Archive for March, 2014

SOTM World Tour – Philippines

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Manila is a tough city. That’s not to say I didn’t find it interesting, and it actually worked out as a very fruitful stop on the SOTM World Tour.

But it’s an ugly place. Very congested, poverty in many places, grubby kids and their folks sleeping on some streets, and endless, fume-spewing traffic.

You know those science fiction movies where Earth is so choked and polluted that the human race has pushed off into outer space? Well, that’s Manila – Earth in 300 years’ time, probably.

There are some swish spots. This is the beautiful Manila Cathedral that I spotted in Intramuros.

1016544_10153846009405241_670491987_nElsewhere in the city, the Greenbelt mall is very nice, with designer stores, a modern cinema and some nice eateries which are also cheap.

But even here, the legacy of Manila’s over-population is evident. While sitting in a nice pizza/pasta place, freshly decorated with smart, polite staff, eating a good pizza for a cheap price, I saw a large rat scurry between the seductively curved legs of the tables.

It was running frantically about, as it was very much incongruous with the surroundings. I suspect it knew it was in the wrong place, but still, it was there.

But what actually made Manila a successful city for SOTM is the people. Hugely warm and friendly, I got 24 pictures and some cracking stories.

Here’s one I particularly liked:

And I managed to get on to the local Wave 89.1 FM radio station to talk about the SOTM World Tour, thanks to the excellent Tony, an American chap who lives in Manila and was hugely helpful to me. The whole radio visit was a lot of fun and you can listen to the interview here.

I got a SOTM from KC Montero, the DJ, too.

Also while in Manila, I visited the city’s North Cemetery, where people live. There are several cemeteries in the city which have other homeless people living in the tombs, among the dead. This one was quite organised, with little kiosks – sometimes based in a tomb – dotted about.

1011205_10153846012895241_62353581_nThe trappings of a functioning community were simply woven in between the memorials of the deceased.

1920443_10153846019955241_1617959129_nAs you can see here, washing lines are strung up next to sarcophagi.

1900099_10153846012435241_748118025_nI looked through one window and saw these neatly-packed personal possessions tucked in next to several sarcophagi.

1012070_10153846025725241_1173488283_nWhile wandering around I came across a karaoke session in one area. I couldn’t persuade anyone there to take part in SOTM but did get a few shots of those there. They were hugely friendly and it was a great atmosphere.

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But I did get some SOTM success. This is the brilliantly-named Boy, who lives in the tomb you can see in the background.

And I also met the very sweet Angeline and Elmira, two girls who live in the cemetery.

This is Angeline’s SOTM.

I met the woman who lives in this tomb.

1743563_10153846025535241_1007002913_nThese are her possessions, and her bed. The woman wearing red in the photo on the right, at the altar, is her late mother-in-law.

1798395_10153846026735241_688722889_nAnd here’s the SOTM for the lady who lives here.

I spotted this little chap while walking around.

1898257_10153846020395241_1842396434_nAnd this is another SOTM participant from the cemetery. Tony asked me to get a close up shot of her eyes, as he said that when some Filipinos get older, their eyes get bluer. This lady certainly had striking peepers.

1001415_10153846024755241_1263528504_nJust one more – I loved this woman’s SOTM, and her baby was incredibly comfortable with the camera, peeping over the top of the sketchbook for both versions.

My visit to the cemetery, and the things I saw, were unforgettable. Another highlight on the SOTM World Tour, if a sobering one.

After the heaving Manila, we flew to the island of Boracay, and I saw why people rave about the Philippines.

While there, Kate and I witnessed the sunset of our lives. Seriously. The most amazing one I’ve ever seen. This shot has been run through Instagram, but it’s quite close to what I actually saw.

Apologies if this puts you off your dinner, but here I am, happy as a sand boy, wearing my new £4 trunks. Boom.

1622132_10153789433150241_693106254_nBoracay was a busy spot as well – it was Chinese New Year during our stay – but still the waters were clear and the sand was pretty clean.

As it was so busy we did struggle for accommodation and stayed in a couple of crap places, with complimentary cockroaches and damp, but in between had five days in a decent hostel room.

Still, this place is a superb beach destination, and would be even better if it had not been peak season.

While there, I met the delightful Sunshine, a journalist and restaurant owner who treated us to a meal at her fabulous Greek joint, Cyma.

16022014So, after a bit of beach time and plenty of walking along the sand, I packed up and headed to a place I was very excited about – Hong Kong.

Check in next time to see how I got on in the city of skyscrapers, which still retains much of its old-world charm and is also home to one of the world’s most famous harbours.

SOTM World Tour – Brunei

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

1660320_10153786052195241_1554794481_nI confess that when my old friend Helen invited me to Brunei, I had to look it up on a map as I wasn’t exactly sure where it was.

My blushes were spared when I was told by some of the folk living in this part of Borneo that it’s a common problem. People seem to get sultans and sheiks mixed up, it seems.

So, not knowing what to expect, Kate and I packed up, bid a fond farewell to marvellous Thailand, and flew smoothly into Brunei.

What we found was absolutely fascinating, but before you run off and book your flights there, bear in mind that having insider knowledge of the place, courtesy of meeting locals and expats, really made our short trip a very enjoyable one.

If you didn’t know anyone there, and wandered around on your own, it would be a different experience altogether.

It’s the people of this oil-rich, tropical nation that makes it a unique destination. I was tickled to know that while it’s much, much bigger than Malta, Brunei has the same population size.

An example of the warmth and charm of that population can be found in the top photo, where our new friend Kathy is seen with the pupils she teaches.

But let me begin with Brunei’s more ostentatious side. The Sultan of Brunei was once the world’s richest man, known as a playboy in his younger days (he’s now 67) and educated at Sandhurst.

He is supreme leader, overlord and demigod among the populous. His word is law, and that word has also decreed that Shariah law is going to start being enforced onto this Islamic nation. It’s already been technically in place, but not widely employed, for a while now.

The trappings of his fantastic, oil-derivied wealth are commonly seen. This is Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, which dominates the centre of the nation’s petite capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

1654136_10153786110345241_1188310171_nSee the gold bits? They’re actual gold. Not solid, but the paint has real gold in it.

This beautiful building is apparently rather sumptuous inside also, but is only fully functional for two weeks of the year when the Sultan and his ministers debate the forthcoming budget. Aside from those two weeks, its use is quite limited, I was told.

1514290_10153786050385241_1982378209_nThis is the Sultan’s polo club. A high quality hospital was built right next to this, ensuring that should His Majesty ever fall off his steed, he’d be able to receive medical treatment very promptly.

1497448_10153786045140241_1677519658_nThis is a roundabout decoration. Yes, it is a giant diamond ring replica. No, I don’t know why it was built, either.

1779241_10153786042695241_1793821859_nThere are other impressively structured, but rather soulless buildings to be seen in Bandar, but this isn’t really giving you the full picture.

Brunei is a smashing, interesting destination because of the people who live there, both locals and expats.

When Kathy, who is a top-notch and highly qualified English teacher, learned Kate and I were in town, she invited us to her school, on the edge of a water village. She teaches the children English, and kindly agreed to tell them all about Someone Once Told Me. 

994106_10153786073420241_2106784417_nThe kids were brilliant – a little excitable but I like to see kids with a bit of life in them. And Kathy had them firmly under control.

1601248_10153786070455241_1922540329_nSo, they listened attentively as Kathy got across the mechanics of how SOTM worked.

1480632_10153786068980241_1696050172_nThen Kate and I set about taking their photos for SOTM. It was a lot of fun and the children tried very hard in their best English.

After taking their shots individually, we gathered them for a group shot.

1514960_10153786074445241_285881954_nHere’s one of the chaps, the mischievous Nasrul, whose photo I took.

And I was pleased to see how neatly the children kept their shoes. This is what my shoe cupboard looks like generally (at last count, I had 33 pairs of shoes pre-yomping around the globe).

Soon it was time to say goodbye, so Kate and I gave Kathy the bag of notebooks, pens and colouring pencils that we’d brought along. Kathy said she gives out prizes for those pupils who achieve certain academic goals, and assured us that our gifts would be used in this manner.

After all that fun, it was time to meet the school’s headmistress, the charming Hjh Noraini Binti Hj Timbang who insisted on having her photo taken with us.

1011982_10153745661870241_216549647_nIncidentally, Kathy’s air conditioning unit wasn’t working in her classroom, meaning it was quite stuffy in there. But the day after our visit, her headmistress arrived with the repair man, who skills must surely be regarded as essential in this tropical nation, where temperatures can be fixed in the 30s Centigrade (80-90s Fahrenheit), both day and night.

After all that excitement, Kathy took us on a tour of one part of the nearby Water Village, also known as Kampong Ayer, guiding us around the section where most of the children she teaches live.

This is a remarkable place. It is what it sounds like, a group of 42 villages located a few feet above the murky, crocodile inhabited water. The structures spread along the banks of the bay that has burrowed its way into the heart of the capital. Apparently some 10% of Brunei’s population, or 39,000 people, live in the Water Village.

What you see here is only one part of the entire village. The buildings I saw were quite sturdy-looking, and generously sized.

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1013855_10153786056565241_1985442986_nHowever, they are perched on a series of concrete or wooden stilts, and these supports don’t look all that steady to my untrained eye.

1656257_10153786080445241_1243085560_nThis is one property that had collapsed, possibly done on purpose as sometimes families break down shaky parts of their dwellings when they can afford to replace it with better quality living space.

1000224_10153786066320241_999046251_n The entire village is connected by a series of wooden walkways which spread more than 95,600 feet (29,140 meters).  They don’t have sides to them, are slippery when wet and the odd one is loose, so you do have to watch your step somewhat.

1607077_10153786061905241_1960550207_nThe people living there were very friendly, and we got lots of waves and posing for photos. It was a brilliant spot to visit, although it must be said that the people living here are doing so in poverty.

When you hear so many stories of how wealthy the Sultan is, the question arises as to why more of that wealth hasn’t been funnelled this way.

1017358_10153786093145241_1101384797_n I was trying to get this guy with my long lens, but then he spotted me and wouldn’t stop waving until I’d definitely taken his shot.

The place is a normal, working village, filled with people going about their daily lives, which are a far cry from the opulence of the nation’s ruling family.

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But here’s another building that had fallen into the river, demonstrating that life here isn’t always that secure.

1554337_10153786062840241_990448216_n This is a new structure that was going up at the time of our visit.

1554541_10153786089165241_819633475_nI spotted something that I really liked – not only do a lot of these houses have (apparently illegal) satellite dishes, but they often have their own little islands built to house them, too.

Now, at one point Helen took us to a supermarket called Supersave, which is known among the locals as Monkeysave. This is because monkeys congregate there and loiter in hope of getting food.

I actually spotted a couple of women throwing food to the critters, which might not be the best move. They are cute, but can become aggressive and giving them food will make them see all humans as a definite food source.

They’re certainly smart. I saw this one test the roof of the light, making sure it could take his weight before he clambered on top of it.

1625752_10153786048795241_975333473_nWhile Kate and I were there, we also spoke to pupils at Jerudong International School. I jabbered on about journalism, the importance of a free press (Brunei doesn’t have one, its media is controlled by the state) and naturally, Someone Once Told Me.

photo 4Kate talked about the joys and perils of travel blogging, and shared a few tips with how to get started in blogging.

photo 5The kids were great and we had a smashing time talking to them, both this (unexpectedly) large group, and a smaller set we chatted to in the school library afterwards.

Once again, thanks to Helen and her fine efforts, Kate and I both ended up in the local newspapers, the Borneo Bulletin and, seen here, the Brunei Times, who both covered our time spent at the JIS school.

1507370_10153763001400241_774863366_oAnd as if all that wasn’t enough, Helen managed to secure a chat for us with the British High Commissioner, a fine chap called David Campbell. He was very interesting to talk to about the past and future of Brunei.

Here’s the girl of the hour herself – the brilliant Helen with an inspiring story from her youth.

Finally, I also got to get a little time in the jungle, courtesy of Helen’s excellent husband Kris (closest to the camera) and his friend Neale, who do a regular walk on a trail at Bukit Shabander and invited me along. It was a hot, sweaty, green and pleasant afternoon.

This was the view at one point, and it was sumptuous. Welcome to the tropics.

1654398_10153786118635241_52814837_nKris advised me not to lean against this tree. Upon closer inspection, I could see why. Mother Nature was clearly having a bad day when she came up with this design.

1689032_10153786137050241_1590580866_nBrunei is a place to pop into for sure, as there are many fascinating sides to it. But it would be a difficult place to visit on your own, without any help.

Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, for those who care about such things, although foreigners can bring in a small amount for personal, discreet use. There is no nightlife at all, but if you’re hanging around with friendly locals/expats then that can make for a perfectly entertaining stay. Shariah law will tighten behaviour still further, but no-one is quite sure how, as yet.

Many of the folk I met, such as Kathy for example, are keen to show off their part of the world in that kingdom, so if you’re going to Brunei for any reason let me know and I’ll see if I can put you in touch.

They’re hugely friendly types there and are always pleased when visitors pop in, because not too many do. I understand that tourism in Brunei is shrinking and recently stood at around 200,000 people in a year.

Considering the nation’s natural beauty, this seems a low number – but then again, the Sultan is keen to preserve that very natural environment, so perhaps they don’t want too many people trampling all over their tropical forests.

So I recommend securing a contact prior to your arrival, someone who can show you around a little – public transport isn’t great and a car is fairly necessary – and give you an insight into life there, because that will unlock some of this nation’s secrets.

Next stop on the SOTM World Tour? The Philippines, where I find Manila to be a happy hunting ground, whether it’s among the middle classes or people living in one of the city’s cemeteries.