Thursday, March 31, 2005

Meeting Fans

Today was refreshingly full of activity, with several small moments worth writing about. If I'm in an exceptionally good mood, I guess it's because the day started with effusive comments.

Diane and Bill Poole are husband-and-wife yachties. They sailed to Dumaguete a couple of years back and decided to sell their boat and settle here. They set up a school for underprivileged kids, teaching them to read and write. Admirable work from the both of them.

Imagine my suprise when they accosted me on the street this morning. 'I love your column!' Diane gushed. 'She looks for your column first thing,' Bill added. Well, obviously, I was tickled pink with that.

And it also turned out that I had a computer I was planning to donate to them! I should visit their school soon.

Good start to the day, and it should carry me till the end of the week. Whee!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Romance of the Three Kingdoms-based RPG

My cousin is bringing in an MMORPG into the country. I did their press release below. He tells me he just got interviewed by Hackenslash.

With the plethora of massively multiplayer online role-playing games in the country, is there room for one more? One small startup company thinks so, and it's bringing in a new game with a decidedly Asian flavor.

The game has as its backdrop the Chinese classic "Romance of the Three Kingdoms." Altough written over 600 years ago, it is still arguably the most popular novel in Asia. Partly truth, partly fiction, ROTK spans the golden age of chivalry with larger-than-life heroes, court intrigue, massive army battles, and bloody castle sieges.

The novel tells of the epic of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd Century, a time of turmoil as the Emperor lost control of the country through insiduous court eunuchs at the top and popular rebellion at the bottom. Warlords seized the opportunity to rise to power, and civil war ensued. Out of this chaos came three smaller states: Wei, Wu, and Shu, the eponymous Three Kingdoms, warring for control of the Imperial throne.

"Romance of the Three Kingdoms: TS-Online" places the player as a wandering hero in the period, complete with stunning maps where the events in the novels take place. Heroes from the novel come to life as non-player characters (NPC) that the ROTK gamer can interact with and with whom they can change the course of the story.

Unlike the current batch of MMORPGs in which players take control of only one character Diablo-style, ROTK plays more like Final Fantasy. Players can assemble a band of adventurers, the benefits of which can be appreciated in large multi-character battles as in castle sieges.

ROTK also features a comprehensive magic system based on the Elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. Once they reach the higher levels, players can also summon monsters to aid them in their battles.

Top players, regardless of which world their characters start in, can also earn the right to pit their sword and sorcery against each other in a combat arena.

Owing to its breathtaking story, vibrant community, and dynamic RPG combat system, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms: TS-Online" has risen to be the most popular MMORPG in Taiwan and Thailand. MB Systems, a Cebu-based startup company consisting of Internet service providers, gamers, and entrepreneurs, bought the Philippine rights to the game.

"Romance of the Three Kingdoms: TS-Online" will debut in open beta in May 2005.

Yes, Migs, it's another one of those. But more than the game itself, I'm curious about the startup process.

"Romance of the Three Kingdoms" does sound like a very intriguing novel. And an online version is available at

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Dumbing Down of Dominique

It's past midnight, and I really should be in bed. But for the first time in so many weeks, I have a steady -- albeit slow -- Internet connection at home and I just can't pry myself from the keyboard.

Besides, there's a pressing thought that's weighing in on me right now.

The thought is: How did I get so dumb?

The feeling crept up on me today as I was reading up on LTSP. I still understood most of the concepts, I started wondering why I didn't pay closer attention to this. And at the back of my mind I was thinking of the hundred-and-one things that could go wrong if I did set this up in a production environment. My confidence is really just so shot.

I think the last year-and-a-half working with the Technical Sales Support for IBM Systems and Technology Group really did me in. Firefighting and sales really took out the spark of creativity and curiosity in me so much so that I really haven't had the inclination to explore new developments in Linux.

LTSP ain't even half of it. I missed out on so many new things like the new virtualization technologies, XUL, live distros, etc. I am old, and my knowledge is old.

Am I passing blame where the blame should be mine? Perhaps. Perhaps I shouldn't have let customers, business partners, and other IBMers weigh down on me too much. Perhaps I shouldn't have paid too much attention to the CritSits (IBM Services never gave me any credit anyway). Perhaps I shouldn't have focused on fixing Red Hat-Oracle-TotalStorage compatibility problems. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps....

What the heck? If I did any work on open source virtualization, or live distros, or XUL, what would it have gotten me anyway? "Oh, no, we can't implement those; they're UNSUPPORTED."

And now: a glimpse of the road not taken. Should I have taken a Master's Degree outside the country? Maybe I might have ended up in a research lab where I wanted to be in the first place.

Time slips away. So do the opportunities.

I really need to get my confidence level back up.

Ladies and gentlemen: three months onward, and my verdict still hasn't changed. I'm so glad I left.

Thank you for listening to my rant.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Thinking Room

I wonder why I usually receive my best ideas at Mass. Is it because I'm not paying attention? Hee, hee.

I'm about to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. For the longest time, I've been thinking of putting up a cybercafe that I would actually want to go to and spend time in. I've juggled the figures in my mind, and though the financial returns will be nothing close to what I was getting at IBM, well, I still think it's worth doing.

Besides, I already have the spin for the place. Plus, some side business as well.

So, stay tuned for my adventures with "The Thinking Room."


Kenosis. That's another way for saying "cleanup." Which is what I ended up doing at Church this Black Saturday.

It's become an annual thing at the Mary Immaculate Parish, really. Most of the folks are still in a reflective mood and the Blessed Sacrament is hidden away so it's an ideal time for the activity. Somewhat symbolic, too, so it works both ways.

I helped wash the chairs with soap and water. I tell you, there were a lot. The first few dozen were fairly easy, but when we got to the round chairs, the going got really hard. They were filthy with cat-poo, gum, and assorted gunk, and they had nooks and crannies that were protected by sharp edges. After a while, my hands started to get soft from the water and the soap.

But I'm bellyaching.

Really, it wasn't all that bad. Paddy and Geordi were washing alongside, and we talked about sundry things like: Yu-Gi-Oh, Philippine Science High School in Iloilo, laptops, cybercafes, etc. Sigh, I am way too old for my real mental age.

In hindsight, this Holy Week was quite good. For the first time, I completed seven churches for the traditional Visita Iglesia (albeit grudgingly because of the inadvertent -- and dangerous -- long late night drive to Valencia); I did the Way of the Cross (okay, I came late and started at Station VII); and for the first time in a long time, I went to Good Friday services. And with my sister, too.

The Good Friday services at the Redemptorist's Mother of Perpetual Help Church was actually pretty good. They had a stage play of the Passion which had me sniggering at first but got me thinking close to the end. Amateur? Yes. Good? Very.

This, in my opinion, is the nice thing about being a Catholic. Things are so danged (can I say that) easy! The formulas are set, you just have to follow them. And though you might question why at first, in the end, it does start to make sense. No need to invent anything new.

Just like using a Mac.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Filiipino wins IBM Linux Scholar challenge

All I can say is: it's about time!

Full story at Congratulations to the winners and to Mindanao Staqte University-Iligan Institute of Technology!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Rational Technology: Prism of the Season

It's the middle of Holy Week and the rhythm of my life has slowed down considerably. Try as might, I can't find the zest to write about technology, technopreneurs, call centers, and other what-not. So I'm going with the flow and just look at the Universe through the prism of the season.

What is technology, after all? It's but a tittle in the totality of human endeavors. In six months, our gadgets will be obsolete; in a year, some entirely New Thing will capture our imaginations (and replaced the year after); in another decade, much of our knowledge will be antiquated. Vanitas vanitatem, omnia vanitas.

Yet some things are longer-lasting, renewed with every generation that walks the earth, and never to be overthrown. Love, for one thing; dreams of a better tomorrow; the pursuit of happiness; wrestling with grief and suffering; the sense of right and wrong; the desire to help your fellow man (and sometimes the attendant failure to do so). If one were a materialist, one would say that it was part of our genetic imprint; but of course, that's just a roundabout way of hinting at the soul.

And yet another perennial, one which the season throws in sharp relief, is religion. It's yet another unimpeachable trait of Man, despite centuries of attempts by Enlightened Humanists.

Take Holy Week, for example. Christians (or if you prefer, Catholics) have been celebrating it for roughly two thousand years. And even that has sprung from a Jewish celebration, tracing its lineage back to the time of Moses.

Not Voltaire, not Nietzsche, not Karl Marx, not G.B. Shaw, not Jose Rizal has been successful in dethroning it. The great mass of people may ooh and aah at their intellectual contortions, may laugh at their satiric caricatures, and yet weepingly tell their beads at the End of the Day.

The heirs of Voltaire et al. continue to suggest that we should do away with religion altogether. They say that religion is the cause of wars and hold back progress. But how can we? The argument of History is clearly against that.

To suggest that we go back to a time before religion is sheer lunacy. Religion has always been with us.

Some suggest that we go back to a time before Christianity, supposedly the cause of so much grief. Even that does not work out; because Christianity IS the New Thing in the context of human history. All supposedly new alternatives to Christianity really just take us back to times before it.

Even in strictly human terms, Christianity is the answer to the confusing philosophies of paganism prior to it. And that is the reason why this religion of contradiction endures. Because it fits us, Creatures of Contradiction. and it fits us like a glove.

If religion hasn's solved our problems, well, perhaps it wasn't meant to. Religion is supposed to help us figure ourselves and our relationship with God out. Solutions to our problems? Well, that's the field of human endeavor, isn't it?

And thus we trudge on.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

I Want to Ride My Bicycle

It's been over three months now and I'm well on my way to my transformation to a full-time bum. I'm not nearly as settled in one place as I would like to be, but I guess that's what happens with me hoping around from place to place.

After Davao, I was in Dumaguete briefly, then in Manila, then back to Dumaguete. I spent a week in Cebu, and now I'm back once more in Dumaguete. And I may have to go back to Davao again.... Not exactly what I bargained for, but hey, one rolls with the punches.

I finally bought a bicycle, a nice little number from KHS. It's a hybrid mountain bike and country bike. Twenty-one-speed, and the seat is very comfortable. I only bought it last Saturday, and I've been using it every day since. It was a tad more expensive than the other models the dealer was selling, but I think it was well worth the money.

Buying the bike is symbolic. I'm sort of going over a hump, in a manner of speaking.

I guess what I'm really looking for is some sort of routine. That's what I'm still trying to establish. Riding my bike is one part of that routine. I'm hoping to fall into some pattern. I don't know why. I guess my mind takes comfort in that.

This morning, I rode up to Silliman beach to take a dip. Unfortunately, it was low tide and about 30 meters out, and the water was only calf-deep. I'll try my luck out again tomorrow.

Beaches in the morning. Not a bad routine to get into.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Review: The Vagina Monologues

Sex, as a subject of discussion, usually swings between two extremes: either it isn't talked about at all, or it's talked about as a joke or an exploit. And that's unfortunate because, as with most other human activities, Sex is a fascinating subject for intelligent discussion. It was with this frame of mind that I went to watch Silliman University's local production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues."

Now, with a title like "The Vagina Monologues", we can all expect a little bit of controversy. Unfortunately, the literature preceding the play (as well as literature following it) seemed to dwell almost exclusively on the controversies that they seem to have forgotten to address what the play was all about. This being my first viewing of the play, what could I expect? I wanted humor, drama, and most importantly, some perspective into the Mysterious Mind of Woman.

True to its title, "The Vagina Monologues" does feature candid discussions on the female sex organ. However, it is when the play focuses on it that it falls a little flat. Attribute it as you might to cultural or gender differences, but when it gets to talking about the much vaunted vagina, the play feels a little contrived. The questions "What would your vagina wear?" and "What would your vagina say?" -- a recurring theme in the play -- seem a tad artificial. "The Vagina Workshop," about a woman's reawakening by way of a workshop, is far too Western.

If the play had focused exclusively on the female sex organ, the humor would have given way to tedium quickly enough. Fortunately, there were bits and pieces of female insight shining through. The most poignant -- and easily the best performance -- was the segment entitled "The Flood", about a sexually repressed woman's memories and experiences. "I Was 12. My Mother Slapped Me," a series of vignettes on women's recollections of their first period, was a simply priceless perspective on the matter for a clueless male like me. "I Was There in the Room", about the playwright's experience at her granddaughter's delivery, was sublimely touching.

Closely tied as it is with V-Day, "The Vagina Monologues" also offered pieces on women's experiences with violence. Easily the best piece is "My Vagina Was My Village," which shocks with its juxtaposition of a carefree innocent and war-weary shell-shocked survivor. "The Memory of Her Face", a terrifying account of women scarred with acid in Pakistan, works because it is gruesome and relentless in its imagery. However, "The Crooked Braid," about violence against Native American women, lags a bit because the experiences seem alien and remote; it ought to have been localized to the Filipino stories for better effect.

When the play goes for laughs, it plays on the crass. (I suppose, since it's women who are cracking it, I don't feel too guilty about laughing.) The orgasmic catalogue of "The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy" is a real crowd-pleaser; but it does lead me to wonder: is that it easy to fake it? The play hits the bull's-eye with the guffaws, though, when it wanders into the vernacular. Case in point are the different nicknames for the female organ as given in the Introduction.

Complementing the play was the ensemble cast consisting of students and professionals from Dumaguete City. I found it hard to believe that some prominent local personalities would actually be performing, but there they were. Performances were quite solid all throughout, but the real standouts in my opinion were Laurie Raymundo in "The Flood", Louella Dawn Chiu in "The Little Coochie Snortcher That Could", and Wednesday Gay Gaudan. Ms. Raymundo was the very portrait of reserved elegance; Ms Chiu's voices portraying a girl at ages six, twelve, and sixteen were spot on. Ms. Gaudan was, well, simply outrageously hilarious.

Finally, I must commend the direction and management of the play. With a cast of close to a hundred, it certainly must not have been an easy task to manage the scenes as seamlessly as they appeared. And yet seamless they did appear. The relaxed bistro-like setting, allowing the actors to come and go for their parts while keeping the whole cast in view, was simply inspired.

It's simply a darn shame that a production like "The Vagina Monologues" should run for only one night. All the preparation that must have gone into it certainly deserves more than one showing. And, if nothing else, it should give everyone, even the tongue-waggers, a chance to see what the hullaballoo is really all about.

Rational Technology: Technopreneur

Lawrence E. Hughes, a spry fifty-something gentleman late of Atlanta, Georgia, settled in Cebu City by way of a Filipino wife with whom he had been married for over a decade. His story is not altogether uncommon, repeated as it is among several expatriates for whom the local climate and people are very agreeable and decide to settle in our shores. If it were only that, Hughes' tale would be worth a couple of tellings among the community wags and then quickly and quietly forgotten for juicier news.

Yet the story doesn't quite end there. In fact, it may be worthwhile to delve further into the background. Hughes is a technology geek through and through with several war stories to tell. He built his first computer, an Altair, back in 1975 when very few people had the notion of a personal computer. He's also contemporaries with the modem pioneers and written the first software for them.

The most interesting part of his background is his involvement with cryptography and computer security, something he's been involved in since even before the heyday of the Internet. Over the years, Hughes has worked with the creme de la creme of Internet security companies, perhaps the most well-known of which is Verisign.

Prior to coming to the Philippines, Hughes put together an email proxy appliance called Ironmail. In 2000, he started a company, Ciphertrust, to market the product. The email proxy appliance essentially secures email servers from viruses, spyware, and spam. It is in such high demand that Fortune 500 companies snap them up regardless of their stiff price tag of $90,000 per unit.

Fueled more by the passion of a startup than with its day-to-day operations, Hughes left his company in 2003 in the care of professional managers and settled in Cebu.

One would think that Hughes would kick back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor in quiet retirement. But then his story would be no different from so many others. And, of course, that's not what he did.

Still driven by more good ideas, Hughes decided to put together another Internet appliance, this time to help manage the transition of DNS servers from IPv4 to IPv6 (don't worry if you don't understand this; just trust me when I say that there's a big need). And he decided to do it in Cebu.

Hughes' new startup company, Infoweapons, counts 14 employees counting Hughes himself. The rest of the team are all young Filipinos with various skills essential to the project. The core of the new Internet appliance is FreeBSD, a free open source operating system. The bulk of the current work, though, is in developing the user interface using both PHP and Microsoft Management Console. The product is well on its way to becoming a reality. Following his earlier work, the target market of the product are Fortune 500 companies, and Hughes expects to sell the high-end version at $30,000 each.

Compensation at Infoweapons is, according to Hughes, "competitive with local companies" but the difference is the generous stock option program. Employees are part owners of the company, and, should the company do extremely well, stand to become extremely rich.

Yet the main draw that Hughes brings is not so much the compensation plan or even the technology. It's the technological entrepreneurship with which he has infected his employees as well as other like-minded people that he's come in touch with. Hughes sets a fantastic example by which people with great product ideas can bring these to fruition as marketable -- and profitable -- products.

The fact that he's doing his project in the Philippines is a statement that it can be done here.

Anyone thinking of doing the same thing?

Friday, March 11, 2005

The V*gina Monologues

In Dumaguete the whole week this week, and my Internet access is still patchy. But that's only because I'm too cheap to get a DSL line and I aim to remedy that soon. Oh, and I'm still hounded by computer woes, mostly hardware-related. Sigh, I really need to buy a decent Thinkpad.

I've been very busy, as you might gather from the post just prior to this. Another reason why there have been so few updates. In any case, I did get some break time in by going to the theater.

As a counterpoint to claims that nothing happens in Dumaguete, they ran Eve Ensler's "The V*gina Monologues," all with local actors comprised of students and young professionals from around the city. They held the play at the Luce Auditorium, which is by all accounts rated excellent. (Better than the PhilamLife Theater, in my opinion).

Part of the reason for choosing this play was a desire to better understand women's concerns. But alas, I didn't really come away with anything new about my views. Perhaps it must be all my prior reading. Or maybe I just need to think about it some more.

Uh-huh-huh, but Marcelle would be insanely jealous to learn that one of the cast was a Korean babe. And you know what they do in "The V*gina Monologues..." Uh-huh-huh.

Rational Technology: While Waiting

One thing I've learned from GMA's visit is that the actual meeting with the dignitary is very very brief -- a hi-hello, shaking of hands, and everyone moves along -- but the wait up to the meeting itself can be interminably long.

The delay, of course, was understandable. Owing to the tragic events in Bohol. The president took a detour to Mabini to commisserate with the grief-stricken folk. But just as the journey itself is half the fun, so the fellows I was with were able to make use of the waiting time to leisurely discuss different views of Dumaguete's outsourcing future.

For one thing, Veneeth Iyengar, formerly US Peace Corps volunteer to Dumaguete and now Business Development Manager for Teletech, a large US-based call center, flew into town with optimistic news for the prospects of a site in Dumaguete. Yet even this optimism is guarded because, as we have learned from previous experience, it does not pay to count our chickens before they are hatched.

Teletech is seriously considering Dumaguete as a potential call center site, but is waiting on signing up a customer before going full on with its plans. At the same time, other cities and regions are also presenting themselves as candidate locations. Despite the personal ties, though, we would do well to recognize that Veneeth's primary responsibility now is to his employer; whereas Veneeth played a substantial role in promoting Dumaguete over the past three years, we now have to continue promoting Dumague
te to him.

In view of other cities vying forthe outsourcing business, it's high time that there come out a standardized ranking guide to help potential investors make an informed decision. This is a plan of DTI Undersecretary Carissa Cruz, in a discussion with Veneeth, wants to put into motion. The standardized ranking guide would evaluate cities based on their human resources base, power capabilities, telecommunications infrastructure, and cost of doing business.

Following this thread, Iloilo came up as a topic of discussion. The city in neighboring Panay island now boasts of not one but two call centers: Vocative (ePLDT) and ICT. And yet here also lies the crux of the problem.

Having opened within months of each other, the two call centers became involved in a bidding war for call center agents. With attrition rates that they were getting, whatever cost advantages Iloilo may have offered would have been nullified.

Which raises an important point for us, as well: we need to look at our own human resources capabilities and come up with an honest answer as to how many call centers we can support. It may seem ideal to have as many call centers set up in Dumaguete as possible, but as Iloilo has shown, that is not the case. The limiting factor is the number of people that we can provide.

The obvious solution is to limit the number of call centers setting up in the city. Even this does not go far enough it seems. It may be deemed prudent, as a matter of policy, to provide the first call center to set up in the city sufficient lead time, say three years, to stabilize its operations with regard to hiring of personnel, before allowing another call center to come in. The flip side of this is, of course, that the call center has to commit to a certain number of agents during the period. Merits and demerits of this plan will still need to be discussed, yet it seems to me a most sensible plan.

Not that this means a moratorium on all outsourcing business. Call centers are only one type of outsourcing business; there are many others. Each one has its special skills requirements. But we do need to make special mention of call centers precisely because they have the lowest common denominator for skill levels, and at the same time have the highest demand for human resources.

And what of the presidential visit? Apparently, it was GMA herself who requested to come down to Negros Oriental.. The city then organized the tour of EntheosIT medical transcription facility and SPI Publisher Services as part of the showcase. This is proof of how far we've come.

All these things and more floated in our conversation while waiting for the president. Matters worth thinking about. Which goes to show that the journey can just be as interesting as the destination, if not moreso.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Toll-Free, Part 1

Rational Technology for March 6, 2005

It seems hard to believe that a few years ago, Internet service providers and cause-oriented groups were lobbying vociferously against dominant telco player PLDT's plans to impose per-minute charges to local calls. This is in stark contrast to the market situation today where we have the competing telcos trying to outdo each other with flat rates for NDD calls. Chalk one up for Adam Smith and the invisible hand of economics.

A quick review of the events: Sun Cellular fired the first salvo with its 24/7 plan, offering unlimited calls for intra-network calls. Within a few months, Sun Cellular's subscriber base grew to about a million, still a minority player but significant enough to threaten Globe and Smart.

The two giants brought the National Telecommunications Commission into the fray, citing Sun Cellular for predatory pricing. But at the same time, market demand could not be denied and not long after, the two offered new products designed to counter the 24/7 plan.

As a direct counter, Globe launched its rebranded Touch Mobile product, offering 1-peso SMS messages and 1-peso per minute TM-to-TM calls (fine print: P5 per minute for the first two minutes, with the P1 rate kicking in after that).

What was more interesting was Globelines offer of toll-free NDD Globe-to-Globe calls. Sun Cellular's promo must have struck a bit too close to home and started affecting their fixed lines as well.

The fine print to this promo, never properly explained in the ads, was that it was a time-limited offer. NTC took Globe to task for false advertising; nevertheless, it looked like it was Globe's intent to perpetually renew the offer.

Not to be outdone, PLDT also came up with a similar plan, offering a P10 flat rate for NDD calls. 'Telebabad' became a marketing ploy. Ironically, PLDT had used 'telebabad' as their reason for local tolls some years back. PLDT was a bit more upfront in that their ads clearly stated that this was a time-limited offer; but there's nothing to keep them from following in Globe's tracks.

The only thing that remains, that we can hope for, is that the telcos do away with tolls for intercarrier calls. But I suppose we have to take all these things in baby steps.

The benefits are obvious: small outbound call center outfits can can enjoy good savings. Collection agencies, for example, could start setting shop outside Metro Manila (perhaps Dumaguete) and still service customers from all over the country.

And yet, if you think about it, all this is really small change to the telcos. Much of the telco infrastructure is already in place, with only incremental upgrades needed to cope with the demand. Pricing, we can conclude, has been somewhat arbitrary.

Which leads us to the question: what else could we or should we expect from our telcos?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Road Trip: San Pablo, Calamba, and Los Baños

Lake Sampaloc, San Pablo City, Laguna

Today I made good on my promise to myself to see more of my own country. But just as we all learn to walk by taking baby steps, I started by taking a short day trip to one of the destinations close to Metro Manila.

Up until I reached the Buendia-Taft LRT terminal, I wasn't quite clear on where I would be going. Pagsanjan, by way of Santa Cruz? Taal Lake, by way of Talisay? San Pablo City? Ultimately, the choice was made for me when I spied a bus headed for Lucena.

I asked the conductor if the bus would stop along Sta. Cruz. No, he said. Would it stop at San Pablo? The answer was in the affirmative. I must have seemed like a buffoon when I said I'd drop off anywhere in San Pablo, but since he did not bat an eyelash, he must have made the acquaintance of several other buffoons of my ilk. P104, he deadpanned, was the bus fare to 'anywhere in San Pablo City.'

We headed off at around 8:30 am, cruising down the South Luzon Expressway. On this Wednesday morning, travel was smooth and speedy and I found myself mesmerized as the landscape changed from one of billboards and buildings to grassy fields and rolling hills.

As we entered the Laguna area, the imposing Mt. Makiling loomed ahead. Clad in heavy green foliage, Mt. Makiling attracts the eye like no other, rising like a bosom around the rice fields that surround it. The mountain would be a prominent feature throughout the trip.

Pretty soon the signs all said San Pablo City, and some fellow passengers started getting off at different points. I was wondering when the ideal time to disembark would be, but my friend the conductor made that decision for me. They let me off at the fork between San Pablo and Lucena.

That was actually an ideal place to begin the next leg of my journey. Several tricycles touted for passengers to locations not plied by jeepneys. I hopped aboard a San Pablo City jeepney instead.

Pretty soon I was in the heart of San Pablo City, a bustling town abuzz with activity. It's a mid-sized city, as far as Philippine cities go. It doesn't really boast of any of the larger brand-name malls, though there are a couple of local ones.

San Pablo City, I am told, is a major transportation hub to many of the other smaller towns in the Laguna area. Judging from the jeepneys headed for other destinations, I can well believe it.

My first stop, as is usual with me, was the local cathedral. Fortunately, it wasn't too hard to find, located as it was in the heart of the city. The cathedral's name corrected my misimpression that San Pablo was named after St. Paul the Epistolary; rather, it was named after St. Paul the First Hermit.

Sadly the cathedral was closed, and my camera failed on me. Taking it all in stride, I decided on a city stroll instead.

I regret to inform you all that my lunch stop was at the local Jollibee fast food joint. It would have been more romantic to say that I partook of the local fare, but I opted for the quickest and safest alternative.

On this tangent, we need to ask ourselves: are fast food joints the new bellwether of civilization? Their tentacles reach into every nook and cranny of populated areas, offering the safe choice of mass-produced same-tasting unhealthy food. Distasteful as the idea may seem, we cling to them to fill our psychological need for predictability. But I digress.

Not finding much of interest in the city proper, I was tempted to take a jeepney to nearby Calamba. A quick check on the Internet told me that it would be wrong to leave without first visiting one of the lakes around San Pablo.

San Pablo is otherwise known as the City of Seven Lakes because of its proximity to, well, seven lakes. Resorts abound, so the San Pablo web site says, around these lakes.

Not having enough time, I opted for the closest one available, Lake Sampaloc.

From the town center, Lake Sampaloc is a tricycle ride away. It's actually close enough for a long walk, but I decided not to trouble myself.

Lake Sampaloc is fairly small, its whole expanse visible with a short sweep of the eye. Fishpens dot its surface, and fisherfolk ply their trade. The ever-present Mt. Makiling watches over the lake in the distance.

Lake Samapaloc is bounded by a small hill on the side of the San Pablo City town proper. The top of the hill is a public park. There are several stone steps leading down to a promenade along the edge of the lake.

The lake itself is none too clean, afflicted with the pollution that often plagues bodies of water in the country. A sad fact. Happily, there are signs of a cleanup underway. If they can fish in it, well, certainly there's hope.

A plaque on a rock on the park overlooking the lake outlines the sad story of Lake Sampaloc. Apparently, it's in a better state now than it was before, as it was then the site of several sleazy bars.

At this point, I jiggled my digital camera some more and got it to work. Finally! I was able to take some shots.

Having had my fill of San Pablo, I decided to explore another site. The jeepneys to Calamba beckoned once more. I took another tricycle back to the city center.

Calamba-bound jeepneys are clearly marked and wait for their fill of passengers close to the cathedral. They leave every half-hour or so, depending on the number of passengers. Mercifully, the conductors don't pack them to overflowing, so the ride is fairly comfortable.

Fare from San Pablo to Calamba is P33, and the ride takes roughly an hour. Not something I'd recommend to tourists seeking to travel in comfort, but the road is smooth enough and it should do in a pinch.

The jeepneys don't actually enter the Calamba town proper; instead, they head on to a place called Crossing. I followed the example of a couple of fellow passengers and took another jeepney which said "Calamba Bayan."

I took the jeepney on a matter of faith, and again dropped off near the cathedral, the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. What should I see close by, but the Rizal Shrine!

Jose Rizal, national hero of the Philippines, was born in Calamba in 1861. The restored family home is now a museum, complete with replicas of the furnishings as they might have stood in Rizal's time. On the walls are various tidbits of information on the life of Rizal.

On the grounds of the shrine are a replica of the nipa playhouse that Rizal and his sisters used. They also have a museum of Rizal memorabilia: sculptures, knick-knacks, clothes, and most unsettling of all, a piece of his suit on the day he was executed.

As a souvenir of this trip, I picked up Leon Ma. Guerrero's biography, "Rizal: The First Filipino."

There was little else to do in Calamba, so I decided to take a jeepney marked "UP College." Now, I thought this was nearby, but it turned out I was wrong. It was actually headed for the next town of Los Baños!

Kilometer after kilometer sped by and I persisted hoping to catch site of the University of the Philppines. Yet we were already deep into town and I still had not caught sight of the hallowed halls of wisdom. Finally, I quit my quest and stopped at a local mall to catch refreshments.

The mall was right along the highway, and so it was a good place to while the time away while waiting for the next bus. Several airconditioned buses heading for Manila actually do stop for passengers there, some headed for Cubao, and some for Buendia-Taft (marked LRT). Not long after, a suitable bus arrived and I was headed back to Manila.

Altogether, the day was quite enjoyable. It showed to me how much there was to see around the Philippines outside the malls, and how easy it was to get around if you didn't mind roughing it up a bit. Travel was actually relatively cheap, and I can imagine doing this at a leisurely pace, hoping from one town to another day by day. Sometime soon, I will have to consider taking the land route from Manila to the southernmost tip of Luzon, and from there, on to Panay island.

Someday soon.

City of Seven Lakes

I'm writing this post from San Pablo City, Laguna, otherwise known as the City of Seven Lakes.

I finally decided to go on a short road trip, something I had been planning for a long while but kept postponing because of various events. Why San Pablo? Because the first bus I saw at the terminal was passing through there.

The fare cost me P104, and the trip took two hours. I ended my bus ride at the crossroads of San Pablo and Lucena, and took a jeepney to the city proper.

San Pablo City is a medium-sized city, more along the lines of Davao than Dumaguete. The center of town is bustling with jeepneys coming and going. No big malls to speak of (at least none that I've discovered as yet), although fast food joints abound. All hail Ronald McDonald and Jollibee!

My first stop was the San Pablo Cathedral. Contrary to my first impression, it was not named after St. Paul the Epistolary but rather St. Paul the Hermit. Unfortunately, the cathedral was closed and not much information was to be had; all I could do was visit the perpetual vigil chapel.

In any case, there's nothing to take pictures with. What a time for my Olympus digital camera to conk out!

Next stop: Calamba. Unless I find something interesting around here.