Friday, January 8, 2016

Peace and quiet at Mission Santa Inés

The hustle and bustle of Solvang's Denmark-themed commercial area was in stark contrast with the Spanish mission established in the early 1800s. It's founded by Franciscans and (according to a museum staffmember) is still an active parish. The thing is, I've long believed that the USA mainly has practising Protestants. So it was a foreign concept to me to see a relatively old Roman Catholic church. Through my walk through the museum, I learned that this mission was built as a place to cultivate the faith within the Chumash community (mainly inhabiting the southern California coast).

I was also amazed that the artistic styles of the mission remind me of Philippine churches. For one, the old images of saints in Santa Inés looked very similar to the images of saints in the old Philippine churches. For another, the paintings on the interior wall of the Mission Santa Inés church reminded me of the walls of Our Lady of Caysasay Church in Taal, Batangas... And even those found in the Angeles City, Pampanga church. The gardens within the mission were like those inside the courtyard of the San Agustin Church.come to think of it, I shouldn't have been a surprise because I've learned about the Galleon Trade between Manila and Acapulco. So the art from the same period should, expectedly, be similar.

Despite the similarities, the mission and churches in the Philippines are distinct from each other. The architectural style of the mission is distinctly Californian (that reminds me of Zorro; yes, Zorro!) while the churches I've seen in the Philippines have strong Earthquake Baroque architecture... with clear Asian touches (like those stylised clouds). Also, churches in the Philippines that I've visited don't have cemeteries within the hallowed gardens of the church. The gravestones of the deceased are peppered near the altar. On the other hand, a graveyard is behind the bellfry in Mission Santa Inés. According to a flyer, there are so many people buried there but the grave markers are not complete. 

What shall a Filipina do, right? I walked through the graveyard repeatedly whispering "Tabi tabi po!" to tell those resting in peace to move to the side so I wouldn't step on them. 

Since nobody protested or shrieked as I traversed the graveyard, I suppoed that they understood me; as if the deceased could understand Filipino... many of them talked in the Chumash's language, I suppose.

This pitstop to Santa Inés was somehow grounding for me. I realised that California was not just about Hollywood, the cosmopolitan feel of the major cities, and vineyards. It's also a place where traditional culture can still be seen, alive and well.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Island-hopping, United Airlines style

Alas, my Christmas vacation was drawing to a close. It was time to head back to the daily hustle and bustle back in the Philippines. However, instead of feeling sad because my vacation was over, I was actually looking forward to my flight home because I was taking United Airlines' "Island Hopper" route: 14 to 15 hours of flying through a 6900-km stretch of Pacific Ocean (from Honolulu to Guam) aboard a Boeing 737-800, with pit stops in the Republic of Marshall Islands and in the Federated States of Micronesia. What I didn't expect was the number of boarding passes I had to get before boarding the plane in San Francisco: I was carrying eight boarding passes!! I wasn't keen on the length of travel but I was stoked by the remoteness of the region I was going to reach through this flight.

My eight-stop island-hopping adventure started uneventfully in San Francisco. After a few hours, I landed in Honolulu (stop #1) only to realise that the airport was largely closed at the wee hours of the night. One of the graveyard-shift staff told me that it's safer for me to stay near the food court rather than my boarding gate because there were more people there. And the Starbucks there was open for passengers taking red-eye flights. A few hours (and no sleep) later, I was flying over the Pacific to Stop #2, the Majuro Atoll in the Republic of Marshall Islands.

The view of clouds was certainly pretty but I got tired (and groggy). So I slept part of the way while the passenger seated beside me kept reading. This was one of the rare moments when I was quite happy that the movie choices were limited in-flight... because I could sleep!

A few hours later, I was woken up by one of the most unique sights I've ever encountered: an airport tarmac as wide as the island itself. This was the Amata Kabua International Airport on the Majuro Atoll, Stop #2 in my island-hopping trip.  And it was picturesque! Just imagine landing right beside coral reefs and sandy beaches. The surf was crashing onto the airport's seawall as the plane taxied to the apron. The terminal's simplicity added to the charm of this atoll: It's a single-floor building with just the bare necessities: a snack bar, toilets, a souvenir stall, and a bank. 

While disembarking, I befriended people who were also in this island-hopping adventure. One of them last visited Majuro 30 years ago and was keen on taking pictures at the airport. Another one was en route to Pohnpei for work and wasn't interested in going down the plane at all.

After a few minutes of people-watching (stretching my legs after hours of sitting, more like it), we boarded the plane again to continue to our next stop (#3): Kwajalein Atoll. Once the plane was flying low enough, I could see that we were approaching a more sophisticated airport, with better facilities. We didn't disembark here though because it is a US Army garrison... and civilians were not supposed to loiter about. We weren't even allowed to take pictures! After a few minutes, it was time once again to be in the sky... off to stop #4! 

In contrast to cloudy Majuro and Kwajalein, we were met by rain as we entered the Federated States of Micronesia. Our first port of call was Kosrae International Airport (stop #4), which is located on a very narrow man-made island. It was so narrow that the airport was quite close, just across a narrow strip of water, to a ship port! The airport's terminal was under repair when I dropped in but offered good views of both the runway (including the apron) and the sea surrounding the airport. We even flew real low near an isle or exposed corals (not sure which)! It was quite exciting for me.

The pilot announced that the flight time to the Pohnpei International Airport (stop #5) was about 55 minutes. But he did warn us that the flight might be turbulent because of the weather. After all, Pohnpei is one of the wettest states in the world, True to the pilot's announcement, I saw nothing but clouds while we were en route to the island. A few minutes later, he announced that we couldn't land in Pohnpei because he couldn't see the airport. And we couldn't make a second attempt at landing because there was not enough gas in the plane... So we continued on to Chuuk... Good bye stop #5. 

Alas, Chuuk was also as invisible as Pohnpei was. Scrapping stop #6 then. The pilot announced that we were flying all the way to Guam (stop #7) already. Oh well, better safe than sorry, right? Plus, I got to glimpse some of the remotest places in Earth. What can I complain about, right?

Thirty-plus hours since I first boarded that plane in San Francisco, I landed in Manila. I was totally exhausted but I was finally home. It's the longest trip I've taken thus far but I will go for it again in a heartbeat. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

I must have been in "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"

Last year, my family and I went on a road trip along Highway 1, the scenic route, to visit Hearst Castle in California's Central Coast. However, we weren't able to reach the castle last year. And so we tried again this year... and we succeeded this time.

I'd say that this was my first-hand experience at seeing what the life of the upper class back in the early 20th century really was like. It's as if I've been brought to the location of the 80's television show, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" but with Robin Leach hiding somewhere. I say this because the gardens leading towards the castle is a sight in itself and the castle is as grand as the tourist guidebooks said it is.

Back in the day, the Hearst Castle was where people wanted to go to see and to be seen. If the Great Gatsby were real, he'd be William Randolph Hearst. His art collection is not limited to an art gallery in one of the rooms. The whole castle is one giant art museum! He had an indoor swimming pool with gold plating all over and designed as his take on Roman baths! Then there's an outdoor swimming pool called the Neptune Pool. It's lined with beautiful tiles and is surrounded by buildings that remind me of the Parthenon... which I have never seen in real life yet. These buildings, grand as they are, must be where the shower stalls are. Yeah, they must be shower rooms there... Nevertheless, this was one feature that made me go "Wow!" even when the pool didn't have water in it. After all, California is in drought mode so even this castle (which is now a California Historical Landmark) is doing its share to save up on water.

A photo posted by Rochie Cuevas (@rochiecuevas) on

Peppered in the garden and near the pool area are statues of ancient Roman (or Greek) characters. They must represent the cast of characters in Roman and/or Greek mythology. And I'm basing that assumption on the presence of the Roman bath-esque indoor pool and the Neptune pool. Plus because there's a statue of two characters with their backs against each other. This statue reminded me of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. It was apt for me to be in Hearst Castle at this time of the year, I thought, since 2015 was closing while 2016 was to start in a few days. Then there were the sarcophagi, also apparently of Roman origin. I've never been fascinated by coffins, which is why I don't understand why Hearst collected these... unless he initially intended to use them as flower pots (just because he's such a rich guy who didn't know what to do with the excess money).

A photo posted by Rochie Cuevas (@rochiecuevas) on

But then, I realised that this Hearst fellow wasn't strictly following the Roman/Greek theme because as I walked in the gardens, I kept seeing randomly positioned Chinese porcelain pots that were currently being used as flower pots. There also was an Egyptian statue, which must be the oldest I've seen so far (it's supposedly from the dynasty of Tutankhamun... at least a millennium before Jesus!). The statue is of two sekhmets (warrior goddesses). They're originally protectors of pharaohs. But at Hearst Castle, I think that it's possible that these sekhmets are watching over Hearst's vast collection of animals roaming in the property. Inside the castle, I was further convinced that Hearst wasn't a strict ancient art collector because he adorned the walls of the living room with 500-year old Flemish tapestry... which are not exactly new but are definitely not as old as the Egyptian statues. 

As we meandered through the Hearst Castle's interiors, I couldn't help but noticing that despite the grandiose art collection, the place is stuffy. The rooms are quite too dark for my taste and it doesn't feel warm... maybe because I am not one of those people who would never have been invited to visit Mr Hearst during the height of his media empire. I'm too low-key or too poor to be invited, I think.

However, despite the efforts to give the impression that Hearst was learned in the old ways of ancient Europe (my opinion only, of course), I found that Hearst's home didn't have the old-world, battle-weary feel that exudes out of every pore of the Château de Chillon or of the Nottingham Castle. The Hearst indoor art collection was too eclectic and didn't have the ancient European feel that I had when I was in Switzerland and in England. Well, for one, the Hearst Castle is less than a hundred years old while Château de Chillon has been on that spot on Lac Leman since the 1100s, I think; Nottingham Castle has overlooked the city since the 1700s. For another, Hearst Castle was designed to be a showcase of his art collection while the two European castles I've been to were designed to protect their cities from invaders. The art collection in the European castles had a more authentic or organic feel... as if the castle accumulated the pieces throughout the centuries; Hearst Castle felt more like a hodgepodge of souvenirs from William's travels.

Nonetheless, the Hearst Castle is a fascinating place to visit. It's just unfortunate that I had a taste of two more ancient castles and it's difficult to not compare it to the American castle.