The Persian Garden

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In our trip in May 2017, we ticked off three: Fin garden in Kashan, the ancient garden in Pasargadae, and Eram garden in Shiraz. We also had a fair glimpse of Chehel Sotun garden in Esfahan from its gates. Generally, it is imperative to visit at least one Persian garden in any visit to Iran and it is not hard to find one, although only nine are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS). However, after having seen India’s Persian gardens earlier in 2015, which were adopted by the Moghuls using no less than Persian artisans, how should we appreciate the Persian gardens from the country where the tradition originated?

 

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Kashan’s Fin garden

 

We visited Bag-e Fin on a Friday, which was not the best day to be a tourist in Iran since it is their weekend. Expecting tranquility and peace in the oldest functioning Persian garden in the world that was built in 1590, what welcomed us was a garden fully packed with locals picnicking and groups occupying every known space inside. Sadly, knowing that we enjoy taking photos, the experience did not turn out the way we expected it to be. If there was any consolation, however,  at least the waters were flowing, all the fountains were working, the pools were not empty, and the water source, the Solomon’s spring (a qanat opening that also feeds water to the T-Listed Tepe Sialk), can be publicly seen at the back. There were other attractions inside (ridiculously with separate entry fees!), but we no longer bothered giving them a try due to the long queues. Another thing that impressed me was that the garden is surrounded by thick and high mud walls typical in the desert region.

 

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Pasargadae’s ancient Persian garden

 

The 6th century BC-built ancient garden of Pasargadae is in ruins. Only the remains of the stone layout, watercourses, and fountain pools are left. One can only then re-imagine how the garden might have looked like during its heyday out of these relics — a leisurely activity that my good friend found difficult to enjoy. The garden was the realization of Cyrus the Great’s desire to recreate paradise on earth. The river that cuts through the capital used to supply the water needed for the garden via canals. We, however, did not see any tourists who paid any attention or interest in the ruins of the garden. This is despite the fact that the garden is an interesting case: while the garden is a WHS in its own right, it also happens to be located inside another WHS, Pasargadae (as a testimony to the first capital of the Persian empire). The inscription of the Pasargadae garden, ultimately, is a nod to the provenance of the Persian gardening tradition. The presence of a signage explaining this, as well as visual re-creations of the garden, might prove beneficial to visitors.

 

 

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Shiraz’s Eram garden

 

Bag-e Eram, which is now managed by a local university, is bigger than the one in Kashan, allowing more spaces for roaming around. The Qavam pavilion, which serves as the backdrop of the garden, is a pleasant work of art and architecture from the Qajar period. What we enjoyed the most there was the abundance of many local plants and trees, some were even in bloom during our visit. The only sad thing about Eram was that the water courses and fountains were dry, something that has been reported to be the case for quite some time now. A friend we traveled with from Yazd to Shiraz just had to compare it with the Bag-e Shahzadeh in Mahan, which has an abundant water supply despite being in the Lut desert region. Nevertheless, Bag-e Eram was the redemption we needed to truly experience a Persian garden eventually.

 

 

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India: Taj Mahal’s Persian Garden

 

Assessment: while there are more to appreciate in the Persian gardens in India (the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb, for example), the pleasure derived in visiting the Persian gardens in Iran lies in the fact that they represent the pure form of this gardening tradition that reflects Persian philosophy and ingenuity, mainly in their mastery in the use of water for the gardens’ survival and aesthetics. Overall, the Persian gardens are humble, modest and unpretentious gardens. I, however, cannot imagine having the need to visit more than what we have seen — 3 was more than enough to get a proper feel of what this UNESCO WHS has to offer.

The Persian Qanat (Zarch Qanat)

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This is probably the UNESCO World Heritage Site I spent the most time in trying to understand how to “properly” visit it during my recent trip in Iran. When I was just about to give up on it, a sign suddenly emerged in the streets of the historic city of Yazd referring to the “Zarch Qanat gallery”. This seems to be an improvement since the last reviewer from our WHS community went to Yazd in 2016, reporting the glaring lack of any public information about the qanats.
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A signage that gave me hope. This is one of those that have been mounted on the mud walls of the old city of Yazd to show where the qanat flows underground.

Later on, my friend and I realized that there were in fact a lot of signs all over showing some sort of a direction. Only to find out that — after intently and passionately following the signs for nearly an hour — it was not really leading us to a “gallery” (i.e., an exhibit, a museum, or a showroom)! Rather, it was just illustrating where the qanat flows underneath the city! This finding was interesting, but it was far from constituting a “proper” visit.
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The stairway of the Jame Masjid payab, an access to the Zarch qanat inside the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd

Much to my surprise later that day, however, we eventually got the proper visit that we needed no less than inside the Great Friday Mosque itself. It was a sweet accident that I will always be grateful for. At the main gate of the mosque, I already wondered why there was a banner congratulating “… the successful inscription of the Persian Qanats as a UNESCO World Heritage Site”. Sadly, it obviously and shamefully failed to indicate the more important detail, i.e., that a part of the qanat can actually be accessed within it. Inside, there is a small opening on the ground that can easily be missed which leads to a payab (underground water chamber). This payab, which has been supplying the mosque the water it needs since it was erected 700 years ago, is one of the public openings of Zarch. The properly lit stairway goes down to some 30 meters below the ground until one reaches the well.
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The well inside the water chamber 30 metres under the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd

Surprisingly, during our two hour wandering inside the complex, despite the hoards of tourists visiting the mosque and the no lack of tourist guides around, we only saw two other curious visitors who took the effort to go down the site, and they probably were not even aware of what it is at all. Even in the free walking city tour we hopped on the following day, our guide never mentioned anything about the qanats and their importance. We also learned later on that the Zarch qanat runs as well under the Emir Chaqmaq complex, but going there proved futile – there is no way to “see” the qanat.
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Courtyard of the Great Friday Mosque of Yazd and the small, unpretentious entry to the payab in the foreground. The tourists do not even find their way to go to the other end of the courtyard to realize that a qanat can be seen there.

In one of those cosy coffee shops in the city, I had a talk with its owner whom I shared my sense of achievement and pride in seeing a part of the Zarch qanat with when I least expected it. What he did next was something unexpected. He enthusiastically showed us a ground cover in front of his shop, opened it, and explained that it’s one of the shafts of Zarch. It was quite deep and one can hear the flowing water well!
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One of the vertical shafts of the Zarch qanat in front of a coffee shop in the old district of Yazd.

He also told us about the old underground watermill of Koushk-e No in the neighbhorhood which is also being repaired (or prepared) at the moment to become a tourist showroom for the qanat. Furthermore, he advised that if we go there, and if we’re lucky, we might just have a peek inside. And we eventually did.
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The actual watermill is on the second level of this qanat access. The fenced off area is the access to the lowest qanat in this intersection.

Going down through its small opening, several layers of water channels and chambers were seen. Apparently, the site lies at the crossroad of three different qanats, with the Zarch qanat specifically powering the mill. It is also interesting to know that the temperature on the ground compared to the temperature down where the waters flow can differ from 17 to 20 degrees Celsius, making it a wonderful refuge from the heat outside.
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A fresh water flowing on the Zarch qanat! Nothing has changed much in the three millenia of its existence – it is still working.

The Zarch qanat has been supplying most of the water requirements of the desert city of Yazd for more than 3,000 years already. It also happens to be the longest qanat in Iran at 120 kilometers in total length. In its entire course, from the mother well (water source) to the farmlands it irrigates, more than 2,000 shafts have been constructed. Indeed, qanats are a proof that ancient Persians were masters in hydraulic engineering.
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The forest of badgirs, or windcatchers, in the historic desert city of Yazd at dusk.

The Zarch qanat definitely plays an important role in the nomination of the Historic City of Yazd, which also has a living tradition registered in the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on its own right. This proposal will be decided upon this coming June when the committee convenes in Krakow, Poland. I sincerely wish Yazd the best of luck.
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Albeit not among the World Heritage-listed properties, other qanats we saw in the trip include the Solomon’s spring, an opening of a qanat that feeds water to the Fin Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Persian Garden, and the 7,000 years old Sialk Tepe, the remains of the oldest known ziggurat, in Kashan; and the qanat that supplies water to an ancient caravanserai, refrigerator, and ice house in historic Maybod, another desert city along the Silk Road that is also in Iran’s present Tentative List for UNESCO WHS listing.

Historic Trading Towns and Cities in Southeast Asia

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My interest in UNESCO World Heritage Sites started some 10 years ago. Ever since then, I have always patterned my trips towards seeing as many of these sites as I can. I have also been lucky enough with a few sites as I was able to pay them proper visits because of fieldwork and assignments. I consider this as my little addiction.

For my next article here, I would like to discuss more the five historic trading port towns in East and Southeast Asia. I just need to find that much sought after spare time to write down my thoughts and observations on Hoi An, Vigan, Macao, Malacca and George Town.

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Hoi An Ancient Town, the best example of a traditional trading port in Southeast Asia dating from the 15th to the 19th century (Viet Nam).

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Historic Town of Vigan, the best preserved planned Spanish colonial town in Asia that was established in the 16th century (the Philippines).

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Historic Centre of Macao, the first European enclave in the region and an outstanding representation of the interchange between Chinese and Western civilizations since the mid 16th century (China).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: Melaka, a strategic 15th century Malay port that developed further during the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century (Malaysia).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: George Town, a remarkable example of a British-built city in Southeast Asia from the end of the 18th century (Malaysia).

 

For now, may these photos continue to supply me the needed motivation, optimism, and determination to be able to finally sit down, gather my thoughts properly, and write again one of these days.

This is an article in progress.

Filipino Culture & History through the Northern Philippines

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The Philippines has a rich history and culture, but we sometimes do not understand the country well enough to realize to what extent. It is not a question of whether we have it or not. Rather, it is of how much we really know and are aware. One way to get reacquainted with the Filipino identity and our past is by taking what I would call as a heritage trail up north. The beauty of Northern Philippines lies on the fact that it is home to four UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

What does this mean?

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) is any given natural or cultural place, monument or landscape that holds outstanding universal values critical to the development of humanity, and which reflect diversity. Some of the more popular WHS around the world include the Great Wall of China, the Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, the Table Mountain, the Great Barrier Reefs, and even the Statue of Liberty. Regardless of popularity and fame, however, all of these places are treated with equal degree of cultural and historical importance.

With the recent addition of Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao in 2014, the Philippines now has six sites listed as WHS. Two of which are marine natural sites in Palawan, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubattaha Reefs Marine Park. Both of these sites are also declared as Ramsar wetlands of international importance. The other three are cultural sites found in Northern Philippines: the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the Historic Town of Vigan, and the Baroque Churches of the Philippines.

From Manila — where San Agustin church, another WHS, is found inside Intramuros — one can make a Do-It-Yourself trip in taking on this heritage trail. A bus from Manila can take you to Banaue, the jump-off point for the rice terraces. From there, vans can be arranged to bring you down to Vigan. Sta. Maria is also along the way to Vigan, and finally, going further north by bus will bring you to Paoay in Ilocos Norte. Each place offers a taste of the depth of Philippine history and Filipino ingenuity.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Agricultural terracing is not unique to the Philippines. China, Indonesia, and Viet Nam have it. Peru and even Switzerland have this method, too. What makes the rice terraces in the Philippines unique is that they are the oldest and most extensive continually-used rice terraces in the world. As a comparison, these rice terraces have been around much longer than Machu Picchu or Angkor have! The more noticeable distinguishing marks of these engineering marvels would be their heights that reach as high as 1,500 metres from the base, and their steepness that defies limits with 70 degrees maximum angulation.

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The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs (forest caps), traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artifacts in the region certainly does not disappoint. The Food and Agriculture Organization has cited the rice terraces as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices.” The American Society of Civil Engineers also named the rice terraces as a ‘Historic Engineering Landmark’ for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the [original] 8th Wonder of the World.

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For the Filipinos, with the mode of farming and the people’s lifestyles largely unchanged, these ancient rice terraces are an enduring portrait of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over 2,000 years. The WHS-listed clusters are Batad, Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao and Nagacadan rice terraces. Hungduan is also one rare site in the world as it is home to no just one but two UNESCO Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Hudhud chants and the Punnuk.

Historic Town of Vigan

Why does this small town merit a special place in the collective memory of the Filipino people? It is one of the few towns in the country that was spared from destruction during the World War II (Intramuros, Manila’s walled district, was razed to the ground and only one building was left standing there after the war). Being the best preserved Spanish colonial-era trading town in Asia, Vigan presents itself as an intact and authentic old town. It boasts a good collection of original houses wherein the ground floors are characterized as Hispanic, while its upper floors and windows suggest Chinese and Oriental influences. The best of these houses can be seen along Calle Crisologo, a re-created cobblestone street.

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One will notice that the town faithfully follows the historical “quadricula” or “grid” street plan. This, believe it or not, is the most ‘Hispanic’ feature of the town. The interior of a typical Vigan villa can be seen when visiting the likes of the Sy-Quia mansion, the family house of the former President Quirino.

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In 2012, Vigan bagged the ‘Best Management Practices for a World Heritage City’ award in a worldwide competition by UNESCO. And again, three years later, Vigan was voted as one of the Seven New Wonder Cities in the World through a global online poll.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Sta. Maria

Aside from the San Agustin church inside Intramuros and the Miag-ao church in Iloilo, the Northern Philippines boasts two of the best examples of Philippine Spanish-era churches. The town of Sta. Maria, some 40 minutes south of Vigan, houses a citadel church built on top of a fortified man-made hill. In the older days, the only way to reach the church is through the 82-step staircase made of granite slabs, making the complex easily defended.

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Made of red bricks, the Asuncion de la Sta. Maria church boasts a set of massive buttresses that supports the structure from the damages of earthquakes. The pagoda-shaped bell tower is leaning due to the collapsing retaining walls around the hill, which placed this church in the ’100 Most Endangered Sites’ in 2010 by the World Monument Watch of the World Monument Fund.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Paoay

The crowning gem of the “earthquake baroque architecture” is the San Agustin church in Paoay. This edifice is largely made of coral stones that have been glued together using egg whites, lime powder and molasses. This important church features a mixture of Oriental, Malay, and Western influences in its design. This comes as no surprise as long before the Spaniards reached present-day Paoay, the site was already a trading settlement known as Bombay in earlier records.

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Keen eyes will notice some fading carvings and bas-reliefs around the church. The most important exponents of this church are definitely its beautifully-constructed massive buttresses. Paoay church is considered to be a masterpiece of the Filipino reinterpretation of the baroque movement, fusing European principles with local Filipino craftsmanship. The bell tower is also separated from the church as a precautionary measure against the effects of earthquakes – this architectural innovation is unique to Philippine churches.

The churches of the Philippines are unique, and, thus, cannot be compared to those found in Europe or Latin America. As religious monuments, they are key in spreading further the Christian faith in the region (Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific Islands). While as cultural specimens, they embody the artistic, technological, and intellectual interchange between the West and the East for more than three centuries.

While knowing and understanding Philippine history and culture is a large part of what I do as a heritage advocate, the biggest challenge is in making others see and appreciate things the way I do.

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I often have a hard time convincing friends who have already settled abroad to come back home to re-experience their native land. Most of them would rather spend their vacations going around Europe or elsewhere in Asia to see cultural and grand ancient monuments or old towns, believing none exist here.

 

Melaka and George Town: Trade Hegemons of Colonial-era Southeast Asia

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Since there is not much noise being made about George Town while unanimous praises are given to Melaka (Malacca), I was surprised to find out that the former component-city would be the highlight of Malaysia’s first UNESCO cultural world heritage site that was inscribed in 2008. The character of George Town is definitely more presentable.


Melaka has a rich cultural and trading history, and the role it once played in regional commerce cannot be underestimated. Its current condition, however, does not live up to its glorious past anymore. Without knowing its history, the city simply looks like any other Chinese-Malay trading town.

The red Dutch Square, the most recognizable exponent of Melaka.

Its history dates back to the well-networked and influential Malaccan sultanate, and later gained greater worldwide interest when it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch successively. Though Melaka was never made as a capital of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), it served as the most important Dutch-controlled port-town between India and Batavia (present day Jakarta), monopolizing the trade movements over the narrow Straits of Malacca. Melaka was such a strong city then that it even rivaled the might and wealth of Ayutthaya in Thailand, yet it fell with the rise of the British control over the peninsula.

Porta da Santiago, or A' Famosa, is the only remaining section of the old walls that once protected Melaka.

This ancient city’s important monuments  can be easily explored in a day, on foot. I started off in the residential/commercial district of the core zone, just across the bridge over the Melaka River. From how I recall, nothing really stood out in that area, and its main thoroughfare Jonker Street (popularly pronounced nowadays as /djongker/ despite its original Dutch pronunciation /Yongker/) was a bit sober and empty during my visit as it was post-election time; most shops were closed in protest against the recent results. The spirit of Jonker Street, nevertheless, went to life when I visited some of the shop houses, learning some few things from store-keepers about the items that they sell. Only then can one feel that he is truly in a multi-cultural trading town.

Shop houses along Jonker Street in Melaka

The Street of Harmony, situated parallel to Jonker Street,  is nice, but its religious monuments are not as spectacular compared to those of George Town. The urban planning concept of putting houses of worships along one lane is one of the unique features of the two historic cities.

The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple)

The Dutch Square, also called Red Square, is small but very recognizable. While it is indeed picturesque, there is not much that the plaza has to offer other than four monuments: the Dutch Stadthuys  and Christ Church, Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, and the British Queen Victoria Fountain. The red color of the city is often seen as impressive, but I’m not quite sure if I share the same assessment. After all, the old historic Dutch buildings were originally painted white. 

The better exponent of Melaka where one can feel its colonial past more would be the A’ Famosa – St. Paul’s Hill area. Inside St. Paul’s ruins, there are numerous 16th to 17th century Dutch gravestones on display. This site was also the first resting place of the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier before it was transferred to Goa in India. It is said that during the canonization of the saint, the Vatican asked for his right hand as a relic for its safekeeping. Interestingly, the statue of St. Francis Xavier in front of the ruins is missing its right hand! Apparently, a branch of the tree fell over and broke it.

Dutch gravestones inside the ruins of St. Paul church.

The St. Paul ruins also offers a commanding view of the city and the straits. Other interesting monuments in Melaka would be the watermill along the river, just beside the ruins of the old Portuguese and Dutch ramparts, and the small windmill near the Dutch Square.

The Malacca Sultan Watermill along the Melaka River.


George Town, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Historically, this British-era city rose to prominence with the decline and demise of Melaka. Without expecting much, I originally planned to stay there just for a night. But, seeing how lovely the place was, I ended up staying for three days. I enjoyed going around the city on a bike. Aside from surveying the main sites, there are other things to do here like checking out the street arts (which became a big craze after a Lithuanian artist did some wonderful works in the city), as well as treating oneself with the famous Penang dishes like Penang laksa and char kway cheow.

Georgian architecture-inspired George Town City Hall.

There are more monuments in George Town, and they are more grand, colorful, and definitely better maintained than those in Melaka. Key British legacies include the impressive Georgian-inspired City and Town Halls, the bit worn-out and empty Fort Cornwallis, the two mid-sized churches, and the colonial-era buildings along Lebuh Pantai, the old business lane of the city. By seeing some old photos of George Town, I was surprised to learn that there were more British colonial buildings that stood there before, creating a real “Little Europe” atmosphere during its heyday.

mix-architecture houses in George Town. Most are shop houses.

George Town was intended to be the successor to Melaka’s trade hegemony, as well as the crowning glory of the British empire’s might and supremacy in Southeast Asia. In comparison to Melaka, the historic centre of George Town is larger and that there are more shop houses around.

Fort Cornwallis, a brick fortification built upon the site where Sir Francis Light first landed in Penang.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the city a lot as local colours are much vibrant there. Its Little India, for example, is one of the better Indian quarters I’ve seen so far in the region; Muslim communities (Southern Indians and Malays alike) are largely concentrated around George Town’s three mosques; and the Chinese clan temples are richly decorated. In experiencing the straits Chinese-Malay culture, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town appears to be better than the Baba Nyonya Museum in Melaka. Also, George Town’s Teochew Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion have been conferred by UNESCO Asia-Pacific with the Best in Heritage Conservation Awards as well.

Masjid Kapitan Kelling along the Street of Harmony in George Town

Melaka is one reminder of Asia’s close contact with the Portuguese and the Dutch; George Town, with the British. Key to a better appreciation of these sites is to see each city holistically and to understand the diversity and cultural uniqueness that each has to offer.

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As with any South and Southeast Asian trading town such as Vigan, Hoi An, Macao and Galle, the biggest threats at present to the two cities are urban developmental pressures. Buffer zones are obviously weak in some areas. The waterfront face-lifting of the Melaka River and the intrusive development plan in the historic enclave of George Town have been frowned upon by the World Monuments Fund and other international organizations.

Street art in George Town - this is the biggest! Here's a photo of my newly found friends doing some rounds around the city at 2AM (after a night of booze!) :p


PS. Is it possible to have Singapore inscribed, too? Trade control in the Straits of Malacca started in Melaka, then transferred to George Town, and eventually ended in Singapore. It would be nice to see Singapore alongside the two inscribed sites in representing the complete trading history along the straits. The difficulty with Singapore, however, is that much of its old district landscape has already been altered, modernized and compromised.

** Visited George Town and Malacca in May 2013

Tumauini and Piat: Culture and Faith in Cagayan Valley

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It was one of those crazy impulsive decisions to head to another place rather than to go straight back home after the long-weekend stay in Manila. This time around, I went to Isabela and Cagayan not only to visit a few places there that I wanted to see, but also to catch up with a good journalist friend of mine whom I have not seen for almost six months already.

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The province of Isabela was a big surprise! I did not know that some parts are largely developed and urbanized already (Santiago City, for example, is definitely bigger and more vibrant than Laoag City). Upon arrival, I immediately met up April for breakfast and headed to the town of Tumauini.

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Tumauini is home to one of the most precious Spanish colonial era monuments in the country: the 18th century church of St. Matthias. This religious structure boasts the most artistic expression of brick baroque craftsmanship there is to find in the Philippines. Also worth noting is its rather fancy-looking wedding cake-inspired cylindrical bell tower and its circular pediment, which have no parallel in the Orient.

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While most other blogs would highlight the intricate artworks on its facade, I, on the other hand, was particularly impressed by its interior decorations – or what’s left of them after being a casualty to the World War 2. In the Philippines, a lot of churches display amazing exteriors, but their structural interiors often appear to be lacking in grace and are just too plain. This, however, was not the case of Tumauini church.

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Tumauini church is a declared National Historical Landmark and a National Cultural Treasure. It, together with Boljoon church in Cebu and Lazi church in Siquijor, is also included in the proposed extension to the serial Baroque Churches of the Philippines UNESCO World Heritage Site. In my opinion, this church is a real gem that Filipinos can truly be proud of.

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After Tumauini, driven by our yearning for spiritual guidance and some other needs, we were determined as well to visit the “Pilgrimage Capital of the North”, the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Piat. Although the site is relatively close to where I live, this was my first visit to the said place. The architecture of the church is of the neo-Romanesque tradition; and the venerated Marian image is thought to be from the 16th century, making it one of the oldest religious articles in the country.

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After saying our intentions, we headed back to Tuguegarao, the capital city of the province of Cagayan, where we quickly visited the cathedral before we parted ways.

Some “culture and faith” day trip, indeed! 🙂

India: the People Who Added More Life to It

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Looking back, India is not a hard place to travel to. But, at the same time, it is not the easiest one either. Depending on your traveling attitude and worldview, it can shock you in a good way or the other way around. India is potent in equally giving both impressions. Nevertheless, I like India the way it is, with all its ups and downs.

Definitely, I enjoyed the places I’ve seen, and I can say that it was indeed a successful nearly month-long birthday trip. Not only had I saw all the sites and monuments I listed out to see from the beginning, I also saw other places — and appreciated the journey more! — with the help of the people I met and bumped into along the way. Some of them I have known for years (take for example my good friend Dr. Rahul Rochani, whose friendship I have gained when he was taking up his MA in Manila); some I have known through Instagram, and have been drawn to each other by the sheer shared passion for photography, traveling and culture; and there were some who I just ran into in the places I went to, putting more colours to what should have just been some solo wanderings.

I love the sites I visited in India, as well as its food (those who know me too well can vouch that Indian cuisine is my favourite. So, yes, it was a true gastronomic pilgrimage for me, too!). But, more important to highlight in this post is that I love its people, and the hospitality and goodness they have shown me from my first day in Chennai to the last hour I had in Kolkata.

This post is for the people who have made my India trip memorable and more meaningful. I appreciate the wonderful friendship we all have forged!

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Khaja was my de facto welcoming committee in India. Without him – and his kind friend Venkat – I would not have seen Chennai, the monuments of Mahabalipuram, the former French-occupied Pondicherry, the Big Temple at Thanjavur (which is one of the sites I liked the most, btw), and the other interesting towns in between, as conveniently as the one I had. Thank you for driving a total of 800kms (maybe more?) just so we can cover all the spots I wanted to see in Tamil Nadu. both of you made my first few days in India very smooth, setting the good momentum for the rest of my trip. I certainly miss eating on banana leaves and drinking filter coffee now.

Manoj had to travel 2 hours just to meet me up in Mumbai, and I would have gladly accepted his invitation to spend the night at his family's house in not for my tight schedule. Not only did you accompany me in exploring Elephanta Caves and the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus), but you also made my stay in Mumbai more relevant by showing me the other historic facets of the city. When I asked, out of curiosity, where Churchgate was, you quickly responded with

Manoj had to travel 2 hours just to meet me up in Mumbai, and I would also have gladly accepted his invitation to spend the night at his family’s house if not for my tight schedule in Maharashtra. Not only did he accompany me in exploring Elephanta Caves (and the hour-long boat ride) and the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), but he also made my stay in Mumbai more relevant by showing me the other historic facets of the city. When I asked, out of curiosity, where Churchgate was, you quickly responded with “Let’s get a cab and go there first” – you knew well how to piece together what was on my mind.

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In Mumbai, I met another friend who lives in West Bandra. Parul warmly opened his family’s house for me to stay in for a night. He was kind enough to take me around the neighborhood, showing me local landmarks and walking through the Esplanade. While going around, I came to realize that he is a local ‘celebrity’ in his own right – people there seem to know him well! Thanks much for the generosity you have shown me. I wish I had brought my camera with me when we visited those historic sites in the vicinity.

The trip to Matheran was true to the saying,

Akhil and I were still messaging each other at 3am, when we were to meet in Neral at 7am! Initially, ticking off the Matheran mountain railway and hill station was a definite impossibility. I eventually had to cancel (ditch, really) my original bus schedule to Aurangabad to make time for it – thanks to his insistence that I add this to my trip. True enough, I had no regrets.  I would not have appreciated riding on the toy train and enjoyed the natural views offered by the Western Ghats as I did if not for Akhil’s company – not only did I have a good photographer taking great photos of me, I also had the pleasure of knowing someone who reminded me so much of myself 5 years ago. I wish that you follow and chase your dreams and passion. “The journey is the destination” sums up Matheran.

Inside the train to Aurangabad, I met this photographer and talked with him about cameras. Upon arriving in the city, Ganesh offered to take me to Ellora caves using his bike.

Inside the train to Aurangabad, I met Ganesh, a photographer, and got hooked into talking with him about cameras. Upon arriving in the city, he offered something I never would have thought: to take me to Ellora Caves — my destination — using his bike. Thanks to him, not only did I see the famous rock cut-out caves much easier than what it would have taken me if I did it on my own (the cave clusters are of huge distances apart!), I also got to enjoy the views of the Deccan plateau in a ‘Che Guevara Motorcycle Diaries’ style.

I ran into Animesh and Vipasha on the way to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. The three of us rode on a bike, found out the stories of the 20,000-year old paintings together, and shared travel stories with each other with so much gusto. Being in the company of this couple seemingly made the harsh heat in Bhopal more tolerable. Your friendship was indeed a birthday gift.

I ran into Animesh and Vipasha on the way to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. The three of us rode on a bike, found out the history of the 20,000-year old paintings together, and shared travel stories with each other with so much gusto. Being in the company of this couple seemingly made the harsh heat in Bhopal more tolerable. Your friendship was indeed a birthday gift.

The reunion of the year! Rahul and I have 5 years of amazing friendship between us. I appreciated so much that you made time - despite the difficulties of it - to join me to Sanchi. There would not have been any better person to be with in seeing one place I have long wanted to see than you. It was my pleasure to have met your family and have been welcomed like I was an extended part of it. BTW, the evening tour around your city was crazy, crazy.

The reunion of the year! Rahul and I have 5 years of amazing (love/hate) friendship between us. We haven’t seen each other since 2012. I appreciated so much that he made time – despite the difficulties of doing it – in joining me to Sanchi. There would not have been any better person to be with in seeing one place I have long wanted to see than him! It was my pleasure to have finally met his family and to have been welcomed like I was an extended member of it. I would be happy to do the crazy evening tour around the city again. Your family in the Philippines misses you a lot already.

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After being ripped off in Agra, I met Amar, a visiting student from another city who’s just using his spare time to check Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal prior to his train ride back home. When we parted ways after seeing the fort, he gave me a collection of Agra photographs souvenir as remembrance. Thank you, Amar, for clicking the only photos I have of myself inside Agra Fort.

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These guys were a surprise: I knew that they are nice, but I did not expect that they are THAT nice! Sanjiv, Pramod and Jogendra are so much younger than me, but they acted way above their ages. Thank you so much for the warm embrace in Rajasthan, and all your kind gestures in making me experience the real Jaipur – from the stories you have earnestly shared until we fell asleep, to the Rajput sites we have visited, to the food we sampled, and to the gifts you have given me (yes, Sanjiv, they are the most colourful in my collection now :p). I might not have met the ‘Prince of Jaipur’ (name of a former Indian restaurant in Manila), but I have met Jogie, a Bana of Alwar. Indeed, I got a more than royal company with the three of you! 

I have high respect to this family a lot. Despite being Instagram friends, I was still technically a stranger. Yet, they offered me a home in Delhi the moment I told Neeraj I'm heading their way.

I have high respect to Neeraj’s family. Despite being Instagram friends for quite some time already then, I was still technically a stranger; and yet, without thinking twice, he and his wife Deepali offered me a place in their home in Gurgaon the moment I told him I’m heading to Delhi next. Neeraj – thank you for sacrificing a complete night’s rest just to pick me up at the bus stop before sunrise, for showing me how easy it was to explore the city using the metro, and for the beers to cap a great day with. Deepali – I enjoyed my conversations with you, in the same way that I truly cherished the Punjabi dinner you had prepared at home.

Saundhar had to travel 6 hours just to meet me and be with me for a few hours. That, I appreciate very much. I am happy that we have finally met and gone beyond just social networking friends.

Saundhar had to travel 6 hours just so he can meet me and be with me for some two hours. That, I appreciated very much. I am happy that we have finally met in person, and have transcended beyond just being social networking friends. Without you I would not have known of this historic ancient step well (baoli) in Delhi, which was the first step well I saw in India.

When I saw her in Sarnath, I knew she's Southeast Asian. But, to my surprise, she's also a Filipino!! Helene and Ville put more sense to my trip to Sarnath.

When I saw her, I instantly knew she’s Southeast Asian. Only to find out that she’s also a Filipino! Helene and Ville (from Finland) put more sense to my visit in Sarnath. Being young travelers that the three of us are, we easily connected with each other – in so many levels. Although we no longer saw each other in Gaya the following day as originally planned (communication was hard as I didn’t have a working phone with me), I am certain that we will run into each other again sometime, somewhere. The world is small.

Despite having been warned several times not to trust anyone in Bihar, Manish made me feel safe and secure the moment we -- together with Naga, a senior resident monk at the Mahabodhi temple -- started talking inside the shared auto. Thank you for bringing me closer to the teachings and philosophy of Buddha. My young friendship with you that day brought about two more new friends: Joe and Jenny's.

Despite having been warned several times not to trust anyone in Bihar, Manish made me feel safe and secure the moment we — together with Naga, a senior resident monk at the Mahabodhi temple — started talking inside the shared auto. Thank you for bringing me closer to the teachings and philosophy of Buddha, as well as sharing me your artworks. My newly-formed friendship with you that day brought about two more new friends: Joe and Jenny. BTW, the young Bodhi sapling is now in the Philippines.

In here, I would also like to thank Ajay Reddy, Glen Dias, and Parul Sharma. Despite not having the chance to meet, they have helped me as well in organizing and planning out the trip since the day I decided to go to India.

To all of you, once again, thank you very much!