Overseas reminders of the Philippines

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Greg B. Macabenta

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What do people do in their old age? “Travel the world,” is the most common advice. On the contrary, my advice is for people to see the world while they are still young. A walking tour around cobble-stoned streets and ancient ruins isn’t the kind of “relaxation” that brittle bones need, and an 80-year-old hasn’t much use for new knowledge and insights that one can easily Google, anyway.

Those in their late teens and early 20s can benefit much more from travel. It broadens their understanding of the world, imbues them with greater empathy and a deeper appreciation of humanity, provides them with “street-wise” education and tests their survival capabilities.

The young are also better fit to savor the sights and thrills, and face the hair-raising challenges, as well as the perilous experiences that old folks can only vicariously enjoy from watching TV.

Among young Europeans, world travel, preferably with a backpack, is high on the list of things to do upon finishing college, before they look for employment or pursue their chosen careers.

According to Annie Misa Hefti, a Swiss-Pinay friend in Switzerland, that was exactly what her two sons did as soon as they graduated from college. Both backpacked around Asia for a year, separately. In fact one of the boys was in Indonesia when that country was devastated by a tsunami. He not only survived that, he also built up an impressive portfolio of photographs that would have been the envy of professional lensmen.


I think that one of the best decisions that my wife and I made was allowing our only daughter, Christina, to participate in an exchange program that had her finishing high school in the US — by herself, without the support of parents, siblings, relatives, and childhood friends.

When she left home, she was a naïve little girl of 16. One year later, she had matured so remarkably that my wife and I were encouraged to also set our remaining three boys “adrift” — released from the traditional bonds, as well as the yayas (nursemaids) and househelp who had spoiled them from early childhood.

Overnight, our teenage boys had to adjust to life in America, competing and excelling in academics and sports in school, waiting at tables, mowing lawns, shovelling snow, and washing cars to earn their pocket money, and appreciating the dignity of labor.

My wife and I did not have the advantage of parents who could afford to send us farther than Manila. Indeed, for two kids growing up in Tacloban, Leyte and Jovellar, Albay, traveling abroad was the stuff of fantasy.

At any rate, in our old age, we have decided to make up for what we missed in our youth. We have visited most of Asia (although not as much of the Philippines as we should), have seen much of the US (in fact, have driven cross-country), and we have seen a lot of Europe.

What always fascinated us were the countries of Latin America, in addition to Mexico, mainly because of our shared colonial history and the fact that we Pinoys are considered the Latinos of Asia.

It was thus with great eagerness that we signed up for a 16-day Royal Caribbean cruise to Central America, setting out from Los Angeles at the end of October and culminating in mid-November in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The cruise ship, Vision of the Seas, spent the first 11 days sailing the Pacific Ocean. On the 11th day, we crossed the Panama Canal and made our way to the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.


We have been to Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, a country so reminiscent of the Philippines. But what we did not expect was that the rest of our Latin American trip would also remind us of the Philippines — but in less than pleasant ways.

After Mexico, we weighed anchor in Quetzal in Guatemala, billed in the tourist brochures as “the heart of the Maya World,” and took a tour bus to Antigua, a place where time seems to have stood still. The cobble-stone covered streets are so narrow that we had to transfer to mini-vans to be able to navigate the city.

I could have sworn I was in the Mountain Province upon seeing the indigenous vendors hawking their handicrafts, flutes, and ceremonial masks. In terms of physical features, they could have been Igorots transplanted to the Mayan world.

My heart went out to these people, because of the thousands from among them who braved the long trek to Mexico and up to the US border to seek asylum and respite from the poverty and violence in their homeland — the same poor people whom President Donald Trump has unjustly branded as terrorists, rapists, drug dealers, and the scum of the earth. Trump has no appreciation of the fact that the forefathers of the people he so unkindly denigrates established a Mayan civilization when Trump’s ancestors were still living in caves.

Antigua has 30 Catholic churches, a testament to the dominant presence of the Cross that was planted at the point of a sword — so much like the Philippines.

Our next port of call was Puntarenas in Costa Rica, a country that our tour guide described as having two main seasons — “A rainy season and a very, very rainy season.” Typically, we were treated to a folk dance show with cute little girls in colorful costumes. We were also handed bananas upon our arrival, bananas and coffee being the principal agricultural products of Costa Rica.

That unkind joke about the “Central American banana republic whose economy is sagging” apparently does not apply to Costa Rica. Our tour guide took justifiable pride in the very high literacy rate of Costa Ricans (upwards of 90%) due to the fact that one former military officer who assumed the presidency decided to dismantle the country’s armed forces and used the savings for education.

Then came the fabled Panama Canal crossing. Our ship and several others — mostly cargo vessels — were guided through three extremely narrow channels, called locks, that had an allowance of only a few feet on either side, ushering us into the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. I swear the Panama Canal is an unbelievable feat of engineering.

Panama reminded me of the Philippines for reasons other than a shared colonial history. President Rodrigo Duterte and former Panamanian strong man Manuel Noriega both told America to go to hell — or words to that effect. Unlike Duterte, however, Noriega became so obnoxious that the US slapped him with drug dealing charges and locked him up in federal prison.

During the early part of Duterte’s incumbency, his enemies began to place bets on rumored US plans to depose him, i.e., via Plan A or Plan B or Plan C — more specifically Plan CIA. Fortunately none of these plans has been activated, probably because Duterte has been behaving more civilly towards America and Donald Trump seems to have a fondness for would-be dictators.

As I write this, our ship has docked in Cartagena in Colombia, another country reminiscent of the Philippines and of Duterte. Aside from Colombian coffee, the country is notorious for drug cartels.

The rest of our cruise will bring us to Grand Cayman and the beaches of the Caribbean, which I do not find particularly appealing. And then on to Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

Florida is said to be a retirement haven. But our meager Social Security pensions can better afford the Philippines. Besides, touring the archipelago still ranks high on our bucket list.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.