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August 15, 2011

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Nostalgic Road Trip through Old Americana

March 3, 2011

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine, 2009

Armed with a full tank of gas, several layers of clothing, and a vague map in our heads, we set off on the Mother Road through the heart of old Americana. We’ve dreamed often of the Big Apple and have longed for the glitter and glamour of Beverly Hills, but if you really want a bite of the true America, you take a road trip along the historic Route 66, the main highway that cuts through the west that starts from Chicago and goes all the way to California.

If you’ve seen the Pixar animation, Cars, then you won’t need this little history lesson. But in case you’re not into cartoons, Route 66 used to be the super highway across the American West. Also known as the Mother Road or the Free Road, Route 66 was lined with diners, motels, service stations, and other establishments rich with character, to serve motorists that go through the highway. The construction of the interstate highway (I40) in the 80s saw the decline of the more nostalgic route. Today, many establishments sit forgotten, blanketed by the dust and smoke from I40. Others remain to remind travellers of the romantic days of America’s Main Street.

This main artery that forever lies deeply embedded in the American culture not only links the Windy City to the City of Angels, it also connects the new generation Americans to their roots. It is the vein that keeps the old American heart beating in every citizen.

“You can’t get more American than this,” agreed Sid, smiling in his red apron. He leaned over an antique gum ball machine and wished us a good day. Sid’s diner was first on our itinerary.

First stop: Biscuits and gravy

Although we had a full tank of gas, we didn’t have enough to go all the way to Los Angeles.  Starting from Oklahoma City, we headed off to the west, following the sun to El Reno’s for some bacon, eggs, and biscuits – your typical all-American morning picker upper at Sid’s Diner.

Although just opened in 1990, Sid’s diner is not only home to classic home cooked onion burgers, it is also a vestibule of the past when cowboys and Indians once roamed and fought over lands. The walls also tell stories of the era when people went car crazy and El Reno was once a major stop along Route 66. With checkered floors and the star spangled banner fluttering by the front door, Sid’s diner gave us a peek into the old country lifestyle.

An old lady with carefully coifed white hair and caked on foundation took our orders. She set our steaming dishes on a table that was bedecked with black and white photos from centuries past. Dipping my homemade biscuit into creamy white gravy, I pored over a class picture of a dozen women, sitting primly in balloon skirts, their white gloved hand proudly bearing a corsage. A photo of an aged gentleman getting a haircut from the town barber served as a coaster for unsweetened iced tea. By the salt and pepper shaker, a young man beamed in his football uniform.

“Is there anything else I can get you, hon?” the old lady asked, breaking my reverie. She stood close by, making sure we had everything we needed. She puttered about like a grandmother, sending us off with a tall cup of banana shake.

Return to 1874

Nourished and energized, we took the open road to Fort Reno,  once home to buffalo soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalries. These troops supervised the Land Run of 1889. Not familiar with the Land Run?  Think of Far and Away with Nicole Kidman crying “I’ve loved you from the first time I saw you,” over a dying Tom Cruise who held on to a flag that would stake their property on American land. It was around these areas where lands in 1889 were opened for homesteading on a first arrival basis.

Established in 1874, the fort also served as a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. In the compound sits over 25 structures of great historic significance. Stepping out of the car, I quickly discovered how Oklahoma’s weather can be deceiving. Outside, it was as sunny as a bright summer day, but halfway towards the church, my fingers started to tighten. Soon it was tingling. I knew it would be matter of time before it grew numb,  a sure sign that my fingers were well on its way to frost bite. The wind whipped cruelly around. Quickly we found shelter in a European wedding style chapel.

Heavy wooden doors with black iron latchings and adornments opened to a warm retreat. Interiors were made of the same well worn wood.  POWs were said to have made the sparsely decorated chapel by hand as a tribute to the good treatment they received during their captivity.

Like most deserted buildings and former war grounds, Fort Reno is plagued by ghosts and stories of the past revived.  There have been several reports of sightings and deathly voices heard from unseen sources.

Standing still in the middle of the tiny chapel, we listened for voices of phantoms.  We heard nothing but the restless wind, dancing and whistling around the chapel. From the window to the left, we could see a sprawling building that was used a shelter for severe weather like tornadoes which Oklahoma is famous for. We didn’t tarry longer and decided to head on to sunnier destinations.

Stop over: Old Town

Driving on open roads, fields ravaged by winter and lined by withered trees swaying, anxious for spring to bring in promises of a greener season, we soon came upon Elk City, a town that has managed to preserve its small town charm in spite of the  presence of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway Restaurants. Here, the National  Route 66 Museum  sits in the middle of the town. From the main road, the huge Route 66 neon sign, jutting out of the ground, cannot be missed. Behind it is a line of building facades that resemble the different stores that were seen on the main street during the heydays of the Mother Road. Braving the cruel wind, we walked inside the Elk City Old Town Complex and found ourselves in the middle of the late 1800s when Western Oklahoma pioneers used to take their kids to the Rock Bluff School to learn arithmetic or to the doctor’s office for a bottle of asafoetidae to cure bronchitis.

It was a delight to take a peek into the school, a small brick house that offered education and warmth on a cold day. Wooden desks and chairs were arranged around an iron potbelly stove in the middle of the classroom. In spite of the absence of heat, we thought we heard whispers of eager voices and playful giggles. On the blackboard, 2 + 5 and 8 + 7, scribbled in chalk, remained unanswered.

Beyond the train station, right at the side of a red Choctaw caboose, is the Old Town Museum which houses vintage room settings, artefacts of early day western Oklahoma life, and Native American Displays. The exhibit is an interesting array of artefacts from coats made of horse hair to kerosene stoves.  The north room contains 1930s vignettes of a beauty shop which showed us the pains that women had to go through to be beautiful.  For a perm, strands of hair are attached to pegs that are connected to cables stemming out of what looked like a space craft, hovering a few feet over the head. It reminded me too much of an electric chair. I was never happier with my straight hair.

The Farm and Ranch Museum showcases the tools of the trade. Outside was a collection of windmills spinning endlessly. The most interesting display for me was the barbed wire collection, perhaps the largest known collection in the world. I didn’t know there were hundreds of different kinds from the ox pen wire glidden to the brotherton with nails.  At the Transportation Museum, we were allowed to board a hot pink 1959 Cadillac and a 1917 Reo Fire Truck. Our ride wasn’t as fancy. Boarding our 2002 Volvo sedan, we headed off to the east to continue our trip through nostalgia.

Riding off to the East

Racing against dusk, we headed back to Oklahoma City along Route 66. The band, Train, was crooning in their raspy voice, “did you sail across the sun. Did you make it to the milky way to see the lights all faded.”

Light was starting to weaken, but the sky was still starkly blue when we came upon a round red barn to our right. Against wide open skies and endless roads, the huge red structure was impossible to miss. Just a few miles off the city, Arcadia is another historic town along Route 66. Right at the heart of it is the Arcadia Round Barn which was originally built in 1898 to house livestock and serve as a venue for dances.

The red barn is the only known round barn in existence with a very impressive architecture advanced for its time. 60 inches in diameter and 45 inches in height, the barn is a two storey structure that was designed to withstand the state’s notorious tornadoes. And withstand it did for over 107 years.

Inside, a scruffy old man manned the gift shop, selling Route 66 bumper stickers and pens for a dollar or two. The name “Butch” was stitched on his hunting cap.  He nodded and gave me some change for a shot glass purchase then stretched out a closed fist and smiled. I looked back quizzically. “Take it,” he said, opening his hand to reveal a wooden coin with the Round Barn printed on it.

It was a wooden nickel, a souvenir.  It wasn’t worth a nickel, not enough to buy me anything, not even a gum ball. As we drove off to the sun, straight into its pink orange glow, I held on to the nickel knowing  that someday, it will buy me a smile and memories of the Mother Road forever welcoming even strange travellers like me.

A Message to the Universe

February 9, 2011

Published by Action and Fitness Magazine, 2008

This explains why our wedding invites are in bottles.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” Like him, I believe that if I want something bad enough the winds will waltz with the waves to deliver my granted wish. But how do I let the wind know of my whims? How does the ground beneath my restless feet know where I want to go? Some may shout it out to the world at the top of a mountain. Others may sit in a space of silence and whisper their desires to God, while I, well, I send a message in a bottle.

While some people collect seashells from their travels, I collect bottles. It has been an obsession of mine since I first saw a green bottle on the beach of Obella. I like the idea of a lonesome bottle, carrying a precious message, travelling through oceans and time to an unknown destination, and finally into the hands of a perfect stranger. He might or might not care, but for that brief moment, when he unscrews the cover, slides out the note, and reads my thoughts and enters my head, we’re connected. The anonymity of it all only adds to the romance, plus the idea that once you’ve thrown it out to the sea, it is no longer yours, the same way you surrender your dreams to the powers that be and wait for them to be thrown back, granted.

bottle found in the Marshall Islands

I don’t know what happened to the bottle I found by the bushes in the shore of Obella. It was colored emerald green with Japanese inscriptions at the base.  I figured it was washed up on the shore from the Pacific Ocean. Obella is a tiny island in the Marshall Islands in Micronesia, inhabited only by lonely sea turtles and old ghosts roaming the deserted cemetery at the heart of the jungle. Ironically, the cemetery is the only sign of civilization in Obella.

Surrounded by impossibly clear waters, Obella can be reached by boat from the neighbouring atolls that surround a lagoon. On low tide, you can literally walk from a neighbouring island to Obella. If you forge through the thick vegetation, you will find a small cove jealously guarded by a throng of pandanus and plumeria trees. Here, if you lie still for a moment, on a white stretch peppered with powdery crystals flirting with the sun’s rays, you will hear the breeze whisper secrets of old, when the Americans fought against the Japanese to claim ownership of this paradise several full moons ago. I’d like to think the bottle was discarded by a Japanese soldier while hiding under the shelter of a plumeria tree, waiting for a G.I. to wander past. More than likely the bottle could have been thrown by a drunken fisherman tottering on a Japanese fishing trawler that came through the Central Pacific a few days earlier.

Choosing the former as my bottle’s origins, I wrote down my wishes on a piece of paper, put the paper in the bottle and screwed the cap tightly back on. On our way back to Roi Namur, the island where we came from, with the boat running at an even speed, and Tom Petty belting out “Into the great wide open”, I threw the bottle into the Pacific Ocean. The waves eagerly lapped at the bottle, wanting to know the wishes contained inside. I wished that I would spend the rest of my life with my best friend who was driving the boat then. I prayed that we would have many adventures, travelling together. Just a few months later, after travelling to six provinces in twelve days, he proposed to me on top of Calvary hill in Leyte with the statue of the Sacred Heart looming over us, standing witness to our whispered promises.

Since then, every time I travelled, I would look for an empty bottle on the shore, waiting to deliver another message.   A few months ago I found a clear bottle with a rubber cap  hidden between rocks at a beach in Sabtang, Batanes. This time it had Chinese inscriptions on the cap. Batanes lies where the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea merge. I imagined the bottle came from Taiwan, Honk Kong, or China. When I opened the bottle, the sharp scent of gin escaped from the rim.

As usual I wrote down my wishes on a paper, sealed it into the bottle, and then threw the bottle back to the sea. Later, a little commotion ensued by the shore. There was excited chatter from my caravan, crowding over something they found brought in by the tide. Some of them took pictures, excited by the fact that they found a “real” message in a bottle, perhaps cast by someone stranded on an island somewhere. Before they could open it, I ran and swiped my precious bottle away, ruining their fantasies altogether.

I zealously held on to the bottle as our boat crossed the treacherous South China Sea. We spent a good twenty minutes by the shore as our boat battled against the waves, refusing to let us go.  We haven’t even left yet, but half of our group was already suffering sea sickness. We were finally released but not before a huge wave crashed over our boat, rocking it like a plastic toy and causing some of the passengers to scream and beg our boatmen to head back, but they ignored our pleas. It was an intolerable thirty-five minute ride as I braved the screaming wind blowing through my drenched clothes and the splashing seawater burning my eyes. Holding down the fear that threatened to surge from my throat, I looked out, never taking my eyes off the lighthouse from afar, a sign that land was close, then I realized I was still clutching dearly to my bottle as if it were a life saver. I threw the bottle into the dark waters, praying under my breath that I might live to see my granted wishes.

I have yet to see the bottle again. Often I search for it in the landscape of my dreams, around the edges of my adventures and on every crevice of the lands I explore, never once losing faith that my message will soon be delivered.

If you find one of my bottles washed up on your shore, please let me know.

Boracay: The Many Faces and Facets of Paradise

February 9, 2011

It’s a universe all on its own. Its gaily littered shores teem with every kind of race and color. In waters away from the crowded beach, the school of fishes are just as colorful and diverse. On the white sands, the drunkenness and revelry are concealed by the dancing coconut trees. Around them weaves the sound of percussions and Filipinized reggae music. The air is riveting and brings a shock to the soul, reminding you of what breathing should really be. Then just when you’ve gotten used to this unusual sensation called “fresh air”, you are suddenly assaulted by several scents: aromatic oils from masseuses by the shore, stuffed squid slowly cooking on the grill, and the smell of a an evening full of promises.

Never has an island been so overwhelming to the senses. This sexy island called Boracay, a tropical island found in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines archipelago, it’s like a temptress; it refuses to release you. It gets to you even when you’ve left it and calls for your return. The talcum fine sands stick stubbornly between your toes, the touch of its sun remains raw on your skin, and her smell continues to haunt you when you’ve gone back to the city.

What is it about this beguiling island that makes you want to keep coming back, and makes tourists come in droves? It follows its own rules, moves to its own beat. It is in every way Filipino, yet it is a world entirely of its own. It has its own citizens, its own culture – Filipino yet not quite. Here a clean cut Caucasian shares some laughs over a bottle of San Miguel Beer with a dark-skinned sun worshipper sporting dreadlocks. Here, a 48-year-old Italian restaurateur finds home in Boracay’s bosom almost 27 years ago. Today, he expands his business and helps out in putting up a school for the privileged children of the island.  A half Sri Lankan chef decides to make his famous vegetable samosa by the beach and has been doing so for over five years. These, and many others like them, are willing castaways that have been bewitched and have made the islands their home, living harmoniously with the locals.

artists painting T-shirts by the shore

The locals in turn have embraced the visitors, knowing that they bring with them good fortune. A golf caddy has seen the comings and goings of tourists through the years, and welcomes them with open arms, because she knows that Boracay’s livelihood depends on these foreigners.  The artists know this as well. They thrive in the island’s bohemian culture. In Boracay, the restless warm wind and the overflowing booze inspire their art.

Like art, commerce flourishes in this island. It does not apologize for unabashedly embracing commercialism, welcoming into its fold big food and clothing chains like Yellow Cab and Nothing but Water. Where else in the world would a beach have a mall, “The” mall (D’Mall), right in the middle of it?   It is only in Boracay where the Starbucks Cafe floor is littered with beach sand, and it seems perfectly all right. Jonas’ Fruit Shake used to be the number one watering hole on the main coast. It offered refreshment in any kind of tropical fruit available, way before Boracay was identified in the tourist map. It has evolved since then as it now serves smoothies to go in a plastic water bottle. After all, it has a lot to contend with, what with tall mocha fraps being served next door in fashionable Styrofoam cups.

Local seafood restaurants that boast of the freshest catch – squid, prawns, lobster, oysters – sit contentedly aside restaurants that sell the best baby back ribs in town or the most authentic Italian cuisine. How about traditional Japanese food by the beach? It’s any taste and preference. However you want it, Boracay serves it. It does not discriminate. It has even opened its doors to our small brothers and sisters with the Hobbit House promising every kind of beer or ale from all over the world.

beach side shop selling dream catchers and shell pendants

Enterprise is much alive by the beach with locals hawking everything from puca shell trinkets to braided friendship bracelets, from bottled colored sand to sundresses of every color. Boracaynons camp on the sand, offering a massage by the lapping waves or hair braids and weaves. Corn rose anyone? Never mind that you look ridiculous with your tresses in pleats. You’re in Boracay – making a fool of yourself is forgivable. This seems to be the unspoken rule in the island. Whatever happens in Boracay, stays in Boracay. You could have your crush’s name temporarily tattooed on your back and then wash the henna off when you go home. Go ahead and take off your top on the beach. It’s absolutely acceptable. Have an island fling, then forget everything when you leave.

There is something about the air that makes everything seem possible. The island gives off a natural psychedelic drug that makes people fall in love with everyone and everything. Everyone in this island is beautiful, blessed by the sun, loved by the gods. The fire dancers at night cavort to the beat of the wind like ethereal beings, spinning magic balls of fire that rival the magnificence of the stars. Women in bikini brandish golden tans while men show off their sculpted abs. The sand strip is practically a tropical runway.

The beauty of Boracay is that in spite of the onslaught of tourism, in spite of its worldly and superficial offerings, there are still places of tranquillity where one can be still and listen to the song of Boracay’s soul. In private coves found in several resorts in Station One, are pockets of seclusion that reflect the virgin island that Boracay once was.  Here the water is so clear that it is almost tempting to drink from it. Here the sand is so fine and soft, it makes you want to lie down on it in complete surrender, allowing the sun to bake you until it sets into a glorious spectacle, painting the island with an otherworldly glow.

while on assignment with another writer

Station One along the main coast is less crowded and offers a wider stretch of beach. It is also where the high end resorts are. Close by is Station Two, the party central of the main coast, or the White Beach. Station Three is where the more affordable accommodations are, proof that there is something for everyone in Boracay.

If one wishes to leave the touristy areas, one can simply hire a boat and visit the neighbouring tiny islands or simply go underwater to commune with sea creatures and drown out the din of the crowd. Snorkelling is a favourite activity in the island because it is easy and relatively inexpensive. Coral gardens are aplenty and quickly accessible. Scuba diving is also another option. To experience the winds, Boracay offers windsurfing, skim boarding, water skiing, banana boat rides, and parasailing. Fishing for red snapper, Spanish mackerel, and king fish is a relaxing alternative.

On land you can explore the other side of Boracay by renting an all terrain vehicle (ATV) or a bug car and drive all the way up to Mount Luho, the tallest point in the island. The scenic ride up offers a peek of the real Boracay and the local culture where sari-sari stores and unassuming homes line the streets. Fish vendors carry the bounties of the sea on their shoulders, steering clear of tricycles that seem to rule the narrow roads.

When you reach the top, you will see majestic birds of blues, reds, and yellows, otherwise known as parasails that color the sky. From above, behold a different perspective of this island paradise where whitewashed sailboats are nothing but mere flecks on the vast blue, like white ripples on the aquamarine surface. From up there you will clearly see how the mountains curve around the lagoon, giving the beach an air of seclusion. From up there you will not be able to see the many faces that make Boracay. They are just tiny dots in the portrait that make up an island. The tattoo artists by the shore, the masseuse patiently waiting for a customer, the vegetarian yoga teacher who preaches a holistic lifestyle, and the mixed media artists who promote the culture of the katutubo (native)they are nothing but grains that make up the powdery white sands that Boracay is known for. But here between these pages, we see them up close, revealing to us a Boracay we’ve never seen before. Rediscover Boracay through their eyes and fall in love with this island paradise all over again.

Published in AsianTraveler Magazine, 2009