I know someone who once told me that while he did not grow up in a rich home, their dining table was never without a vase of flowers. Think about that. His mother, despite their always tight budget, would never fail on market day to buy a bloom that hopefully would last the whole week through. If there was more money to spare then she would buy at least three blooms. But always, always, there had to be something pretty there. He used to think it meant nothing, at one time he even thought it was a waste of money that he knew was hard enough to come by as things were. But now that he is all grown up with a family of his own, he remembers that. He cannot always recall how the food tasted, how many people there were each mealtime, what stories moved from mouth to mouth, back and forth — those were variables that shifted every day — but he remembers the flowers and the way they looked propped in a vase, on the table, in their home. That was the one constant thing.
I relay that little story to you because in a nutshell, that to me is the soul of tourism. Like wearing jewelry or nice underwear that no one else can see, or using nice china even when there are no guests, it is a lot about how something makes you feel. Summed up, tourism is a lot about the feeling that you walk away with; that feeling that makes you either want to go back to a certain place over and over, or never again.
Let me cite another example. In January of this year I went on a trip to Bali with three girlfriends — Kris Aquino, Zsa Zsa Padilla, and Liz Uy. I read the book Eat, Pray, Love in practically one sitting years before that so Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of Bali made me itch to go there. Of course, we went to see Ketut Liyer, the medicine man. We sat under a cabana, waiting for the rain to stop and for Ketut to wake up. We were told that he was exhausted from the constant stream of tourists. We waited patiently, the rain stopped, still no Ketut. He was asleep and was not up to facing people just yet. There were two European women before us, and we calculated that by the time we would be all done night would have fallen and we would have lost the chance to explore other sites.
So we went to the next man recommended by our tour guide. He was a guy named Tjokorda and my encounter with him is for the most part pleasant except for that single moment when he laid his hands on my face right after carrying his very thin dog who had strayed in our corner while he was performing his rituals. I was too shy to object. So while Kris, Zsa Zsa and Liz giggled as they looked upon me, I surrendered myself to Tzokorda’s hands and famed wisdom as he drew imaginary circles over me with a stick, pressed my foot painfully, and taught me the secret to getting pregnant. He said all I had to do was think happy thoughts, and smile. Yes, smile. A really big happy smile would give me a happy little baby boy. We all had a good laugh after our afternoon with Tzokorda; he was all of 81 years old, with a nice aura. We really enjoyed our time with him. He is a good soul.
While in Bali, we also went to see Wayan. She is another famous character in every Bali experience, thanks to Eat, Pray, Love but she was not at all what we expected her to be. You had to pre-order food through a tour guide, which we did, and when we got there she was slaving away in the kitchen. She placed before us a plate full of strange plants and herbs we did not recognize and seemed displeased when we poked suspiciously at it. “I spent nine hours preparing that,” she said glaring at us. Intimidated, Liz, Zsa-Zsa and I ate obediently, chomping down the plants and the herbs. It wasn’t terribly bad but it wasn’t exceptionally good either; they tasted like, well, plants. As she scowled at us like a stern principal — she seemed in a very bad mood — we ate mindlessly, wanting to please her. Each cluster of herbs on our plate had descriptions like “for healthy liver,” “for higher power,” “for inward peace,” or something that sounds like some power a star ranger should have, or a mantra a yoga teacher would chant during class. We were kinda sold. There was almost a placebo effect. Heck, if these plants and herbs could do that for us, why not! Kris brought us back to our senses by stating matter-of-factly: “Maniwala kayong nine hours niyang prinepare yan, ginisa lang yan no. Believe me, I cook!” “Baka yung red rice special?” we told Kris. She retorted with a poker face, “Mamou has that.” We laughed, as Wayan scowled even more.
We left Wayan’s place very hungry, and Wayan was most probably perplexed at the giggling bunch we were. In the car Liz dreamt of eating KFC and pizza. I was craving it so bad also. We realized we were famished; the leaves, despite their supposed powers, were not enough to fill up our stomachs, and so we ate the carrot cake and dates that Zsa Zsa had in her bag. She had the good sense to buy some at an organic store we passed by along the way. It saved us.
The next day we went glass boat fishing. The guide’s excitement was contagious. “Where’s the fish, where’s the fish?” we asked happily. “There, there,” he said he excitedly, “Coming, coming.” We looked at the bottom of the glass boat and saw a school of fish indeed, but they were the size of dilis and tawilis. Dinaan kami sa confidence and were just too happy to be upset, so when the fish actually ate the bread we tossed them, we felt it was worth it. “Do you want me to take you to the place where monkeys interact with you?” our guide asked next. “Nooo!” we all said in unison. “Take us to Duty Free instead.” There were many other such incidents in Bali, wherever we went. I will run out of time if I relay them all here. Suffice it to say that it was a very funny trip, one for the books. But here’s the thing.
All throughout, what I noticed was that everything there — from food and drinks to sights and sounds and clothing — was presented with a confidence that is absent in a lot of places here in the Philippines. In Bali, they make no apologies for what they feel or think is interesting. You do not have to necessarily agree with them, after all you make your own memories and draw your own conclusions with every trip, but they are solid in celebrating their culture, their heritage, peppering it with so much character and — like I said earlier — making no apologies for it. I cannot stress that enough.
Think about it, everything they have there, we also have here, even more. But they are very conscious about doing everything prettily, ceremoniously — even the way a fruit is peeled and presented seems to have a reverential ceremony/ritual attached to it. Consequently, that makes everything feel like a gift. And that is what is brilliant about it. Because it is presented like a gift, it is received like a gift. The end user feels special, it makes him feel good. I am not saying Bali is not a nice enough place to go to. It is. But think of what the Philippines can be if we can learn and imbibe even just half of what they do so well — marketing and presentation. That is what it really boils down to. Attention to detail.
That is the name of the game. Biscuits and little rice cakes are stacked and bundled like precious parcels. Servants wear their national costume. They smile a lot. Welcome drinks are concocted from edible plants and herbs, given nice names, and served in very pretty cups. Everywhere you look there is a story waiting to be told.
The prettiness of all this invites you to pause, and soak it all in. Being constantly confronted with lovely ways make you feel blessed. It refreshes you, it recharges you, it is good for your personal happiness quotient. These are the very things every tourist can hope to find in a place they visit.
This is my philosophy: Just because it is functional does not mean it should not be beautiful. Both can be achieved without compromising the other. I have always believed that prettifying the things around us, in ways both big and small, will have a ripple effect, subliminal though it may be, towards empowerment and progress. It is beauty and character that draws us to a place, after all.
Wanting things to be beautiful is not shallow. It is the least we can do as a sign of respect to self, to country, to ability. It is an order that we would do well to follow. Think about it. If you lived in a messy, chaotic room, would you look forward to spending time there? Would you be inspired to step up and keep things neat and in order?
I leave you with a little anecdote about my 11-year-old daughter Juliana, who is one of the most creative people I know. She can make anything beautiful. She still sleeps with us in our room, sometimes on our bed, other times on the big sofa tucked by the foot of our bed. Using what is available in the linen closet, she personalizes her bed space by swaddling it in sheets that don’t necessarily mix and match as rules go. But it works. And her designs change weekly. She keeps things interesting for herself and consequently, for us, too.
That is a lesson in tourism right there: celebrating and making the most of what you have. Things are the way they are and even as you stay true to that, so too do you grab every chance to breathe new life into them.
It is all about being mindful of the pleasures that others can have by way of a series of thoughtful little gestures, strung together to represent themes and moods, evoking memories even as they are still being created. People may not always give it enough credit but tourism is essential to the rebuilding of our economy, and the nation as a whole.
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This is an excerpt of the speech I delivered at The Lyceum on Nov. 29 to an audience of tourism students. Thank you Tito Bob Zozobrado for the invitation and the very warm welcome. Thank you, too, for the lovely lunch at 9Spoons at Bayleaf Hotel, where the view is gorgeous and the bagnet unbelievably and absolutely wonderful. I could eat it every day!
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