Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Foreword for the book Aurora

When my book, Picking Up the Pieces came out, one of those who got interested to read it is a very good friend of mine.  Not only did she got interested to read it, it gave her the idea to write her own book telling about her life story. Helping her design the cover and writing the foreword for the book, to push her and proceed as planned, she managed to work on it in between her busy schedule. The plan  materialized and after one and a half years, the book Aurora is now out! I would like to reproduce the foreword I wrote here hoping it might ignite some interest to those who reads this and purchase the book.


I have known Aurora or Au, as we called her then, for a very long time. Not only did I know her personally, we were also very close. We taught in the same school in a posh village south of Manila about 20 years ago. I knew her as we were always together with our common friends practically every day during those years. Even more so, I saw the love blossoming between her and her then husband to-be. Hence, I knew her like the palm of my hand, or so I thought. That was until I got to read her book. What a revelation it was! None of those written in this book were known to me nor to her closest friends in school. Nobody knew. She kept every- thing from us and neither anybody knew nor will ever know why people are just different from each other, I guess. Had I known what I have discovered reading her life story, I would not have hesitated to extend help to her had she asked for it. The things she had to endure were so intense that anybody with a faint heart would have
given up a long time ago.

From the day she was born, Au had been living a life of discomfort. To make a difficult existence even worse, one by one, the hurdles she had to overcome became harder—the cross she carried got heavier by the years, just waiting for her to be nailed on it. Using a deck of cards as an analogy, she was dealt a shitty hand of cards. Worse, she was thrown several curve balls to boot, enough to make her life miserable by any ordinary individual’s standards. However, she was far from ordinary. Armed with a brain she learned to nurture with beautiful thoughts, developed the perseverance to study hard and hone her intellectual skills, coupled with a strong resolve and wily wit to beat the odds, she survived them all. She knew how to play the bad hands she had been dealt with, managed to stay afloat and even won in the end.

While on the surface, this book is about Au and her travails in life, one has to read it on different levels. First and foremost, it tells us how to live poor in an already poor country. Being bad enough to live in a land full of wants; to live in utter deprivation in such a horrid place is unthinkable. Second, through this book, one gets a glimpse of the Filipino culture and how Filipinos thrive in spite of having to eke out a living. In a land where there is a great divide between the haves and have-nots, it is impossible to see how different one’s world is from those with plenty and view life with a lot of envy. Not my Au though. She was content with what she had and grew up not wanting what she cannot have—material things that is. Third, the reader will know that one of the distinct characteristics of a Filipino is to learn how to look at life with humor. Dubbed as one of the happiest people on earth, Filipinos have learned to laugh at themselves and their misfortunes. This feature is very evident in Au’s writing as she narrates how poor her family was, yet she injected humor in the narrative giving away how she managed to look at life. Lastly, being religious, a believer of the Catholic faith and devoted to the Virgin Mother, she had surrendered everything to the Lord, but unlike the fanatic, she does so only after having done what she
thought she had to do. These levels are manifested either explicitly or implicitly throughout the pages in this book.

It has been said that we can only truly appreciate the blessings in our lives after we have suffered and worked hard for them. We tend to ignore the pleasures and benefits of life when these are given
to us on a silver platter. Au has had one misfortune after another throughout her life, and she had avowed that all sacrifices and everything she did were all for the love of her Creator. Luckily, her tables have turned, and she now reaps the benefits after a long, arduous life of misery. That is my only consolation after having read her life story—it seems that the trials in her life are now over. It is now time to reap the right to enjoy the remaining years of her life, hopefully, for a very long time—even a lot longer than the years of her suffering. Let this book be an inspiration to everyone knowing that no matter how dark the tunnel of life may be, it has to end somewhere, and at the end is an illuminating light, radiant and bright enough to guide our paths with clarity no matter how long the journey shall be.
                                                                                                                               Rolly S. delos Santos

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Two day tour of vowels with too many diacritical marks.

When my wife announced that she was having a tour of Vietnam with her former Elementary and High School classmates, I volunteered to accompany her.  Not that I was forcing my way around for I have met these ladies several times before  and I think I am welcome to stay with the group. What was so compelling for me was that I have never been to any part of Vietnam.  A tour of Ho Chi Minh, despite its briefness, would be a very welcome respite from my usual boring days in the house punctuated only by spurts of creative impulse that see me in my studio a few blocks away from the house.  Since it was my birthday on the 7th of September and the trip was on the 19th till the 21st, that included the flights to and from Ho Chi Minh, my wife gave me the trip as a gift.  I so love my wife!!!

On the the 19th of September, after having delivered my paintings at the Cultural Center of the Philippines for a show with my watercolor group, the International Watercolor Society of the Philippines,  I joined my wife at the University so that we can travel to the airport together.  At  past ten o clock in the evening, we took off for Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon.  The place being one hour delayed with the Philippines, we arrived at around two in the morning.  We were met by our very accommodating, hospitable, very knowledgeable and pleasant host/tour guide Trinh Nguyen.  He spoke English well, having worked for Vietnam airlines for several years  

Trinh Nguyen

Eager to please his guests, he went out of his way to accompany me to museums after we have left the ladies to their number one preoccupation when on tour - shopping! 

Day 1

Our hotel, ,the Cititel Ben Thanh, is located at the center of the  city and is ideal for anything you would want to do. Every place we went to was just a few minutes away, as a matter of fact, could have been walking distance away from the beautiful spots we went to, except for the Mekong River which is an hour and half away.  The hotel, in spite of its three star rating, is clean, spacious and serves relatively good breakfast.  The sumptuous buffet is more than comforting that could make one survive the day without having to eat lunch in its regular time. 

The morning started with us venturing the nearby market which is about a two minute walk away.  There we were welcomed by the sounds and sites of Ho Chi Minh, its trade, food and motorcycles, a very popular way of traversing the city,, and should we have gone to other place, probably the vehicle of choice of most thorough the entire country.  

For lunch, although I was still full, I sampled the food stalls at the market and had  authentic Pho and spring rolls.  One thing one should remember when visiting Vietnam is that their money is deflated and one meal would cost you hundred thousands of Dong! It is a relief that their money is smaller in size and the denomination is by the hundreds of thousands. I could not imagine having it otherwise. How thick my wallet should be is unfathomable.   The market, while it was not really   immaculately clean, was  surprisingly not smelly and one could eat knowing that it would be safe. No service water is being served, though.  One has to buy everything.  Many of the vendors spoke Tagalog phrases and some of them would accept pesos!!!!

The tour began after lunch, which gave us ample time to relax after a tiring travel from airport to airport.  We were given a good travel bus all to ourselves meaning it had plenty of room and travelling for hours,  if we had to, could have not posed a problem.  It had spacious leg room and the aircon was very good,

The first place we visited was the Independence Palace - palace with lots of history.  Designed by Ngô  Viết Thụ, it is also known as Reunification Palace. Formerly known as the Norodom Palace, it was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the war or pre-communist era of Vietnam.  It was the last bastion of the  US troops where,  I presume,  the play Ms. Saigon, had Kim seen giving her child to her US paramore riding a helicopter.   

A tour of the city will never be complete without seeing the  war memorabilia. After the tour of the palace, we had a late lunch at a restaurant called  Bun Bo Ganh,  a big restaurant that serves Vietname tse cuisine and just a stone's throw away from the War Remnant Museum which houses everything about the recently concluded war in 1975.  Here one finds the power and might of the US fighting a war that was not only very costly as it saw the death of hundreds of thousands of both US and Vietnamese only to be considered a big mistake later on.  

Last stop was the Saigon Central where the women did what they do best - shopping! Before that though, we were taken to a shop where we had a taste of coffee ala Vietnam which, I think is composed of Arabica and a local brew.  It was pleasantly nice which any coffee connoisseur would have appreciated. 

Since I had no knack for shopping and that the wife was with me, I decided to venture on my own. Nguyen was kind enough to take me to a gallery, a shop that sold paintings. The gallery was divided into two.  The front being a collection of Vietnamese painters doing copies of original European modern art like Klimt, Van Gogh  and variations of the same.  The other half, the one at the farthest end are original paintings. He was also supposed to take me to a place where they did lacquer on wood, a famous painting technique, but it was already closed.  Nguyen, instead, as kind as he is, took me to pub for a drink of  a very much needed thirst quenching juice which he paid for.  After that venture, we went to a mall in front of Saigon Square while we waited for the ladies who I think were busy dispensing their millions.  

That night, after arriving at the hotel, my wife and I decided we shall just stay at the room, skip dinner and sleep while the rest went to the market to experience the night market, which actually is no different except for the time of day. 

Day 2

Again, after a hefty breakfast, true to his word and on time, I met our guide who promised to take me to the Museum of Fine Arts,  a ten minute walk from the hotel and is a colossal building which was formerly owned by a very wealthy Chinese who owned several houses just as big as  this one.  It is now owned by the government and has been transformed into a museum for the arts.  The collection is not as huge as our present National Museum but comparatively has the same modern art based on western art, and almost the same as their Filipino contemporaries who painted from the 50's till the 70's.  

After the tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, we were on the road again and went to the building that truly reminds everyone that there was a time when the country, together with Cambodia and Laos, was still under the colony of France. Named as French Indochina, it would be impossible to totally eradicate everything that is French for after all, they occupied the country for almost a century.  What is more French than the Notre Dame Cathedral? Built during the latter part of the 1800's the cathedral has been built with nothing but French materials shipped into the city.  It boasts of two bell towers each measuring 57.6 m high with six bronze bells with the total weight of 28.85 metric tonnes. Unfortunately, we were only able to see the facade for the entire church is being renovated.  Across the street was the Post Office, another remnant of French architecture.  

After the brief tour of the city, we were on the bus again, this time for about an nour and a half ride going to the Mekong River.  The first stop was for lunch where we were taken to the Mekong Rest Stop Restaurant, an array of restaurants that  could sit probably hundreds of guests very much similar, for a lack of better comparison, to our dampa but more spacious. As always, we were served authentic Vietnamese food and they were all delectable. 

Remembering Kuya Pancho

When the delicious lunch was over, we hopped once more to the bus for a fifteen minute ride going to what to me was the highlight of the trip, the  Mekong River.  Somehow, I have a connection with the river as I experienced death in the family for the first time with that name etched  in my memory.  You see, one of my cousins, the first sea farer in the family which we Filipinos call seamen, met a tragedy in this river.  It was towards the ending of the Vietnam war when Kuya Pancho came there.  The story was that he wore that ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hat known as a nón lá, probably as a protection from the heat when they ran into an American PT Boat.  Thinking that they were commies, the PT boat ran them over. The story was that all of my cousin's companions jumped on one side while he was by his lonesome at the other.  We never heard from him ever since.  

The ride by the river is a very comfortable boat that had several sofas, a table, several hammocks and beds.  One just have to ride and be at ease knowing that it is going to be safe.  

We were told that there are about four main islands by the Mekong River. We managed, given the short time spent in the area, to go around two of them.  Even had the wonderful experience of another boat ride traversing one of the river's tributaries and getting to know the river and partly its people - boat men, who give tourists a two kilometer ride from point A to point B where the main river is met once again.  

After the Mekong River, we had to go back to Ho Chi Minh and head for the airport as we had to fly back to Manila, supposedly at 10 pm.  As usual, the flight did not take place as scheduled as the plane was delayed and we had to leave Vietnam at around two in the morning. 


I know that with only two days, we barely scratched the surface of what really Vietnam has to offer.  But in those two days, I have formed an opinion of the intricacies of Vietnamese culture. Just like the Philippines that has been a colony of three different world powers, Spanish for three centuries, USA for fifty and the Japanese for three war torn years, Vietnam has seen colonizers from the French, Chinese and the USA.  I:t will not be a surprise to see different cultural diversities among the people and yet, I have not seen it during those two days.  What I saw were a people engaged in trade, industriously working for a living.  

 As my observation of Vietnamese writing is complicated with each vowel having the most number of diacritical marks, the system of government is just as baffling to me. My idea of communism has always been what the US has been telling me.  That communism has always been about each according to his need and not each according to his ability as probably envisioned by Marx and Lenin. A  system which I believe centered more on  the needs of the lowly so that they can cope and survive while  the other is based on the premise that one can soar given his abilities.  have always believed that communism is about economics forgetting it is, more than anything else is about the reins of power.  It is about the annihilation of the ruling class, the aristocracy by the peasants so that they could lead the state without having to contend with land owners and perhaps, monarchy.   a However, this is no longer true.  Vietnam, just like China, has turned into a free market, a capitalistic system if you will.  Only the form of government is socialist with only one party running the affairs of government, It would not be far fetched that soon, the ruling class and those who knew how to play their cards right, fortunate enough to gain wealth, shall be the next aristocrats and the poor shall be poorer once again. 

What is remarkable to me is that Vietnam, which has just survived the ravages of war, has steadily risen up and would probably be ahead of the Philippines if we do not clean up our act.  That is even more tragic than I can ever imagine.