HELENA BENITEZ HAS SEEN IT ALL AND MET THEM ALL
Manila, June 27, 2003 by Edu Jarque (STAR) Helena Z. Benitez. Everytime I hear her name in passing, a list of lists comes to mind.
Itís more like a litany where Ė here comes my conservative Catholic upbringing Ė after learning of a dedicated involvement, masterly performance, sterling accomplishment and consummate achievement, one somehow feels he has to say ora pro nobis or sing praises to the Almighty.
A graduate of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in Education (magna cum laude), the Philippine Womenís University, Masters of Arts, George Washington University, post-graduate studies, University of Chicago and Iowa State College, she has been conferred seven doctorates honoris causa in human letters, political science, management science and law by various institutions of learning both here and abroad.
A former senator, an ambassador, and member of parliament, she has served as the chairperson or acted as a senior adviser during several meetings, commissions, programs conventions and conferences of the United Nations on Human Environment, Environment and Development and on the Status of Women.
Turning 89 on June 27, she is still very much active as the chaiperson of the General Douglas MacArthur Memorial Foundation, chairperson of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, chairperson of the board of consultants of the National Council of Women of the Philippines, vice chairperson of the Pacific Memorial Freedom Foundation, member of the board of trustees of the Filipino-American Endowment Inc. and the list goes on and on.
Being the founder of numerous organizations, she still finds time to be actively involved in the Friendship Force Philippines, Girl Scouts of the Philippines, Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company, Philippine Ambassador Foundation and once again the list goes on and on.
She is the deserving recipient of numerous citations such as the Service Award from the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice, the Presidential Award on Order of Sikatuna Rank of Datu and the list goes on and on.
Accompanied by Suzie Moya Benitez, I called upon one of our most outstanding Filipinas in our midst at her fabled Mira Nila home, a fitting place of residence for such an extraordinary lady.
Philippine STAR: What do you remember most of your first trip abroad?
Helena Benitez: I have been traveling since I was nine and my first trip was to Hokkaido and Shanghai by freighter. I was with my three unmarried aunts Ė my motherís sisters. They traveled constantly and they took me along in one their trips. It was aboard one of the coaling freighters of the Madrigals.
Did you go all the way to the States?
No. We came back. I do not think it was possible to go to America on the freighter we were on. I do not think we could cross the Pacific Ocean unless we were on a bigger boat. Besides we were on a slow, small freighter. It would have taken too long.
What wonít you leave home without?
Medals and scapulars.
Who is your ideal traveling companion?
I travel with everybody and anybody. Young or old. I guess it depends on where I am going and what for. So my yardstick for a traveling companion is one who can help me achieve the results I want. To some it might seem I have my favorites. But it is not really about favoritism. It is about results and achievements.
Name your favorite city abroad.
I always used to say Florence. But I have not been there in a long time. So I donít know if it still is. Florence, as you know, is the city of the díMedicis who commissioned some of the best works of Michelangelo and the Renaissance masters. Lorenzo díMedici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, really endowed in the arts.
What comes close to Florence?
Hong Kong or Washington DC. Hong Kong because it is such a vibrant, dynamic city. Although it sort of just grew without planning, it still manages to look organized and able to cope with the challenges that the people of all sorts and origins that have flocked to it have brought and continue to bring. Washington DC because it was a well planned city and they have basically followed the plans. It is a very appropriate setting for a nationís capital.
Incidentally, I am scheduled to go to Washington DC on July 26. I have been chosen by the National Graduate University to be inducted in its Democracy Hall of Fame International. US Presidents Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were among those to be first installed. I am humbled to be in such distinguished company. I think I am the first Asian and woman to be so installed. Although I took my masterís degree in education at George Washington University in the 1930s, I do not know how I got into the radar screen of the National Graduate University. But it is an honor I am privileged to accept. At the very least it implies that our country has proven its fidelity to democracy such as one of its citizens has been adjudged worthy of being in the international democracy hall of fame.
What would you consider a must-do-activity in every foreign port or city that you visit?
Go to church. I always look for the nearest church within walking distance from where I stay and check the schedule of their service. I think it is important to take care of the spirit wherever you are. On a more practical sense, when you go to church you meet fellow Catholics so you are with something familiar and kindred spirits.
I remember in 1972 when my colleagues and I were invited to visit Canton and Beijing by the Chinese Vice Minister for Fuel. We were together in Stockholm where as then Senator I headed the Philippine delegation to the UN Conference on the Human Environment. The Minister arranged to have our visas issued at their Embassy in Paris. It was a bit complicated. Remember this was during the time of Mao Tse Tung and the Red Guards. Our countries did not even have official diplomatic relations. I must have given my Chinese hosts extreme discomfort when I asked where I could go to church in Beijing. But somehow they diplomatically conveyed to me the information that it was not possible to go to a Catholic church in Beijing in 1972 during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution.
Letís talk favorites now. What is your favorite museum?
The Louvre is the only museum I know that has successfully blended and made complementary the classical art in its incomparable galleries with the ultramodern pyramid designed by I.M. Pei which is the first thing you will see when you approach the site.
If you could take home a piece of art, which one would it be?
I would prefer that it stays where it is, so that others can benefit from it. I would support efforts to make great art into traveling exhibitions for more people to see it, particularly people who normally cannot go to the great art centers of the world.
What is your favorite landmark abroad?
I do not know how to say it because it is global and our country is part of the globe. Again, I have favorite landmarks, but they vary from place to place because landmarks identify or give character to the area. So as you travel, you begin to associate and identify places with their landmarks.
Talking about landmarks, I remember that looking for a landmark gave me a lesson about people. One time I was on a plane with the late Don Andres Soriano, who as you know was owner of PAL in the early years. I learned that the aircraft would be passing by or over the pyramids of Egypt. So there I was running from one side of the plane to another, from one window to another trying to spot the famous landmarks from the air. When Don Andres saw this, he asked what I was looking for. When I shared my story that I was trying to check if I could see one of the wonders of the world from up the sky, he asked the attendant to request the pilot to take another turn so we could pass by the pyramids and I could clearly see them. The lesson I learned is that great people are also very kind people; that they would go out of their way to be kind and understanding. They do simple things you do not expect them to do. And that is why they are great.
Would you have a favorite park?
I am inclined to say Central Park in New York. I think the Central Park may have been one of the reasons why when I was senator in 1969, 44 years ago, I sponsored in the Philippine Senate and worked for passage by our Congress of the municipal forests, parks and watersheds act. Yes, unknown to many and unfortunately largely unimplemented, there has been a law mandating the establishment of municipal forests, parks and watersheds in every town and city. It is still in our statute books. It is Republic Act No. 5752.
I remember being interpellated by the late Senator Jose Diokno. He asked me what sanctions there were for failure to implement the law. In my idealism, and maybe naivete, I told him, there was none because the greatest punishment I could think the population could suffer would be to have no park or forest or greenbelt within the city or town. In hindsight, this lack of sanction in RA 5752 may be the reason why it was not implemented. People fear legal sanctions; they do not realize that a treeless environment is a far worse and more dire punishment.
Do you have a favorite musical?
It is funny but my favorite musical is Oklahoma.
Any particular reason?
The fantastic dancing. It was supposed to have been the first of its genre in Broadway musical staging. The dance movements are so attractive and creative that they infuse the show with unforgettable energy and vibrancy.
Do you have a favorite store?
In New York I do not feel my visit is complete unless I go to Saks Fifth Avenue, even when almost invariably, I do not buy anything except some pasalubongs. In Paris, I love going to the small perfumeries near the Tuileries Gardens where you can get limited editions or boutique scents. In London, it is Harrods, of course. But I am not really a shopaholic. My personal purchases as well as pasalubongs tend to be modest and relatively inexpensive. I do not think any of these stores would count me as a valued client in the sense of spending great amounts buying their wares. I guess what I enjoy is looking at the beauty and opulence of their merchandise even if do not have the means or the intention to buy them and can afford only the more modestly priced merchandise. Looking at the pricey stuff also helps me buy the affordable ones in good taste.
What do you miss most when youíre away from home?
My home service. Not that I do not enjoy being away. But it is always nicest to be home where they care of you in a manner nobody else can or does. My people here are like family.
What is the best travel advice you can share?
Make advance preparations. Read up on your destination. Get a map. Make a plan. And try to keep to the plan. This way you can optimize both your time and resources. However, try for some spontaneity too. Do not do everything cut-and-dried.
Donít stay all the time in the hotel. Get out and move around. No matter how opulent or luxurious the hotel is, no matter how they pamper you with all their facilities Ė pool, spa, etc., the better part of traveling is outside the hotel Ė the streets, the markets, the cultural attractions Ė the areas where the real people are to be found, even the less than polite or refined ones.
Stay in a modest hotel. Spend more on touring the place.
Is there a memorable incident you remember on any of your trips?
Yes, during the first time the Bayanihan performed on Broadway in 1959. It took place when Sol Hurok, then the foremost US impresario, was promoting the dance company. He wanted to make so many changes to make Bayanihan conform to what he called Broadway standards. He wanted to control everything and just tell us what to do. But what we wanted to do was to project our artistry according to our culture. So I stood my ground even when he warned me that the critics would not appreciate the way we programmed the show. For a while his threats and warnings unnerved me, but in the end, I decided it was better to fail doing what we knew was right, rather than succeed doing what was dictated to us. It turned out we were right. The Bayanihan Broadway debut was a smashing success. It made Philippine folk music and dance a worthy component of the global cultural milieu. Today, half a century later, the Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company is still the yardstick and benchmark. Many folk dance troupes have come and gone but Bayanihan is as vibrant as ever.
What is the strangest thing you have done on a trip? Something out of character or even perhaps a bit crazy.
I am sorry but I do not recall doing anything strange or crazy. Maybe I am too sane. But I am not strait-laced. I enjoy pranks and can laugh at funny situations and antics. But the way I was brought up is not to bring dishonor or shame on my country, people and family. So at the risk of being a deadly bore, I have always been on my best behavior, whether here or abroad.
Who would you like to bump into Ė dead or alive Ė during your travels?
I think any one I would have wanted to meet in my life, I have met. I really cannot think of any person that I would have wanted to meet and have not met. I am not being arrogant. I just feel that I have been fortunate that people I would like to meet have been so accommodating and given me the pleasure to meet them.
Letís fill in the blanks. "Where in the world Ö only in the Philippines."
Some quirks that we think are only found in the Philippines can also be found somewhere else. I think human nature, human needs, human behavior is fairly constant and universal. So that in response to their innate nature, their needs, people tend to behave in similar manner. When we say, "Where in the world... only in the Philippines" it could be because we have not seen or experienced it in another country. But it may be not so much because it can only happen here; as much as because our experience has not been extensive enough for us to see it happening somewhere else.
"If I had more time, I would Ö"
I would go to the kaingineros. They burn everything. I grew up learning from my parents the value of the environment. In our family, we never threw away seeds. They were sown and planted. I have planted trees not only in our country but in other countries where I have had the chance to join in tree planting.
Aside from unpacking your suitcase, what is the first thing you do upon returning home?
Often my pasalubongs for the people I work with are reports, papers, publications, that I collect during my trip and share with them. I probably cause them some consternation because instead of the usual pasalubongs, I give them papers and reports and more work to do.
I may be strange but I do not seem to be susceptible to jet lag. I also do not sleep much during a flight, although I may close my eyes, lean back and rest. I do a lot of reading and going over things in my mindís eye, making mental notes, etching images in my memory. I hardly pay attention to the in-flight movies and the complimentary amenities but it does not seem to matter that much. I generally arrive from a trip in reasonably good shape and able to function instead of needing time to recover from jet lag.
Name a city you have never visited but would like to someday.
Remember I started traveling when I was nine. I really cannot think of any destination that I have never been to that I would want to visit. I am not averse to seeing new places. But I have really no great craving to see any place I have not been to as though my life would be incomplete if I did not go there. Again, I am not being smug or arrogant. It is just that I feel satisfied that where I wanted to go, I have gone.
What would say is the best part of traveling?
Seeing a new place, meeting people, making new friends.
What would you say then is the worst part of traveling?
The getting there. In my case, I try to put what otherwise would have been wasted time into some productive use. I read. I plan in my mind the things I would want to accomplish, the whole point, so to speak, of the trip. Then I try to rest so I would have enough energy when I do get to my destination.
What is your favorite spot in the Philippines?
I have a little place in DasmariŮas, Cavite. I call it El Retiro. That is where I go to refresh myself and meditate. One time in Sampaloc, Manila, I saw an old house about to be demolished. It reminded me of the house of an aunt. I bought the house, had it carefully dismantled so that the antique wood and other parts would be kept in good taste. Most of it has gone to the building of my El Retiro. I am very comfortable with it. Around the yard are all sorts of trees and plants, many of them fruiting and blooming. Because of the great variety of plants, at almost any time or season, some are in bloom or are fruiting. So it is a continuously productive milieu. Which is what we would strive our lives to be. It is as though there is in that place a live exemplification of the Biblical phrase that to everything there is a season.
If you could reside anywhere in the world outside the Philippines, where would it be?
Washington, DC. I like the ambience and atmosphere of the city. As I mentioned earlier, I took my masterís in education at George Washington University. When my father was with the Quezon Independence Mission there before the war, I sort of served as volunteer secretary to the mission. I felt I was being useful to my country. It was a good feeling. Which may help explain why I find Washington a good place to live.
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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