Thursday, 10 May 2018

A Postcard From The Heart: A Message For A Mother

Whenever I travel, I make sure I send a postcard home. I don't say much on the card, much like "Hello, I got here safely" message only. Just like you, I wouldn't want to write a lot of personal things on the postcard, lest we want the local postman to gossip about it.

I stumbled today upon this old postcard, postmarked 1958, sent and written by Tita Lud (Salud) to her mother, Doña Dorothea Magalona-Montinola, during her and her sisters' travels to Japan.

Upon reading, I found her message most touching, elevating her simple black-and-white-postcard into a loving letter of a daughter to a mother.

The postcard was written in Spanish, and Tita Lud opened it with 'Dearest Nanay', or 'Querida Nanay' in the original Spanish text. 

And even if you don't read Spanish, you'd be able to feel Tita Lud's words for her mother, telling her, among other words, that God willing, she, along with her sisters, would return home safely.

She also wrote, "Recuerdos á todos, y á tu, besos y abrazos de tus hijas, Tinay, Salud, Luz y Inday." 

"Regards to everyone, and to you, kisses and embraces from your daughters, Tinay, Salud, Luz and Inday."

Yes, that's what we all yearn. Even how far we are from family, we all want to return home and into the embracing arms of a mother.

Happy Mother's Day to all mothers!

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Discovering Both Sides Of Korea's DMZ And My Hope For A Peaceful Peninsula

            (A painting of North Korea's amazing
            Diamond Mountain at Geumgang Hotel)

On my first trip to South Korea in 2004, one of the things I wanted to do was to visit the Demilitarized Zone, popularly known as ‘DMZ’. I had always thought that being meters from the fences decorated by barbed wires and the four-kilometer, no man’s land accessorized with countless landmines was the closest thing to being inside communist North Korea.
(The no man's land at the DMZ is full of landmines                     and exotic flora and fauna)

(We all went under and through the 2nd Tunnel)

My DMZ dream tour
Unfortunately, on that short visit, my dream DMZ tour remained just that – a dream. Who wouldn’t want to be at the DMZ right at the border of the only divided nation in the world?  I would have bragged about it when I flew back to the Philippines that time, and surely, it would have been a story to remember.
              (Korean Workers' Party Headquarters 
                         built by North Korea)

But months after I finally settled in Seoul that year, the dream tour came true! And not only that! I got to spend a night in a sleepy corner of Cheorwon County that was right next to the DMZ, went down and walked through the 2nd Tunnel dug by North Koreans, roamed the Korean Workers’ Party Headquarters Building whose steps still bear the scars of military tanks, and even visited the memorial sites of the Baekmagoji Battlefield.
         (Interesting sites at Cheorwon County 
                         in Gangwon Province)

Crossing the DMZ
And all that time when I was thinking of my visit to the DMZ as my dream tour, I never realized that I would be able to top that. In July 2006, I crossed the four-kilometer demilitarized zone on a bus and stepped into North Korea!

Way back then, the Geumgang Resort on the North Korean side of the peninsula was opened to tourists. Named after Geumgang-san, or Diamond Mountain, where it was located, the resort was built by a South Korean conglomerate to enable South Koreans and other nationalities see the natural beauties of North Korea. Although it was probably one of the priciest weekend tours I ever paid for, it was worth the story, and of course, the bragging rights!

Our tour bus left Seoul Friday night. We arrived at the Donghae Highway Transit Office by early morning after a quick breakfast stop along the way. This border crossing check-point was installed just for the purpose of the tours.

My tour bus was just one of twenty that drove through the DMZ in a slow, uniform speed. With paved roads, the drive was both smooth and eerie as when we arrived at the northern side, North Korean soldiers were lining up along the way, watching over the buses like cold sentinels in dark uniforms and rifles with rusty bayonets.

Diamond Mountain
The Geumgang Resort had hotels, a public bath and spa, and a small plaza with restaurants, convenience stores, and a performance theater.
              (A restaurant along a stony river that
               overflows during the rainy season)

Our first stop was a hike through the valleys, creeks and mountainside of Geumgang-san. With trails rarely visited by humans, it was nature untouched by progress, except, of course, for the occasional giant, red engravings on the rocks extolling the leaders of that side of the border.
                 (A hotel at Geumgang Resort)

      (The open area with the performance theater)

North Korean Circus
In the afternoon, we were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime experience! A performance by a North Korean circus! The emcee was a North Korean lady whose beauty was only matched by her exquisite hanbok whose colors and fabrics could only be matched by the best hanbok makers at the Dongdaemun Fabric Market! I was always told by my Korean friends from the South that the most handsome men in the peninsula are from South Korea while the most beautiful women are from the North.  Before that day, I had never seen up close a lady from the North, but that moment, as I sat in the theater watching the North Korean lady host the show, I believed the generalization.
                 (North Korean trapeze artists)
(North Korean circus performers and the lady emcee)

I had watched circus performances before, but this one was the most surreal. The music provided by the musicians dressed in white long sleeves up in the choir completed the very unique experience watching jugglers, acrobats, trapeze artists, and other performers who looked very proud in giving the ‘outsiders’ an entertainment they would never get at the southern side of the border.
             (Not exactly your 'The Greatest Showman' 
                              type of routines)

Geumgang Beach
When inside the tour bus and passing through villages and guard posts, no picture taking was allowed. Also, no one was allowed to take photographs of any North Korean, be it a soldier or civilian. A fine would be imposed on anyone violating the rule. Understandably, nobody dared violate the rule, lest he or she wanted to be left behind.
(Haegeumgang, the sea side of Geumgang Resort)

On Sunday morning, we were brought to the Geumgang Beach. The area was facing east and was littered with big and unique rock formations. We were able to walk around the formations as it was low tide, making it fun for photographs again. We were warned though not to point our cameras to a military outpost a couple of hundred meters from where we were.

Since the resort was the venue for the family reunions of North and South Korean families that were separated by the Korean War, heartbreaking photographs of these reunions were posted at the lobby of the transit office, reminding us that, perhaps, when the two Koreas finally unite, these reunions may someday be a thing of the past.

Filipinos in the Korean War
Though my trips to Geumgang-san, the DMZ and the battlefields of Cheorwon seemed to have accomplished a few in the bucket list of a tourist in Korea, it became a sentimental journey of sorts for a Filipino like me.  The Philippines was the first Asian country to send troops to defend South Korea. A contingent of almost 7,500 Filipino officers and soldiers came to fight during those years of conflict, and 112 of them died in the War.

Those brave and gallant Filipinos represented the Philippine Expeditionary Forces To Korea, one of whom was Fidel V. Ramos. He eventually became the 12th President of the Philippines.  Another prominent Filipino who came to Korea that time was Benigno Aquino, Jr., who, at 17 years of age, became the youngest correspondent to cover the Korean War. He later became a Philippine senator and the husband of Corazon Aquino, the 11th President of the Philippines and the father of Benigno Aquino III, the 15th President of the Philippines.

Although Geumgang-san may be out of reach for you right now, you can still head to Panmunjeom, the DMZ, or at the historic battle sites of Cheorwon. And if you get there, do remember the history and of the gallant men who fought for the freedom and peace everyone now enjoys.

Just like everyone else, I visited the sites to discover and enjoy. And although I arrived at these war sites as a tourist, I left as a proud Filipino.

            (Yes, these tourists were posing under 
                         the huge mosaic of 
                 you-know-whos in North Korea!)

A Peninsula Finally at Peace
Having lived in Seoul for more than a decade, I have roamed the country and saw the beauty of its people, culture and sites first-hand, including having experienced the regular evacuation drills, learning about the nearest shelters, and listening to everyone’s fear – all because the past provocations from North Korea.

But all this fear will disappear, I hope.

With the holding of the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, I, just like everyone else, wish that peace will finally come to the Korean Peninsula because, after all, this is for the good of all the Korean people.

A lasting peace will honor those who have come before, will bring freedom and unity to the present, and prosperity and happiness to the generations to come.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A Pinoy @ The Movies: A Quiet Place

It was a clear choice from the movies showing at our local cinemas: Rampage seemed like King Kong in the city; Ready Player One seemed like Tron; and Act of Violence seemed like Taken without Liam Neeson.

A Quiet Place is just exactly like that - a quiet movie, where a family goes through their daily survival without any footwear and loud parents. 

Its story is what I found fascinating and unique. It's set in future America where blind and big creatures are hunting down Americans (probably both Republicans and Democrats) by following the noise humans make. 

Emily Blunt is the mother of three children, and her husband, played by John Krasinski (also her real-life husband) directs.

As spoken dialogues are rare in the movie, it's a lot of sign language and tiptoeing. Although you'd think it's easier for them as they need not memorize long lines, their task is doubly difficult as they have to convey most of the story through facial expressions and movements. 

Blunt, in particular, was amazing. The scenes where she was about to give birth while nursing a skewered, bloody foot and playing hide-and-seek with the creature in her own house, all of these while suppressing her screams of painful childbirth are worthy of another acting nomination.

As the creatures in the movie communicated through sounds, they reminded me of the same mysterious creatures from Matt Damon's Great Wall. The clicking sound made by the creatures from both movies sounded eerily the same.

And as to how the family survived (or did they?), you have to watch it. 

I love the film because it's a tasteful suspense-slash-horror; not a lot of mangled bodies and wasted blood everywhere. 

I love the film because it was actually fun for the audience to play hide-and-seek along with the characters. And you'd feel you'd also survive as long as you kept your breathing slow and soundless.

I love the film because there were no unnecessary scenes meant to prolong the movie. Although, for one and a half hours, I sympathized with them knowing that any loudness could end their idyllic life in the countryside or their shop-till-you-make-a-sound visit to a ghost town could end in tragedy.

As to the soundtrack, it would have been cute if they threw in Simon & Garfunkel's Sound of Silence, or Mariah Carey's I'll Be There. You don't actually need to call anyone's name. Just call out.

In the meantime, go watch it but avoid the popcorn.:-)

Monday, 2 April 2018

Eden Pottery: Celadons and Korean Memories

Yes, it's like Eden, the Paradise. But this one's a paradise of celadon, ceramics, and porcelains created with superb artistry and craftsmanship.

Eden Pottery in Itaewon in Seoul, Korea, has been a go-to shop for locals and foreigners who want to snatch up some one-of-a-kind pottery creations either as souvenirs or gifts.

Mrs. Mison Kim, the owner of Eden Pottery sources these beautiful and elegant pieces from 18 locations in South Korea. Her shop has been around for 20 years, making it an institution in Itaewon where shops come and go with market volatility and increase in real estate rentals.

For many years, my friends living in Seoul have patronized Mrs. Kim's shop as all of her wares could easily transform into one's memories of living in Korea.

Those delicate pieces reflect Korean interpretations of classic shapes and designs, handpainted with Korean figures from nature and sceneries. 

These pieces of celadon, ceramics, or porcelain weren't churned out from a conveyor belt. They were individually made by the hands of Korean artisans from around the country, delicately handled, painted by artists' hands, and originally made of earth and created over fire.

They are unique and have been meticulously nurtured over time so that these beautiful symbols of Korea that would find its way into someone else's home, either in Korea or in another part of the world.

The huge pieces take especially long to create. Some require five months or more as they are created with and bathed in intricate details and carvings.

Well, I am not exactly one who could go out to buy some of these wares. So, the ones given to me as gifts ended up at my mom's dinner table like those heavy and long plates in the Philippines.

My friend Joy still enjoys her 'acquisitions' from Eden Pottery, like her male and female celadons with crane motif, and her two ladies in hanbok figurines.

Over the years, I have seen on my friends' dinner tables Mrs. Kim's earthenwares used as serving plates, and on their mantles, the unique vases and celadon figurines, among others.

And if you have purchased a few yourself, you can probably see from these photos celadons and ceramics similar to yours. I am sure my friends can. 

These pieces' prices range from the most reasonable of KRW2,000 per trinket item. But the huge and most unique ones can fetch as much as KRW8 million and more. 

Yes, they may be expensive but these, to me, are the best examples of Korean artistry and craftsmanship.

So, if you've lived in Korea and would want to get a unique remembrance of your stay here, you can always visit Mrs. Kim's shop. 

Or you can check out her shop if you're looking for a special gift for a special friend. These pieces will never disappoint as my friends and I have discovered all these years.

Eden Pottery is in Itaewon in Seoul. From Exit 1 of Itaewon Station, walk straight out for 180 meters until you see ABC Mart. Eden Pottery is right next to it. You won't miss its pink entrance. It is closed on Wednesdays.

Happy shopping! And don't forget to tell Mrs. Kim that Alfonso sent you! :-)

           (The entrance of Mrs. Kim's shop is a 
             delightful preview of what's inside)

Friday, 30 March 2018

Washing Of The Feet: A Lesson In Humility

Growing up as a Catholic, I was taught to observe the Holy Week with solemnity. During my growing up years, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were the quietest of days as there were no TV shows on air and radio programs were limited to airing the 'Pasyon'.  

What my mother played on her cassette player during those years were her recorded religious songs like the 'Our Father' and the 'Ave Maria' sung by Mario Lanza. These recorded songs were played on the religious float, or the pasos, during the religious processions on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to accompany the praying parishioners.

But when I left for Korea, I rarely spent the Holy Week back home to observe the Lenten rites. This year, however, was different. I was home and had the time to watch them all again.

In the afternoon of Maundy Thursday, during the Holy Mass, the unique Lenten rites like the washing of the feet and the transfer of the Most Blessed Sacrament were observed. Our parish priest performed the Catholic tradition of the washing the feet of the 12 laymen who portrayed the 12 apostles. 

He knelt in front of each apostle, took a basin with water, and washed both of their feet. He then wiped them off with a towel.

This tradition is more than just religion. It is a lesson about humanity; a lesson in humility.

According to the Bible, after the Passover meal, Jesus individually washed the feet of his apostles, who questioned him why he was doing so. In the ancient times, the feet were probably the dirtiest part of the anatomy as they only wore sandals. The dirt, dust, and probably a few skin problems made the feet a filthy pair, especially if you were walking around villages and desserts without washing.

And doing so - the holding, washing, and wiping of someone else's feet, especially those of your followers were not only a symbolic gesture to show that by being a leader, one has to serve first. 

But that lesson is probably best for politicians and government officials who think that their position of power allows them to exploit and abuse their offices, cheat and steal whatever and however they can, and make us all believe they are squeaky clean, genuine civil servants. 

Aside from this kind of people, we have our neighborhood characters whose main agendum every day is to brag about their phantom wealth, their bogus achievements, or hypocritical charities. Now, these people are probably the scariest kind because, unlike politicians and government officials, their hypocrisy, self-praise, and posturing are not co-terminus with any term of office! Ha-ha-ha!

And we all know one or two of this kind, I'm sure.

It's sad, but this is humanity. It's part of being human. Well, since washing their feet in a basin of water won't definitely change their character, drowning them in one is probably a good idea. Ha-ha-ha! Kidding!

So, what to do about this people? Praying for them is one; ignoring them is another. We badly need to choose our leaders as well as our neighbors. :-)

Friday, 9 March 2018

Discovering Dongdaemun After Dark!

The Dongdaemun Shopping District in Seoul is one of the most popular areas to visit. Why? Shopping! Of course!

Although the Myeongdong alleys offer various cosmetic shops, fashion outlets, and a food alley, these are mostly for those who wanted convenience as these are all located in one location.

The Dongdaemun shopping malls, on the other hand, are mostly scattered around the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and are on different buildings. But what Myeongdong does not offer, Dongdaemun does! Shopping till morning!

Yes, while some shops and markets in Dongdaemun are open during daytime, the shopping really comes alive after dark!
               (Therese and friends discovering 
                      Dongdaemun after dark)

So, when my friend Therese, a former Seoulite, came to Korea for a quick visit last week, I told her I’d tour her around Dongdaemun. I had toured friends around Itaewon and at the Dongdaemun bag market at night before. So, this would be another fun night tour!

After their dinner in the nearby Namsan area, Therese, who’s from Oregon, brought along her other friends: Gail from Toronto, Yuna from New York City, Isabel from Paris, Jane from Shanghai, and Mitsuka from Tokyo!

Going to Dongdaemun, we simply boarded the blue bus from the Beotigogae area, where they had dinner, had a short bus ride, and got off at Gwanghuidong Bus Stop, one stop before the Dongdaemun Culture and History Park bus stop.
                    (Waiting for the blue bus!)

Here was our Dongdaemun tour trail:

Said to have been constructed in 1396 during the fifth year of King Taejo, Gwanghuimun is a gate which served as one of the eight gates of the old city. This was destroyed during the Imjin War of the 16th century. In 1975, restoration of the gate was done.
                    (Gwanghuimun after dark)

Since Gwanghuimun is hidden away on a quiet corner among shops, ordinary tourists to Dongdaemun are usually not able to spot this historical gate. But that night, I made sure Therese and her friends were able to discover this ancient gate.

LED white flowers of Dongdaemun Design Plaza
From Gwanghuimun, we made our way to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). I told them that this site was an old baseball stadium but is now a unique space for designers and artists, where they can sell, market, and exhibit their designs and creations. DDP was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, a world-renowned architect.
          (The ladies at the LED flower garden)

But unfortunately, it was late when we got to DDP. So, we moved around the DDP and discovered the unique, white LED flowers scattered around the landscape.  A few years back, these 20,000 LED white flowers were ‘planted’ at the southeastern corner of DDP, but they have since been re-planted on a different side.

The ladies joined other tourists and visitors posing next to the thousands of white flowers that lighted up the garden landscape behind the DDP.

Dongdaemun Night Shopping!
And as I told them, the shopping came alive after dark! From the outside, you’d see these brightly lit buildings with colorful neon signs and unique names. But inside, it was a controlled chaos of sorts where local and international shoppers swarmed around shops selling clothes and accessories fashionistas would kill for.

These shops are mostly owned and run by the Korean designers themselves, and most floors of the buildings are all populated by these fashion shops.
         (Inside a Dongdaemun shopping mall)

Outside the buildings, we noticed delivery men gathered and hauled huge plastic packages that were probably meant for online customers.

Cheonggye Stream
It was almost midnight when we capped our Dongdaemun night tour with a visit to Cheonggye Stream, which was right next to the shopping district.

We made our way down the stream for more photos. We were surprised that, even though it was late, there were a lot of people walking through the stream to exercise or walk their way home towards the eastern side of the city.
                (Isabel and Therese dropped by 
                      the Cheonggye Stream)

Yes, shopping is not the only night tour Dongdaemun offers. If you’re in Dongdaemun, make sure you don’t limit your visit to the shopping arcades and malls. There’s the Gwanghuimun, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, and the Cheonggye Stream!

Therese and her friends had fun discovering Dongdaemun after dark. You should, too!