A Travellerspoint blog

A Day at the Air Show

12th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta By Karlo N.B. Samson



Heavy traffic is the last thing you want to be trapped in when you’re in a hurry, and here I was inching my way toward the Omni Airfield behind a pickup truck blasting a Journey tune over its stereo. Time again for the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, the 12th since 1994 when then-tourism secretary Mina Gabor put up the first one. It was a bit past five and dawn was breaking to the east, a fine Saturday morning and the third day of the event. Traffic was already hell.

Perhaps an argument with my wife over the ungodly hour we were setting off was not the most auspicious way to begin a day trip to Pampanga. We left the apartment at three in the morning, traveling with a grand sum of two hours of shuteye between us. We have to get to Clark before first light, I insisted, or else we miss the chance of seeing the balloons inflate. You’ve hardly slept, she pointed out. You’ll be running around all day and you’re not young as you used to be. Just a few years shy of forty I was. Certainly not a spring chicken but not quite over the hill.

I had been to this event eleven years before, in 1997, back when I was young. It was my first-ever field reporting assignment for the newspaper I worked for, the first time I was ever bestowed a media pass and a tape recorder. I flew to Clark in a vintage prop-driven plane with Captain Joy Roa of Air Ads, Inc., balloonist extraordinaire and big cheese behind the fiesta since 1996. I’d be flying in one of the balloons, I learned. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the chance.

To add quaintness to my neophyte journalist experience, I was billeted by my paper at a cheap motel in the sleazy part of town. This would be my base of operations for the next three days. I’d leave the motel before sunup to cover the day’s activities and return in the evening to organize my notes and write my copy. Pinch me, I thought. I’m on an honest-to-goodness assignment.

This was only the fourth fiesta since its inception in 1994. Few concessionaires were about, and the audience was mostly made up of Angeles residents. There were no big crowds back then. The fiesta did not have the benefit of a massive information campaign and Internet bloggers firing up interest. Even so, despite its humble scale, the event attracted thirty balloon teams from around the globe, and I was supposed to go up with one of them. “Supposed” being the operative word. My ex-editor dropped by unexpectedly and invoked seniority to snatch the ride from my grasp. Determined to fly, by any means possible, I managed to snag a flight on an ultralight. The fact that I had to leave the fiesta, find another airfield and pay my way to get my feet off the ground never bothered me. I just had to fly, so I made it happen.

Now, eleven years and eight fiestas later, no amount of grim determination and will power was going to get me to the airfield before 6am. A fine Saturday morning, but where were the balloons? Had they already left? I woke up my wife and our friend in the back seat and told them, I think the balloons are gone.

For the sake of those who’ve never been to the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, a typical day starts off at dawn. Balloons are inflated just before the sun clears the horizon and take flight at around half past six. They linger in the sky over the airfield for a few minutes before they drift away on winds and are chased by 4x4 jeeps of the Angeles City Four Wheelers Club. The balloons either fly back in late in the afternoon or are hauled back and reinflated for a short evening flight. Why so early? Because hot air is more buoyant when the air is cooler. For balloons to take off safely, wind should not exceed a maximum 3kph.

The man on the loudspeaker announced that winds were whipping at a 12kph clip. We had not missed the morning launch. The balloons were grounded. A few attempts were made to do a cold inflation, but to no avail. The wind simply wasn’t cooperating and the morning launch was called off.

Despite the fiesta’s balloon-centric name, the event is a full-fledged air show. A fiesta of ‘everything that flies’ says the banner. When they say ‘everything’ they aren’t kidding. From kites to helicopters, ultralights to model planes, even rockets and jets, all manner of flying things other than balloons have their 15 (or more) minutes of fame in front of a cheering audience. Fearless soldiers fall out of the sky for daredevil sky diving performances. Master flyers of the Kite Association of the Philippines display precision kite flying. Scale model planes and helicopters courtesy of the Philippine Aeromodellers Club whiz by, looking quite like the real thing. Of course, demonstrations by the real thing are the crowd favorite. High speed fly-bys of jets, aerial antics by choppers, aerobatic finesse by expert pilots all serving to fire up every child’s innate dream of flight and rekindle those same dreams in grown-ups.

On the ground this year were booths for the various branches of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, exhibiting equipment, vehicles and uniforms. Photo opportunities galore for the kiddies with the men in uniform. It’s a rare chance for folks to see our soldiers up close and learn about who they are and what they do. Too often, we only know of our military from coup-d’etat coverage on the evening news, which isn’t exactly the best way to pay respect to the soldiers who keep our country safe.

The main event, of course, would still be the balloons and we stuck around for the afternoon launch. Having had our fill of rockets and helicopters and cam-whoring with guns on a jeep, we wanted to see some hot air balloons. The crews were busy with preparations, their balloons unfurled and their propane tanks topped up. We watched the orange wind sock, still turgid with wind, and waited for it to go limp. We waited and waited and waited. Despite frantic attempts by teams to inflate several balloons, the weather would have its way and deny the audience a balloon-filled dusk sky. With music playing over the loudspeakers, the pilots instead performed a synchronized burn, sending plumes of fire into the air from their propane burners in time with the music. The audience had traveled too great a distance and waited too long a time to be denied a spectacle. Like the burning oil wells in Desert Storm Kuwait, majestic displays of flame peppered the landscape, serving to salute the audience and perhaps to vent much frustration from the grounded pilots.

Balloons fly on the whims of the wind. The next morning, Sunday the fourth day, the balloons flew. But, we weren’t there anymore. Disappointed? Sure, but not entirely. It wasn’t a day wasted. I had my fill of aviation sights and sounds, but most importantly, I had seen the balloons up close. And, though they never flew, I witnessed the camaraderie and teamwork it takes to loft these giant beasts into the sky. We’ll be there again next year, but my wife insists that I finagle her a media pass so she can actually go out on the field. She also insists I sacrifice a goat to the four winds to make sure the weather cooperates. I tell you, I just might.

Posted by didipusrex 02:23 Archived in Philippines Tagged events Comments (0)

Hitting the Roxas Trail


We spend a lot of our time trying to prepare ourselves for the curve balls, the challenges, the big fucking giants that life throws our way. But often, no amount of schooling, training, or mental preparation can cover all the bases. Sometimes, you end up staring something so daunting right in the face, and all you can say is, I'm screwed!

After three months of exclusively riding urban on my mountain bike, I found myself, finally, for the very first time, on an actual mountain. The Roxas trail, winding and wending up and down Mt. Maarat in Rizal Province, was most definitely not a bunny slope. No kid gloves here, no trainer wheels, no inflatable flotation device, no mommy with a lunch bag. This was the real thing and I was sorely unprepared for its challenges.

Just getting to the trail was killer - a steep ascent on concrete road that made me seriously ask myself Am I really that unfit? What had happened to the three months of riding I had under my belt? Surely I benefited from them?
The trail was a mixed bag of fast technical descents and rocky, rutty ascents. Concentrating on where I was going, I had little chance to enjoy the view of smoggy Metro Manila. What the hell had I gotten myself into? Some of these sections I wouldn't even hike through, much less bike. It didn't help that my taskmaster Agu, editor-in-chief of Men's Health Philippines, was cleaning everything on a SINGLE SPEED BIKE. No gearing, just sheer power. Here I was on my granny gear and largest cog struggling painfully along.
Most of my ascents were spent pushing the bike uphill, masticating my ego and swigging Gatorade. The descents, a different beast altogether, were both exhilarating and terrifiying. While you hurtle downward, a relentless stream of information assaults your brain - modulate brakes, keep your weight back, shit a root, head down, pedals level, crap ravine - and processing all that requires the mental discipline that only comes with more training and experience. Something I lacked. If you'd asked me to open my mouth, you'da seen two shriveled up balls inside.
I only took one spill, thank God. A miscalculation during a tricky descent sent me flying over my handlebars and the bike crashing into the earth. I managed to land running, no injuries whatsoever. Could have easily been a faceplant.

After two hours of pain and mental humiliation, I was back at the starting point, eagerly waiting for the next time I'd be on that rock. Roxas chewed me up and spat me out, but I'll be back there soon.

I promise.

More photos here.

Posted by didipusrex 23:21 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Slamdancing with Sta Rita

The Batalla Festival of Macabebe, Pampanga

Kuya, director ka ba? (Big Brother, are you a director?)” asked an inquisitive barrio urchin, one of about a dozen hyperactive children who had been following me around for the last ten minutes. Few photographers, even amateur ones like myself, have probably set foot in Dalayap, a far-flung barangay deep in the marshes of Macabebe, Pampanga. As places go, Dalayap is far from accessible. If you have the stamina and the time to spare, you can actually travel there by foot, following the pilapil for a few hours. We had arrived, alternatively, by river banca (outrigger canoe), after navigating the convoluted waterways of the Pampanga River Delta.

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Perhaps it’s this inaccessibility that accounts for the obscurity of Batalla, the feast for Dalayap’s patron Sta. Rita. Batalla usually happens on May 22, unless the whim of seasonal floods moves it back. While the feast is celebrated in other nearby barangays, it’s in Dalayap where the feast takes on a feverish frenzy.

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Batalla kicks off like your typical small town fiesta. A Catholic priest celebrates mass at the chapel at the town plaza then a procession kicks off, with predominantly Methodist townsfolk marching to the east bearing a statue of Sta. Rita on their shoulders. In perfect timing with the sunset, before it hits the footbridge at the end of town, the procession makes a U-turn, and that’s when Batalla truly begins.


It starts off as a dull rumble from the end of the village masked by the blaring of the brass band. You feel the atmosphere change slowly but distinctly from mildly solemn to something disconcerting. The band plays kuraldal tunes, increasing in volume and tempo as the procession nears the plaza. Only, it’s not an orderly procession anymore but a wild throng, a frenzied mob of sweaty men who are jumping about, thrashing around and chanting “Oi! Oi! Oi!” while deftly transporting the dangerously swaying Sta Rita to the center of the town. The women and children seem to have dispersed into the sidelines, save for a hardy few who brave the maddening crowd at the center.

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When the crowd arrives at the town plaza, its roar is deafening and the movement is furious. Arms flail about. Elbows and knees fly. People run and leap into each other recklessly. To minimize injury, rubber slippers are worn on elbows while barangay tanods (civilian police) try to keep things in check. The townsfolk form the world’s wildest Conga line as fireworks explode in brilliant light, raining sparks down. The band plays faster and the dancing gets even more riotous. It’s not a fiesta anymore, it’s a mosh pit with fervent slamdancing, complete with a religious icon swimming atop the crowd instead of a rock star.

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Then, in an orchestrated order amidst the seeming anarchy, an ages-old ritual tug-of-war is performed by the crowd, playing out the struggle between Muslim Kapampangans and Christian Spaniards from history past (hence the name ‘Batalla’). The image of Sta. Rita is pulled violently toward the chapel but the crowd resists, tugging Sta Rita back toward the plaza. It is here when the dancing is at its most intense as tensions between the two sides mount. After an eternal back-and-forth struggle, Sta. Rita is calmly allowed into the chapel, not by defeat in battle but by the will of the people.

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Batalla is a textbook example of Catholicism being mutated by folk religion. Scholars from the Center for Kapampangan Studies believe that its origins may lie in a pre-Hispanic tribal dance that was Christianized upon the arrival of missionaries, which was then appropriated by townspeople for their own religious purposes. Despite the violent frenzy that characterizes Batalla, you can see utter devotion in the faces and actions of Dalayap’s townfolk. There’s always an unabashed gentleness when a dancing devotee reaches out to touch the image of Sta. Rita, an honesty that’s kind of hard to forget. In an age when even religion is mass produced on an assembly line, bland and boring, Batalla is a welcome change.

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Posted by didipusrex 05:03 Archived in Philippines Tagged events Comments (0)


Celebrating Music in Tagum City, Davao del Norte

A good hour and a half drive from Davao City, through seemingly endless banana plantations, lies the lovely city of Tagum. The provincial capitol of Davao del Norte, Tagum became a city only in 1998 through Republic Act No. 8472. It is well known as a throbbing hub of commerce and business in Mindanao, with a focus on agriculture and eco-tourism. If you’ve ever had banana chips, chances are, they came from Tagum, which supplies sixty percent of the Philippine market. The city is a milestone of progress, under the no-nonsense leadership of the incumbent Mayor Rey T. Uy, whose various civic programs seem eminently suited to take Tagum to the next level. One program that lies very close to his heart is the MUSIKAHAN Festival.

Held annually from February 21 to 27, the MUSIKAHAN Festival is a week-long celebration of music. It is an opportunity to highlight the musical talents of Tagum’s youth while bringing together people from other parts of Mindanao together for a common appreciation of music and friendly competition. Throughout the week, assorted musical programs are held in various venues around the city.

“I’m a frustrated musician,” jokes Mayor Uy. “Now, I'm just a listener,” - an understatement, since the Mayor and his wife, Chairperson of the MUSIKAHAN Executive Committee Alma L. Uy are the drivers behind this festival. In his first term, Mayor Uy established the MUSIKAHAN Festival, with a four-fold objective. One, to celebrate the wealth of talent and the richness of music and art traditions. Two, to showcase Filipino excellence in music. Three, to generate support for students and youth artists to enhance their skills in the field of music composition and performance. Four, to promote Tagum City as the Music Capital of Mindanao.

“Tagum City provides free music education to schoolchildren from age nine to fourth year high school,” explains Mayor Uy. “We’ve had nine batches around one hundred twenty students each and we have reservations until batch twelve.” By providing free music education, Tagum gives its youth skills they can use for employment, entertainment, religion and other aspects of their lives. MUSIKAHAN lets Tagum’s musical kids strut their stuff.

MUSIKAHAN Festival Events
The MUSIKAHAN Festival is an event-filled seven days festooned in color, costume and, of course, tunes. Main events tend to be the competitions, where communities get to represent.

  • Raprapan, Sayawan, MUSIKAHAN
    A monthly talent search for the best Tagum City-based young performing artist in various genres culminates in this finals competition.

  • Pasiklaban
    Crank up the volume to eleven for Tagum’s very own battle of the bands. Held at the Freedom Park, this riveting event pits over sixty participants against each other for the honor of audio superiority.

  • Harana ng Bayan
    Love songs for your community, instead of the girl next door. In this competition, Tagum residents write a harana showcasing the unique traits and qualities of their barangay. The harana is performed in a music video as well as with a live performance.

  • Huni Ug Kasikas sa Plaza
    Easily the most colorful event of MUSIKAHAN, this drum & bugle/drum & lyre competition is the highlight of every school’s musical corps. The routines are intricate, the costumes are creative, and the energy of thousands of screaming schoolkids is just unbelievable.

  • Avenida Musika
    If brass bands are your thing, then this parade of marching brass bands should whet your fancy. Open to Mindanao schools, this contest gives new meaning to the term Heavy Metal.

  • Himig Handog
    This chorale competition has three categories: elementary, secondary, and adult. Each group performs three songs, including prescribed contest pieces such as “Isang Matandang Panalangin” by Verne dela Pena and “Sa Mahal Kong Bayan” by Lucio San Pedro.

  • Awitan-Limahan
    Open to quintets, this vocal competition is open to Mindanao-based performers who will render at least three songs, including one in a capella.

  • Rondal-Sayaw
    In this competition, the rondalla plays, the dance troupe interprets. Contestants don Balintawak or Maria Clara costumes, depending on their category.

Apart from the core competitions of MUSIKAHAN, the festival also has special events lined up, including Pahalipay, where MUSIKAHAN artists visit hospitals to perform for patients, Lantaw-MUSIKAHAN, a trade fair showcasing musical instruments as well as the region’s eco-tourism spots, and the MUSIKAHAN Parade.

Melodic Futures Ahead

While the MUSIKAHAN Festival may be a recent addition to the festivals and celebrations around the Philippines, it is one annual event that truly holds promise. The MUSIKAHAN has been cemented into tradition through a city ordinance ensuring its continuity despite future changes in local administration. With Tagum City continuing to produce musical and performing talent, we can only expect the performances in Tagum to get better and better.

Posted by didipusrex 00:03 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

On the Beaten Tracks

By Train to Legazpi and Back Again

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The 4:40 train to Legazpi City pulls into Blumentritt Station at about 4:50, a noisy, lumbering iron behemoth that, like the station, has seen better days. Folks clamber onto the passenger cars clutching duffel bags and bayongs tied up with cord and herding their children through the car doors. Crates and bicycles and ice chests wrapped in newspaper are hauled up into the cargo section together with boxes and other oddments. Nobody cries “all aboard!” but the conductor blows a whistle. A horn blares and the train chugs forward. From the window I see the platform of Blumentritt Station fall away sideways as the train gains speed. I giggle like a little kid in excitement. I’m on a train!

Nineteen years ago, I buried my attention into Paul Theroux’s travel classic The Great Railway Bazaar. It wasn’t even the actual book, just the condensed form featured in a battered Reader’s Digest. The rails promised adventure and romance, taking you to sights unseen and experiences unfamiliar. I was hooked.

However, for a variety of trivial reasons, I managed to procrastinate through almost two decades, secretly wanting to escape the doldrums of daily life via rail yet always denying myself the experience. To provide a surrogate, I would often ride Metro Manila’s elevated commuter trains, taking the Line 1 from EDSA to Carriedo or Line 2 from Ayala Avenue to Cubao. When the third line opened up fast, easy travel from Katipunan to Recto I was overjoyed and often viewed Aurora Boulevard from my swift, lofty perch. Still, that great adventure to parts unseen (by me at least) via cross-country train remained elusive.

Elusive, until my editor gave her approval to do the story I had pitched. Finally, at a loss for excuses, I found myself on a De Luxe seat beside my long-time travel geek buddy Jeryc on a train to Albay in the Bicol Region. Would railway travel live up to my expectations? We were determined to find out.

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Right On Track
Two trains regularly ply the Manila-Legazpi-Manila run – one has air-conditioning, the other does not. This week, the air-conditioned train was scheduled to leave on Friday. We were setting out for Legazpi on a Thursday. Hot though it was, the passenger car wasn’t as bad as I expected. When your ticket says De Luxe, it means that your seat reclines, a small measure of comfort that was well appreciated. Each station gets an allotment of De Luxe tickets, giving you guaranteed seating. I’d heard the stories about our trains being dilapidated, decrepit dinosaurs, and they skirt pretty much close to that but aren’t quite ready for extinction. There’s still some life in these trains and a little spit and polish should do wonders. Except perhaps the toilets, which need to be bombed with napalm and replaced anew.

Before you reach open country, you first navigate through the dense urban sprawl of Manila Metro with scant centimeters of clearance between train and shanty. Should you ever want a serious case of tetanus, just press your palms against the train’s wire mesh screens to let rusty corrugated metal roofs lacerate your flesh to ribbons. Apart from keeping your arms and hands attached to your body, those mesh screens also serve to protect you from projectiles that invariably get thrown at the train, from bags of garbage to rocks to fecal matter. Any hurled fluids, however are going to hit their mark. This is the time-honored way some railway residents express their gratitude for your disturbing their peace. In the times when you aren’t ducking for cover, you get a half-second glimpse into the lives of the urban poor through their windows and doors, getting to know what TV shows they watch or what songs they like to sing on community karaoke machines.

At just P355 (USD 6) per ticket to the end of the line, the train is a cheaper alternative to most bus lines. Many, if not all, of the passengers aren’t traveling for their leisure. Save for Jeryc and I, there are no backpackers, thrill-seekers, sightseers or obvious tourists, just simple folk commuting home or to visit relatives. The mood is generally quiet, people minding their own business and talking in murmurs. When darkness falls, everyone starts finding a position comfortable enough to sleep in.

Once the sun goes down, there isn’t much to see out the windows. The countryside is lit too faintly by moonlight so your eyes get to wandering inside the passenger compartment. Overhead, the dim fluorescent bulbs attract all sorts of flying, crawling bugs. The spiders which weave their webs on the train ceiling are having a fiesta. Across the car, you see someone’s grandmother, crouching between two rows of seats and glancing around furtively for any sign of the conductor. After a minute she stands up with a tabo full of urine in hand and pours the contents out the window and you know that you aren’t imagining it because it’s happened three times. Weary feet are propped on armrests, old men snore away, dead to the world, and children who are too young to sleep observe you curiously as you snap photos in low light. It’s going to be a long night.

In that unsleep you experience in long-haul redeye trips, what happens around you registers only as brief vignettes. You sort of remember them but the edges are blurry. In the back of your mind, you notice that the food vendors who hawk their wares up and down the aisle have changed, probably at the last station. Their vests have turned from red to blue, but their faces seem the same. You question whether they’ve just changed costume. The menu, too, shifts slightly and now, instead of instant coffee, you’re able to enjoy a hot cup of salabat (ginger tea)with your penoy (hard-boiled duck egg). When the vests change to green you vaguely remember buying a pineapple pie. As you pass each station, you blink awake and wonder where the hell you are. Hondagua, Baao, Gumaca, you could be in Cuba for all you know. Eventually, you fall into a sweaty, draining sleep, rocked gently and not so gently by the motion of the train.

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Shoehorning Legazpi
If the journey was the point, the destination was a mere taste. After more than half a day of swaying to the clickety-clack of the rails, dodging potshots and taking snapshots, we arrived at Legazpi City, literally the end of the line. The tracks terminate against an immovable concrete barrier, a period, rather than an exclamation point, that seem to state “you may go no further.” But, with five hours to kill until the train would start its journey back, we decided to hoof it and see what we could see in the brief time available.

Legazpi stands in the shadow of one of the most famous Philippine landmarks, Mayon Volcano. It’s this colossal beauty that draws tourists to Legazpi, aside from the pili nuts. For an unobstructed view of Mayon, we head for the Cagsaua Ruins, a parish church buried by rocks and lava in 1814, killing townspeople who had sought shelter within its doors. To get there, you ride a jeepney to Guinobatan and ask the driver to let you off near the ruins. You then take a short tricycle ride from the main road to the park gate. While the history behind it is fascinating, the ruins themselves are overshadowed by the awe-inspiring enormity of Mayon. From this vantage point, the volcano fills up the horizon. Clouds drift against its peak and you think the mountain is playing hard to get. As you gape at Mayon, children armed with toothy grins and grimy faces come up to you and ask for money point blank. Even if you wave them off, they follow you around. Jeryc and I relish the view for a while and decide against going to Daraga Church, famous for being made up of volcanic rocks. What if we miss the train? We sided with caution and made our way back to Legazpi.

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In Reverse
The train to Manila leaves Legazpi Station at precisely 3 o’clock in the afternoon, which gives you roughly three hours of daylight before that looming darkness once again takes hold. This gives you ample time with which to enjoy the countryside. The Bicol region is immensely beautiful, green fields and rice paddies all around, punctuated by tin roofs as you pass through populated areas. You see the hustle of commerce at the train stations as cargo changes hands. A swift peck on a husband’s cheek sends him off as he takes the train back to the big city. Kids at play jump up and down the train and pose gamely for the lens.

Seventeen hours to Legazpi, five hours there and another seventeen getting back to Manila. Sounds crazy and perhaps it was. I took that trip to see if travel by train would fulfill its promise of romance and adventure. I’d say it delivered half. If you want to experience travel of a different kind, go overland by train to Legazpi City. When the northern line to Agoo opens up, by all means take that train too. Whether you tote along your mountain bike/hang glider/spelunking gear/wetsuit or just an extra shirt, your adventure starts even before you get to where you’re going. Romance, hmm, you won’t find any Russian divotchkas here, nor truffles and wine in the dining car. You can’t even take a proper piss. Perhaps in time, with a little help from train enthusiasts and transport authorities, both promises can be fulfilled. For now, I’ll take the one.

The train pulls into Espana station a little past eight AM. My hair is greasy as is my skin. A bath would be nice. My rump is a little worse for wear and I find aches niggling at various parts of my body. I’m back in my world, an hour away from a clean bed and a toothbrush, and 48 hours away from my work desk. I step off the train, bid adieu to Jeryc and end my little adventure. Nineteen years of waiting and it’s just what I was looking for and exactly what I needed.

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For more photos, feel free to visit my Multiply.

Posted by didipusrex 01:57 Archived in Philippines Tagged train_travel Comments (2)

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