April in The Philippines: Warm People and Strange Bands

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The Philippines is full of the loveliest people ever. They are so warm, friendly and plain trusting in their hospitality. There was the breakfast lady in Coron who gave me the best and cheapest morning meals ever who told me that it was dangerous to travel as a lone girl (not once in The Philippines did I feel at all unsafe) with that look of earnest concern on her face. There was the friendly shop assistant at the mami stand, where I stopped for a quick snack, who insisted that the water wasn’t safe for delicate stomachs like mine. There was the friendly security guard who gave me directions in the middle of nowhere (more on that in a bit).

Most crucially, there were Natalie and Derrick, a couple I met in transit at Manila airport. Our planes were delayed as usual and we somehow struck up a conversation. Natalie was Filipino and Derrick Australian, they returned to The Philippines often to see her extended family. After just about an hour of chat, they gave me their contact number and invited me to stay with them in their service apartment in Manila when we three got back into town.  Natalie even suggested making arrangements to let me in should I get back earlier than them!

Taking things on the cautious side, I went to visit instead when I returned to Manila and we went out with Natalie’s niece, Anne-Marie and Pristine, her daughter. It must be pretty cool for Natalie to be such a young grandaunt. Pristine was such a sweet 8-year-old. She held my hand and called me Tita (aunt).

After dinner, I adjourned with Natalie and Derrick to a bar for some drinks. Here’s where we met the T-Rex. It was rather amusing as I had to peer past it to see the rather bad but amusing cover band. The girls wore midriffs, which was fine for the slim ones, but one of them had way too much baby fat still. The boys weren’t hot at all and the lead singer couldn’t help but hog the limelight even when he was doing backup for a girl song. So amusing.

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Natalie and Derrick later sent me back in a cab right to the doorstep of my guesthouse. They also insisted that I text them the moment I got safely inside. It was another moment where I felt guilty for not trusting enough.

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August in China: Terracotta Warriors Overexposed

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We’d come this far just to see the terracotta warriors, just as people go all the way to the Louvre just for the Mona Lisa. We started off in the Xian Museum where there was a pretty comprehensive exhibit full of the warriors and their paraphernalia: horses, carriages, sedans. Outside of their burial pits, these sculptures somehow seemed slightly out of context and while I understood in my brain how awe-inspiring this was, I just didn’t feel any of it.

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We soldiered on the next day to the actual site some distance out of Xian. The burial complex consisted of  hangar-like shelters covering each of the three pits. Inside the biggest one was a museum section similar to the one in Xian. Here was the most famous warrior: the kneeling general.

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We then proceeded on to the huge pits where many statues were left standing as is. I tried hard to peer at the faces, trying to see if it was true: that each face was unique and no two were alike. It was pretty cool trying to imagine how they’d look like to the first grave robbers and to the excavators who first dug through.

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It was also pretty amazing the amount of work that went into creating all this before the time of mass production. Each one appeared to be painstakingly handmade.

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I wondered if the horses were also based on real beasts of war. Peering as close as I could get, their faces seemed all the same to me. They were still cute nonetheless!

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While still fairly impressive, I felt that the terracotta warriors were simply overexposed. I fell a sense of anticlimax finally seeing them, somewhat like seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and realising how small and difficult to view she was under all that glass. It didn’t help that the museum had all sorts of touristy gimmicks, from taking a picture standing with some replicas to having your face reproduced on a mini-terracotta warrior statue to having it etched in laser in a glass cube. Sigh.

August in China: Zhuang Country

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Going up the hillside to reach the village and its rice terraces was hard work. Most of us chose to burn our own calories going up, but others chose to burn cash instead. Enterprising locals would take tourists in a sedan chair for that moment of feeling like a king or at least minor nobility. It was unsurprising that most of those going up by chair were on the plump side. And I wonder how the fella in the picture managed to take a good video with all that bumping up the stairs.

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At the bus bay there were many Zhuang women making their handicrafts while waiting for tourists groups to buy their wares. Here you can see their long hair bundled up carefully. They never cut their hair as it’s a much prized symbol of beauty and probably fertility too. Here, all the craftswomen were married matrons. The unmarried girl keeps her hair firmly under wraps as it is only to be unveiled on her wedding night. Our Han Chinese tour guide warned the men to be careful not to accidentally uncover a girl’s hair or he’ll end up being married straightaway. He then said that he was a bachelor and would be happy to be the fall guy and marry a Zhuang girl on some hapless tourist’s behalf. I found that rather tasteless and offensive.

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No less, Zhuang hair was really a sight to behold. It was thick and black with not a strand of white or silver in it. I wonder if the older ladies simply wove their hair from younger days into their do, but I just can’t think how it could be done. There are apparently many herbal concoctions for making the hair black and glossy, but here they focussed on selling knick knacks and bags to the tourists.

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After being piled into a minivan and driven down and up more windy mountain roads, we ended up at another village where most of the domestic tourists elected to go for the optional cultural show. Most of the foreign tourists milled around outside, simply sitting around and soaking in the village atmosphere, watching corn dry.

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We heard sounds of the cultural show going on inside, complete with traditional songs and raucous mock wedding rituals.  Later, some of the tourists emerged with lipstick and such painted on their faces by enthusiastic villagers. It was amusing but slightly disturbing as I felt that the villagers had no choice but to do this just to earn a living.

Outside, we didn’t fare that much better as we bought imported iced drinks from the hawkers. Thankfully, the local vendors largely left me alone, preferring to target my Polish friend who looks a bit like an off-duty Santa Claus. I sensed that the children were probably more curious about these odd looking people than anything.

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Touristy as it was, I don’t regret going on this package tour. It cut a whole lot of hassle and was probably cheaper and easier than going it on my own. Travelling completely solo wasn’t easy, so I often joined tours to meet people. On this trip, I met some fellow tourists as eating partners that evening. It was fun taking A and T out to explore the Guilin food scene as they got to eat in some very local restaurants with no English menu and I got to sample lots of different dishes I couldn’t have done on my own.

I also observed a solo tourist who suddenly appeared in the village as we waited for the performance to end. He sat for a while on his own near two old village elders. After a while, a vendor came by offering little trinkets but he plumped for a cold beer instead. Soon he was taking a picture of the vendor and then of the village elders. It was amazing how he drew them in so unobtrusively and unexploitatively. If I had more time, I’d probably have done what he did: find his own way around the villages, sit around and interact with the locals in an authentic way, then hitch a ride back with a tour bus.

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