Think Before You Paddle

When I was in 2nd grade, our English class teacher made us read so many stories, and we always discussed the moral afterward. I remember one about a frog jumping into a well and being unable to climb back out as it was too deep. Back then, it didn’t actually occur to me that this frog could die a slow death, alone, and a miserable prisoner in that well. Only that he was stuck there. The moral was to look before you leap.

File_000 (2).jpegYesterday, the weather in Warsaw was beautiful. Being the hipster Varsovian that I am, I decided to lounge around on a beach chair by the Vistula. A beer later, I decided it was, in fact, the perfect weather to go kayaking. So I dragged my friend and we rented a kayak at a shop right by the canal lock.

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So we started paddling, then went downstream, eventually managing to navigate to a sandbar that was separated from both shores and reachable only by boat or kayak. We sunbathed in our little private stretch of beach until the complete absence of shade made us leave.

We hopped back on our kayak and paddled. We paddled. And paddled. We’d make a bit of progress, only to have the Vistula undo it and send us even further away. But we weren’t going to let the current daunt us, so we came up with a plan. We’d paddle to the riverbank and navigate along the shore. We braved Vistula water splashing at us and paddled. And paddled. We managed to get back under the bridge, but never beyond it. People were looking at us curiously. Still, we thought, we were gonna get through this. We weren’t seasoned kayakers, but we thought we could beat the Vistula’s current.

When we accepted it wasn’t going to work, we went back to the sandbar, where, as we tried to navigate through a strait, the Vistula dragged my water bottle away. We managed to paddle to the other bank and dragged our kayak ashore. We were stranded on the wrong side of the Vistula with no water and just a bag of half-eaten chips. Everyone around us had beers, and there we were, trying to figure out how to get our little red problem back to where we signed up for it.

 

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Stranded on the wrong side of the Vistula

 

We talked to the rescue guys who wanted to charge us 40 euros for dragging it back on their jet ski. Being the stingy haggling Asian that I am, I remembered the water taxi I saw while lounging on my beach chair and contemplating the whole paddling on the Vistula affair. It had a mobile number printed on it. Lo and behold, we didn’t even need to make the call! Mr. Water Taxi had come ashore!

We convinced him that it was completely legal to get our kayak on his little wooden boat. Having never done it before, he didn’t even know how much to charge us. It was about a euro per person, and since, when in fear of prices, the safe answer is always “I’m a student”, we only had to pay 4 euros for that boat lift.

 

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One of Praga’s untamed beaches

 

It was such a relief to be on the water again with a boat with an engine cruising the Vistula. It only occurred to us then that nobody was ever expected to paddle against the Vistula, and that we had rented from the wrong place. There was a reason our boat rental place was at the canal – and that they didn’t offer pick-ups or another drop-off point.

The moral of this story: think before you paddle.

 

With love, TO

Cultured and cosmopolitan yet relaxed and liveable, the New York City of Canada is a vibrant sprawling city.

Two decades ago, Canadians might have laughed at the idea of visiting the provincial capital for fun, but these days, with a population of almost 3 million in the city alone, with more than half born outside of Canada, it is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

With a visit limited to 10 days, I travelled Canada on the fast lane. My first day was already endless bus rides in suburban Montreal, my second – endless food and endless drinking in the city, that by the time we got to our hotel room at 3am, we all passed out knowing we had to be up by 5am.

And so the alarm went off and we dashed through the dawn. We arrived in Downtown Toronto at noon and made our way along Dundas Street, hungry and desperately craving a root beer shake (uh-huh). Most places were packed and since I do occasionally live the hipster lifestyle, we opted for Bare Burger: free-range, grass-fed, organic.

A vegan, a carnivore, a dietitian and a glutton sit at a table.

My Toronto trip was just one of the many moments I found myself somewhere with not even a skeleton of a plan. The only comfort was I dragged my best friend with me and we had a place to squat. It’s amazing how many people I went to school with in Philippines have immigrated to Canada.

So what would stereotypical Asians do when they reunite after so many years?

Go karaoke and get drunk. Then realize you skipped dinner.

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View of Downtown Toronto from Centre Island

Toronto is crowded, dense, and spread out. With a little research and proper planning, it’s easy to spend a couple of days just exploring the city. There is something for everyone. Here are my highlights for a short trip in Ontario’s capital:

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The CN Tower  and the Entertainment District

An icon of the Toronto skyline, the CN Tower was the tallest freestanding structure in the world from 1975-2007, and though it no longer is, it still relieves tourists of as much cash as possible. On a clear day, it’ll give you a good bearing of the city’s layout and its neighbourhoods, and you may even see as far as Niagara.

The CN Tower is located in the Entertainment District which is also home to Ripley’s (Canada’s largest indoor aquarium), Rogers Centre (for baseball and NFL fans), theatres, performing arts centres, and nightclubs.

A Visit to the Royal Ontario Museum & Art Gallery of Ontario

The main entrance of the ROM (Daniel Libeskind’s The Crystal) might be a hot topic for debate, but Canada’s largest museum of world cultures and natural history is somewhere you can easily spend 3 hours in. From dinosaurs to the birth of present-day Canada, the exhibits are well-organised and there are plenty of helpful guides to assist you.

Another one of the city’s cultural highlights is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). It is one of the largest art galleries in North America. There are five floors, two for art and the other three for exhibits.

Tip: The AGO is free on Wednesdays from 18:00-20:30. 

A Trip to the Toronto Islands

When the sun is up, Torontonians set sail for a small chain of islands on Lake Ontario that can easily be reached by City of Toronto ferries operating at Jack Layton Ferry Terminal at the foot of Bay St. The islands are home to parkland, yacht clubs, an airport, a children’s amusement park, car-free residential areas, swimming beaches (including a clothing optional one). There are plenty of picnic spots and quiet nooks to escape the bustle of urban life.

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A Stop at Nathan Phillips Square

You just can’t miss this square when in Toronto. Located in front of Toronto City Hall, this is where the now-iconic 3D Toronto sign is. The square is the site of a weekly farmer’s market, art displays, concerts, and public demos. In the winter, the reflecting pool is converted into an ice rink.

Chilling at the City Parks

Toronto has a lot of parks. Even when in Downtown Toronto, you’re only a couple of minutes away from the many parks along Lake Ontario. HTO Park has a beach by the boardwalk. Toronto Music Garden is a waterfront garden co-designed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma that hosts summertime concerts. Its landscape is areflection of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. It’s perfect for chilling on mild afternoons to try to get your mind off the frentic city life.

Though drinking in public is illegal in Toronto, they’re reversing this law starting July 1. Yay to Toronto!

Walking the Busy Streets

What better way to explore a city than on foot?

The city’s multi-ethnic identity is reflected in its neighbourhoods. From busy city center to historic Old Town to trendy West Side and hippy East Side, to the Boho charm of West Queen West, Kensington Market, and cheap Chinatown – it’s a city for everyone.

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Into the Sunset

 

The Colours of Spring

While many other European cities started blooming at the beginning of March, Warsaw slept under its grey blanket a little longer, and it wasn’t until 2 weeks ago that it finally grew out of the dull winter mood.

Warsaw is an ugly city. It’s a mess of stark contrasting communist blocks and modern steel and glass high-rises. The center is the place to be, and at times it seems like it’s the only place where anything is happening. Despite the sizeable expat community, it is still very homogeneous, and generally, you will get the impression that service is foreign to the Poles.

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Under the Bridge, Służew

But come spring, and suddenly the city is so much better. The first greens remind you that it isn’t such a dreary city – there are plenty of green areas – it just really sucks in winter (which is half the year), when all is bare and the communist era buildings stick out of the cityscape. When Warsaw finally wakes up from a winter-induced dullness, it’s beautiful.

April began with the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit cheekily called “The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest”. It’s set on its new pavilion by the Vistula and managed to lure me there because it’s free. It’s a small exhibit and rather lacklustre. It deals with the origins of the siren in Warsaw’s crest (already in use in the 1400s), the mythology surrounding it, sexuality, and the siren’s relevance to the city.

A highlight of the exhibit is “Him” by Danish duet Elmgreen & Dragset which depicts the Copenhagen Little Mermaid as a man. The exhibit runs until June 18 if you are interested. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it, but if you’re at the Copernicus Science Center or the Warsaw University Library which are right across, it’s worth a stop. The museum cafe is decent and there’s an outdoor platform where you can sit on beach chairs and chill.

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Promenade along the Vistula

With the warm days coming up, it’s worth noting that Warsaw is really embracing the Vistula (Wisła in Polish). They’re building hang out spots on the promenade along the river, and by the looks of it, it should be completely ready by summer. If you prefer a wilder side, the untamed beaches of the Praga side of the banks of the Vistula is the perfect place to relax, and it comes with a view of the Royal Castle and the Old Town.

To celebrate the colours of spring, a Holi event took place at Castle Square in the Old Town and being the kid that I am, I eagerly dragged my friend along. It was a small crowd but it was fun, colourful, and messy – a perfect way to enjoy a sunny day.

Warmer days also mean eating out and lazing around in the park which means – food truck season!

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April’s first weekend was a busy and awesome one. And look, it’s already the weekend…

 

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Of course all happy days must have a dash of sadness… mine was because I learned the random palm in the middle of an intersection in Warsaw is not real. And I was so impressed by it.

My Friend Tried to Kill Herself…

And only two people knew- the girl who had called the morning after, and me…6000 miles away.

A year ago, her recipe was set: the lost of a first love, college pressure, and a dash of depression. She’d gone through the steps: wrote a suicide note, and took the meds. She didn’t need much. She fell asleep with the fifth pill.

Her friends had noticed a change in her, even her mother had suspicions, but no one thought she would actually do it. Most of us have had suicidal thoughts at some point, we just don’t act on it. This girl did. She didn’t just want to die- she could have already died because unlike me, she tried.

There was that one worried friend who had called her the morning after, when she woke up alive and scrambled to hide all evidence of what she had tried to do. I don’t know how that conversation went but I know that she didn’t talk to people about it. ‘Kalain sad oi.’ It’s unusual. She only told me – a year later – because she was suffering bouts of anxiety and she was afraid she had depression.

There is a stigma attached to mental illness in the Philippines – and it is a taboo to talk about mental health. I would know from experience. When depression ceased me, I knew something was very wrong, yet my first reaction was to retreat further into myself and show the world that I was still capable of being happy by laughing when it was appropriate and smiling… when in reality I felt nothing.

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Weathered, a piece from Regardt van der Meulen’s Deconstructed sculptures

The fact is it isn’t as fun in the Philippines as most people think.

Filipinos are known as highly adaptable people who manage to smile even at the hardest times. Unfortunately, it seems this image also helps make the discussion of mental illnesses a taboo. In addition to this, mental illnesses are often connected to insanity (dangerous, aggressive, violent) and even seeing a mental health professional is perceived negatively. Denial then becomes a big hindrance to receiving treatment, not just for the person but for the family as well. Meanwhile, all we can do is bear the burden in our worn-down minds and try to cope by relying on our inner resources.

Sometimes, suicidal thoughts or profound unhappiness bring forth guilt. There are people who have it so much worse and they’re not chained by their own misery. What then, is wrong with you?

We need to talk about mental illness. We need to get rid of its stigma. We need to acknowledge, as a society, that a person cannot be held responsible for his own psychological health. We need to start to listen without judgement. We need to admit that refusing to acknowledge a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We need to accept that it’s okay to get help, that it’s okay to be unhappy when there is so much to be happy about. Until then, we will continue feeding the ignorance that might ultimately cost us the life of a spouse, a parent, a friend, a child, or our own.

Stop the stigma. Mental health matters.

Reflections on a Year Past

I started 2016 with so much energy and the impulsiveness I’ve always had. As a response, Berlin gave us a ball of light in an entirely overcast sky for a sunrise on January 1.

It was at the beginning of 2016 that I finally made the change I was always planning on but was always afraid to do. It was painful then, but the pain stayed there. I was free. It was the year that proved what I always say: I’m too many people at once, sometimes I don’t know who I am.

IMG_017211111.jpgI spent so much time, money, and energy traveling. There were times when I felt physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. I met all sorts of people, engaged in countless conversations that impacted me so much, and collected so many stories. I realised I can talk and that there are people who want to listen, and that the quieter you are, the more you can hear.

I worked on rediscovering what it meant to be ‘family’ –as Jonathan Safran Foer puts it, “One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what means to be family.” I spent my entire Christmas break traveling to meet family. It was a bit of a challenge that they were scattered all over the place.

I learned to do weekend breaks– having spent the previous year with barely any weekend free from work. I traveled to places I’d never heard of before, and learned to make do with whatever was at hand.

I woke one February morning to the news of the Brussels Bombings. I breakfasted in silence with the strangest feeling. By some stroke of fate, my extremely delayed flight left the airport 6 hours before that attack.

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World Pillow Fight Day in Berlin

In a fit of jealousy, stubbornness, and possessiveness, I started running again. Every initial step was a battle against the voices in my head, against memories of the darkest summer I spent. I signed up for my first half marathon: the Isle of Skye Half Marathon.

I met the dreaded ToiToi – Germany’s portable public toilets, enjoyed work and the diversity of the people I was with. When summer was in full heat, I had my first swim in a Berlin lake, did the Rostock Half Marathon, and enjoyed the outdoors and the endless events that made up Berlin’s summer spirit.

One Sunday I visited a Gurdwara for the first time and received insights on something I knew very little about. I learned that Sikhism is more tradition, a way of life, than religion.

 

I remembered my roots, realised how much two and a half years can change a person, and caught up on old relations. It was a pleasant surprise that although we all go through so many different experiences and we are constantly changing, some things are fundamentally the same.

I moved to a new city in a new country, made new friends, and lived a new life. I had my fair share of grief and tears, faced my selfishness and learned that I didn’t have to explain all my actions. I shuddered at the indifference I discovered– at how cold and cruel the human heart can be. There are people in your life who are worthy of an explanation– and among them, people who don’t listen. As the saying goes, there are people who can’t see the forest for the trees.

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Rolling with the times

It was the year I first smoked weed, shisha, drank a little too much a few times too many, yet it was the year I was fittest. I felt young. I regressed and did things I had missed out on in my strange childhood.

It was life on the fast lane that on the day I typed the words, it was true.

You know the girl you once thought you knew? Well, she’s not here anymore. 

 

 

That Midpoint on the Map: Cuenca

Who would have known that a random place you find on a map and are determined to explore could lead to a short fairytale?

I went to Spain with three major cities pinned on my map: Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid. The journey from Valencia to Madrid seemed best to break somewhere in between so I started looking for more places to visit, almost setting the unexceptional town of Minglanilla as a destination out of curiosity, having lived in a town named after it in Cebu for the first 17 years of my life.

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The vast fields of interior Spain

Eventually, I found the sizeable city of Cuenca on the map. It was almost equidistant from Valencia and Spain, and once I saw the images of the gorge, I was determined to go. There was no way I would not find a cheap way to get to Madrid from Valencia without involving a stop at Cuenca.

Leaving Valencia early in the morning, the train made its way through rugged landscapes and vast empty lands I would not have known existed in Spain if I had only spent my time in its densely populated cities. It was a beautiful ride that kept me wondering just why there were stops in the middle of nowhere, where for miles upon miles, even the sight of a single house was a rarity.

Walking out of the bus station, I headed for the tourist information center, and received a map marked with the next tourist information point as she didn’t speak English. After quite a short walk through the lower town – the dull new part of the city, I tried to learn as much as I could at the English info point before continuing along the riverbank.

Founded by the Arabs in the 8th century, Cuenca, then known as Kunka, was built to defend a strategic hilltop between two gorges dug by the Júcar and Huécar rivers. The Old City of Cuenca sprawls along the ridge, forming a formidable, uneven wall with small windows and occasional archways.

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Cuenca, Spain

A little further along the river, the scenery changes dramatically. The gentle slope turns into a dramatic gorge spanned by the 40-meter high wood and iron Puente de San Pablo.

St. Paul’s Bridge was built to connect the Convent of St. Paul with the Old Town. (The convent was abandoned in 1975 and turned into a state-run luxury hotel.)

The original 16th century bridge collapsed and a new bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel and supported upon the remains of the old bridge was built at the turn of the 20th century. The Puente de San Pablo is undoubtedly the best way to approach to the Old Town.

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Entering the Old Town via the Puente de San Pablo

It’s a beautiful view, overlooking the gorge and the Hanging Houses (Casas Colgadas). In the past, the eastern border of the Old City was full of these houses. Today however, only a few remain, the most well-known  of which is a group of 3 houses with wooden balconies. These 3 houses are the icons of Cuenca and the lure for tourists. Their exact origins cannot be determined but there is proof of their existence as early as the 15th century. Surprisingly, they currently house a museum for abstract art.

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The iconic Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) of Cuenca

Though the hanging houses are not as awe-inspiring as the brochures would like you to think, Cuenca is a definitely worth a visit. It is the classic Spanish town that travellers search for – historical, colourful, and beautiful.

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The medieval architecture is amazing, and walking along the deserted and narrow streets of the Old Town, gazing up at old ‘high-rises’, and having a spontaneous siesta under the shade of a tree on a summer afternoon in Spain, looking down at the quiet of little-known Cuenca, I could only contemplate how much I had happened in such a short time.

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With the weather changing fast and dark clouds looming ominously behind me, I decided I had seen enough and headed down the other side of the city. The houses along this gorge seemed taller, and I found myself wondering what it must have been like to live on the top floors, and if they had installed lifts by now.

I got back to Plaza Mayor in the middle of the Old Town. It is wide at the top and tapers down to the Town Hall but has no arcades to protect people from sun or rain. Apart from that, it is your typical Spanish plaza complete with a cathedral, colourful houses, cafés, and a fountain. I walked over to the fountain and splashed my face with cold water. It had been a hot and humid day.

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Cuenca’s Plaza Mayor with the Cathedral (left)

Refreshed and with renewed energy, I slowly made my way down the maze of narrow streets back to the lower town, until the rain chased me and I had to stand under someone’s doorway to wait it out, but it didn’t stop, and I had to walk under the rain to make it in time for the bus to Madrid. It was hard to imagine it had just been such a fine day in Cuenca. Even harder to imagine, it was only my 3rd day in Spain.

Home in a Canadian Suburb

My mom used to say that her best friend lived in the middle of nowhere but that nowhere was about a 40-minute drive from Montreal. So of course, when I landed in Montreal on a bright late summer day, I was fooled by what I’d seen out the airplane window.

Having been so used to European cities that lack proper skylines, especially Berlin that lacks a CBD, I thought 40 minutes away would not be so bad. How wrong I was. Currently I’m in a place called Harwood – a couple of minutes drive from the terminus of Greater Montreal region’s rail system. There are sizeable towns in all directions, but we live in the middle of nowhere, in just one of the many houses along a main road. The supermarket is a 10-minute drive away.

I’m stuck at home, nice and warm with a cup of coffee, watching the greyness of autumn creep in, and waiting for the laundry to dry. The dog has taken my spot after I stood up for a minute. I’ve lots of things to do – and I’m so relieved the internet connection has become more reliable the past two days. I’m still trying to come to terms with the decreased mobility of suburban life.

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Suburban life is wasting so much time on public transport, and spending so much on cab fares when no car is at hand. It’s having a huge house and an even larger land because you can. It’s having to drive 20 minutes to a dog park so the hyperactive dog gets to socialise.

It is knowing the people working at your local supermarket- a 10-minute drive away because it also happens to be the mini local expat community. It’s the long days that drag on slowly. It’s knowing the neighbours and trying to maintain a good relationship with them. Even people here have time to drop by and visit their parents on their way to work. Meals provide the daily warmth of people gathered, and dinner is a place for conversations.

I’ve been wandering around for the last two years, understanding that home can be anywhere. It’s in the familiar lands of my childhood. It’s where an impromptu feast is prepared when the family gathers. It’s in the arms of the man I love. It’s in my mother’s company. It’s the flat covered with cat hair in Hamburg. It’s up in Denmark in the Christmas season. It’s in Canada, where so many people who were part of my childhood have ended up living.

Some things worth noting:

  1. Within these two weeks, I have probably spoken my native tongue more than in the past two years. And damn does it feel good! I’m a completely different person when I speak Cebuano. I enjoyed the sounds so much that I avoided speaking English at all costs or mixing up English words in my sentences.
  2. I affirmed that rice should always go with meat.
  3. It’s so easy to bond over shared memories. We try to include as little gossip as possible, but that’s unavoidable…
  4. I am lucky to have a friend I’ve known since we first got up on our feet. We had so many petty disagreements and stupid fights growing up. We hadn’t seen each other for 4 years and barely chatted, but once we met, it was just like the 4 years never dragged on separately for the both of us.
  5. A dog gives so much life to a house.
  6. I am a proud Cebuano. I belong to a large ethnic group predominantly found in the central islands and southern Philippines. Up until 2012, my native tongue, Cebuano, was never formally taught in schools. Even so, with about 20 million speakers, it has the most number of native speakers among the Philippine languages!