Entering a dragon’s throat and coming out of a tiger’s mouth symbolizes turning bad luck into good fortune.
The Dragon and Tiger Pagodas at the southern shore of man-made Lotus Lake in Kaohsiung came with that written instruction. It was simple enough yet so fierce: Enter the Dragon and exit just below the Eye of the Tiger. I carbon-dated myself with those retro references, but I couldn’t help it. The color palette used for the pagodas built in 1970s evoked the aesthetics of the alluded decades.
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Once I was amazed, I was Petra-fied. The ancient city carved out of rose-red sandstone was both a marvel of nature and architecture. A deep and winding fissure that cut through the rocky desert landscape was awesome in itself. That it led to the cliff-sculpted classical façade of an ancient tomb put the wonder in wonderful. Petra had been voted – rightfully so – as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?
No pandemic could put a damper on the development of our capital city. The good mayor of Manila, Yorme Isko, had kick-started his revitalization initiatives at the area around Manila City Hall before the world ground to a halt in the first quarter of 2020. While I spent months at home on self-imposed lockdown, public works in the city hardly paused.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
A non-believer once argued with me, “How can you believe that Jesus is God? Man cannot be God!”
I countered, “Yes, man cannot be God. But God can be man.”
That was how I distilled the foundation of the Christian faith in 140 characters or less, a communicative length that millennials understood. The young man conceded with a seemingly enlightened smile. A couple of years later, I would walk the town where the divine was made flesh. The words I had sung in countless Christmas cantatas took on a geographic context.
Was it an art museum? A grand cathedral? An alien starship? Ki and I collected our jaws off the floor when we emerged from the subway platform. A dome of stained glass backlit to dramatic effect encompassed the lobby of Formosa Boulevard Station. Kaohsiung supposedly had nothing going for it if I were to go by my former students’ opinion of their hometown, but the city went all out to impress us in our first hour upon arrival. And we had yet to step out of the train station.
Only when I threw plans and itineraries to the wind did I make our real-time discoveries. It paid that Ki, an honorary Cebuano by virtue of his affinity to the city, led the way around Cebu. We spent three days urban trekking in both old and new sides of town.
Marrakech lent itself well to urban trekking. Ki and I explored this walking city exclusively on foot. Wide sidewalks shaded by trees, tall and short, were irresistibly welcoming. But a stretch of Avenue Mohammed V along gentrified Gueliz had a surprise up its sleeve: a row of tree sculptures. It was a genre of public art that we were not familiar with.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.
Thus began the most arduous detour in the history of travel. Avoiding the busier, breezier Via Maris along the coastline, Moses led two million Israelites on a protracted, inter-generational journey through Sinai Peninsula, a tiny wedge of land between Africa and Asia on the map but an endless, barren desert on the road, much more on foot. It was a circuitous exodus to the Promised Land that took 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Myth, history, or a bit of both, this tale of freedom from slavery and covenant with Yahweh defined the faith and identity of the Jewish people.
Halfway up, the Alpilles in Les Baux served up stunning views of Provence. The valley was a green canvas on which shingle-roofed towns and winding roads were drawn. All these were framed by pale towering rocks misshapen by wind and water through the eons. I thought it was heaven until I read the overlook marker:
Standing at one end of the Les Baux valley, the Val d’Enfer, or Vale of Hell, exhibits its white sandstone cliffs sculpted by the elements. It gets its name from Dante’s description of “Hell” in his “Divine Comedy,” which was inspired by this very place. The gaping holes of the quarries, which have worked from ancient times to this day, amplify the strangely tormented appearance of this mineral landscape, carved into so many fantastic shapes.
In my 50 years as a Filipino citizen, I never set foot in Malacañang Palace, the seat of power in the Philippines. As the office and official residence of Philippine presidents since a century ago, it never piqued my curiosity even as a historical site. A palace implied royalty; last time I checked, our form of government was never a monarchy. The opportunity came in the form of an invite from a colleague and docent-in-training. Her connections in the Presidential Museum secured our group a spot in their weekday guided tours.
…Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.
Mokattam Mountain in Cairo had been moved by mustard seed faith. Jesus may have meant His statement metaphorically – He spoke in parables after all – but the Copts took it literally. This mountain’s solid rock face had been heavily quarried, either for practical reasons or mystical qualities, to become building blocks of pyramids and temples. The miraculous geologic movement was not the only astounding aspect of this mountain. Mokattam stood over a city of trash. Coming from a developing country, our group was familiar with landfill slums, but we had not expected to find ourselves in the middle of one in Cairo.
Superstition had it that whatever you did on New Year’s Day predicted how the next 364 days would go. Nothing could be farther than the truth. The first day of 2020 was our last day in Taiwan and, as it turned out, on the road. Unbeknownst to us, a new coronavirus strain was starting to make the rounds in Wuhan, China. In just a couple of months, global travel would completely be paralyzed and then altered by the new normal.
She had WTF written all over her face. Then a suppressed smile lit her eyes. I could see her in my peripheral vision as she was observing Ki pressing his phone on the glass window to take videos of passing landscapes. The observed noticed the observer. She grinned at having been found out. This scene played out in all but one of our train rides around Morocco. Local commuters blind to their daily view were incredulous at a tourist’s child-like amazement. Travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson put it best: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
The cultural heart of every Moroccan city beat in its ancienne medina (ancient city). That was why Ki and I dove head on into Tangier’s old quarter by booking a stay at a boutique B&B named Bayt Alice. Bayt, we later learned, was Arabic for house and, by extension, household. Alice, however, was a decidedly Western name. We could only surmise that this was a house owned by a foreign woman. How typical of Tangier, the African city closest to Europe, not only geographically but more so culturally.
This French folk song about dancing round and round on the bridge of Avignon had been fact-checked. The titular Pont Saint-Bénézet was deemed too narrow for such soirées. If anything, dancing would’ve taken place at the foot of the bridge. Our family dancercise sesh with the Zumbadoc, my Zumba instructor slash doctor brother, was not entirely out of place. He found a spot across a bed of lavender by Avignon’s famous bridge.