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Singaporean Sojourn

PIC42006 was an exceptionally difficult year for me, and I was only momentarily distracted from my pains by the occasional trips that came my way via international trainings. The first of these was in June through a legal pluralism conference in Indonesia. An old friend who worked in the field of alternative lawyering had regularly heard about it, but this was the first time that “gendered perspectives in law” was to be an actual panel. We both threw our hats in, sending abstracts in the area of sexual orientation law. When our acceptance letters arrived, they even came with a full scholarship. Our plane fare, accommodations and lodgings were to be fully sponsored and reimbursed!

I was both excited and afraid. It had been more than a decade since I last traveled outside the country – at least 15 years in fact. And there would be some plane transfers during a stopover in Singapore. Of course that shouldn’t be a problem since I could read and speak English, but I was really, really poor in navigation and in getting directions. Plus, I would be traveling all alone this time. My friend was also accepted to a special pre-conference training and would be leaving ahead of me. I was following him to Indonesia two days later.

My problems were slightly eased when the office allowed me to go “on official time” to this international conference. Hence, I got to have an official (red) passport and free travel tax at the airport. But I had to get tips from my stewardess sister about other airport decorum – immigration requirements, terminal fees and check-in procedures especially for baggage. The tedious security checks and other pre-departure rituals seemed simple enough until I got into my seat on the plane. On the flight, all I had to deal with was airline food and the claustrophobia-inducing toilet.

The minute we landed in Singapore, I knew I was on another planet. It was too clean and orderly. And the airport was HUGE! Changi airport was really one of those terminals where you can actually set up residence. Besides the many restaurants, shops, lounging areas with cable TV and movies, there were massage chairs for weary travelers, free internet service for the extremely busy and even a gym with a shower room for those with enough time to kill. All this I learned from the map I got from the information booths. I mean, I am just in the airport and I already need a map? I haven’t even been outside the terminal to see the rest of Singapore!

While I was thoroughly amused by the different indoor gardens they had set up for a little “natural and outdoorsy” atmosphere (there was a cactus, orchid, and fern garden), I began to realize that such a big space would also mean longer walks to farther departure areas. Of course, they already made this easier by providing “walka-lators” (the horizontal equivalent of escalators) for passengers en route to their departure gates. I had seen, and used, one these before in Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong and thought they were just for the elderly or the extremely lazy. But in Singapore’s Changi airport, one would be smart to take advantage of this contraption.

As if that wasn’t enough to awe me, I was instructed to ride the “train” for the other terminal where I was supposed to get my connecting flight. Take note, it wasn’t a bus or a shuttle, but a high-speed train on a real railway system connecting the two terminals. I walked, got on the “walka-lators”, tried both the stairs and elevators, before finally boarding the train which will take me to the other terminal.

Eventually, I managed to get on my flight for Jakarta. I was somehow comforted by the thought that on the way back, I would be traveling with my old friend, Gary, and meeting up with my Mom and stewardess sister in Singapore. Problem was, my Mom and sister had booked flights and accommodations already, while my friend and I only had our return tickets via Jakarta-Singapore-Manila with delayed flights. But we were assured there were many backpacker hostels and really cheap bed-and-breakfasts in Singapore.

Three days of the conference passed like a blur to me. From Jakarta international airport, we were whisked by our student guides to Depok, an area just outside the capital. We were cooped up at the University of Indonesia (UI) campus both for the conference and lodgings, so I didn’t really get to see much, although it did remind me a lot about my own alma mater, the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. And except for a quick pasalubong shopping spree in one of Jakarta’s biggest malls, that was as much of Indonesian culture that I was able to soak up at the time.

Meanwhile, my stewardess sister, Giselle was already preparing to visit Sentosa Island. Unbeknownst to us, my Mom had her own contacts in Singapore and was also making plans to see them. Besides shopping, our mother had a mind to visit some friends from our parish.

Gary and I arrived in Singapore late in the evening and discovered the free airport shuttle only drops off travelers near the big hotels like Raffles. Since we also didn’t realize it was the Singapore Holiday Shopping Spree week, the really cheap places were all fully-booked. Fortunately, the lady at the airport information desk was really helpful and found us reasonable lodgings for our limited budget. Interestingly, it was in the red light district.

So the adventurous spirit in Gary and me kicked in; we believed it won’t be so bad. It would mean the area would be still alive and kicking even in the late night. And given its 24-hour nature, surely there would be some really cheap eating establishments as well.

True enough, the streets were still littered with people when we arrived past midnight. At the reception, we saw couples coming and going, alighting and boarding the elevators to the privacy of their rooms. Once, a pair of Asian-looking girls came in, looked at us and started talking in Tagalog. “Sige na, kunin mo na yung isa o…”, the older one said, gesturing at poor old Gary. It was then we realized the truth behind the rumors about domestics in Singapore moonlighting in the skin trade on their days-off. I was both saddened and shamed by the hard realities of daily life of fellow Filipinos abroad.

The next day, we rode the famous inner-city trains and got a view of the rest of Singapore. We met up with my family at their swanky hotel beside a nice park. Even with the clear use of infrastructure and industry by the Singaporean government, they were equally deliberate about keeping some “green space”. Besides the parks and gardens intentionally inserted within housing and business areas, street pavements were lined with trees and shrubs to maintain that “environmental” look.

I realized that for such order and cleanliness to have been possible, the Singaporeans would have to be so “disciplined” as a people. That wouldn’t be so difficult in a country where autocracy and dictatorship was a by-word for many years. They can even attribute their apparent economic success to that kind of leadership as well.

There were at least three things we needed to see in Singapore – the aquarium, the zoo and the botanical garden. We took a cab for Sentosa and rode the free tour bus around the island. First stop was the famed Underwater World which rivaled Hong Kong’s own Ocean Park aquaria. But while Ocean Park had ceiling to floor glass windows to view the various sea creatures (at least that was what I saw in 1990), Singapore’s Underwater World actually features a long glass tube where tourists are moved by a walkalator to view various fishes and sea mammals swimming above and around. Their collection of water animals was also quite extensive, including sea horses, jellyfishes, squids, cuttlefish and other crustaceans. My Giselle, who used to dream about becoming a marine biologist, absolutely loved it and was in complete awe. Last time I saw her get so excited was when we went to Bais City, Negros Oriental in 2005 and she saw live dolphins. My Mom, on the other hand, was quite fixated on the deep-sea, spider-like Giant Crab. As she stared lustily after it, I knew other things were on her mind since crabs were her favorite seafood after all.

The nearest attraction after the aquarium was Fort Siloso. Much like our Corregidor Island, Singapore’s Sentosa Island played quite a role during the Second World War. At Fort Siloso are remnants of the old encampment, it’s guns and cannons, and look-out towers. Inside are various photos of World War II as it happened in the Asian region – the battling Japanese and American soldiers, the European and Asian civilians caught in the crossfire and imprisoned in the underground tunnels, the ships and aircraft carriers that dominated these waters. There is even a life-size diorama of how the Japanese Navy surrendered to the joint Allied Command that retook Singapore and other Pacific islands. Although it was quite interesting to know about such historical facts, it was too much like our own Corregidor for anything else to impress us.

Somewhere along the way, we got that token visit and photo session with the Merlion and the Carlsberg Tower before Mama started acting up because she was already getting tired. She insisted we take a taxi back to the city proper instead of the cable car or the shuttle bus. Fortunately, Giselle and I were still in high spirits and we managed to visit the Botanical Gardens. Being graduates of UP Los Banos, we greatly appreciated the “nature trek” through the gardens which had a great display of orchids and other ornamental plants, as well as the herb and spice gardens which featured “basic” ginger, garlic, and onions, as well as basil, oregano, sage, tarragon, rosemary and thyme. The Botanical Gardens covered a great area and except for a few photos and a walk by the lagoon, we had to rush off to see Singapore’s famed zoo. Since it was along way off, we got there pretty late and missed the last tour.

By some happy coincidence, however, we were right on time for the Night Safari. Much like our own Subic (Zoobic) Safari, there was a ride that allowed you to get close enough to the animals, provided one did not get off the vehicle. The Night Safari of course featured most nocturnal animals, and once more Giselle got so excited. There were some big cats and predatory birds, like that panther which flashed its eyes at us as we passed by, and that big owl swooping down on a small rodent that will serve as its meal. Meanwhile, we also caught some animals during their feeding time and watched them drink from their waterholes.

By the time we finished, we weren’t very interested in the cultural show that followed and simply wanted to go back to our hotels to rest. Giselle finally caught up with Mama at their hotel after dinner, since Mama had finished visiting her own parish friends. On the train, I was already falling asleep on my feet, so Gary left me at our humble accommodations to do some “Singapore nightlife” by himself. I spared myself that since we had an early flight back for Manila the next day.

Indeed it was a hurried, and harried, tour of Singapore after all. But it had served its purpose well – some international traveling and quality time with my Mom and sister. And for a moment, I was taken away from the realities of my troubles. It was a “sojourn” in every sense of the word.

The Magic of Bali

Almost everyone dreams of going to Bali, that exotic Indonesian island just off East Java. The promise of sun, sea, and surf is the reason most Caucasian tourists are drawn to it. And indeed, for all its worth, IT IS a vacation spot to die for. During the day, one can swim, shop and go sight-seeing. And in the evenings, one can drink, dance, and party all the night long. By some ironic twist of fate, I was lucky enough to visit the place at a time when I was in dire need of some personal healing.

During my Applied Study Program in 2006, an invitation to attend Bali’s annual Queer Film Festival was extended to our Surabaya hosts by the local LGBT organizers. But the short trip was by no means a “pleasure trip”; it was business-as-usual for us interns-trainees. Our three-day visit would be jam-packed with activities – film showings including an exclusive “private” screening of a documentary, visits to local gay groups working on HIV/AIDS advocacy, and some mentoring sessions from Dede Oetomo of Gaya Nusantara.

Besides, being the only female and lesbian in our group, I was really getting fed up with all the testosterone from hanging out with straight and gay men all the time. Thus, I specifically requested our lesbian host in Bali to introduce me to a nice, English-speaking lesbian who could show me around the island’s LGBT hotspots to help me with my project study. True to Indonesian-style “hospitality”, she succeeded in hooking me up with a young lesbian based in Bali. I didn’t realize then that she would play such a vital role in my memories of Bali.

While we had other companions from Surabaya, they were taking the cheaper, more tedious land-trip with ferry transfers, much like our local RORO (“roll-on, roll-off”) system. At the time, a weird phenomenon was occurring somewhere in the outskirts of Surabaya. A local oil company building its pipeline had punctured some natural underground tunnel, and made hot mud spew out. The hole continued to emit lava-like material even after several days already, and with no signs that it would ever stop, it has started to contaminate the nearby communities’ water supply and waterways. Travelers and motorists have been diverted to a different path since the lava flow had also affected a national highway. Our poor friends had to take a longer route that would take them almost a whole day’s travel.

So my group took a domestic Garuda flight instead, shortening our travel time to a maximum of an hour or two. Flying over the rest of Java, there was a great view of one of Indonesia’s active volcanoes. Just like Kawa Puti in Western Java, I was unimpressed only because I was Filipino and we had Taal and Mayon volcanoes to be so proud about. Nonetheless, the volcano appeared majestic from above, with small puffs of smoke billowing from its crater to join low-lying clouds.

Arriving in Bali, I wondered about its rather small airport for international tourists. It was like our ordinary domestic airports in the provinces. I thought our international airports in Cebu and Davao were much bigger and at par with modern standards. Then again, their local carriers were also tiny, dragonfly-like contraptions like we have in the Philippines for domestic, inter-island flights, so who am I to judge.

The hotels and beach resorts were off to the coastline still, so we had a bit of a drive to make before we could check into our rooms and refresh ourselves. We were informed in the van that since it is expensive to stay in Bali, we were to share our accommodations with our Gaya Nusantara partners-guides. But because of Indonesian religious and cultural practices, and I was the only female in the group, I was not obliged to share my cottage with anyone. What luck!

Upon checking in, we immediately headed for the famed white sand beaches of Bali. Kuta Beach is a known surfing area for its big waves. Soft, almost powdery, granules under my feet, wind in my hair, I watched the giant waves intermittently rise and rush the shores. For miles on end, the even coastline and coral-less waters stretched as far as my eyes could see. It would really take a while to walk or jog from point of the beach to the other. I didn’t dare try to swim in those crashing waves; instead, I got myself my first henna tattoo from a resident artist on the beach. Some ladies also offered body massages and a combination manicure-pedicure service right there on the beach, but we didn’t have much time anymore as dusk was slowly gathering around us.

Bali’s sunsets are also quite something to see. While sunsets are always ideal to see on the beach, there are just some places on this earth that provide the best views for a setting sun. Watching that orange orb transform the horizon from yellow to orange to hot pink, before falling into a gentle blue-gray and finally, black with wisps of white light, one can just stand there mesmerized, unaware of the passing of the minutes. There is such peace that falls upon everything, and you find yourself letting go of all the day’s troubles, knowing that tomorrow is another day, another opportunity.

After a bit of rest and a quick shower, we were suppose to grab dinner and head to the first screening. But my new lesbian-friend offered to pick me up at our beach resort and take me for dinner at a really famous restaurant.

The restaurant she took me to, Made’s Warung, was quite popular with expats and tourists. Their menu offering was extensive and included Western choices. After eating fried tofu, assorted veggies and chicken for days on end, I yearned for something closer to Filipino cuisine. In fact, I desperately missed my pork diet. Asking me what I wanted to eat, I told her that I was dying for some grilled babi. She laughed and explained that Bali is culturally Hindu-dominated, so eating pork is allowed while touching beef is not. After almost three weeks of not having pig’s meat, I finally got my wish. But something about my order still reminded me that I was in Indonesia – the dish was still spicy hot! But this time, instead of creamy, chili-hot much like our Bicolano dishes, this sauce was swimming in chili-infested oil. It was all reminiscent of that spiced-up soy sauce used for wantons and siomais.

The food was still great of course; tasty and delicious. Really yummy, in fact! And the restaurant itself was quite impressive. The atmosphere alone is an ambience worth spending for. Candle-lit tables abound, but were always filled up too quickly. Huts like our bahay kubos were a more private option for dating couples, but this was not so fascinating to me anymore because it was commonplace in Filipino restos and beach resorts. The restaurant also had a fancy bookstore and souvenir shop to browse from while you wait for your dinner, or right after your dessert.

Meanwhile, the Queer Film Festival was being shown in the club strip. Heavy traffic always occurred in the area since the different bars were always filled to the brim with guests and customers. While most of these clubs appear “unisex” or for straights, there are some which are clearly “identified” to be for LGBTs. And while in the Philippines, we have “GROs” and “escorts” that front for our subtle skin trade, in Indonesian bars, bartenders and waiters/waitresses blatantly flirt with you to send a clear message. I would also learn that certain massage services in hotels also “dummy” for the sex industry. Around this time, except for known “bath houses”, I believe spas and massage centers in the Philippines have not yet been popularized enough to double as prostitution dens for LGBT customers.

After the film showing, we went our separate ways as the gay men and MTF transgenders went to the gay bars. I joined our lesbian host at an exclusive party which lasted until the wee hours of the morning. At 3AM, the bars and clubs remained brightly lighted and blaring with music at a distance, while the quiet and darkened beach cottages stood mute to the rhythmic roar of the ocean. Nothing could be more romantic than walking home under the moonlight, skies so clear that each and every star was visible. I slept, physically tired, but deeply comforted. I did not feel so alone or out-of-place anymore.

I woke up to an equally bright morning. The sun shining its warm rays on everything and the day soon became hot and humid. Fortunately, we were driving inland that day, towards the cooler, higher points of the island where we would have a private screening at a film director’s home. We were going to see her documentary entitled “The Last Bissu”, about the Indonesian counterpart of our Filipino babaylan, transgender religious leaders of the olden days which will soon be lost to the oblivion of ancient Indonesian traditions.

Although the drive only seemed like a Manila to Tagaytay travel, the place called Ubud is more like Baguio with its cramped, densely-populated environment and its reputation for being an artists’ haven. A market area had stalls set-up tiangge-style where an assortment of souvenirs were sold – from batik cloths to wayang puppets, to indigenous musical instruments and wooden house decors.

Meanwhile, from the film director’s home, we caught a view of the nearby villages which were still very much agriculture-based. A small community actually had a miniature rice terraces on the hills near a stream bordering their own homes. I guess the villagers knew about making the most of the rainwater before it causes a mudslide or flows into their water source, causing much siltation in their waterways.

On the way back, we took a late lunch at another popular tourist restaurant, Warung Murni. Besides trying out the local cuisine which was heavily-influenced by Indian recipes, we got to eat Balinese style – sitting on cushions and mats beside a low table about two to three inches from the floor inside a native bamboo hut. And I remembered stories my grandmother told me; about the old Ilocano tradition of eating meals before a very low dining table which now seemed to be borne out of our strong Indonesian ancestry.

After a brief shopping spree for souvenirs, we went to a large museum which housed paintings and sculptures of different Hindu gods like elephant-headed Ganesha and multi-armed Kali. A giant mural of the epic story “Ramayana” graced one huge wall. Interestingly, our mentor, Dede pointed out the sculpture by the pond as a depiction of an “intersex god”. The artwork clearly showed a figure with breasts on its chest, as well as obvious male genitalia.

That evening, before another round of film showings, we had a buffet dinner by the beach courtesy of our local LGBT hosts. Lighted by tiki torches all around, chairs and tables were set right on the beach. Food and drinks were in abundance – both Indonesian cuisine and Western choices, so I headed directly for the pork dishes. I ate the sate babi and babi guling quite heartily while watching the new films. After eating, I left early, joined by my new friend. I was totally enjoying the amenities of my beach cottage – the pool, the giant bathtub, the gigantic bed and efficient room service.

The next day, we were meeting up with at least two NGOs working on HIV/AIDS. The Indonesians are not so hypocritical about the skin trade even with their predominantly Muslim culture. They are also not quite so naïve when it came to safe sex practices and HIV/AIDS prevention. Tourist destinations like Bali are hotspots for the sex industry and the government and NGOs are not remiss in their duties about educating the public on STDs and HIV/AIDS. Both information and services are easily accessible, and condoms given out for free are a dime a dozen here.

Our last day in Bali was a “free day” for sight-seeing and shopping. There were some old ruins to see in Tanah Lot, best-buy souvenirs along Poppieslane, and that other fancy restaurant near Jimbaran beach with a breathtaking sunset. There were still so much to do, like bungie jumping and para-gliding, but with so little time left, we nixed those adventure activities.

Taking that last flight out that evening, I finally understood why I fell in love with Bali and the memories I took home with me will certainly last me a lifetime.