June 25, 2011

Never say goodbye

(Mama, Papa and my siblings strolling at the Roxas Blvd. breakwater, I think. That's me in the stroller. It's just me, Mama and Big Sister now.)

I CANNOT imagine how it is to lose a spouse. I have never been married. Although there have been a few terrible moments of grief over the ending of a relationship with a lover, I doubt if it can compare to losing someone with whom you’ve spent a whole lifetime together.

When my mother lost my father four years ago, we never really knew how much in deep pain she really was. We never actually talked about it. We just assumed that she was coping well. Mama just has this ability to bounce back from every seemingly debilitating experience that she has undergone, whether it is losing a parent, a child, or her husband. Just a few weeks after she lost Papa, she was cleaning out his closet and separating his things from those that could still be used and those that would be donated.

Of course, there were tell-tale signs that she was hurting, especially in those few months after Papa left us. I would see pieces of Kleenex crumpled beside her pillow. And she really can no longer sleep without any light on, although she says it’s because of her poor eyesight.

Mama and Papa had been together for over 50 years. From the happiest moments and through the most trying of times in their marriage, they still managed to stick together. I suppose that was what their generation had been accustomed to. No one just throws in the towel and decides to walk away from a marriage despite the complications of one’s family life. But looking back, I know they were really meant for each other—Papa was the calm and cool water to Mama’s raging fire.

Now, we bring Papa’s photo just about everywhere we go. We talk to him, or make sumbong—aloud—like he was just around. Mama has kept a few of his shirts and many of his photos from their years with each other. By her bedside is one of Papa when he was still young and handsome, wearing his graduation toga, with his dedication: “To Telé darling, I will always love you forever.” It is a promise that I suppose keeps Mama going on, even when Papa is no longer with us. In death there is no farewell, just a momentary parting of ways. ’Til we all meet again.

* * *

IN this space, I would like to share this beautiful eulogy by University of the Philippines Prof. Roland Simbulan, which he read aloud before the internment of his wife-journalist Chit Estella’s ashes on the 40th day after her death at the San Agustin Church in Intramuros on June 21. Thank you to Ellen Tordesillas of VERA Files for allowing me to share this moving piece.

Living and Loving Chit Estella*
21 June 2011
By Roland Simbulan

YOU were snatched from us “as swift as the wind” as you were on your way to meet your high-school batchmates that fateful evening of May 13, 2011. Your life and character, as eulogized by so many, personified you as “gentle as a forest, fierce as fire, firm as a mountain,” to borrow from Sun Tzu. Just the other day, I read a note from one of your journalism students who thanked you “for teaching us how to dream.” Another wrote, “You are not only our professor and adviser, but a mother to the youth who helped us strive for goals that could not be bought.” To me, you are all these, but more.

How excited you were as we read your horoscope for Leo the morning of that fateful day. It said, “Today, you are going to experience something that is not only evolutionary, but something that is very revolutionary. It will be a life-changing event.” Notwithstanding that it was Friday the 13th, I remember your eyes sparkle that morning as you remarked that, finally, this may be your lucky day for you are going to win your lotto ticket. And when I kissed you goodbye that morning to leave for a meeting, I was looking forward to be welcomed by your hug and kiss that evening, the way we usually do.

How can I not miss you when we have known each other for 34 years? Remember when we first met as undergrad students in the Philippine Collegian during martial law? And then became seatmates in the Modern Political Theory class of Dean Dodong Nemenzo? For me that was no coincidence; it was fate, as we have become inseparable since then. We have even lately been making travel plans for our coming 30th wedding anniversary this October, and I even recall you saying that we should be planning on what more socially meaningful things we can do together after our retirement.

How can I not miss a soul mate like you whose intellectual growth I have come to get used to growing up with, as my wife, my best friend, adviser, critic, fellow advocate in national and social advocacy (and), most of all, as my beloved? I will miss your reminders for me to give bigger tips to underpaid waiters or watch-your-car boys. There is so much good in you. Remember December 25, 1999, when we were jointly composing “21 Ways to Sustainable Living in the 21st Century” and you added an item on top of our list: “Always try to do a good deed for someone every day, especially those who can never pay you back.” And I remember your modesty when you embarrassingly laughed when I dedicated one of my books “To Chit, beloved inspiration.”

I will miss having breakfast with you every morning and enjoying the aroma of our brewed coffee with freshly crushed beans that perfumed our morning air. I will miss having your favorite Razon’s halo-halo with you. I will miss our long walks together while discussing anything under the sun and under the moon: at the UP Diliman oval every Sunday, and what we both in jest call our “Kennedy walks” at the undisturbed beaches of Masinloc Bay in Zambales. I shall sorely miss your frequent and very sweet texting any time of the day even just to ask how I was or what I had for lunch. And I will really miss, after long hours of work, our occasional foot spas together to relax even as you endured my snoring.

(Simbulan and Estella on their wedding day. Photo from the Justice for Chit Estella-Simbulan Facebook page.)

I will miss the favorite dishes you liked to especially cook for me during weekends like my favorite pasta, chicken rosemarie, beef or lamb caldereta, and your vegetable salads with fruits and nuts. I will miss our dinners, coffee, lunches out just us together, or with long-time friends or relatives who happen to be visiting Manila.

I will miss giving you flowers even when it is not your birthday, or even when it is not Valentine’s Day. I will miss announcing on our white board in our Tandang Sora house that waking up every morning and every day with you is like heaven on earth. Yes, I will miss courting you everyday.

In my private moments of grief, I listen and reflect on the lyrics of your favorite Filipino singer Noel Cabangon, “Ang buhay nga naman hindi mo maintindihan, hindi mo alam ang hanganan...hindi ka malilimutan...ikaw ay pag-uusapan sa iyong paglisan.... O kay ganda ang mag-alay sa iyo.” And yes, I will be strong, keep healthy and will take good care of myself for you so that I can continue what we dreamt together for our nation and people. Thank you for sharing so much of you with me—the love, the laughter, the heartaches, even the disappointments.

It was just like the other day, you were with us so full of life and energy, then left us “swift and sure and sharp as grace,” as Katherine Mosby in the Book of Uncommon Prayers wrote. A friend whispered to me during the celebration of your life, “Hindi mawawala sa aming puso at isip ang mga kabutihan ni Chit sa kanyang mga kaibigan at ang dedikasyon niya para sa bayan [Chit’s kindness to friends and dedication to the people will remain in our hearts and minds].” Oh, how we all miss your smile, your voice, your very presence. Chit, you are alive in all of us whom you have touched with your example, your nerves of steel even under fire, and your acts of kindness.

But, I will see you in every courageous reporter or editor whose mission and zeal is to write and print the TRUTH, no matter what powerful forces are offended. I will see you in every student and journalist you have taught to be upright and honest, and who knows the meaning of what you call “the right thing to do,” Mahal, I will see you in others who will continue what you stand for. I will see you in every Filipino who fights for sovereignty, good government and the welfare of this country which you love and served so well. I know that they will fight harder to honor your memory.

Many say that even if your life was cut short by this tragedy, “you lived life to the fullest” with the power of your pen and the genuine respect that you have gained from your peers and students. As journalist, editor, teacher and friend, you touched so many lives, who showed and expressed their outpouring of love, gratefulness and respect for you and our family these past few days. Your life is emulated by so many who strive to live by your ideals and example.

I will see you—a beautiful human being whom I will always love, respect and adore—in every brave Filipino who, like your favorite Prometheus, takes fire and knowledge from the gods to share it with the common people so that the latter can be empowered. You live in the hearts of those you touched—the hoi polloi and oppressed especially.

Beloved, I will not really say goodbye.

*Vera Files trustee Lourdes Chit Estella-Simbulan died on May 13 and was cremated on May 17. We pray for the eternal repose of her soul, and for the family she has left behind. In her honor, the Simbulan family through Vera Files has launched the “Chit Estella Awards for Journalism” which intends to honor the best journalistic report and photo essay in print and online for the year, with the award to be handed out every August, Estella’s birth month. If you care about road safety, pls sign up at Justice for Chit Estella Simbulan on Facebook.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on June 24, 2011. Photo copyright owned by Stella Arnaldo.)

June 23, 2011

The rich get richer...

I DON'T hold it against them though, although I do understand why there are a number who feel an intense amount of jealousy and envy towards the former's good fortune.

But many of the rich folk in the Forbes list of the Philippines' 40 richest, started virtually from nothing and just had the good sense to make terrific investments in business, the stock market and the like. After having been a business writer for most of my career, I've seen how the rich folk are and how they are wired differently from the rest of us mortals. They take risks, sometimes huge risks, w/c may sometimes mean gigantic failures, but also, when these risks pay off, they pay off very, very handsomely.

Being educated in the best schools is an asset, for sure, and having the right connections, but I think more than anything, it is really having the instinct and the guts for a profitable business deal. (One Chinese businessman also once told me, luck also has a lot to do it. Some are just born with the stars all properly aligned in their favor. Ah well...)

Of course, there are those who just inherited their wealth, but it also takes a lot of cunning to keep that wealth. God knows how many scions of rich folk have squandered their inheritances just because they made bad decisions in their personal lives and in business. What I've noticed though is that more and more of these scions have wizened up, and are some of the most hardworking CEOs I know. The era of the lazy bum rich kids are no more; many of them choose to work even if their trust funds are guaranteed to support them for the rest of their lives.

(Alphaland Chair Roberto Ongpin photo by Forbes magazine.)

Anyhoo, here's that list of the Philippines' 40 richest, with retail king Henry Sy Sr. still keeping the top spot. Many of those in this list have recorded higher net worths due to the stock market boom, even if the country's economic growth has slowed down in the first quarter of 2011.

A notable entry was ex-Marcos technocrat Roberto "Bobby" Ongpin posting the largest gain in net worth, which he attributes to his Atok Big Wedge investment. Btw, did you hear the story about Ongpin, called RVO by his staff, having been one of the first businessmen to hire Anna Nicole Smith as an assistant when he was still living/working in the States? O di ba? ;p (He is actually a goodlooking old dude, no?)

(Edgar Sia II, founder of Mang Inasal, photo by Phil. Star)
A noteworthy new entrant to the Forbes list is Edgar Sia II, who also happens to be the youngest on the list at 34 years old. Last year, he sold his Mang Inasal chicken barbecue chain to Tony Tan Caktiong’s Jollibee Foods Corp.

(UPDATE: Oh, as I write this, Reuters has just reported that PBCom has just accepted a takeover bid from Ongpin's ISM Communications.)

The top 10 are:

1. Henry Sy
2. Lucio Tan
3. John Gokongwei Jr.
4. Andrew Tan
5. David Consunji
6. Jaime Zobel de Ayala
7. Enrique Razon Jr.
8. Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.
9. Roberto Ongpin
10. George Ty

The complete list here.

June 20, 2011

Animo La Salle!

An Atenean President pays tribute to La Sallian Brothers and their 100 years of educating Filipinos.

Happy Centennial celebration, my fellow La Sallians!

A second chance

‘SO why would you want to talk to an adulteress and a murderer?” quipped my irrepressible friend, Gracie (not her real name), as she sat down for an interview.

Gracie’s marriage to her college boyfriend Marty had been civilly annulled, but they still remain married in the eyes of God. Because she has just gotten engaged to another man, that makes her, technically, an adulteress. (Her ex had been seeing another woman while still married to her, and this, of course, was the cause of their separation.) And in the eyes of the Opus Dei and other fundamental Christians who believe that artificial contraceptives are “abortifacients,” Gracie can very well be dubbed as a murderer as well. She uses the pill, because she doesn’t relish the risk of being pregnant at her age of 46, especially after raising three grown children.

I have known Gracie since college. We were classmates in certain subjects, were members of the Student Council, and wrote for the college paper. I liked her because she was smart and a steady hard worker—always a good partner for any school project—and was always just a pleasant person to talk to.

I remember one day, after one of our classes I think, how she swooned when she told me she had fallen in love with Marty, her best friend. I had met him later, and while he was nice enough to me, he struck me as a bit full of himself. But Gracie’s love life wasn’t my business, and while we were friends, we weren’t really that close enough for me to tell her what I thought of her beau. (It was only during our interview that I actually told her I never like him.)

Gracie graduated ahead of me and soon thereafter I heard she had gotten married to Marty. She had become pregnant, but they had been planning to get married anyway. So their wedding plans were just moved up a year earlier, she recounted.

The union was blessed with three very smart children and for the 13 years that Gracie and Marty were together, “we were fine,” she said, until she discovered her husband was having an affair with a co-worker. Marty would often disappear to take his phone calls in private. Then Gracie would usually find the woman lazing around her husband’s workstation whenever she would drop by to visit. And he would also bring the woman home after long nights at the office.

Then, there were the too friendly bordering on “intimate” text messages between the two. Gracie also accidentally discovered a receipt for roses that Marty had given the other woman. “It started with my wife’s instinct, which turned out to be correct. I believe that eh—that you can sense your husband’s indiscretion. The little bits of proof came soon after.”

After a series of fights and reconciliations, they finally went to see a counselor—Gracie wanted to save her marriage. Marty of course promised to change and split up with the other woman. “Pero ’yung girl, sige pa din ng sige, habol pa din ng habol,” said Gracie. Then one day, seven months or so after she had discovered her husband’s infidelity, “I snapped. I threw all his clothes in the living room and asked him to leave the house. I discovered they were still having a relationship. My family got involved, his family got involved, it became ugly.”

I asked Gracie if there weren’t telltale signs that there was a problem with Marty. She said there were there were a few but she probably ignored them. For one, Marty’s relationship with his mother was troubled “And he has so much angst, like he was perennially trying to find himself. But when you’re 21 and in love, you don’t really go looking for these signs or ask, ‘Why does he have this kind of relationship with his mom?’”

Then when Gracie started moving up quickly in her career, Marty started resenting it. “People always viewed him as the smarter one. He was the more driven one. He was the more ambitious one. But I was getting ahead in my career faster than he was. I didn’t know it actually bothered him. Ako pa ’yung walang ambisyon, ako pa ’yung nakakakuha ng magandang trabaho,” she narrated. Marty, for his part, just couldn’t seem to hold down a job, despite his two MBA degrees. Gracie said she eventually stopped talking about her work, because he would make snide comments, wondering why her career was taking off.

Expectedly, their three children were devastated by the couple’s separation, and it bothered Gracie so much that she begged Marty to come home. She still wanted to work on her marriage. But he refused and he stayed at his parents’ home, while continuing on with his affair. Eventually, she had found out Marty had gotten his girlfriend pregnant as well.

Then one day in December, a few months after the couple separated, their eldest child Sarah was on the phone with Gracie, hysterically telling her that a sheriff had arrived in the house. Apparently, Marty had filed for a civil annulment and the sheriff was there to serve the papers to Gracie. But as she was at work, it was to be served to the next of kin, and that was Sarah, only 14 years old. “It was traumatic for her,” said Gracie. From then on, Gracie’s relationship with Marty became even more strained. “It was like corresponding with a stranger. Parang he was trying to keep secrets, I suppose the fact that his girlfriend was already pregnant, etc. He distanced himself from the children as well.”

Because she wanted to save her marriage, Gracie filed a countersuit for a legal separation. “My initial plan was after filing that suit, I would file a case of alienation of affection against the girl,” because the latter had broken up the marriage. Gracie also wanted to file a case of concubinage but it would have cost so much money to pay for the surveillance that would prove Marty’s infidelity.

(In the Philippines a husband has to be caught in the act of having sexual intercourse with another person other than his spouse “under scandalous circumstances,” or keeping her as a mistress as proof of concubinage. On the other hand, a man can just sue his wife for adultery for having sexual relations with another man.)

For five years, Gracie had to go to Family Court and wait in line along with others who had cases there. “Meron mga juvenile delinquents na tinapon na ng mga magulang, tinutubos ng kapatid; mga madre na nag-aayos ng adoption papers ng mga bata, etc. Sabay-sabay ang hearing n’yo that day.” She said she dreaded going to court, not only because she would see Marty, but because “there were all these strangers listening to the muck and the lies he raised against me!” She found the system and the proceedings humiliating and undignified.

When the court finally granted Marty’s petition for an annulment, Gracie felt relieved and “also a very deep sadness. I felt that I had wasted my youth on this stupid man. I still felt rejection, and that I had closed a really ugly chapter of my life. It was tough for me the year after Marty left—people urged me to date. But it was horrible. It was like I had a neon sign on my forehead that read: ‘Newly cheated on; vulnerable, so come take advantage of me.’”

There was also the court order for a halving of the conjugal properties, and unfortunately for Gracie, because Marty had made her appear to be earning more than him, she got the short end of the stick in the separation. (She regrets not having hired a better lawyer.)

Gracie even had to raise P2 million just to be able to pay off Marty for his share of their “dream house,” so that she and the children could stay there. “So ako na ’yung kinaliwa, ako na ’yung nag-alaga sa tatlong bata, ako na ’yung heartbroken, tapos lalabas ako pa ang magbibigay ng pera sa kanya! I got penalized for working hard and taking care of my career!” Aside from the P2 million she had to pay for Marty’s share of the house, the civil annulment had cost Gracie close to P500,000 (including the hiring of a private investigator which was how she found out Marty’s girlfriend was pregnant).

Like many women who have gone through bad marriages or terrible separations, Gracie supports the divorce bill now pending in Congress. “An annulment says your marriage is void. I actually had a relationship with this man, I actually fell in love with him. We had children. But an annulment is the only way to get separated in this country, and allow women like me a second chance at marriage. Which is why I prefer divorce, because a divorce acknowledges that we had a relationship. It's not pretentious.”

Gracie adds that an annulment also confuses the issue when there are children involved. When she tried to explain “annulment” to her children, they asked if that meant they were illegitimate. Though the Family Code says the children of an annulled union are still considered legitimate, Gracie finds this inconsistent. “I’m a mother, a working mother, and you’re struggling na nga with your husband’s affair, and you have to explain these inconsistencies to your children, who happen to be very smart people.”

She also had to pull out her two younger children from their Opus Dei schools because these institutions prohibited children of separated or annulled couples from being enrolled there.

In other countries, she points out how divorce makes a couple’s separation a little more civil and dignified. In Australia for instance, there are state-sponsored mediation proceedings so divorcing couples can calmly discuss their demands just among themselves. The mediators are not lawyers, but parties with no interest in either of their spouses, so the discussions take on a less defensive tone.

But now Gracie faces another daunting prospect—she is about to file for a Church annulment. While she doesn’t mind the financial burden of going through another set of proceedings, “at our age, P75,000 is not so hard to save up for. It’s really taking the time off work to put things together, asking favors from other people to become witnesses, and you’re not sure of the outcome. It’s not like divorce. Dito, you can work your ass off and you’re still not sure your petition will get approved!”

And because she has found another man who loves her despite her three children—not the easiest thing to happen in this world—they want to get married in Church. “I still consider myself a practicing Catholic. I have deep respect for my faith. I just have a different point of view [from the clergy]. I still want to get married in Church.”

As we parted ways, I could only wish Gracie good luck that she gets her church annulment. Everyone deserves a second chance at love—and a lasting union with a better spouse.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on June 10, 2011.)

June 18, 2011

Uptick in foreign leisure travels by Pinoys seen*

THE 39-year-old Rajah Travel Corp., a leading full-service travel agency in the country, sees an uptick in foreign travels by Filipinos this year, owing to the depreciated US dollar. This is projected to boost the travel firm’s bottom line by 30 percent, said its president, Aileen Clemente.

Clemente, who is also incoming president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA), is also optimistic that the 3.7-million target in tourist arrivals by the Department of Tourism for 2011 would be attained despite the scrapping of the “holiday economics” scheme of the previous administration.

In an interview, she told the BusinessMirror the changes in visa requirements for visiting Indians would be a big boost to tourist arrivals. “Any Indian national can stay here for 21 days. Conversely, the same is true for Filipinos visiting in India. And [Philippine Airlines] is now flying the route,” she said. “[This is a big market] both for corporate and leisure travelers because of the call centers [business-process outsourcing companies], because the backup of one [country] is the other—that’s India and the Philippines.”

She noted as well “huge investments” in the construction of resorts in the country, some of them with foreign owners who will tap the “database of their clients.”

Other factors that will enhance tourist arrivals to the Philippines, Clemente said, are the forthcoming daily flights of All Nippon Airways (ANA) between Narita and Manila, as well as the recently announced “pocket open skies” policy of the Aquino government.

Separately, Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim said: “This new service between Narita and Manila will help us obtain a larger share of the Japanese outbound travelers. We are confident that the direct link, complemented by efforts of the Jata [Japan Association of Travel Agents] intermediaries, will stimulate stronger traffic from this major source market.” ANA flights will commence on February 27, with the inaugural flight bringing in Jata chairman Akira Kanai. Jata is the biggest association of travel and tour operators, accommodation and transportation providers and even academic and legal institutions in Japan.

According to Department of Tourism (DOT) data, Japan is the third-largest tourist market for the Philippines, growing 10.4 percent to 358,744 visitors in 2010, from 2009. Japan also accounts for a 10.2-percent share of total tourist arrivals in 2010, which reached 3.52 million, surpassing the DOT’s target of 3.3 million. Korea accounted for the largest share of total arrivals at 740,662 or 21 percent, followed by the US, at 600,165 (17 percent).

Currently, four airlines combine for 61 flights weekly from Japan to the Philippines. PAL accounts for 32, Japan Airlines for 14, Delta Air Lines for 12 and Cebu Pacific for three.

(AILEEN CLEMENTE, left, incoming president of the PTAA, and Ma. Paz Alberto, chair of the 18th Travel Tour Expo and outgoing president of the PTAA, brief the press on the 18th Travel Tour Expo 2011, on Feb. 8, 2011. Photo by NONIE REYES)

For her part, Clemente said while the issue of the pocket open skies remains “quite controversial…if it is studied properly, [critics would] know its benefits to economic growth, even if confined to say, Clark [Pampanga].” In pursuing a liberalized aviation sector, the Aquino administration has decided to give flying frequencies to airlines of countries which will give reciprocal flying rights to Philippine carriers.

Per President Aquino’s Executive Order 84 issued in December, there are only seven three-day weekends in 2011 as most holidays are now pegged on their actual dates. Former President Arroyo practiced what was dubbed “holiday economics,” or moving some holidays to the nearest Monday or Friday, which allowed Filipinos to take vacations. Many tourism establishments and travel agencies credited the boost in domestic tourism sales to this practice.

Meanwhile, Rajah Travel’s optimistic projection for 2011 is anchored on an anticipated boost in foreign travels by Filipinos. Tour packages under its “Insight Vacations” brand, which are premier escorted tours to Europe, the US and Canada, are now selling 17 percent lower than usual rates. “We have good rates right now,” Clemente said, adding that Insight Vacations tours are “really a worthwhile investment” for Filipino travelers. Aside from Insight Vacations, the firm also targets middle market, value travelers, luxury travelers and domestic tourists via its other travel brands.

In 2010 the travel agency’s sales were up only 12 percent, due to sluggish foreign travels. Several international airlines had to reduce or halt some flights last year due to the ash clouds which were formed from the Iceland volcanic eruption. While the firm’s vacation packages to the Middle East may be affected by the current political troubles in the area, Clemente still remained “confident we can attain our 30-percent target [this year] because of the depreciation of the dollar,” making foreign travel more accessible to a wider market. “We have good deals,” she stressed.

She said Filipino first-time travelers usually go first around Southeast Asia. “Those who have been to Southeast Asia will go to other parts of Asia, and the most popular [destinations] are Japan, Korea and China. Those who can go farther will go to Australia, the Middle East, then the Mediterreanean, then Europe.”

Rajah Travel is one of the major participants in the 18th Philippine Travel and Tourism Expo from February 18 to 20 at the SMX Convention Center, which is organized by the PTAA. Over 250 companies—travel agencies, tour operators, as well as local and international airlines, hotels and resorts—will be participating in the travel fair.

Exhibitors will offer the public heavily discounted travel packages, including airfare and accommodations, only on those expo dates, the PTAA said. About P300 million in sales are projected to be generated from this year’s expo, up 42 percent from its P210 million sales in 2010.

*(Forget to post this earlier. My piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on Feb. 17, 2011.)

Lost in translation

I’VE always loved traveling to new and exotic places, because of the cultural dimensions it opens up. Being in a new country, and meeting all sorts of nationalities keep me educated and well-informed of the goings-on in the bigger world. In this era of globalization, one cannot be too preoccupied with just local concerns.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Beijing upon invitation of the Department of Tourism. I was with my friend Art Boncato, former marketing manager of Marco Polo Hotel in Davao City, and who is now the regional director for the Department of Tourism’s Region 11, and a wonderful group of government and private tourism representatives.

I think Boncato is a good choice for the region because he has always been such a productive and diligent worker ever since I met him. For sure, he is the best person to market the region to tour operators and travel establishments here and abroad. In fact, the event I was covering in Beijing was the launch of the Davao Cultural Festival at the Marco Polo Parkside, ongoing until June 30.

(Of course, I am not surprised that Boncato works the way he does because his boss at the Marco Polo was none other than Halifax Capital chairman Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez, who was also my old boss at the Department of Agriculture and whom I had covered previously as a beat reporter back when I was still young and innocent to the ways of the world. When you have a boss like Sonny, you are forced to become smarter and tireless in your job...or face the consequences, hahaha.)

Unfortunately, for the most part of the trip, I was sick. I was battling a nasty cough and terrible colds and virtually sidelined for two-and-a-half days. It sucks to be sick, and all the more when you are in another country where only a handful speak English. Your patience is virtually pushed to the limit, and you either have to choose your words carefully and use the barest and simplest to get your point across, or die trying.

One time I was trying to explain to a waitstaff at a local roast duck restaurant that I didn’t order the bottle of Evian water that they gave me. Hello, Evian is expensive in any part of the world! There was no way I’d be paying for that! Maybe it’s the favorite bottled water of Americans and European tourists. Unfortunately for them, I’m a cheap Pinoy tourist.

It can be quite upsetting when there is no meeting of the minds on the ideas presented to each other, and I suppose this was why I really couldn’t recover from my illness much more quickly. (I woke up one morning without my voice actually, and to this day, my normally high-pitched soprano is still a bass. Ugh.) I was too stressed, wildly gesturing or trying to endlessly explain to the other person what I needed or wanted information on.

But despite the sometimes distressing moments, there were a number of instances of joy, as well. I found many Chinese, especially the younger generation, always eager to talk to me and willing to help me out any way they could. Of course, for the most part, they all wanted to practice their English on me, which made me even more enthusiastic in speaking with them to help them out in their pronunciations or vocabulary.

(According to my tour guide Lucy, they have to pass some English exams before they graduate from the university, but since they have no one to practice the language with, sometimes they tend to forget the words and meanings. But most of the young Chinese can read English well, and translate the words to their own Chinese characters.)

(With my new friends, salesladies April, left, and Mao-Mao, at the Silk Market. Photo copyright owned by Stella Arnaldo)

This was quite helpful because when I had to buy cough medicine, for instance, the hotel concierge, after Googling the kind I should buy at the pharmacy, wrote its name in Chinese characters so it would be easier for me to make a purchase. And even at the pharmacy, given a choice between two locally-manufactured cough syrups, the pharmacist earnestly indicated which had the more effective formulation by giving a two-thumbs-up.

Also, when I was going around using the subway, the subway guides were always helpful in pointing out what line to take whenever I approached them in a moment of confusion. One female guide in her 20s, wrote everything down for me—in Chinese script and English numerals—all the lines I had to take to make sure I got back to my hotel in one piece.

(An aside: the Beijing subway system is a marvelous mass of interconnectivity, which we should try to duplicate for our metro railway systems. Connections from one line to another are seamless, and all announcements of train stops are made in Mandarin and English so there is very little chance of a tourist getting lost. Also there is an illustrated map of the subway line where each station lights up as the train arrives at the said station.)

Lucy, my tour guide to the Beijing Acrobatics Show, and her driver Mr. Pei also went out of their way to give me a tour of the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest after the show. I had seen them in the daytime but these two architectural wonders are so much more gorgeous lit up in the evening sky. The latter wasn’t part of our itinerary but it touched me that they wanted to please me so I could take home good memories of Beijing.

Despite the language barrier, Beijing is quite an exciting and pleasant place to be. It’s no wonder so many foreign tourists have gone there, and companies have decided to set up shop. (Of course, the rising status of living of its residents makes them a prime target for foreign consumer goods.)

I will treasure the number of friendships I have formed with the tour guides and sales ladies at the Silk Market (most of whom I promised to bring more customers from Manila), and look forward to seeing them again when I return in the near future. I also cherish my hardworking cleaning ladies on my hotel floor, who never forgot to leave me six bottles of water every day because they knew I was sick, and had difficulty with my cough.

The often befuddling lost-in-translation moments are awkward for sure. But for the most part, I love the Beijingers for their eagerness to learn and educate themselves, and their motivation to please their guests and visitors. I can’t wait to go back.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on June 17, 2011)

New Zealand looks to grow kiwi in PHL

THE country’s affluent consumers have been helping boost the sales growth of kiwis imported from New Zealand.

This has made Zespri International (Asia) Ltd. confident that it will meet its target sale of 6.5 million green and gold kiwi fruits in the Philippines for 2011.

Also, the organic variety will be introduced this year as Filipinos have increased their consumption of organic-food products.

In an interview, Steven Bunyan, regional market development manager for Southeast and South Asia, said: “We believe there is a lot of great opportunity in the Philippines,” with the higher-end consumers easily able to afford the green variety, sold between P23-P26 per piece, and the gold variety, about P35 per piece. Only two years ago, both varieties were priced between P19 and P21 per piece.

He also said Zespri is currently looking at possible sites in the Philippines where it could grow kiwi fruits, with Baguio and Bukidnon on top of the list. “Zespri as an organization is exploring where else to grow kiwi fruits.”

The kiwi fruit is grown mostly in fertile volcanic soil but needs cold weather and very clean water to propagate.

“The challenge is to grow good-quality fruit. Anyone can make it survive because it grows almost like a weed and survives anywhere, but to get good flavor, that’s the difficult task,” he said.

Aside from farms in New Zealand, where the green variety is grown, the company also has partnered with kiwi growers in Italy, France, Chile, Japan, South Korea and Australia, where the gold variety is produced.

Kiwi sales in the Philippines have been brisk since the fruit was officially introduced in the country in 2008. That year, sales posted a 200-percent increase to 2.16 million pieces, rising steadily to 3.9 million pieces in 2010.

Bunyan said he doesn’t see the kiwi fruit’s price as a deterrent to meeting Zespri’s target sales in the country. “Once people have experienced the benefits of the kiwi fruit they are happy to pay the price because they know the nutritional and health benefits. We don’t believe it’s expensive; we believe it’s good value.”

He added that globally, Zespri is targeting to sell “over 108 million trays” or close to 4 billion pieces. In Asia, Japan still accounts for the largest chunk of Zespri sales, at 15 percent of the market, followed by China and Hong Kong, at 12 percent.

“But we expect in the next years that China would take over from Japan,” Bunyan stressed.

Ironically, the kiwi originated in China and is still called the Chinese gooseberry in some parts of the world. A Wanganui teacher, Isabel Fraser, brought the first seeds back to New Zealand in 1904.

The green variety with its fuzzy skin and green tart flesh now famous around the world was cultivated in 1928. It was only in 1992 that New Zealand growers successfully bred the gold hairless variety with sweet mustard flesh. Because of the growing demand for organic fruits, some kiwi-fruit growers also grow organic varieties of the green and gold cultivars.

With global sales revenues of $1.5 billion, Zespri is the world’s most successful horticulture marketing company with the Zespri brand recognized as the world leader in premium-quality kiwi fruit. The marketing company is owned by the kiwi-fruit growers in New Zealand who produce three varieties of kiwis—the green, the golden and organic varieties.

In the Philippines, Elite Marketing is the direct importer of the kiwi fruits, and Zespri has tied up with Fresh Studio Innovations Asia to do its exclusive marketing in the country.

In a separate interview, Kingson Chan, manager of Elite Marketing, said they will soon introduce the organic kiwi variety to the local market, recognizing that more Filipinos are now consuming more organic products for health reasons.

Chan added that more consumers are purchasing the kiwi ever since it was marketed as a healthier alternative, especially for diabetics. Studies show that the kiwi fruit has a low-glycemic index of 48.5 points (gold variety), compared with mango (55), banana (58), papaya (60) and pineapple (66).

It is also a naturally high source of vitamins, provides excellent mineral balance, is high in antioxidants, and full of phytonutrients for good health. It is also a leading source of vitamin C, providing 108.9 mg compared with an orange (53.2 mg), mango (27.7 mg), pineapple (16.9 mg), banana (8.7 mg), and an apple (4.6 mg); as well as folate and vitamin E.

He said supermarkets are still Elite’s biggest customers for kiwi, accounting for 80 percent of company sales, followed by restaurants and hotels at 10 percent, and wholesalers at 10 percent. Elite Fruit also imports apples from China and grapes from Chile and the US. The company is among the top five fruit importers in the Philippines.

Chan also noted an increasing competition for New Zealand fruits from Chile, but Bunyan said: “There were some huge deliveries of Chile fruit, but we’re expecting to get ahead of the competition. The challenge to Zespri is for people to try our fruit and know the difference. We believe when people eat our fruit, they will know we are the superior fruit.”

Chile accounts for 10 percent of the world’s production of kiwi fruits, supplying most of the US market. New Zealand is the third-largest kiwi producer in the world, accounting for 21 percent of total, after Italy (26 percent) and China (25 percent), according to data from Zespri.

(My piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, June 9, 2011. Photo courtesy Zespri.)