Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea

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Dec 31, 2016

The century-old Lunatic Express snaking its way through Tsavo National Park, Kenya

January

The scorching Kenyan sun has set. Mosquitoes have descended, buzzing about our ears, landing on tiny patches of skin where the repellant missed. There was hardly any breeze, turning the seven-by-five-foot cabin into a stuffy sauna. I rubbed more Deet into the areas where the mozzies bit, making my skin burn under the heat and humidity of the savannah air. I drained the remaining contents of the mineral water bottle, deformed by the heat.  The lukewarm liquid tasted of chlorine and did nothing to quench my thirst. We have been on the train since 10:00 PM, and what seemed like a fun adventure in the beginning turned into a nightmarish journey nineteen hours on what was supposed to be a twelve-hour trip from Nairobi to Mombasa. I looked out the window, hoping to see the famous red elephants of Tsavo. Zebras and baboons were aplenty, but I wanted to see the elephants. The reason we decided to hop on the Lunatic Express in the first place. We later learned that the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway chased most of the wildlife away---the price you pay for so-called “development.” I gazed at the gnarled roots of withered shrubs and desiccated riverbeds. January in Safari Country is merciless--dry, hot, unforgiving. As the century-old train snaked its way through the national park, I glimpsed at vultures and Maribou storks swopping overhead. At least, like the mosquitoes, they will feast on something tonight. As the train screeched to a temporary halt to let a cargo train pass, children came out of nowhere, their scrawny arms outstretched, hustling for an apple, a half-eaten loaf of bread, some pieces of candy, and if they’re lucky an unopened bottle of water from tourists onboard. Some of them will have food on the dinner table tonight; others will sleep hungry again.

The train whistled to announce its arrival in Mombasa, the final note hung in the air, moaning, as if to warn me it’s not going to be an easy year.

What Went Down on Flight 920

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Sep 23, 2015


That moment when your whole life flashes before your eyes? It happens.

Nothing could have prepared me for it.

It was a balmy September evening, and like all September evenings in the tropics, the air smelled of a brewing thunderstorm. There were clouds, but I could see the moon. A drizzle smudged the purplish-orange horizon, blending it into the black sky, creating an eerie hue. I decided to keep the window shades up throughout the flight so my eyes could rest on nature’s masterpiece. I strange feeling of nostalgia washed over me as the moon slowly disappeared into a foam of dark-gray clouds. I felt at peace as the Boeing 777 cruised at 37,000 feet toward Hong Kong over the West Philippine Sea without a single turbulence.

Battle Scars

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Mar 19, 2014


As the sun peeps through the mountains, piercing the early-morning fog, the entire village of Buscalan wakes up. I force my beaten body to rise and greet the day like any villager would---a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a quick chat with the folks and children who came to see the “visitors.” The aroma rouses me from my half-slumber.

I see her approaching, carefully adjusting her head scarf, her baggy jeans and shirt complementing the colorful heirlooms around her neck and wrists. She walks as if the wind is carrying her, a youthful lightness in her steps. She has a timid smile, almost mysterious with a hint of cheekiness. She says something in her dialect and everybody laughs. Everyone around her seems infected by her enthusiasm!

The Long Road to Old Fang-od

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Jan 14, 2014




I adjusted my position in between the steel tubes, enough to give Pinky and nine other men room to wiggle on top of the overloaded jeepney bound for Tinglayan. At 8 o’clock, Kalinga was already ablaze with sunlight, sterilizing our skin, preparing the canvass for old Fang-od. Even with sunscreen, the sun stabbed sharply into my epidermis, as if prepping it for what was about to come.

In a (un)fortunate turn of events, the Victory Liner bus we took from Manila the night before stalled for three hours on the road, stretching our travel time to 14 hours instead of 11. We missed the last commute to Tinglayan by half an hour, but we got to indulge our sleep-deprived bodies in a long hot shower and a soft bed at Davidson Hotel. At six thirty the next day, we were on our way to the Dangwa Bus Station to catch the 7-A.M. trip, still groggy, hungry, puffy. I hate early-morning starts. But this was our last chance to meet the 93-year-old famed traditional tattooist, Fang-od (Whang-Od), before peak season. It was now or never.

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