Saturday, 31 March 2007

Travel Diary: Birthday Week Day 6 - Adda kadi laku da nga Dirty Ice Cream idiay Liechtenstein

His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit on a courtesy call to the officials of the Principality.

It jolted me as I stopped at a junction that I had covered 75% of the entire length of Liechtenstein. Not an exceptional feat in a country only 25km long, but given my advanced age (yep, it's all downhill after you reach your half-life) it's a big embarrassment that I haven't even fully explored my beloved Felepens. I've been stuck to Luzon all my life and the southernmost I've been to is Tagaytay (and I was disappointed to find that it was littered with boring fastfood franchises such as evil Starbucks, Jollibee, etc...the usual overpriced crap). I seriously need to rectify this lack of Philippine exposure.

His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit and I were off to see the Prince's art collection at the Kunstmuseum. Prince Johannes Adam Ferdinand Alois Josef Maria Marko d'Aviano Pius von und zu Liechtenstein is the only absolute monarch in Europa but to his credit, his principality still retains that rural charm. (There is one McDonald's though...ewww.) Still, the ultra-cleanness and orderliness of the built up areas reminded me of a theme park, albeit a very posh one bereft of the annoying man dressed like a rodent.

Close to the Patek Philippe store is the only ice cream place in the whole of Vaduz. It's owned by an Ilocana. It was not hard to guess that it also served as a Pinoy sari-sari store even without the large Philippine flags all over the place. There were the mandatory instant noodles and Sharon Cuneta-endorsed de lata. Who else would buy mediocre Serg's chocolates that cost twice as much as local Lindt bars but homesick Pinoys?

I had a scoop each of langka and ube sorbetes. As I greedily licked my ice cream cone like a lustful lesbian let loose on physical check-up day at Girls' High School, Manang's Liechtensteiner husband greeted me from across the parlour with "Ukinam, ukinam" to which I replied politely "Guten Morgen. Ukin-inam met ah". Disconcerting at first but who knew Ilocano can pass off as a Germanic dialect?

Manang proudly narrated how the Princess (the former Countess Kinsky of Wchinitz and Tettau) and her grandchildren regularly come for sorbetes.

"Alam mo, nung kararating ko rito, nagulat ako na walang bodyguard ang mga royals at parang ordinaryong tao lang sila!" And I was like "Er, manang, wala po tayo sa Isabela, aanhin naman nila ang bodyguards?" "Wala, naninibago lang ako kasi ultimo barangay kapitan namin sa San Pablo, maraming alalay."

After visiting the art gallery, I had farewell lunch with my wonderful social worker hosts. I had scouted the nearby mountains from across the Rhine yesterday and was happy that I was invited to come back and try to traverse the "Three Sisters" in summer. (And by that, I mean the mountains that border Austria.)

We killed time in the afternoon in the city of Buchs on the Swiss side. On the outerlimits of Buchs lies the smallest city of Switzerland - Werdenberg. HRO Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit, and I had a grand time exploring its castle and the old houses around it.

After our mandatory high tea with the natives, we caught the Austrian train named Maria Theresa which began its journey from Vienna and terminates at the bustling metropolis that is Zurich.

At 5pm, HRO Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit, and I were happily gorging on Luxemburgerli at that decadent Zurich chocolate institution Confiserie Spr√ľngli. I'm really not big on chocolates, but it's a great place to girl watch........

Beware: Michael Jackson crossing the street. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a numbered account here. A lot of corrupt third world officials have numbered accounts (like former Justice Secretary Perez, the tax-evading Pidal/Arroyo brothers. Thankfully, Liechtenstein is clamping down though on these dirty accounts.)

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit take another coffee break at the chic museum cafe which has a Japanese sushi chef. The current art installation by Monika Sosnowska composed of a large mind-bending symmetric white maze that you can walk into is the stuff dreams are made of. Dali's Skull with Dancer was on temporary display as well as a Picasso before his cubism phase, and a shocking Pistoletto which I forgot to take a picture of because I was so enchanted and I only had a crappy disposable camera (it's a sculpture of a naked girl drinking tea juxtaposed next to a mirror.)

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit at another museum, this time devoted to local history.

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit and the smallest city of Switzerland in the canton of St. Gallen. Castle on a hill. Check. A couple of peasants houses around it. Check. Lake. Check. There, the ingredients for a city.

The train station at Buchs is the last Swiss station before Austria. The Austrian police check every caboose for passenger passports at this stop. While HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit travel visa fee, sadly loyal human consort The Nashman had to stay behind the yellow line.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Travel Diary: Birthday Week Day 5 - Liechten-where?-stein, Birthday Outreach and Immersion

His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit and The Nashman vow to come back and scale the North Face. Itaga mo sa bato. We will return!

PA/PR Gromit woke me up this morning, looked deep into my eyes, and said "Let's go to Liechtenstein!"

"Er, do you realise that we are deep in the heartland of Switzerland?" I replied.

"No worries, with the high speed train system, we can get there in 3 hours." countered PA/PR Gromit and off he went to make some phone calls.

His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit, and The Nashman had breakfast, thanked the people who took care of us in Grindelwald and took the train to Interlaken. From there, we changed for the panoramic train to Luzern.

We had light lunch and coffee on the north bank of the river Reuss. I wanted to say how nothing's changed since the last time I was here (5 years ago) but sadly, the quayside now has a Starbucks outlet (disgusting!). Ugh, the beautiful view ruined!

I narrated to HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit how C-list celebrities in the Philippines do token 'social immersion' (or pagkukunwari - yung tipong isang Atenista or Assumptionista makikitira sa slums ng 14.5 hours para masabing naranasan nila ang hirap) or hand out fastfood meals at orphanages and shelters to mark their birthday and PA/PR Gromit said this was a good idea. So why not devote some of our time doing social work for the disaffected Swiss youth?

Diba? Para may masabing meron akong kawang-gawa tulad nina whatsthernameiforgot artista. Kung sabagay, last year during my birthday, I joined the French students in solidarity by making-sali sa don't be takot make-baka nila in Paris. Nalibre ligo tuloy ako by the water-cannons ng mga police. May kasama pang hitit ng tear gas.

PA/PR Gromit made another phone call and at 3pm we took a fast train to the Swiss border town of Sargans where we were met by a very dynamic and cheerful social worker from Liechtenstein who was going to be our host for the evening.

We hopped into his car and shortly, we were transported from the squalor and poverty of Switzerland into the small struggling country of Liechtenstein, the fourth smallest in the world whose GDP per capita is quintuple that of five African states combined.(Don't bother looking at lists, they are officially unranked. Yet, their $60,000 GDP per capita is just above Switzerland's paltry $50,000. My beloved Philippines? A trifling $4900.) The money the Swiss don't have, Liechtenstein has.

We changed transport to a hip van in the capital city of Vaduz before crossing the Rhine again into another Swiss border city. (Take note ha, sa sobrang yaman ng Liechtenstein, ang aking kaibigan na Liechtensteiner ay sa Switzerland pa nagka-kawang-gawa kasi nga poorer ang Switzerland compared sa kanila.)

Incidentally, three weeks ago, Switzerland 'mistakenly' invaded Liechtenstein. 170 infantry soldiers crossed the unmarked border before realising their mistake. (Kinda like Britain claiming they were 1km off the Iranian waters. They probably stray into Iran covertly many times and the Iranians got fed up and picked them up for their compulsory vacation. Thankfully, this sordid affair is over and it was revealed that Blair told Bush to back off after suggesting this was a good excuse to pick a fight with Persia.)

Today, I was introduced to a new sport called municycling. Basically, you take a unicycle, go up a mountain, and ride downhill using mountain biking paths. This doesn't sound so scary enought, so why not do it early evening, when light is fading?

I felt so old. There was this 9 year old kid who recently took up the sport. He fell and crashed many times but he seized the challenge like a pro. I think this bravery is something we slowly lose as we age. We're so afraid of falling that we won't even go out of our front door. I was impressed.

As an aside, coming from a poor country like beloved Felepens, I asked my host, in this patch of the world which God has blessed so much, what problems did these kids have, as one by one they were dropped off at the meeting point by their parents driving Mercs. (Pero baka nga poor sila kase yung chedeng nila, lumang 2005 model lamang.) The most common? Stress from the high standards required by their schools, the usual peer pressure to take drugs and alcohol, parents divorcing, and the usual antisocial behaviour of playing rock music too loudly. To take their mind off vices, the youth centre built skate parks, bmx courses, places to chill out, gave away free contraceptives, and told them "Here is a mountain, take your unicycle and and have fun speeding downhill"

Nanibago ako dahil kakaibang youth centre ito dahil ni isa sa mga batang kina-counsel ay marunong manaksak gamit ang ice pick. Nung nilabas ako ng aking ice pick and asked 'Was ist dieses?' (Ano itich?) ang sagot nila eh "Gamit sa fondue?"

HRO Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit, and The Nashman do some cafe hopping from one town to the the next. This was at Interlaken. Interlaken is a town built for tourists so I can't say anymore about it except that it provides nice views of the Bernese Alps.

Well hello there miss Panatang Makabayan. HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit arrive in Luzern. At this stage, my two year old digital camera decided it was time to go kaput. Hence, we had to do with a disposable camera for the rest of the trip.

PA/PR Gromit assures me that I can cross over to Liechtenstein without a visa.

There was a comics festival in Luzern where all the big names of indie comics studios came to present their groundbreaking works. Hmm, maybe more Filipino comics artists should come to such events. (Gerry Alanguilan's current mindbending work Elmer would easily fit in this sort of crowd.)

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit just had to walk along the quay and over Chapel bridge....

....before we took the train to a region of Switzerland I have not yet scouted for possible summer hikes....(BTW Luzern Train Station is a very beautiful station.)

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit doing outreach work with the young kids of Switzerland....

...I wish I had a digital camera! These kids did some crazy stunts at high speed. Amazing!

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Travel Diary: Birthday Week Day 4 - Birthday Sledging, Fondue, Movie Premiere

His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit prepare our transport for the day.

It would be a shame, nevermind that there was very little snowfall this winter, to be here and not strap my feet to some plank and carve those slopes. Today was my 21st birthday and rather than feel depressed that half of my life has been wasted, I thought I'd do something scary to remind me no matter how shitty my life is, that I should always be happy just to be alive.

Since Rossignol was late in supplying His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit custom skis and I would never embark on an adventure without my two dogs, I got us a classic sledge.

Yes, not a light carbon fibre or composite sledge but a traditional wooden one.

We realised that we could propel ourselves from the TOP of Faulhorn all the way down to Bussalp. This 15km course is the world's longest sledge run with an altitude drop of 800m. Not only was it my first time on a classic sledge, I also didn't know anything about the course. Yet, as we all know, the first time may be bloody madugo but it's also the sweetest napakasarap.

It took us longer to climb up Faulhorn and I got sunburned severely because it was so sunny. From the top, the course looked scary and steep and the corners weren't banked which meant if we failed to turn, we'd go over the cliff.

Still, HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit said I could do it and more so, that I could steer our sledge into a new Philippine Classic Sledging record (if ever there was one). I took some practice runs over the lake and found the snow to be packed (almost like ice) and therefore very fast and hard.

After birthday lunch on the top of Faulhorn, we embarked on our "cool runnings" adventure.

I'm too incompetent with words in describing how scary but fun the entire experience was. (Experience it for yourselves then you'll know..)

Let me just say that I DO have experience riding wooden planks down steep slopes. When I was growing up in the mean slums of Baguio, I'd take a section of thick plywood, fasten a rope on the front side, and "wax" the underside by rubbing it with candles stolen from the church altar and would ride the plank down the asphalt side roads till I was stoked. And I'm telling you, crashing on tarmac is way more painful than on packed snow.

Despite three crashes, a hard turn that nearly broke my ankle, and painful sunburn. We survived! It took us 3 hours to get to the top of the mountain. It took us a mere 30 minutes to get to the finish line (12 km away).

(Wait! What happened to the final 3km? - The snow had turned to sludge and it was impossible to steer. Also we didn't realise that the last 5km was actually closed that day! We missed the avalanche warning signs.)

Still, I claim the Philippine Classic Sledge Record (let us forget for a moment that HRO Karl Willem is Dutch/Swedish and Gromit is English. I'm sure they won't mind filing this under the Philippine Snowsports Record Books.

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit excitedly board the aerial gondola to First with our sledge.

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit ride the sledge as The Nashman pulls them all the way to the top of Faulhorn.

Unbeknownst to The Nashman, PA/PR Gromit went to the patisserie, got a birthday cake, and put it in our lunch pack. I was touched.

My 21st Birthday and I'm with my best friends enjoying the vista. What would I do without HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit?

We did some practice runs. Learning how to steer the sledge, brake, do hard turns, and blocking our fears.

The starting point....

...our first spectacular crash that sent the sledge flying off the course. looks easy.....

......until you start crashing.

...we sledged inside the avalanche zone! Wahoo! Safety regulations do not apply to Felepenos like me. Ay bale wala lang yan. May agimat ang dugo ko anoh. And I checked earlier that I still had an active insurance. (You need to take out a separate insurance that covers you for sports above 2000m) doesn't look steep...

For dinner, I shared fondue with a pretty Californian (Olivia). She's doing film school and wants to be a director. I volunteered to read her script and if schedules permit, will audition for her first feature film. I warned her that due to my conservative Belgian Catholic upbringing, I can't show full frontal nudity and will not wear a condom during the mandatory and realistic sex scenes that are the hallmarks today's cinema.

...after dinner, I went to the Swiss Premiere of the new Rowan Atkinson movie. I forgot to ask if the film was dubbed in French or German, but then again, I'm watching frigging Mr. Bean! The movie had some classic slapstick scenes. What an apt film to see on my birthday. I realised, I shouldn't feel sorry for my superfluous and insignificant life and like Mr. Bean, feel positive that for every conundrum, there is always a simple solution. (Let us not forget that Rowan Atkinson has an Engineering degree from Oxford. Between Mr. Bean and MacGyver, I'd rather be with the Bean.)

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Travel Diary: Birthday Week Day 3 - Village Hopping

His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit wait for the train to Kleine Scheidegg.

Today HRO Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit, and The Nashman went for a leisurely down mountain walk from Kleine Scheidegg (2061m) to the valley village of Lauterbrunnen (796m). This is an easy walk that even Stephen Hawking can do with a regular wheelchair and it took us 4 hours to get to Stechelberg (922m) where we rode a hair raising cable car all the way to the top of Schilthorn (2971m). On the peak of Schilthorn is a revolving restaurant which was used as the shagedelic set of the Lazenby Bond Movie "In her majesty's secret service". It's also the starting point for the aptly named Inferno downhill ski race. As if the main pistes weren't scary enough, I saw two skiers gliding off piste on the very steep south-western face. Ah, 'tis is the life.......

Guten morgen HRO Karl Willem und PA/PR Gromit. We take our mandatory morning coffee at Kleine Scheiddeg with sweeping views of the valley and the imposing North Face of the Eiger on our right. English polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes successfully climbed it two weeks earlier at the ripe age of 63. This, after he found Everest not steep enough to cure him of his severe vertigo. I'm envious. But I have 42 more years to attempt it myself.

...also, they were preparing the stage for Snowpenair. A high altitude concert headlined by Bryan Adams. (Sadly this was on the night I was going somewhere else. It would have been nice to sing along to the classic "Ibriting I du, I du it por yu".)

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit and the Jungfrau.....

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit taking a rest. We didn't have a map of any sort but you have to try really hard (or be so dumb) to find yourself lost in Switzerland. The tracks are always signposted at every junction.

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit above the village of Lauterbrunnen. Those sheer rock walls are impressive up close.

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit, because it was already late in the day, wait for the bus to the village of Stechelberg....

...where they took the cable car to Gimmelwald (1400m), then to Murren (1634m), then to Birg (2676m).....

....changing at Birg to get to Schilthorn....(cue Bond theme). These are the most exciting cable car rides I have ever taken, not because of the dizzying heights, but because the cable sags so much.

Alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) perform an impressive fly past behind HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit upon their arrival at the peak.

Afternoon merienda. Carrot and iced tea with "swiss cannabis" that came out of a vending machine. In reality, this only contains harmless hemp seeds (no sativa at all, hence no THC!) to give that weed flavour. I feel cheated.

These alpine choughs are very very tame....impressive as it is to find them high up in the alps.

...the very exciting downhill ride to Birg.

After a half day of walking and an easy ascent up one peak to marvel at the views, HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit take the train to Zweilutschinen then back up to Grindelwald.

After dinner, I went night window shopping. I was thinking of getting a swiss knife and couldn't decide which of the two official makers to get - a Victorinox or a Wenger. Then this Wenger caught my attention.....I think it even has a built in USB memory drive. MacGyver would have multiple orgasms just looking at it. But seriously, I've never found the need for such gear. I've never been out hiking where I had to say "Quick! We're all going to die unless someone can hand me a cuticle clipper!"

Before sleeping, HRO Karl Willem gave me an early birthday gift. We had cheesecake and a superb Platinum (Amarone & Recioto) grappa chosen by HRO Karl Willem. PA/PR Gromit got us a table at the very popular C&M Cafe und mehr. After two days, The Nashman was well tanned at and, ehem, caught the eye of a group of girls who....

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Travel Diary: Birthday Week Day 2 - Up the Faulhorn

His Royal Orangeness Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit, and The Nashman - happy hikers. The Oberer Grindelwald glacier behind them.

Today, HRO Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit, and I woke up early only to find that the weather was a bit unsettled. Yet, the Swiss weather monitoring system showed a 50-50 chance of good weather. That was more than enough and so we headed to the Firstbahn for the 25 minute aerial Gondola ride to First. It was minus 4 degrees and snowing when we arrived but this walk was meant to be one of the easier ones we've taken and so we were hellbent on getting to the top of Faulhorn whatever the weather and against the advice of the lady at the Lowa Equipment store.

It took us three hours to get to the top and thankfully the little eatery on the peak was open and we we got some coffee from the very surprised but cheerful owner of Restaurant Faulhorn. It is both a blessing and a curse that on top of most Swiss mountains, one can find a well stocked restaurant. (Granted you want to take the three hour hike to this peak.)

The view from the top was beautiful. (Insert all mountaineering cliches here...)

As and added bonus the Swiss Air Force were doing routine aerial exercises with their F18s (or maybe they were F-5s). I guess they must be the most bored but well equipped air force in the world as they were going around in circles and doing acrobatic maneuvers. (They need to be vigilant lest untidy and tardy countries like France and Italy invade them.) Mostly, I was amused at the pointless existence of the Swiss Air Force.

I felt bitin with this ascent (had Schynige Platte been open, I would have clocked 12km of solid walking by this time). Thankfully, there is a large patch of alpine forest above Grindelwald and HRO Karl Willem, PA/PR Gromit and I happily chose the longest and most difficult looking jaunt back to our accommodation taking as many detours as possible.

I must say a little curse to the Swiss fighter pilot who threw a sonic boom while I was traversing the virgin snow to Waldspitz. Potang-ena pare, ginulat mo ako ng husto! Paano kung nag-avalanche? Eh di kelangan nyo pa ako i-rescue!

Today we walked an embarassing 20km (maybe even less!!!) but I must say that the views were excellent and it was an enjoyable experience.

HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit woke up to a cloudy morning with snow above the treeline.

...but PA/PR Gromit said the weather looked promising and so we went up to First on the aerial gondola. 2000m and 10am, snow was still falling.... we waited a bit at First (2168m) waiting for a window of opportunity to hike up Faulhorn...

....and then PA/PR Gromit, our navigator, gave the go signal and off we went.....(Faulhorn is that far distant peak on the right of the closer peak in the background)

We stop to admire our first view of the Jungfrau (behind the Eiger)

The Nashman taking a water break. For most of the ascent, there was no one else but us three.... 1pm (after two hours ours of hiking) we stop just above the frozen lake (Bachalpsee) and watch as thick clouds begin to descend and snow falls again. HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit assess the situation...

.......but The Nashman's portable weather system shows that the winds are not that strong......

..after three hours, HRO Karl Willem and PA/PR Gromit reach the Faulhorn (2681m). was cloudy but fast moving clouds meant that if we waited, there were some windows of visibility that showed us the twin lakes of Brienzersee and Thunersee. It is a sight to behold.

PA/PR Gromit prepares late lunch on the view deck while waiting for the clouds to dissipate and give us breathtaking views of the three peaks of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.

...we loved the fact that it was just the three of us. The Nashman took some time to work on his tan.... 3pm we take the leisurely walk down via Waldspitz...

....on top of this cliff is First Station (that small dot in the middle) where we were earlier in the morning... 5pm we reached Waldspitz for coffee.....

....before doing some Alpine orienteering.

....we found this view deck just before Aellfluh and stayed to watch the sunset.... 7:30pm we got back for rosti and sausage....yum!