Bikes and Dikes

…continued from Layover in Limburg

At the Artis Zoo, people-watching is just as enjoyable and enlightening as seeing the many impressive animal exhibits

The Dutch have their own version of the pedal-powered tricycle-for-hire, but have improved it by featuring a more restful reclining posture for the driver

It was on the train trips north up to Amsterdam, and later west to The Hague and Antwerp, where I really got a feel for the countryside – as flat and green as you could have imagined it, with the occasional windmill or cow adorning the view. And everywhere was water, carefully channelled and controlled, be it stream, pond or river. Every village or housing development, however simple or compact, boasted a water feature. The air was fresh with vapour, diffusing the sun into that distinct Dutch glow which lit the canvasses of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. The land was as stringently planned, parcelled out and crisscrossed with waterways and bike lanes as the exacting lines and rectangles of Mondrian and Rietveld. But like everything in the Netherlands, something radical bubbles beneath the rigid structure on the surface. The Dutch ride their bikes like madmen, secure in their status as queens of the road. Pedestrians and motorists better beware when crossing bikers’ paths. Bicycles are such a big deal that their theft is a huge national menace, with over 700,000 stolen every year. This beggars the question, if there are already 16 million bikes in the Netherlands, with more than one bike for every Dutch person, then why steal someone else’s? It’s probably just like a huge game of musical bicycles!

the blogger on a bike

While tourists take leisurely boat rides along the canals, true locals pedal fiercely on their fiets (bikes) practically everywhere. So I knew I ought to have a go at this great Dutch tradition while visiting my cousin Jamie and her family in The Hague. Most Dutch keep two bikes, an old outdated one (which they wouldn’t mind getting stolen) for short, simple trips, and a souped-up cycling machine for serious speed (carefully kept under lock and key). My cousin’s Dutch husband Ron, easily half a head taller than I, lent me his well-used “granny-style” bike to take for a spin around their neighbourhood. Once I’d figured out how to mount the imposing mass of metal, and gotten over my fear of losing control and hurtling into a canal or the path of a speeding tram, I actually started to enjoy myself and feel like I’d managed to embrace the full Dutch experience.

Croquettes, frites and pea soup are as Dutch a meal as you can put together.

Since they expend so much energy getting around, it’s no wonder the Dutch stay mostly lean (but not mean) despite their traditional cuisine being heavy on pancakes, fritters, meat, potatoes and powdered sugar, or various combinations of the above-mentioned. Going by the gastronomic landscape though, you’d think it was the Indonesians who’d colonized the Netherlands and not the other way around. You can’t go very far without running across a rijsttafel (rice table), a Dutch colonial adaptation of the Javanese dinner. Surinamese restaurants and Argentinean steakhouses jostle for attention between automats, falafel shops, and kiosks peddling pickled herring. Clearly, conquering the munchies is not a problem in this country.

The tower of Delft’s Nieuwe Kerke, where members of the Dutch Royal family are buried

The Tiles that Bind

After a quick stroll and drive around the monuments of The Hague, where the Dutch government and Queen Beatrice reside and preside, Jamie and Ron took me to Delft, the town synonymous with its iconic blue-and-white glazed tiles and pottery. With their two-year-old daughter Elise in tow, we strolled through charming streets heavy with the history of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange, Father of the Dutch Nation, lived, died and was buried here) and as the home port of the Dutch East India Company – the original importers of the Chinese porcelain which inspired the famous Delftware. Although they live and work in The Hague, Jamie and Ron actually prefer spending their leisure time around Delft, which they consider more family-friendly, especially with a young child, and more importantly, has better parking, always an issue in a country of such density.

A stall for used books at the University of Amsterdam, helping satiate the Dutch’s apparent addiction to reading material

Earlier in the summer, they took a break from the bustling Randstad (the conurbation of the four largest cities in Holland) and with Jamie’s parents rented a bungalow in the countryside near Maastricht in the Southern Netherlands where I’d just been. Turns out that among the Dutch, vacation time is sacred and best spent communing with nature. I guess it makes up for their high-tech hyper-efficiency while at work. As both Ron and Peter explained, one restaurant staff in the Netherlands is expected to do the same amount of work that in the Philippines you’d probably have three different people doing, which is probably why even the simplest cafes have wi-fi-equipped waiters.

Amsterdam’s modernist face emerges along the Oosterdok. Leftmost is the Stedelijk Museum CS, housed in a former postal building and containing many masterworks of modern art, the ship-shaped structure to the right is the Nemo (National Center for Science and Technology)

Over dinner at their home, we talked about the differences between the quality of life and raising a family in the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Hong Kong (where the couple met and first lived together). Jamie valued the importance the Dutch place on independence, competence and living harmoniously with the environment but missed the warmth of family and easy access to help with babysitting and housework. After coffee, Ron drove me to a spot with a good view of that quintessential Holland postcard scene – a row of traditional windmills, picturesque yet functional and still helping keep the sea at bay.

Bummed by missing a photo-op with Rembrandt’s grandest opus at the Rijksmuseum? This 3D reinterpretation of The Nightwatch in bronze is ripe for the snapping at Rembrandtplein

continued in Holland From a Higher Plane

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

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A Passion for People: AIR FRANCE KLM’s Ihab Sorial

Airline General Managers on the cover of Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine’s 2nd issue. Photo by Richie Castro.

Upon conversing with Ihab Sorial, one is first struck by his openness, then by a series of of pleasant surprises. Sorial professes a fondness even for aspects of the Philippines that most may find unpleasant. It would shock the most jaded Manila natives to hear that he likes driving around the metropolis, “I love the organized chaos, all the complexities and challenges of the country.”

But then Manila traffic may not be much compared to being General Manager for the South China Sea region of AIR FRANCE KLM, the biggest airline group in Europe. Their figures are staggering. Turnover this year was 23 billion euros, an increase of 7 percent compared to the year before, while net income was 1.24 billion euros, a 32 percent increase. “It’s getting from good to better to great,” states Sorial. “Results are very positive despite rising fuel surcharges and costs.”

This upbeat trend extends to the airline’s operations in the Philippines. Flying state-of-the-art Boeing 777-200s with audio/video-on-demand in every seat, KLM is the only airline that flies nonstop between the Philippines and Europe, capturing the highest market share.

Ihab Sorial. Photo by Richie Castro.

“The Philippines should really strive to get more airlines to come in and maintain the ones already here,” advises Sorial. “It’s always healthier for the industry and the country to have competition.”

During the photo-shoot for the magazine cover, the airline men all cast aside their professional rivalries and got along like good friends. “Although we are competitors, we still do like each other. It’s nothing personal. That’s really top-notch professionalism,” Sorial states admiringly.

International air travel is definitely one industry where one has to be adept at dealing with people of different cultures. Since their operations span the globe, airlines need a truly global perspective and attitude to rise above the pack. The successful merger of AIR FRANCE and KLM proves how unity in diversity is not such an implausible concept. As one group, two airlines and three businesses, each airline has retained its individual identity, trade name and brand, and respective hub.

“AIR FRANCE is French and KLM is Dutch, but it’s a nice combination,” says Sorial. “I’m Egyptian-American. So we really don’t distinguish between cultures or nationalities. To be honest, we really value everyone the same way. We do know that expats travel a lot, and they’re a market segment we value. But the best thing to do is to cater to everybody’s needs with the same passion, wherever they come from. Others may use the word ‘customer-passionate’, but we try to we transcend that, to go the extra mile, to do what matters.”

It’s this passionate approach to his work that shows why Sorial was entrusted with such an important position at the airline. During his stint in Bangkok he oversaw the first integrated region in the entire world for AIR FRANCE KLM, while Manila is one of the first countries in the world where the two airline titans merged operations.

Having lived and worked in seven countries and been in charge of more than 15 territories over the past 13 years, Sorial is the consummate pro when it comes to intercultural relations. “In business, we may not always agree on the right ways of doing things. It’s not always easy to build a consensus. But we all share some of the same values, such as the value of common sense.”

Sorial believes in respect, transparency and clear communication as the ingredients for a successful organization, especially in a merger. He stresses how success depends on a company’s people and their convictions. As a manager, his greatest motivator to do well is the team of people he oversees.

“People inspire me. And I hope it works both ways,” Sorial reveals. “Sometimes you motivate people by saying if you work hard you get a bonus, but you won’t get one if you don’t. But genuine inspiration is based on the heart. So if you truly like your people and what you’re doing, you inspire them. As a leader you have to connect with them on a personal level.”

It’s this strong team connection that keeps the AIR FRANCE KLM regional office here running like a powerhouse. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Sorial however. “I’m proud to be an Egyptian,” he declares. “But it also plays a role in my position. AIR FRANCE KLM always had French or Dutch general managers before. It’s not easy. It takes time until people believe in you. Sometimes they may have this perception that you’re too good to be true. It takes a lot of sincerity and heart to really prove to them that you care for them.”

He explains that the way he plays tennis, is the same way he works, and vice versa. “When I feel down I say ‘never ever give up’. For instance, if I reach a dead end or I’m really drained, I just interrupt the pattern. So before I serve, instead of bouncing the ball three times, I bounce it seven times. I really apply my work values to my game.”

Attaining Sorial’s objectives for himself and his team is far from an effortless process as he describes: “You have to be perceptive, notice everything, and try to fill the gaps. You look, listen, and ask questions, then try to be fair, decisive and understanding.  My approach is to be very genuine, straightforward, and pragmatic. One cannot work alone. You have to know when to pull and when to push, and when to share leadership. It’s a balancing act, day in and day out.”

Out of the office, Sorial also does his best to maintain a sense of equilibrium. “I always strive to be consistent in my actions. I learned that from my children,” he relates. “My eldest son once told me: ‘Dad, I wish you would treat me like you treat your staff.’ This really hit me. He said: ‘Even when you come home, you’re always working.” So I try to be as fair and balanced as possible. And I think I manage. I try to be myself everywhere. My staff is shocked when they see me in shorts, because they always see me in a suit, or when I joke. So I say, ‘this is me, I’m a human being’”

But what does elevate Sorial’s humanity, although he may be too modest to draw much attention to it, is his gracious spirit. A strong sense of spirituality imbues his words and deeds. He openly shared his love for this particular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”

“Everyone’s life can be his message,” expounds Sorial. “You can do great, even if you start small. I’ve been touched by many people and I hope that many people have also been touched by me. I just hope my message reaches across the world, through every country I’ve been.”

When asked where he’d want to go from here, Sorial shrugs off any ambitions for a loftier, less hands-on job. “I like being close to people, coaching them, making them happy. I don’t think there’s anything better than what I am doing.” There is little doubt though that he will continue to move on and find more people to inspire, and more places to spread his message.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

Finn to a Tee: Ambassador Riita Resch of Finland

Like a brisk and bracing breath of fresh Finnish air, Her Excellency Riitta Resch of Finland has a take-charge, no-nonsense mien which is just as effective at the diplomatic roundtable as it is on the driving range.

Amb. Resch 2nd from right, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

When asked about her favourite pastimes, the inveterate golfer unabashedly admits to spending most of her time off at golf courses. “I travel with my golf bag, it is my ‘family’,” confesses the ambassador. “I play golf around Manila and that takes all day so I really don’t have to worry about my free time very much. I would love to go to movies much more than I do and attend some cultural events, but I’m a little bit lazy in that respect. Golf is really what I do. It’s my priority number two. The first one is work.”

Passion for her profession is just par for the course for Ambassador Resch. “I really like my job and it makes a tremendous difference,” she shares. “I think if you are interested in the job you have then you will be successful, and I’ve been lucky enough in my postings. I’ve always had something to do that means a lot to me, something that I feel is important. Being abroad and representing your own country particularly as an ambassador is such a highlight. This is my first ambassador’s posting so it is the best so far. We’ll see what happens next.”

Envoy Par Excellence

Ambassador Resch began her career climb in business school where she studied foreign trade and marketing. Back then, she just thought of the Foreign Service as a job opportunity that included languages and travelling. But the years in foreign service have opened up many other things too. She has now been very happy in her profession for the past 25 years. “I really haven’t thought of other options than my present profession. I know that there isn’t anything that I’d like to do more than this and that’s why I’m still here,” she declares. “Is is important to make your choices and then live accordingly. It is a waste of life to think that something else is always better. Enjoy what you have!”

Her affection for her posting is in no small part due to the warm reception she has received. “As an ambassador in this country, we feel greatly appreciated. We have access to everybody and everything,” explains the envoy. “Finland had the presidency of the European Union for 6 months last year and then, in particular, I noticed how easy it is to approach the Filipino authorities, senators, politicians, even the President. And when you invite them they usually come. Otherwise our tenure of four years is very short to have any sort of major accomplishments or tangible results. But we try our best.”

At this juncture, the ambassador has been swinging far but true. “I think that the relationship between our two countries is very good but it’s also very remote,” she ponders. “I don’t think that Finland is very well-known in the Philippines and vice versa. It is one of the basic jobs of ambassadors to make our countries better known in our postings. In the case of Finland in the Philippines everybody seems to know about Nokia cell phones and Armi Kuusela, the Ms. Universe winner who married a Filipino businessman and lived here. They have made my job relatively easier. There are only about 100 Finns living here, and there are less than 1,000 Filipinos, most of them married to Finns, living in Finland.”As a small country we are not as well-known as some of the bigger ones, so we try to do a lot of work through the European Union, which is a union of 27 countries and the European Commission. It gives us a much bigger avenue than what we could have individually.”

Ambassador Resch points out the areas in our relationship that could always improve. “More trade between our countries and more investment and more Finnish companies in the Filipino markets would always be welcome,” she shares. “There are a lot of opportunities in this country. The Filipino market is huge, you can sell almost anything and everything here. We are good at planting forests and in the paper and pulp industries. So those are good possibilities for our companies to invest in. Politically I think that President Arroyo’s visit to Finland last September was very important and really helped improve relations and increase awareness.”

Most of the envoy’s previous experience has been related to international organizations like the United Nations. “I love the atmosphere of international negotiations, where you have several countries working together and trying to have some consensus,” she shares. Her first posting consisted of one year in Paris as a trainee at the embassy and also studying French at Le Sorbonne. Then she went to Geneva where she dealt with refugees, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. “I had a really great job in Geneva. Living in Geneva, in a small and very safe town in the middle of Europe, was also very nice. It was easy and very comfortable there. But then at some point I desperately wanted a posting in New York, the cradle of the United Nations. When I got there it  was a dream come true. I still love it,” gushes the ambassador.

New Delhi was her first Asian posting, affording her perspective on this part of the world. “India was very interesting. It’s so huge and so different. It’s not a typically Asian country,” she muses. “The Philippines is even farther away from home but in very many respects it’s like a Western country. We don’t have major problems of getting used to living and adapting to normal life here.” She still has to get the hang of dealing with Manila’s crowds however. “We have a big country with a small number of people, while you have a big country with a lot of people. So what is still a little bit difficult for me is always being surrounded by people.”

Surpassing Handicaps and Hazards

Regardless of differences and challenges, it has been smooth putting for the envoy so far. “Since I don’t have a family to take with me, making decisions is easy. I’m very quick to move around,” she asserts.

The ambassador posits: “Maybe women bring a little bit more passion to our profession. I am sometimes asked how it works in our embassy because all of us are women. I really don’t understand that question because for us it really doesn’t make any difference. We are gender-blind to the extent that my staff, particularly the Finns, don’t pay any attention to whether I’m a woman or a man. My predecessors have all been men and I think that my local staff may have been a little bit surprised about a female ambassador because they were not used to that. Now they are and we are a great team my small Filipino and Finnish staff. I really owe them a lot ” “Sometimes, even in my own country where there is equality of genders, being a woman in this or almost any other profession means you have to work a little bit harder to prove yourself.  That’s probably something we’re demanding of ourselves, too.” “I would not like to think that women and men bring different things. I think that we are still all individuals and bring what we individually can into the profession.”

Finland has, however, been always in the forefront of gender equality.  Finland was the first country in the world to allow universal and equal suffrage a hundred years ago, and the envoy easily upholds that noble legacy. However, even Finland still has work to do to attain full gender equality.

“Diplomacy might not be for everybody though”, the envoy attests. “If you don’t like travelling abroad, moving from one country to another, this is not the right profession for you. I think that in some respects what you maybe have to sacrifice are long term friendships. Because if you are four years in a country you might not even make friends because you know you’ll have to leave them at some point. But again now that we’re so globalized and it’s so easy to move around and be connected, even that’s not such a problem anymore.”

Ambassador Resch only hopes that at the end of her career and at the end of her life she can say that she has had a good life and that if she has regrets it’s for something that she has done and not for something that she hasn’t done. On the envoy’s pending agenda is to be able to do more travelling to different parts of the Philippines. “I’ve been around a little bit. I have now decided to go to Boracay so I don’t have to answer to people that I haven’t been there yet,” she teases. “I just went for a couple of days to Tawi-Tawi and then I’m going to Vigan. So I’m trying to catch up with my travelling a little.”

As a parting shot, Ambassador Resch would like to thank everyone, Filipinos in particular, for making their expat life so pleasant in the Philippines. “I think it’s a great place to live. There are some obstacles and problems like pollution and overpopulation. And at some point rather sooner than later Filipinos have to do something about them too” she contends “I think that if people would do a little bit more to keep their own environment clean it would help the whole country. Environment is not about beautification but leaving the cleanest possible environment to our children.”

Salamat and Mabuhay. They’re unfortunately the only two Filipino words I know.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

Standing Tall for Sweden: Ambassador Annika Markovic

Her Excellency Annika Markovic’s imposing blonde presence reminds one of no less than the Valkyries of Scandinavian legend. But her warm smile and gentle manner quickly melted through any feelings of intimidation during our conversation. And it was an enchanting process indeed to see past the dignified diplomat’s statuesque form and discover the idealist’s heart and adventurer’s soul that beats and stirs within.

Amb. Markovic 3rd from left, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

Unlike the abovementioned battle-maidens however, Ambassador Markovic is a passionate pacifist, which is appropriate considering her role as the representative of the country which gave birth to the Nobel Peace Prize. “One thing I’ve been most interested in here is to help with the peace process,” she shares. “I think there is no other singular issue that could affect the Philippines and its development more. If there will be peace in Mindanao, the whole picture will change. In Europe, the general perception of the Philippines is that it’s a dangerous place and you should go somewhere else to invest. I wish the different parties realize that they have a golden opportunity now and that they should really work hard to try to achieve something sustainable. I just hope to see some progress before I leave the Philippines.”

A Passion for Mediation

The envoy readily divulges that her heart is deeply into doing multilateral work. “I find it very rewarding to be working with different countries, facilitating negotiations to agree on something difficult, working to find a common solution that is acceptable to all so we can move ahead and establish something that is a good basis for the future.”

Despite her lofty position, the ambassador remains very humble about the role she plays and the influence she wields. “You try to see what you can do to prevent war from breaking out and supporting peaceful development, to assist in alleviating poverty and to really try to help, make this a better world,” imparts the envoy. “These are big words and I know that what I can do as a human being and as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps is very limited. But at least I can feel like I can make my small contribution to achieve something better for all.”

Ambassador Markovic initially determined and developed her knack for diplomacy during her stints in the Swedish foreign ministry and when she was posted to the Swedish mission to the UN in New York. But she admits to have always been very interested in other cultures and other people. “This job gives me the opportunity to travel around the world, to learn and see things for myself,” states the ambassador. “I’m very interested in foreign policy, how countries relate to one another. What you realize very quickly is we can have so much in common even if we come from different corners in the world. The Philippines and Sweden are very far from each other, but we are very much alike because we have the same basic values. It’s easy for me to relate to what is going on because there is a common ground,” she affirms. “I think my most interesting discovery during my almost 4 years in the country is that our contacts are so broad and extensive: from the grassroots level to political parties and business. It’s been very rewarding to be part of that and to help establish a closer relationship.”

One of the challenges that the ambassador admits to facing here in the Philippines is building a better understanding of the European Union, and the 13 member countries that are here working together as a group. “The individual countries are very well known, but that we form something bigger is not,” she relates. Her embassy has been trying to help explain and promote the European Union to the Filipino people by participating in the Cine Europa Film Festival and in European trade exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the ambassador acknowledges that the challenges are what keep her career interesting and fulfilling. “I’ve been really very happy in this job, so I’ve never had any regrets or thoughts if I should have done other things,” she avows. She does confess that some issues are tougher to sort out than others, particularly those that involve her personal life. “It’s always a challenge to be an ambassador, and maybe even more to be a woman and have a family, and get all the pieces together. You have to cope with your family, to make sure that they are happy, that they also have good opportunities. At the same time you have to focus on your job and do well in it, and still save some little time for yourself so you can also rest and develop. I think that it is something that all women who are in leading positions in society have to deal with.”

Family Matters

Complications aside, the envoy reports that the Markovic family is really enjoying their stay here. The ambassador also hopes that this experience of travelling to and living in different countries affords her kids a broader perspective. “In the future when they have to decide what career path to start and what to do with their lives they would think they’re not just confined to staying in their hometown,” she explains. “They know they have opportunities everywhere. They don’t need to be afraid and think it difficult to move to the other side of the world to find a good job.”

She is proud that her children already possess an advantage in learning languages. They learn English in school but at home they speak only Swedish. “We brought a Swedish nanny to the Philippines even if some people were telling us before that there was no need to,” the ambassador relates. “My youngest was only a year old when we moved to the Philippines but he speaks both fluent Swedish and English. And you cannot tell that he has not lived in Sweden. He wouldn’t have been like that if he didn’t have a Swedish nanny. So that was an important decision we made and I think a very good one.”

Ambassador Markovic would like to think that she has stood as an example for her younger colleagues that it is indeed possible to be a woman and an ambassador and still raise a family. “I think they see that and think that: ‘yeah, if she can do that then I can do it too’,” the envoy asserts, sharing more wise counsel for her fellow female diplomats. “The earlier the better I think you have to realize that you cannot be 100 percent on top of everything. You have to lower a bit your own ambitions so that you can live a healthy life. Because if you want to be the best boss, and the best mother, and the best spouse, I think you’re going to get depressed and frustrated very fast. So you just have to realize that maybe you don’t need to be the best all the time. You can just relax and achieve what’s enough.”

Beyond her dual roles as mother and ambassador, Her Excellency proves how gender should pose no impediment to both professional and personal fulfilment. “A very determined policy of the Swedish government is to promote gender equality and give equal opportunities for men and women to develop and do whatever they want in life,” the envoy contends. “So the different competencies that we bring are really utilized and put to good use. I’m not so sure that you can pinpoint specific areas where women contribute more than men. You can’t say that the either men or women are always a certain way. But it’s always good to have a mix.”

Shared Journeys

Even among this group of women ambassadors, the envoy notes that there are so many interesting personalities. “I think we all are individuals and have our own backgrounds and we are what we are right now for different reasons,” says Ambassador Markovic, who then reveals that they all try to get together once a month or two. “It’s a great opportunity to share experiences, talk about the developments of the country, and learn from each other. Sometimes we also travel together and it’s very interesting to see the Philippines from the point of view of someone you don’t normally travel with.”

This is what inspires her message to any newcomer to the country: “Don’t miss out on travelling around the Philippines,” the ambassador emphasizes. “That has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. You find fantastic people who are very instrumental in their own small communities in trying to be advocates for change. You also realize that this country is still quite poor, that there are many challenges to its development and the alleviation of poverty. It’s only by leaving Manila, travelling to the different corners of the country, meeting with the people, and trying to understand what’s going on with their lives, that you’ll see what this whole country is all about and the opportunities and possibilities that are here.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat magazine, 2007.

Envoy to the Other Side of the World: Ambassador Carlos Costa of Brazil

His Excellency Carlos Eduardo Sette Camara Da Fonseca Costa, Ambassador of Brazil, is as tall as his name is long, and has a diplomatic career that’s just as lengthy. “I’ve been in the profession for thirty-something years. It’s been a long time and I’m quite happy,” says the laid-back envoy. A career in international relations came quite naturally to the ambassador, having been born into a family of diplomats. “Since my childhood I have been thinking about being a diplomat. It’s the way of life of many of my relatives. My father wasn’t a diplomat but he was posted in many international conferences. And with my travels through the years my ideas were crystallized.” He then entered the diplomatic academy in Brazil and never looked back.
Ambassador Costa considers his role in strengthening the relationships between countries to be the most important and fulfilling aspect of being a diplomat. “I think that we are privileged that we are able to do that. When I was ambassador in Indonesia I did my best. I’m doing my best now with the Philippines.”“If I weren’t a diplomat I wouldn’t have any idea what I would be. By training I am a lawyer, but I don’t have the inclination to be one. If I wouldn’t be a lawyer, perhaps I’d be a doctor because sometimes medicine interests me. But I never really thought of having another profession,” he shares.

So far, the ambassador’s efforts have been paying off splendidly, with a breakthrough agreement already notched on his belt. “With the help of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) we now have a memorandum of agreement (MOA) between our two countries. Before I arrived there wasn’t an MOA yet. But now we are having the first meeting in Brasilia in 2007, and then we are going to hold a workshop every year either in the Philippines or Brazil. I am very proud of what we have accomplished here. I think this is an important step.”

The ambassador admits that it’s not the simplest matter to handle relations between two countries that are so distant geographically. “It takes two days to travel one way. So to go back and forth you have four days in transit,” he sighs. But he believes the results are worth it. “The relationship between the two countries is very positive. One example of that is this MOA. We have growing trade between the two countries. It’s very balanced, around USD150M each way, while bilateral trade is around USD550M with the Philippines exporting a little bit more than Brazil. Recently in New York, at the General Assembly of the United Nations,Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim met with DFA Secretary Alberto Romulo. This is a landmark meeting and we intend to deepen the relationship.”The Guy From Ipanema

Beyond official diplomatic efforts, Filipinos already seem to hold a deep fascination with all things Brazilian. “Our music is very popular here in the Philippines,” the ambassador notes. “Bossa Nova is very common to hear on the radio. It’s also a surprise how capoeira has become popular. I think it’s very funny.” Ambassador Costa predicts that the caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail, to be the next trendy drink to sweep the country.

Evidently, the Brazilians are as eager to welcome us Filipinos as we are enthusiastic of their culture. Despite the distance, the ambassador encourages Filipinos to try to come and visit his country, which may actually be easier than what most may think. “Filipinos do not need a visa to go to Brazil. As far as I know, we are one of the few Latin American countries that do not require one.” He believes that Filipinos will find themselves right at home in Brazil, just as easily as he has settled here in the country. “Brazilian people are very friendly,” he asserts. “We like singing and dancing. I think it’s a good match because both of our countries have friendly people who are not afraid of being happy, of enjoying life. Brazilians and Filipinos are very similar. I think that you Filipinos are the Latins of Asia. That is the common perception among my friends from Latin America here.”

The envoy’s posting was actually his first time to reach local shores. “I wasn’t able to visit before because the Philippines is not along the usual tourism routes. You must purposefully want to come here. But I think you have huge potential for tourism. You have beautiful beaches, islands and buildings. I think you have very exceptional treasures that should be more explored and promoted. For example, I have never seen in Asia such a beautiful setting as Intramuros. I didn’t know about it before I arrived here. So when I saw it I was hugely surprised by the beautiful old churches, forts and buildings.”

Unfortunately, the ambassador will be here for only one year and has just now been able to begin to travel, but he intends to go to Mindanao, Palawan, and the Visayas. He clearly displays an affinity for the region and plans to learn more about it.

“I was very happy when I found out I would be assigned here, because firstly I would still be in the neighborhood of Southeast Asia. I consider Southeast Asia to be one of the most dynamic regions in the world, not only economically but also culturally. My experience in Indonesia with the Malay people was a very good one. So I was happy to come here and be with the same kind of Malay people who I know are friendly and happy like us Brazilians. It was a very easy transition for me. When I arrived here I felt at home.”

Reading is what essentially keeps the ambassador occupied during his spare time. But time for himself is quite a rarity, as a diplomat he has to honor many invitations to official events. The embassy even has to operate on two work shifts, a normal work shift in the day, and another in the evening for receptions and cocktails. But all in all so far, it has been smooth sailing for the Brazilian envoy. “It’s extremely easy to be posted here,” he affirms. “I’ve had no difficulty with relating to people. Everybody speaks English. There are lots of nice people and good restaurants. It’s a pleasant place to be. If only it didn’t take too long to travel home to Brazil. Otherwise it would be a paradise.”

Shared Pasts, Shared Futures

Besides our country’s natural charms, the ambassador also admires, of all things, our political system. “The Philippines has a good reputation as a free country, especially in a region where not all the countries are democratic. I think that your long-held democracy is a great virtue.” This approbation is really no surprise bearing in mind the fact that Brazil is also a predominantly Catholic country that has struggled through a long period of colonization, dictatorships and corrupt governments.

Looking further ahead, Ambassador Costa hopes to be able to help promote the use of ethanol here in the Philippines, a technology that the government is currently considering to reduce dependence on foreign oil and with which Brazil has a lot of experience. “We have been using ethanol for more than 30 years,” he explains. “Almost all cars in Brazil have multi-fuel engines. All gasoline in Brazil has a mix of 25 percent ethanol. The distribution of ethanol is now completely market oriented. It’s very efficient and successful.”

For the moment, the Philippine government has not officially approached Brazil about ethanol technology. “But if they do we will be glad to help,” states Ambassador Costa. “We are ready to collaborate with the Philippines regarding that. When we began with ethanol in Brazil it was very complicated. But now it’s a technology which we have completely developed and perfected in Brazil.”

The ambassador surely has no reason to be modest about Brazil’s many achievements and bright prospects as an emerging economic giant. “We are growing well,” the envoy admits. “We are the largest economy in South America. We will probably achieve an investment grade rating next year. Economic fundamentals are good like here in the Philippines.” He hopes that through trade and cooperation, the two countries may help support each other’s development.

“The Philippines already exports very specialized products such as cellphones and semiconductors to Brazil. We send mostly Brazilian beef. For the moment it’s quite dynamic, and we can’t control these forces. I am sure we can find the right ways to improve the trade between the two countries,” Ambassador Costa optimistically states.

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

Coming Home to Center Stage: Michelle Washington

Michelle Washington (far right) and fellow theatre enthusiast expats

When I first started writing for What’s On & Expat I asked some friends if they knew any interesting expatriates who would be good for our “People You Should Know” section. Immediately, one friend told me about Michelle Washington. He described her as “a real character, a fun lady, definitely worth a piece on”. Little did I know that Ms. Washington would turn out to be all that and more. Michelle’s enthusiasm and energy is infectious, as if it bubbles out from her very core. After warmly welcoming me into her home and bonding over her cats, our encounter ended up more like a conversation with a new friend than an interview. This lady has so much to share and is not shy about it.

“When we first arrived, my husband was so concerned that I wouldn’t have anything to do here,” Michelle reveals. But considering his wife’s personality, he shouldn’t have worried a bit. “When the Asian Development Spouses’ Association (ADBSA) saw that I have a background in theater, they asked me to join their board of trustees and be their program director. It turned out to be a great way of meeting people.”

Michelle soon found her hands full. The first thing she had to deal with was a charity event for the ADBSA social welfare and scholarship committee fund. Michelle saw this as a way to exert a positive effect on her host country. “What struck me when I first got here was the number of street children out begging. Coming from the United States, I’ve seen poor people before, but nothing like this. I’m not the type of person who can just sit and let this happen. I have to feel like I’m contributing something. So I thought, what can I do to make a difference?”

That’s why she feels very glad to have joined the ADBSA and really believes in what they do. Michelle described their program wherein they provide funding for teachers to go into different neighborhoods and teach street children. “A teacher sets up the school on a side of the building. The street-children will gather there because they know the teacher will be in that place that day and they basically go, pin up their assignments and have lessons.” she explained. The ADBSA also funds scholarships for students throughout the Philippines, pay for their tuition and books, transportation, and meals.

Michelle figured that she wanted to use all her education and experience to help somehow. She has masters degrees in theater management, theater history and criticism, taught for three and a half years at universities including Le Sorbonne in France and ran several theater companies. “This is a fabulous opportunity. And the proof is in the results,” she affirms. “It was the end of May when we started the show “An Evening of Stars”, the first show I ever produced here with the help of ADBSA, and we raised a little over 500,000 pesos, which is probably just a drop in the bucket. We sold over 400 tickets. We had sponsors like BMW, Jaguar, some airlines and resorts. We had over 50 artists from every single continent, including the Repertory Philippines theater company, amateurs and professionals all together. We even had Mrs. Kuroda, who is the ADB president’s wife, to be part of the show. And they all did it for free, a two hour show. It was just incredible.”

Michelle was more than just vindicated by the success of her efforts, it was as if she had experienced an epiphany. “My mother died a couple of years back and she knew me better than anyone in this world. I just felt her that night shining down on me,” she relates. “I felt this warmth because all of us had been working together. And I realized that’s what I’m meant to do here. That I was meant to use my talent, my skills, whatever I can to make a difference.”

It’s obvious that not only is Michelle making a difference, but she is a different sort of expat lady herself, and that’s in a good way. “I’m not like some people who just sit around. I don’t understand that. I have too much ambition, too much feeling inside to just say, I’m bored. I gotta get out there and do something. I’ve actually heard some people say, ‘I’m so bored, I have nothing to do but play golf.’ And I’m like, I don’t have time to play golf!” Michelle shares this insight so good-naturedly one can’t help but smile. It’s her refreshing attitude and sense of humor which makes it no surprise why all these expat groups have rallied around her projects or actively sought out her help. As a member of the American Women’s Club and the American Association of the Philippines, Michelle has also been actively involved in their fundraising activities. “We get to do a lot of good. And I feel so incredible about that, it’s like a shiver running down my spine, and it’s so much fun!” she declares.

Despite her having accomplished so much in less than a year of having lived here, Michelle admits that the Philippines still stumps her at times. “There are certain nuances that are particular to the culture I still don’t get. But I’m learning. And I rally through.”

What Michelle wasn’t counting on in her ongoing education, was finding a friendly and thriving community ready to take her into their fold. “I wouldn’t have thought that my ideas would have worked here. But last April, I started asking, who do you know who’s in theater in this city? So I found out about these theater organizations. And to get to know all these people I basically threw a theater party. It started with just two people and I told them to bring a friend along. And we had three waves of people. People who weren’t working, came at 7pm, people who were working in rehearsals came at 8pm, people who were in shows came at 11:30pm. The last person left at 3:30 am. It was beautiful. There were so many people.”

Obviously, Michelle was as big a hit with the theater community as her party. “It was so great when I met [Repertory Philippines co-founder] Baby Barredo, she told me to come to her rehearsal one night. And when I was there, she introduced me as, ‘this is Michelle, she’s a new Rep person’. And I thought, how cool! And every time I go there everyone says ‘Hi Michelle!’”

Michelle is currently helping Repertory Philippines build up their expat audience through her contacts within the community, clubs and organizations. “I just introduce myself and tell them ‘come on, let’s go get tickets to the theater tonight’. This has helped me to get to know even more people and do something for the theater community with their marketing. I’ve gotten them coverage through sending e-mails to these different organizations. I go once or twice a week to get publicity material to help get the word out.”

As far as Michelle is concerned, this is all just the first act of a brilliant performance, the first show of a blockbuster run. “I told them a few things I can do, but I still have so much to learn. And I’m hoping to do some producing and probably some directing for them in the future. For now, it’s a start.”

-text & photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

Nostalgia in Negros Occidental

Sandwiched between larger and older Iloilo City across the Guimaras strait, and younger and more scholarly Dumaguete across the Kanlaon Mountain range, the city of Bacolod somehow manages to distinguish itself from its sister cities through sheer attitude. The more devoted denizens of Bacolod proudly maintain that their beloved hometown is more antebellum than Atlanta and more genteel than Geneva. And they’re not really all that far off. At its peak, the province of Negros Occidental, of which Bacolod is the capital, lay claim to a glittering social scene revolving around the incredible wealth generated by the vast plantations or haciendas that blanket the boot-shaped island. From this milieu materialized a rarefied bubble in which float sugar barons, debutante balls, and opera nights, which neither history nor entropy have completely burst.

Respect and Remembrance

As a community, the Negrenses hold their heritage in high esteem, maybe more so than most Filipinos. This is most evident in the attention and care given to the museums dedicated to the province. Located in the old agriculture building close to the capitol building, the Negros Museum is an unusual historical and humanities museum in the sense that, instead of displaying antiques and artifacts, it showcases the ongoing saga of the people of Negros Occidental. The tale begins with the main and permanent display of a reconstructed batil, a wooden sailing vessel used for passengers and cargo at the turn of the century. The batil contains artifacts and reproductions of the type of goods that were exchanged between Negros, nearby islands and foreign lands.

The story flows onward by highlighting the province’s role as the “sugarbowl” of the Philippines, with displays depicting sugar production, the role of the ordinary plantation worker, and even the lifestyle of the legendary Negrense haciendero or plantation owner. There are also exhibits focusing on such themes as the Chinese in Negros, the Catholic Church, and the folksongs and folktales of the island. Smaller galleries flank the main hall: the Cinco de Noviembre exhibit highlights the Spanish colonial era, the Sports Hall of Fame, and a gallery for changing exhibits. In the museum’s north wing is the Jose Garcia Montelibano Toy and Folk Arts Museum, the only one of its kind in the Philippines. Containing about 2,000 toys and folk crafts collected by Mrs. Montelibano all over the world, many of the toys are in mint state. The display is arranged anthropologically with each section telling a story, from simple, basic toys to the most complex mechanized creations.

Nostalgia buffs can get their fill of family heirlooms and religious relics at the Museo Negrense de La Salle. Maintained by the prestigious private Catholic school, the museum preserves vital documents, photographs, and cultural artifacts related to the history and culture of Negros that have been donated by its most prominent families. During our visit, the museum was featuring the legacy of the illustrious Vargas family, particularly the mementos of their late matriarch, Lourdes “Nena” Vargas-Ledesma. From there, we were then warmly welcomed to the estate of her son Eduardo Vargas Ledesma Jr., which prides itself on maintaining one of the world’s largest breeding farms for fighting cocks, and also an interesting display of centuries-old urnas, colorful religious figures collected from all around the Visayas.

Sweet Sojourn

As the sun began to set, we proceeded to the picturesque town of Silay, home to no less than 31 heritage houses of varying degrees of grandeur and antiquity. The dwindling twilight lent a rather spooky air to the storied town. It was easy to imagine the ghosts of Silay roaming the stone streets and ancient structures, haunting the vestiges of the sugar boom’s belle époque, biding their time till the next spectral ball. Thankfully, the Romanesque domes of Silay’s San Diego Pro-Cathedral were ablaze with light and life, as the devout townsfolk giddily prepared for a religious procession, much like their ancestors must have done for generations.

As we sped back to the city for the evening, sweeping tracts of sugarcane spread out on both sides of the highway, inescapably reminding us of the backbone on which the island’s society rests. Although the pace may be slow and the pleasures simple, things still seem to be carried out with a certain sense of style. Even the local dialect of Hiligaynon, unquestionably the Philippines’ gentlest-sounding language, has a sweetly romantic lilt to its cadence.

The sugar baron’s swagger that profoundly permeates the city’s lifestyle is never more obvious than after nightfall. Like exotic nocturnal creatures, the Bacoleños break free from their daytime responsibilities (or lack thereof) and flit into the lively clubs, cafes, and casinos that all cater to the appetites of a town that has learned how to live well and live high and never forgot its lessons. Where else but in Sugarland can you expect a smorgasbord of the most scrumptiously elegant pastries and desserts? And the Ledesma’s fighting cock farm notwithstanding, the Negrenses do love their chicken, grilled to perfection preferably in the traditional Bacolod inasal (literal translation: “cooked over the fire”) recipe which entails a lot of garlic, calamansi juice, and annatto. Once stuffed with sweets, brewed coffee, grilled meats, and liquor (not necessarily in that order) Bacoleños customarily take a leisurely stroll round the rectangular reflecting lagoon in front of the capitol building, or down the main thoroughfare ofLacson St.

Bacolod is a city that likes to keep its mysteries shrouded, and the decadent goings-on at the private parties thrown by some of Negros society’s finest are the stuff of international legend, and interested visitors should dearly hope to be invited for a glimpse into this privileged circus. Or wait till October, when in an ironic display of public passion, the city hosts the yearly Masskara Festival, like a rowdier version of the Venice Masquerade with a Filipino twist – all the masks come with a big smile. But knowing the Negrenses, the faces concealed behind the masks are sure to be smiling even wider, safely smug with their sweet secrets.

Getting There:

Bacolod is located 45 minutes South of Manila by plane. Commercial flights are available daily. If flying in to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila you will have to change planes for the 45 minute hop to Bacolod. A new airport of international standards opened in Silay in 2007.

-text and photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2007.

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One Ring to Bind Them – Singelringen, the “Single Ring”

Singelringen

Singelringen (Photo credit: Duet G.)

Sweden’s best known exports so far have been pop music groups, supermodels, moody art films, and Ericsson phones, but now with the Singelringen, Scandinavia’s largest country seeks to spread a strong statement on the thrills of singlehood.

Singelringen founder Johan Wahlbäck is the very image of a strapping Swede. The then-single bachelor was fully enjoying the un-coupled life, when over a dinner conversation with a friend about how one can identify a single in a bar or a nightclub, they realized that while married and engaged people wear rings to proclaim their shackled status, single people lacked an accessory to easily advertise their availability.“My friend was also single and she mentioned that she’d always check if a man is married or engaged. But the thing is nowadays a lot of people are already in a relationship without being married or engaged. So we basically said, we need something to signify that hey, I’m single,” explains Johan.

And thus spawned Singelringen! Meaning “single ring” (obviously) in Swedish, the unisex band features a turquoise acrylic layer over a silver base, with “made in Sweden” and a unique registration number inscribed on the inner side of each ring. Johan chose a bright and modern look for the ring so it would stand out and people wouldn’t confuse it with anything else. The half circle design that is notched out from the ring is meant to show how when two single people meet, their two rings complete a full circle.The irony is that three days after conceiving the idea of a single ring, Johan met the lovely Jeanette Borén and they’ve been blissfully living and working together as a couple ever since.

Size 3 Singelringen!

Size 3 Singelringen! (Photo credit: leah.jones)

“Most of us know from long experience how it is to be single, up till when I met her I was a happily single guy. Possibly, that’s what made me more attractive to her,” Johan conjectures. He was on an all-time high at the time after coming up with Singelringen and had never been in a serious relationship until he met Jeanette. “When you’re happy you’re more attractive. So I had help from the ring. Not visibly but mentally.”

Johan compares wearing the ring to buying a pair of nice underwear. “You feel cool and sexy even if nobody can see it. The ring is a little bit of the same thing. People may not know what it means, but if you carry the values around of being a confident single, it improves your self-esteem. That in return will make you more attractive,” he affirms.Despite having found each other, both Johan and Jeannette have yet to retire their Singelringens. Whereas some erstwhile Singelringen-ers who find themselves in committed relationships stow their rings away in a safe place or pass them along to friends or family members, Johan reports that some people still wear the rings even when married. “When you wear it when you’re with someone, it reminds you of how if they weren’t so great, you’d still be single,” says Johan. “That this person is more important than the single life.” In Japan eventually they put their rings on a necklace to wear as a good luck charm.

mi anillo de soltero

mi anillo de soltero (Photo credit: Cien de Cine)

Singelringen first started selling in Sweden in April, 2005 and its popularity quickly spread throughout Scandinavia, and onward to Europe, South America, and the United States. In Asia, Singelringen-mania is especially high in Japan and Taiwan, but Johan asserts that they’ve “never been anywhere where the response has been as positive as the Philippines.”

Registering your ring number on the Singelringen website gives you an e-mail address and a page for your profile. “The idea is to let people communicate, not necessarily to date, but just to chat with other people around the world.” The concept of an eye-catching ring for singles just seems to be a good fit wherever it’s taken. As Johan puts it, the dating cultures may be different but single people around the world have the same problems. “The situations are similar. When you’re not in a relationship, you have more time to spend on yourself, do what you want, educate yourself, focus on your career, traveling, clubbing, partying, being with friends. But you may also be searching for the love of your life. It’s everyone’s ultimate dream to meet him or her. But if you still haven’t found that person, you still can feel good about yourself. We try to encourage people to just enjoy life and not be miserable about being by themselves. Time will come when you will find the perfect love and you will have a different life. Enjoy singlehood as long as it lasts.”

But neither is wearing the ring a sign of desperation. “What’s important is the image of the ring is that of single power. It’s not a ring you put on half an hour before closing time to project that hey, I’m single and available. But it’s a ring for those who are confident, and definitely not desperate. It’s a statement that it’s cool to be single.’

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual magazine, 2007

Global Guy Gone Native: Peace Corps Volunteer Joe Speicher

photo by Tina Cifra

Joe Speicher was born a native of Rockville, Maryland, but thanks to his two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer here in the Philippines, has now become an adopted son of Valencia, Negros Oriental. The son of an accountant and a child psychologist, Joe is the eldest of three siblings. His brother is in the US Army, while his sister has recently joined the Peace Corps as well.

After graduating from a small liberal arts college, Joe first donned a suit and tie working as a political fundraiser in Washington DC. He then moved to New York Cityto join the rat race. As an employee of the multinational financial giant Lloyd’s, he found that climbing the corporate ladder in the big city was not all it was cracked up to be. He was dispirited by how the daily grind seemed to be all about money, all about profit margins. Rent was high, and he wasn’t really being paid very well. He sometimes didn’t even have enough money to buy food for himself. One time, he was so hungry he stuffed his bag with the crackers that were left out in the office’s snack area. But he got caught by his boss and was forced to put them back. Joe soon realized how unfulfilled his work environment was making him feel. He wanted something more out of his life. He then started getting involved in volunteer organizations. It was in 2003 when he made the decision that would transform him forever.

logo

logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I applied to the Peace Corps because I wanted to change my life and do something worthwhile,” says Joe. “I didn’t really like what I was doing inNew Yorkand started to look for a change. I was planning to work overseas, and the Peace Corps recruiting office was near my building. I started going to recruiting events and decided that this was for me. After 9/11, I was absolutely certain it was something I wanted to do. I watched those planes hit the twin towers, and I immediately decided that life in a cubicle under the phosphorescent lights slaving away for cash was not for me.”

It was a huge decision and Joe was vacillating up to the last minute. At first, he thought he would be sent to Africa, so his assignment to the Philippines came as a bit of a surprise. His batch of volunteers began their training in Bohol, where Joe first experienced living with a Filipino foster family. From there, Joe then began working in earnest at his assigned site at Negros Oriental.

“The problems in the Philippines are terribly overstated by the Western media,” he asserts. “Once I got here, I felt safer in my barangay than I did in my office building in New York.”

Because of his business background, he was given a position at the Department of Trade and Industry office, where he conducted workshops for farmers to teach them useful livelihood skills, and participated in the writing of a business skills training manual which is now being used in Local Government Units and organizations. He also worked with the local zoo and nature preserve.

Palinpinon Geothermal power plant in Sitio Nas...

Palinpinon Geothermal power plant in Sitio Nasulo, Brgy. Puhagan, Valencia, Negros Oriental, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I lived in a nipa hut, helped out a few local entrepreneurs and taught English at the local elementary school,” Joe recounts. “I lent a hand to USAID and the Peace Corps for a few trainings, wrote for a local newspaper and lead an environmental camp for kids,”

Joe spent most of his time deeply involved with the community in the town of Valencia where he worked at the plant nursery and where his host family lived. Joe was such a cherished member of the community that one of the townspeople even named her baby Josephine after him. It was in Valencia where he was able to develop his amazing mastery of the Visayan language, which he speaks as well as a native.

“Joe’s command of Visayan is what I think really separates him from a lot of other foreigners in the Philippines,” shares Richard Finke, Joe’s friend and Peace Corps batch mate. “He also acquired incredible singing abilities while in the Philippines.” This remains a debatable opinion after experiencing Joe’s videoke stylings, which is apparently a necessary skill to survive the Negros countryside.

Along with many other achievements and adventures, Joe appeared in a Visayan telenovela playing the role of the US Ambassador and participated in a mini-marathon around Dumaguete.

“I got into diving and camping and even won a Peace Corps photography contest. I learned how to climb the coconut trees and wield a bolo. I watched Extra Challenge and Mulawin and listened to F4 and the Eraserheads with my friends,” reveals Joe.

After his stint in the Peace Corps ended in October of 2005, Joe went back to the States where he embarked on a cross-country tour, then worked in a camp supply store for a while to earn some money.

In January of this year, he began studying for a Masters degree in International Studies at Columbia University in New York, where he’ll be graduating in 2007. Even there he tries to hold on to his connections to the Philippines as much as possible. “I organized a trip for my classmates to a local Philippine turo-turo. In the dorm where I live there are two Cebuanas who I tease in Visayan every time I see them,” he relates. “People always ask me to teach them some Filipino, and I tell them the only words they need to know are sige and kwan. It’s true. I’ve seen Filipinos have an entire conversation using only these two words.”

Joe spent his summer vacation this year studying the Chinese language in Beijing from July to August. After his course, he swung by the Philippines to reconnect with his Filipino friends and adopted family, people whose lives he has touched and who have touched his as well.

“In the Philippines I learned how to relax and ride the wave of life without trying to control it. I was sent here to help Filipinos make better lives for themselves, but I’m the one who feels enriched. I learned more in my three years here than I did in high school, college and graduate school combined. The Philippines will always be an essential part of my life.”

-text and photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines, 2006

Crash Chords: Rock the Line

Pinoy Rock, or Filipino Rock, is Rock music – Pinoy style, Made in the Philippines,  Original Filipino Rock Music. The words may be in English or whatever language, but the sound is pure Pinoy.

Timeline of Pinoy Rock

Pre-Rock Age (The Stone Age)

  • “Combos” roamed the scene, bagging nontraditional instruments like floor-bass bongos, maracas, and gas tanks
  • Bobby Gonzales – One of the first Filipino proto-rockers, major hit was “Hahabul-Habol”
  • Eddie Mesa – the “Elvis Presley of the Philippines”

The 1960s

Swingers’ Scene

Maria Cafra logo.

Maria Cafra logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Instrumental bands like The Deltas, The Celtics, RJ & the Riots, The Technicolors, The Downbeats, The Hi-Jacks, and The Electromaniacs cropped up, spawning the first Filipino singer-songwriters
  • The British Music Invasion influenced a new breed of acts like Downbeats, Tilt Down Men, The Moonstrucks, The Dynasouls, and Bits & Pieces.
  • Rock culture arose in the wake of Woodstock producing acts like Circus Band, Maria Cafra, Anakbayan, Isang Kilo Band, Psyclones, Makati Avenue Blues Band and Juan De La Cruz Band

The 1970s

Classic & Psychedelic

The Best of Apo Hiking Society Volume 1
Apo Hiking Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Nationalism drove the rise in songs composed in Tagalog. Socio-political issues were hot topics for all artists.
  • Freddie Aguilar, Asin and Florante fused Folk with Rock.
  • Freddie’s debut single, “Anak,” became the most commercially successful Filipino recording in history
  • Apo Hiking Society, Anakbayan, Juan de la Cruz Band, and Banyuhay also came to the fore.
  • The term OPM (Original Pilipino Music) was touted.
  • Hotdog gave birth to the Manila sound.

The 1980s

Punks and Protests

Freddie Aguilar is a very popular folk musicia...

Freddie Aguilar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enveloped Ideas

Enveloped Ideas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Protestors used song lyrics to vent socially relevant themes, like in the music of Gary Granada and the band Buklod
  • Freddie Aguilar’s Bayan Ko (My Country) was the unofficial anthem of the 1986 EDSA Revolution.
  • Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad popularized Ethno-rock
  • Pinoy punk rockers like Betrayed, G.I. & the Idiots, The Jerks, Urban Bandits, and WUDS could care less about politics, it was all about the attitude
  • With The Dawn’s independently released single “Enveloped Ideas”, a New Wave of music dawned over the scene.  Unsigned struggling local bands like Deans December, Ethnic Faces, Identity Crisis, and Violent Playground gained cult status

The 1990s

Pop and Postmodernism

The rise of NU 107.
The rise of NU 107. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Parokya ni Edgar at a live performance
Parokya ni Edgar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Introvoys and After Image ruled over the early 1990s
  • Then in 1993 the Eraserheads released their first commercial album, Ultraelectromagneticpop and the decade was defined.
  • Rivermaya emerged as a worthy challenger while Yano persisted in mining the sociopolitical schtick.
  • The NU Rock Awards gained cred as the awards to pursue
  • Wolfgang and Razorback muscled into the Metal sceneOn their heels followed Nu Metal mutineers Greyhoundz, Cheese, and Slapshock.
  • Novelty rockers Parokya ni Edgar began to hit it big

The 2000s

Pretty and Pogi

Barbie's Cradle's Barbie Almalbis, Wendell Gar...
Barbie’s Cradle’s Barbie Almalbis, Wendell Garcia, and Kakoi Legaspi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • The upsurge in popularity of Hip-hop, R&B and covers saw hard rock go dormant at the start of this decade.
  • The commercial success of Bamboo and Orange and Lemons got labels interested in bands and song-craft again.
  • Cute singer-songwriters such as Barbie Almalbis and Kitchie Nadal gained fans of all persuasions while the “good-looking” front-men of Cueshe and Hale broke out as the new breed of matinee idol.

More stuff at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinoy_rock

-compiled, adapted and edited by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under music column Crash Chords in Manual magazine, 2006

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