applied Media Studies from De La Salle University in Manila.Online Portfolio: http://lorainebalita.blogspot.com/
The International Writers Magazine- May 2006


What Lies Beyond A Bar Of Chocolate
• Loraine BalitaThis, I thought would give me the perfect reason to stay single...'

Staring at a picture of the Swiss Alps behind a chocolate bar, I wondered how the real thing would look like. I imagined a real life Willie Wonka factory, with forests, meadows, and prairies abound with chocolate. Just before drooling on my seat, and chewing on the cabin crew’s arm, she called my attention and asked me to fasten my seatbelt, for we were about to land in Switzerland.

After weeks of going around this country, I discovered what really lies behind a bar of Swiss chocolate. It wasn’t Wonka’s factory alright, but it was so much better than that.

Montreux : Chateau De Chillon

"Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,And thy sad floor an altar - for t'was trod,Until his very steps have left a traceWorn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,By Bonnivard! May none those marks efface!For they appeal from tyrrany to God" ---Lord Byron

“This has got to be fake!”, I continuously told myself when the cruise ship approached Montreux. A medieval castle built on an islet facing a spectacular view ushered me to get off.Snow topped mountains lined the other side of the lake, with its feet gently dipped in the waters. Sunlight peeked at the sides of the mountain, caressing the surface of the lake, making the water sparkle. Add that to the already astonishing view of the Chateau de Chillon (Castle of Chillon), makes a seemingly fake scene that would make anybody rub their eyes in disbelief.

This, I thought would give me the perfect reason to stay single, I could well say that I fell in love with a castle in Montreux. And just like discovering substance behind a pretty face, I discovered the historical significance of this place.
This castle was immortalized by the famous poet Lord Byron in his poem “Prisoner of Chillon”. Going down the chilly castle prison with its high ceiling and rocky floor, I found the place as creepy as it was interesting. Carved on the third pillar is Lord Byron’s name, who was inspired to write about Francois Bonivard’s ordeal. Because the latter was in favor of the reformation, he was kept shackled here for four long years during the 16th century by the Duke of Savoy. If being tied down to a wooden post by a heavy metal chain is not enough torture, the chilly atmosphere, cold stone floor and trifle amount of sunlight pouring in through only the thin loopholes on the walls of the dungeon, would have driven the prisoners then, half insane.

Climbing a few steps up the stairs brought me to a totally different scene. Chambers filled with medieval treasures stood witness to the lifestyle of the dukes and counts who lived here. Treasure chests, knight’s armors, swords and paintings adorn the halls and courtyards. “Now this explains why royal duchesses and princesses looked so slim! No elevators!”, I joked as I and a group of other tourists went up the endless plights of stairs, leading to the chambers and towers. Imagine climbing up these staircases everyday in those bulky, heavily embroidered dresses. Talk about exercise.

Medieval Murten

From a medieval castle to a medieval little town in Switzerland, I just couldn’t get enough of the interesting lives of Princesses, Knights and Dukes. The town of Murten has kept its charm and appeal with perfectly preserved towers, walls, streets, arcades and walkways that would surround any tourist who would want to walk back in time. You can almost see knights in horses passing by who would come to any damsel’s rescue. Snap back to reality and you’d see them in motorcycles, BMW's and Audis screeching along the age old bricks used in the streets.

Wondering just how strong the brick fortresses are, I kicked the wall just beside the tower clock. After breaking a French pedicured toenail, I realized just how stupid I was expecting the structure to crumble right before my feet. If these have been here since the medieval times, it could have well withstood even the strongest typhoon, snow storm and earthquake since those times. Silly me, thinking I was Goliath who could kick this edifices right off of their feet.And then

I wondered what these structures are made of, and why can’t we, the ultra intelligent, cyber people of the modern times build structures as strong as these? With all the resources and technology right at our disposal, equipment we can command with our every whim, still we make buildings out of pancakes with only syrup holding it together. Come tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons these modern buildings would crumble to pieces.

After a failed attempt to read the bus route and directions in French and German and getting lost in the process of going back to the train station, I finally sat on the cozy train. In front of me was a man reading a newspaper with a red adverstisment on the back about a car show in Geneva. I then remembered a ticket given to me by my brother as a gift. Desperately searching through my backpack, I finally reached the bottom and was able to grab a hold of the red ticket for the Car show. Pulling it out of my bag, stuff falling out, I held it up and told the conductor smilingly that I’m off to Geneva.

76th Annual Geneva Motor Show March 2006

Packed with car aficionados running around like kids in a candy store, I barely was able to squeeze inside the venue. Feeling like a midget amidst a crowd of tall people drooling over the cars on display, I decided to join in the frenzy.

From the big muscle cars to the cute minis, they had everything on display there. Who wouldn’t want to drive them all? If these were pocket sized, I would have brought one home.The Ferrari’s stood out, as always, as well as the Lamborghinis and the uniquely designed model cars. Two entire floors were half filled with cars and half with ecstatic people, whose eyes were almost popping out.

Needless to say, I ended that day with a blast, thankful that I sat in front of the guy with the newspaper.And so my days in Switzerland ended. I would never look at a Swiss chocolate bar the same way again. Because beyond the chocolate bars, army knives and cuckoo clocks, is a country filled with historical treasures, breathtaking views, exciting events, and people with the uncanny ability to organize everything and a passion for neatness, precision, punctuality, and hard work

© Anna Lorraine Balita - May 2006pinkraine18@yahoo.com
What’s On & Expat Newspaper Oct 2 - Oct 8, 2005
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A Foreigner's Survival Guide to the Metro
By Loraine Balita

So you're a foreigner, inching through the nerve-wracking traffic along one of Manila's choked and teeming streets. You feel like your legs are going to break off any minute now, because you've been stepping on the pedal for the past hour. Or you could be one of those with a driver, literally begging him to go faster, while frantically dialing numbers from the back seat, because you're already thirty minutes late for that important meeting with an equally important client.

And then a bright flash: an eye-catching ad printed on the side of a train speedily passes through you on the tracks above. You suddenly envy the passengers in that train, because unlike you, who will have to deal with the bustling streets for the next hour and a half, they are comfortably sitting inside the air-conditioned train-and will reach their destination in the next 30 minutes.

Could I, a foreigner, take advantage of the clearly visible benefits of the MRT? you ask yourself. Is it safe? Is it easy to use? Could it even be fun?Why not? But you'd have to familiarize yourself first with the system and the quirks of the actual ride.

MRT and LRT : What you need to know
All Manila's metro trains are overhead lines; no "subways" in a town where the water table is about three feet below the surface. The MRT and LRT 2 stations have elevators; some even have escalators with boundary areas for disabled people; the older LRT 1 does not.

The Metro Rail Transit (MRT) runs along EDSA, Manila's main circumferential road, roughly north-south around a semicircle. It starts at the Taft Avenue station, at the EDSA intersection in Pasay City, and runs to Magallanes, Ayala, Buendia and Guadalupe stations in Makati and the Boni and Shaw stations in Mandaluyong. It then goes to the Ortigas station followed by Santolan-Annapolis in San Juan and the Cubao-Araneta, GMA-Kamuning, Quezon Ave. and finally the North Ave. stations in Quezon City, where the line terminates.

Tickets are sold at the booths in each station, which are open from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Prices range from P10-P15, depending on the zone or location and how far you travel. A single journey ticket can be used within 75 minutes after the time of purchase; a "stored value" ticket worth P100, which might buy you six to eight rides, can be used at any time up to three months from purchase.

The Light Rail Transit consists of two different lines, the LRT 1 and LRT 2. The LRT 1is open 5:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m. and runs just about due north along Taft Avenue from Baclaran in Pasay City to Manila City Hall, along Arroceros Street, and across the Pasig River, entering the Santa Cruz district. From there it follows Rizal Avenue and Rizal Avenue Extension to the terminal at Monumento in Caloocan City.

The LRT 2, open 5:00 a.m.-8 p.m., running roughly east to west, traverses five of Metro Manila's cities: Marikina, Pasig, Quezon City, San Juan and Manila.

LRT ticket prices are P12-P15 depending on the location or destination. Single journey tickets on either LRT line are usable anytime on the day of purchase; a stored value ticket, worth P100, or six to eight rides, is valid for six months.

LRT 1 meets LRT 2 at the Recto Station; LRT 1 meets the MRT at the Taft Avenue station in Pasay. Both connections have walkways which passengers can use to transfer from one line to another. The transfers are not free, however. The MRT, on the other hand, meets LRT 2 at the Cubao station , but at present no walkways connect them. The two lines, though, are only a five-minute walk apart, through the Gateway Mall.

People living in parts of Metro Manila not traversed by an existing line need not despair, as plans are already under way to extend some lines and add more stations and routes to existing ones. The planned MRT 7, already approved in principle, is expected to serve commuters to and from northern Metro Manila, including Novaliches, Fairview, Caloocan and past city lines to Tala in Bulacan.The proposed extension of the LRT 1 from Baclaran to Bacoor, and later further south to Imus and Dasmariñas, Cavite is also coming.
This is expected to benefit commuters living in the southern Metro Manila, and beyond, into the city's southern environs.

Okay. That takes care of the facts about the system.

But wait! Before you go jauntering off on a train riding spree, let me first take you on a trip through the station, just so you'll have an idea of what to expect. I wouldn't want you wandering around there totally clueless, entering through the exits, buying tickets from the guards, would I?

Let Me Take You There
I'm not telling you to wear your tennis shoes, but be sure, especially you ladies, that your heels are secure, as the long flights of stairs up to and down from the station could prove to be your first challenge, along with the hordes of commuters you're going to bump into (often literally) during rush hours. Think of it as your morning exercise, and if you haven't had your breakfast, you can grab a bite of the many foods sold in the numerous stores lining the stations. From the usual brands of fast food to cell phone reloading stalls, you can do a fair amount of shopping while waiting for your train at many MRT and LRT stations.

The queue for tickets, especially in the morning rush, will be your second challenge, as it will surely test your patience. Be sure you read the lists of stations and fares posted above the booths before you join a line, so as not to waste your time inching to the front, only to find out that it's the wrong booth! I feel a great need to pass along this advice, because it is based on vivid personal experience.You will use your ticket to access the tracks by inserting it the automatic gates, from which it will be shot back to you. Then you should hang onto it until you reach your destination-you will need it when you get there.

Mother's advice was good
Now-I have set down a few helpful tips you should remember while inside the train or within the premises of the station. Read through and try to remember as this would prove useful to you.• Mommy's good advice still applies here:

"Do not, I repeat, do not talk to strangers." Like any other public transport, the MRT/LRT or any of its stations are no places to meet people. So save those introductions and cheesy pick-up lines for your company's next acquaintance party. If you find yourself being bugged by a peculiar or too-solicitous stranger, every station has roaming safety officers whom you can approach. The good news, in those circumstances, is that they roam with bomb-sniffing dogs; if the canines are not enough to scare away that stranger I don't know what else will.

• Do not act the part. Don't make it obvious that you're a first-timer by wandering around and asking strangers about the destinations and the fares. Act as if you have been doing this for the longest time and you know exactly where you're going. I know it's hard to feel like one of the crowd when you're the only pale-skinned expat anywhere in sight, but it's best not to make it obvious that you're not familiar with the ride. Better ask people you know first before actually going to the station. Make sure you know your destination. Or if you really find yourself lost, look for the proper authorities to ask. There are guards in uniform and at least two Philippine National Police personnel assigned to every station, or you can always look for the station supervisor to get the info you need to get back on track.

• The fact that crimes on the metro lines are mainly isolated cases doesn't mean that crimes don't happen. Even with the strictest security measures, the chances of pickpockets or cell-phone thieves victimizing you all depends on how well you take care of your valuables. After the bomb inspection (yes, they have them here too), when you have passed the guards, while you're sitting-if you're lucky-or standing inside the train, whether you still have your stuff after the ride all depends on you. Make sure that all your valuables are secure. Knowing exactly where they are, keeping a hand on your wallet or the closing of your handbag, and not using your cellphone, all through out the ride, wouldn't hurt.

• Best of all would be if you had a Filipino friend or friends, whom you trust and who are familiar with the train system, to accompany you the first few times, until you get used to it all.Keep your eyes and ears open, as the particular station will be announced upon reaching each stop. The stations' names are also posted and easily visible from the train if you look around. The ticket, remember the ticket? I hope you remember where you placed it, because in order to exit the station, you have to insert it into the automatic gates again.

So, there it is, everything you need to know to get around Metro Manila by metro. Think of this as your user's manual and keep it with rest of your "survival kit" as you traverse the city. And remember that age-old cliché-and remember too that clichés got that way for a reason: "It's better to be safe than sorry.”