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Not Quite There

The allure of nearby Asia


“THAT’S IT… No More Long Flights!,” by Vergel Santos

We may have the time, and some resources—but alas, not the energy.

Our last trip to the United States seems to have taken as much out of us to prepare for it as to recover from it. But, I suppose, five years is reasonable enough time to start us thinking of intercontinental travel again.

For that last trip, we worked around the realization that our bodies, five years younger then, but old bodies all the same, needed more time than we had usually felt to recover from flying 20 hours to the East Coast.

And we thought we had hit upon the right formula: breaking our flights. It’s more economical, and certainly more enjoyable, stopping for a few days at certain points rather than flying straight in the alternatively easier senior fashion—Business Class.

My Mom herself loved to travel, and did so every year, but even in her 80s, in Economy. A wheelchair that not only saved her the energy of ambulation, but also put her at the head of the line for no extra charge, was luxury enough for her. But she spent in other ways: She was a first-class tipper.

Practical and unsophisticated, Mom didn’t see the big deal in flying First Class, which costs double yet gets all of you there at the same time, well- or ill-fated: “Kalokohan! Walang First Class, First Class pag bumagsak ang eroplano! Sabay-sabay din naman kaming darating, bumagsak o hindi, di ba?”

She may have somehow influenced me. Vergel needs no influencing; he’ll travel cheapest, if not free. Anyway, we both find it difficult to even consider Business Class, and neither a wheelchair—not yet. Instead, we prefer to stop to visit family, as we did the last time—a few days in Hawaii, where we landed after 10 hours of flying, another few days in San Francisco, an additional five hours, before flying on, for another five hours, to Washington, DC, where we are collected at Dulles airport to be driven for just over an hour to Martinsburg, West Virginia, our final destination, where we stayed for longer than a month. We flew back the same way.

Jet lag

Once home, we realized so much time had gone by, even our help needed to get used to having us around again. What we lost in time, we gained in rest, but still, jet lag seems to work on me like a virus that can only be killed in the Philippine setting.

Just as I felt primed again for another long trip, an occasion that perfectly suits Vergel’s economy-conscious habits presented itself. He received an invitation from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University to give a talk to an audience of Asian journalists on a fellowship program. It was a packaged deal that accommodated me.

We realized we hadn’t been to Singapore in more than 10 years. After the United States, foreign travel took us to the Thai capital, Bangkok, three times, and nowhere else.

Singapore was everything I had anticipated—green, clean, and showing a decided plan where it was going. Much land has been reclaimed, both for expansion and for flood control. Tap water is potable. All habits of self-defense I formed in Metro Manila and have found useful in Spain and Italy were irrelevant. No one was fawning for tips, not even kapwa Pilipino, who make up a large number of the workforce.

Less than four flying hours and four days away from home make for just the right pace for us, such that we are now looking more to destinations around the region than beyond.

At the farewell dinner, Vergel and I sat with journalists from Beijing, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Singapore, and the open forum resumed, informally and even more enthusiastically. I had my own questions to ask, not Vergel, but some of the participants.

One endearing image of the Singaporeans was inspired by an account of the perceptive young Indian seated beside me, about something he could not imagine happening in his country—or I in mine.

The MRT stalls during rush hour, surely a rare occurrence in efficient Singapore, and he says, his eyes widening, “No one moves, no one seems curious about what has happened, no one so much as whispers a complaint.” Everybody remains seated in confident silence, until the train begins to run again—40 minutes later.

“What is that?” asked the Indian.

“Discipline?” asked the Chinese.

“Fear,” said the Pakistani.

I was perplexed myself. When I told the story to our driver back home, who takes our own MRT regularly, he said it breaks down oftener, and when it does, “Eh di talunan kaming lahat palabas.”

In other words, chaos!

The Singaporeans at our table let the ignorance of their fellow fellows go. They found it needless to say that in Singapore, things get done; it’s just a matter of time, and the thing for them to do is just sit and wait. Indeed, not only does their government think ahead; it thinks for them.

Snake in paradise

On the way to the airport, our taxi driver was profuse with gratitude to us for visiting his country, proudly pointing out the progress that’s obvious along the way—the lush greenery, the condominiums, the smooth, wide roads, the building fever all around, and of course the convention-center-hotel complex, built by Sands of Las Vegas in exchange for a casino franchise.

Aha, a snake in their paradise!

Just the day before, the Straits Times carried a front-page story of two types of addiction that had become so widespread in Singapore, experts had to be brought in to deal with them—alcoholism and gambling.

When I brought it all up with the taxi driver, I thought he didn’t hear me, but he was shaking his head in silence. I suppose, for a Singaporean, that is opinion enough.

The trip opened my eyes to how little I know of our neighbors compared with Westerners. Unlike Vergel, who has traveled around Asia extensively, my exposure to those who resemble us most in many ways has been shamefully minimal. So, for further education, not to mention the pleasure of short, jet-lag-free, inexpensive trips, and, yes, the addictive Asian cuisine, I have decided that it is Asia for me.

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