30 November 2015

The test of travel

(A chunk of my interview with host Janet Hsieh regarding her Fun Taiwan wedding special. It's quite an eye-opening chat for someone like me who obsesses about privacy. Full article on GIST.PH.)


Has it always been the plan — get married in Antarctica and shoot the wedding for Fun Taiwan?

JANET HSIEH: (George and I were) talking about the dream destination and Antarctica was it. I started inviting my friends, family, and my producer — he loves adventure and we thought, “We should film it, it’ll be fun.” Then I told George, “Hey your parents are gonna be there and my parents are gonna be there.” And he made a joke: “Why don’t we just get married,” and I was like, “That’s a good idea.”

Traveling with your partner and getting married are very intimate affairs. How does it feel to have a camera and a crew following you around every step of the way?

For me it’s quite natural because for the past ten years, working with TLC, every time I travel somewhere, I have the camera with me. Yes you’re mixing your private life with work, but I love it. When we decided to do the wedding thing, obviously I needed to talk to George, who was a little bit more reserved.

We weren’t going to have a wedding at first. But after we started filming — in Texas for ten days, then Argentina for another 10 days, and finally to Antarctica — by that time that it just became routine, so normal, to have a camera there. Plus, the advantage of having a production is that you’re focusing on planning the trip. You’re not thinking about the wedding so much. For us the idea of planning a wedding is very stressful. But planning a trip is okay! So that took off a lot of the normal wedding anxiety that you would have.

What was it like to revisit your hometown with your significant other?

That was fun. I grew up in Texas but left when I was 17. So to go back as an adult and relive all the things that we used to do — kayaking, horseback riding, eating streak — and be able to share it with George is completely different. I felt like I kind of went back to being a kid again. We were in the rodeo and I was so excited, but then George was there so sometimes it became a competition, I wanted to be the better horseback rider. Sometimes I kind of wanted to guide him, and sometimes it was just us two experiencing things for the first time together. So it was very nice, and to see George’s reaction to everything was always hilarious.

What are the major differences — maybe advantages or disadvantages — of traveling alone, with a group, and with your partner?

Travelling alone, you’ll meet so many people. Because humans are naturally social creatures, when you travel by yourself, you’re always looking to meet people. Even if it’s just one-day friends, you’ll always meet that person, and sometimes you end up traveling together for a bit of time.

When travelling with a group, obviously you have the dynamics of the group. So if it’s your friends, you really start to see things about them that you don’t normally see in day-to-day life. So that could make or break relationships. It really could. But it’s also fun. When you’re away from the stress of work and all that, a lot of times you become closer. Even if you have hard times, say, something terrible happens like bad weather and you can’t do the things you wanted to do, you’re cuddled together in one space that you end up becoming really close. That’s the advantage.

Travelling with a partner — I always say, if you really want to know your partner, travel with them. (Plan everything together) down to where you book your hotel and what kind of food you’ll eat. If you come across any problems — or just even with the shopping, how (they) interact with the shopkeepers — you’ll really see what this person is like. For me, traveling can be a deal breaker. If I don’t travel well with this person then I know I won’t have a good life with them.

27 November 2015

Stuck in a room with wasted kids

There’s nothing funny about drugs, robbery, and running away. At least not if you had engaged in all these and are now looking at your transgressions from a comfortable distance. Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth seems to be that retrospective narrative of a time long gone and one could no longer imagine returning to, except to laugh at it.

Twenty-something Dennis Ziegler is lounging about in his Manhattan apartment (which is paid for by his parents) when his almost-twenty friend Warren Straub drops by with his backpack and suitcase. Warren ran away after a fight with his dad, and before leaving had stolen $15,000 from him. Together the two friends face a huge problem: how to spend the money.

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

If the premise sounds exaggerated, like a springboard for a wild adventure, it isn’t. Dennis and Warren are no ordinary kids looking for excitement, they are privileged kids who have so much that they don’t know what to do with it.

Red Turnip Theater’s staging of Lonergan’s critically acclaimed play is a breather from the nostalgia- and pop culture-obsessed productions we’ve been seeing for a while. The play, though set in the ’80s and in parts driven by music, banks on neither nostalgia nor pop culture references to draw easy laughs and build connection with the audience.

Instead, it presents painfully familiar pot-smoking characters. Dennis (Jef Flores) is the short-fused, self-assured guy, who has an opinion on everything and is convinced of their accuracy. On the other hand, Warren (Nicco Manalo), though smart enough, always second-guesses himself and looks to Dennis for guidance. A third character is Warren’s object of desire, Jessica (Cindy Lopez), who is also sharp but fragile.

Red Turnip shuts the audience up in a room with these three. And by room we mean an 80-seater A Space Gallery in Makati, where people watch the play sitting on bean bags, close enough to see the nerves on Dennis’ neck whenever he screams (which is often), the twitching of Warren’s fingers, and the eyes of Jessica welling with tears.

It’s like being a fourth character, only invisible and mute. You feel helpless when Dennis and Warren get in a row and throw things in the apartment. And when Dennis bangs the rotary phone down, you want to shout, “Spare the poor phone!” In this set up, director Topper Fabregas succeeds in bringing the audience not back in time but in the moment with the characters.

And the source of their conflicts? Nothing earth-shaking: fighting with their parents, getting laid, figuring whether or not they’re in a relationship, running out of pot, finding better pot. It’s so trivial it’s funny — but not to them, not at that age where every movement is felt with intensity and every thought is taken seriously.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

22 November 2015

Laughter and danger

Remember playing in the kitchen when you were young? No, not experimenting with food but making a mess. And making musical instruments out of pots, pans, and ladles, only what came out wasn’t music but noise. Or maybe you still do it now that you’re all grown up. You sauté mushrooms while wiggling to techno beats. You tap the spoon on a glass while waiting for the oven ding!

What you do spontaneously at home, a group of Korean artists has turned into an hour and a half of performance art. Cookin’ Nanta, as presented at the start of the show, is a top tourist attraction in Korea and has toured around the world since its 1997 premiere. In Manila, the show continues its first and limited run until Nov. 15 (Sun.) at The Theatre, Solaire.

There’s barely any cooking in Cookin’ Nanta. It’s essentially a percussion show mixed with comedy and circus acts. That there’s a story — no matter how flimsy — holding the performances together, makes the five people onstage more endearing than they already are. With their restaurant chosen to cater a wedding party, a team of chefs is tasked to finish a demanding menu in an hour, at exactly 6 o’ clock. Their condition is aggravated by the arrival of their hot-headed boss’ nephew, who, by way of nepotism, instantly becomes a new chef, taking the hat of one of the older chefs. There’s also some romance injected in the musical.

The connection between the performers and the audience is Cookin’ Nanta’s not-so-secret ingredient. To say that there’s audience participation involved is inaccurate as the characters onstage communicate with the people in front of them the entire night, whether by directly asking them to come up on stage, making eye contact, or reacting to their reactions. The best parts of the program are when members of the audience don’t respond the way they’re expected to. And the performers’ way of dealing with the situation is a pleasure to watch.

But where you’ll go Whoa! is when the four chefs are at their stations, chopping vegetables. Onions, cucumbers, carrots and cabbages fly — gracefully — onstage and onto the audience. And then it hits you: they are drumming, playing with knives. You are amazed and at the same time thankful that you’re not in the front row, because you remember those concerts in which you’ve seen the drumsticks slip from the drummer’s hands.

The combination of food, music, and dancing is not a rarity in entertainment. Cookin’ Nanta succeeds not because it’s new but because the artists are simply too good at what they do. They’ll make you want to grab your own pair of drumsticks. They even make slapsticks genuinely hilarious. “Nanta” means “to strike relentlessly,” and the cast proves they’re more of musicians than cooks in the finale. They remove their chef uniforms and don skintight tank tops and pants. They are no longer the clumsy, carefree and funny characters they portray. They are five rockstars who make banging plastic containers cool.

—Originally published on GIST

20 November 2015

On that ugly word, ‘staycation’

I first heard the word “staycation” in 2011 when I wrote for a travel magazine. What came to mind was, during long weekends, holidays and summer breaks, instead of going out, one would simply stay at home and indulge in things like baking, movie marathons, hot baths, or engaging in the high art of doing nothing. Not until I read ads and articles about staycation deals and “Things to Do on a Staycation.” They obviously talked about leaving the house.

So what is a staycation?

In a 2008 article, Salon described the term as an “economy-based euphemism.” Times were (still are?) tough in the US economy-wise and people were “too broke to go anywhere.” The online magazine cited earlier use of the word, but underscored that it only became a buzzword that year. Another site, Skift, noted how staycation was picked up as an effective marketing idiom.

So what does one do on a staycation?

If you browse through “Staycation Ideas” listicles, a staycation may involve activities such as visiting a museum, going to an amusement park, watching a play, dining at a themed restaurant, reading a book, having a massage, and attending a festival. Pretty much anything you can do on any regular weekend — or weekday if you play hookey.

So what makes a staycation special?

There has to be an element of novelty, something you can’t do at home, or, if you choose to stay at home, something you don’t normally do there. Also, you have to do things at your leisure (I’m making up rules here, just so we’re clear). Of course, you shouldn’t spend a lot and where you’re having your staycation must be nearby (no need to board a plane would be a good standard).

A few weeks ago I was told I had a staycation. I stayed (hah, stayed) at InterContinental Manila and checked out the developments in Circuit Makati. The hotel, which is closing by the end of 2015, offers a holiday staycation package, so why not pamper myself within its walls one last time?

I’ve always been sold on the idea of checking in a hotel over the weekend as a form of vacation. The next person who can afford an overnight stay at the InterCon may find it pointless — all you’ll enjoy is a nice bed, a pool, bathtub and buffet breakfast. The money can be better spent elsewhere. But I like the thought of not cleaning up after yourself. Not having to wash the dishes, do the laundry, fold bedsheets. It’s a nice way to be spoiled.

The silence, cleanliness, and safety inside the executive room already relaxed me. The afternoon was spent appreciating the crisp linen, carpeted floor, warm lighting, and the carefully arranged water bottles, tea bags, glasses and coffee cups. It’s a nice way to live, however briefly, in your fantasy home.

At sundown, I saw some action and tried new stuff. Because I don’t have a car, I satisfied my driving appetite at City Kart Racing in Circuit Makati. There I realized I’m such a defensive driver that I let everyone else go ahead of me. But, surprise, I still managed to rank second to the last.

Other cravings satiated afterwards were gustatory and intellectual. I had dinner at Backyard Kitchen + Brew (my culinary vocabulary is limited, so you have to trust me when I say the food was delicious) before watching the entertaining No Filter 2.0 at Power Mac Center Spotlight, a black box theater.

I don’t know about you but coming home from an adventure is as exciting as the adventure itself. I was shuttled back to the hotel, where the rest of the night was spent downing a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates. The best part? There was more to do — and not do — the next day.

See, staycation is a beautiful thing with an ugly name. From an economic and introverted standpoint, staycations should allow you to recharge, soul-search, and have fun without going to Italy, India or Indonesia and going broke. With that definition, it deserves a better name. Like its relatives. Just hear the elegance of “travel,” the cool ruggedness of “trek,” the gallantry of “voyage,” the wisdom of “retreat.”

So yeah, what should we call it?

—Originally published on GIST.PH

18 November 2015

Not for nostalgia but knowledge

One thing that undersecretary Manolo Quezon III reiterated during his lecture on the opening day of “Defining Quirino,” a commemorative exhibit at the Ayala Museum, was: “Today began yesterday.” These words he borrowed from writer Leon Maria Guerrero.

Part of the Philippines’ yesterday included Quirino, whose legacy the nation enjoys today — minimum wage, eight-hour work laws, the social security system, and standardization of teachers’ salaries. The unfortunate fact is not many are aware of who Quirino is beyond being a former president of the republic, a reason that the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation, Inc. came up with the exhibit.

Quezon presented to the audience a Quirino who is at his core a broken human being just like you and me. We heard his voice and saw him in his trunks, about to dive into a pool. We saw photos of him soon after he was informed of then president Manuel Roxas’ death. Quirino was a vision of a leader in control of the situation. Not until the next photo, which shows Quirino crying by the casket. Those photographs portrayed a man who is both prepared and not, a man who is both tough and fragile. Personally, the images evoked some of my deepest fears: losing someone important and taking on responsibilities I didn’t ask for, at least not for the time being. Quirino weathered all these and more. His family was taken from him during the war. How does one recover from that?

We were also reminded of the difference between a politician and a statesman, and that Quirinio exemplified the latter. Trivia: he became notorious for sleeping in a P5,000 bed (then an extravagant amount). “But he bought it,” Quezon noted, “and he left it at the palace.” Quezon also pointed out that, thinking of the next generation, Quirino was among the first, if not the first to assert the importance of claiming the Spratly archipelago. And when he lost to Ramon Magsaysay in the next elections, he welcomed him to the office — an act of goodwill we barely witness in the political arena.

Quezon said something amusing before the start of his talk: “Usually there would only be around 15 people in a lecture like this,” and he referred to men and women who already knew the subject. That time, the ground was filled with students (granted, they were required to attend by their teachers). He confessed it would be a challenge to introduce someone who lived half a century ago to those born in the ’90s. But should it not be the point of exhibits — (re)discovery? Hopefully the afternoon at the museum served as an opportunity for both young and old, strangers to and friends and relatives of Quirino to look at a historical figure and what he means to them with a clearer head, without a nostalgic filter. It was, after all, an invitation to define Quirino.

—Originally published on GIST

15 November 2015

Rooting for Rafa

It is a sports storyline that turns casual spectators into invested fans. New tennis talent comes in to shock everyone by winning a grand slam on his first attempt at age 19, then proves the feat is no fluke by bagging the title for four consecutive years. This is of course Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who practically owns the French Open and is hailed “King of Clay” for being almost unbeatable in the court.

But a sports superstar shines brightest against a rival. And every sporting event yearns for a rivalry. On grass court, the most prestigious one among them no less, Switzerland’s Roger Federer rules. His skills and discipline are somehow overshadowed by his poetic grace: Federer is not the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) — he is a god.

When the two clashed at the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Finals in 2008, they wrote a tale that bears repeating. Nadal pushed the reigning champion into five sets, into tie-breaks, into over four hours of playing before finally taking match point and the trophy.

Prior to that, Nadal failed to win the Wimbledon twice, with Federer in his way. Though each time they met, the former made the latter work harder to earn the next point, staying so close that supporters of both players believed things would go Nadal’s way. “He’s the perfect foil to Roger Federer, the brash yet flawless machine that Roger is not,” notes a friend. “He’s infuriating to a Roger fan.”

In the same year that he won his first Wimbledon title, Nadal also snagged the Olympic Gold in Men’s Singles, and was ranked World No. 1. Since then, he’s had 14 grand slams under his belt and is now chasing French Open championship number ten.

We can talk all day about records, histories and techniques to find out who the real G.O.A.T. is, but once fans become devotees of an athlete, they can no longer be convinced otherwise. They could only cheer their idol on. It’s not the win or the numbers, after all, that make someone fall for an athlete, it’s that winning attitude — knowing they can still take game, no matter what the odds are.

In 2012, back on the clay court, Nadal played the finals against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic — a not-so-new kid in tennis town. He, along with UK’s Andy Murray, have joined Nadal and Federer as this generation’s tennis elite. Relentless, clinical, with the endurance (and humor) of a teenager, Djokovic is an infuriating character to fans of any player on the other side of the court.

Down to two sets against Nadal, it should be easy to write off the King of Clay’s challenger. But this was Djokovic. If anyone could mount a comeback, he’s the guy. And he did win the third set, 6 – 2 and went on to tie the fourth set. Not wanting to risk a heart attack, or worse, a long- lasting heartbreak, I switched channels. In other words I did something Nadal didn’t know how to do: give up.

The following day I learned Nadal had won his 7th and 3rd consecutive French Open title. Watching the replay, there it was, the fighting spirit people often speak of. Eric Hoffer says desire creates talent, and you could see this with Nadal’s every awkward (some pundits blatantly call it “ugly”) shot. If Federer’s elegance is awe-inspiring, Nadal’s sheer willpower is encouraging.

This year, Nadal and Djokovic (with their own fresh rivalry) met again at the French Open quarter finals and however scary it got, I stayed with Nadal for the entire game, which turned out to be a short one. Djokovic put him away in three sets. Heartbreak.

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

Talks of an era ending reverberated, especially with this season, which many have touted as his worst, with Nadal not winning any major. It’s getting tougher and tougher to watch post-game interviews. As in all losses, though, he would simply say, “He played better than me” and congratulate his opponent.

This humility, and to some extent vulnerability, outside the court is as endearing as what goes on inside, where, despite his dominance he acts like the underdog going after every ball. It also helps that he has a boyish charm about him, as well as quirks (last time we checked he has 19 distinct tics) that inspire fondness — if you were rooting for him. All these things set him apart from the other machines on court.

But for now, difficult as it is to ponder, he may be the underdog — after all the injuries, other players getting stronger by the day, and new blood like Stan Wawrinka (another Swiss) joining the fray. In an interview with Sky News, Nadal confessed to feeling tired at the start of the season. “I suffered this year, but the last couple of months I am enjoying the game,” he said.

During the US Open third round interview (last September), Nadal already accepted that 2015 wasn’t his year, but, quite predictably, he continued on a positive note: “(I have to) keep fighting till the end of the season to finish in a positive way for me. Finish the season with the feeling that I improved something from the beginning of the season.”

Not a sign of giving up. Does he think he can win another slam? Of course he does, and this fan vows to stay with him up until the last ball.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

03 November 2015

To those who won’t pay for Gary Mullen tickets because he’s no Freddie Mercury

Maybe it was the cushioned chairs, maybe it was the low temperature. Or maybe it was not knowing what to make of this guy who looked, acted and sounded like Freddie Mercury — were we amazed, amused, or disappointed?

The band played Another One Bites the Dust and still the audience appeared as if they were watching a Shakespeare tragedy. Except for a boy on the third row, who stood up and allowed his tiny frame be taken over by the music.

The guy holding the microphone, sweating like a pig as he did his best Freddie Mercury impression, took notice: “Are your bottoms glued to the seat?” he asked the crowd, then gave a shout out to the boy who knew how to rock and roll. When the band performed I Want To Break Free, the same boy jumped up and down to the beat, his arms raised to form a V throughout song.

Queen frontman and songwriter Freddie Mercury passed away in 1991, way before that kid was born. And to that young concert-goer, as well as to those who sat comfortably at Solaire Theater last Oct. 24, watching Gary Mullen & The Works — regarded as “the world’s premier Queen tribute band” — might be the closest they could ever get to experiencing a Queen live concert.

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You come into this kind of show with reservation, worrying that someone will bastardize your rock god. Garry Mullen, despite the voice, costume and antics, is no Freddie Mercury. You shiver with excitement upon hearing the intro to Bicycle Race, but feel something’s not right when the singer’s not extending the word “bicycle” into four syllables the way Freddie does in the chorus.

Yet you’re at fault for expecting to see the late great Freddie in another person. Not even Mullen is convinced that he sounded like the Queen vocalist. “I just hear my own my voice,” he said. For him, the impersonation is all about being an eight-year-old again, singing in his bedroom. It’s all about being a fan and continuing the fun that Queen set in motion. “Music is ageless,” mused Mullen. “I love introducing music to a whole generation of fans.”

It was the cushioned chairs and the low temperature. And people not quite knowing what to expect. Mullen’s sense of humor — and persistence — warmed up the crowd. He eventually got them on their feet and clogging the aisles to get closer to the stage. Finally, some rule-breaking. He made the Queen fans let go of their inhibitions. The next thing you know, everyone was high-fiving and taking selfies with him. More importantly, the show turned out to be the sing-along party it was meant to be.

Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions, Radio Ga Ga, I Want It All. Queen classics deserve no less than passionate, never mind if out-of-tune, communal singing with fist pumping. And you want to belt out these anthems with fellow die-hard fans. With people who know and love the band’s obscure songs. People who understand — like the gang in the balcony (who are always the loudest and happiest), like the boy on the third row, like Gary Mullen & The Works.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

02 November 2015

500 days of solitude on Mars

In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) woke up on Mars alone. After a storm hit them, his team of space travellers mistook him for dead and continued with their mission without him.

Watney figured how to survive on the red planet one day at a time, by sciencing the shit out of it. He rationed available food, managed to grow potatoes, and found means to communicate with NASA. Rummaging through the abandoned spacecraft for whatever tools he may use, he dug up his commander’s music collection, entirely composed of disco classics. Sucks to be him. “No, I will not turn the beat around,” Watney vented.

Music inspires, no question about it, but you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Consider this playlist a 21st century version of “What CD will you bring when you get stuck on an island?” You are on your own. On Mars. Help — if it ever comes — may arrive 900 days later, more or less. What songs will keep you alive?

A little bit of everything, don’t you think? So I made a playlist which includes pop, classical, OPM (to make you feel closer to home), and, as much as Watney would disapprove, some disco.

Watney safely landed back on Earth and became a professor. On his first day in class, he shared with his students how he thought of death: “At some point, everything’s going to go south on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that or you can get to work,” he said and encouraged them to solve a problem, solve the next problem, and then the next problem, until they reach home.

It may be unlikely that you will be trapped on Mars, but you don’t need to be left for dead on another planet to feel alone, homesick, musing on mortality, looking for answers. Either way, this playlist should suffice.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

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