October 15, 2004 (STAR) CITIZEN OF THE WORLD By Edu Jarque - Joji Felix-Velarde & memories of travel with Chona Kasten, Amading Araneta & Mother Teresa

Joji Felix-Velarde. A gifted child film actress, an accomplished prima ballerina, much-admired holder of several national beauty titles, a perennial cover girl, a sought-after fashion model, the ultimate toast of the town among the sterling social circles, a driven-but-velvet gloves fundraiser to noble causes, a hardcore street parliamentarian, a valued adviser to international beauties, a full-of-ideas organizer of unique events, praise deserving consultant to several institutions on beautification and protocol matters and the list goes on and on.

Chances are you have seen her, or at the very least heard of her – for the gracious, gentle lady, has been in the limelight most of her life.

Today, the faithful widow of a once leading ophthalmologist, the devoted mother of three and the caring grandmother of four gladly takes a back seat. She serves as a consultant at the Manila International Airport Authority and is the vice president for external affairs of Carousel Productions, Inc. involved in television productions, events management and in beauty pageants such as the selection of Miss Philippines and the Miss Earth competition.

"I am a very curious individual," she declares. "Even at my old age – more so it seems – I read any printed page I can lay my hands on – be it books, magazines or newspapers. I likewise watch television for hours, always trying to learn something new."

A lover of all things beautiful, she trained with Don Amorsolo, a nephew of the gran maestro and likes to paint life’s imperfection. "I adore Salvador Dali," she confesses.

Joji, the epitome of beauty and femininity, grace and elegance, truly cherishes a day spent at any of the amusement parks around the world. "I just don’t walk around and observe the side shows. Believe it or not, " she admits, "I get on all the rides – the more adventurous the better – and my favorite has consistently been the roller coaster. The higher it gets, the greater the thrill."

"Surprisingly enough," she smiles, "I tend to remember everything – most especially the events and affairs, incidents and happenings of way back when. It seems I have a bottomless pit of a data bank in my head – it’s all here," touching her temple. "It’s rather frightening."

So let’s listen to Joji Felix-Velarde, an engaging dame who has walked with royalty and heroes, statesmen and dignitaries, religious leaders and business tycoons, celebrities and newsmakers who has remained a real person with a heart – a genuine original.

What do you remember most of your first trip abroad?

The thrill and excitement of attending my first class in ballet on full scholarship under the legendary Alicia Markova at the Rambert Academy at Nottinghill Gate in London. I was only 17 and the year was 1953. Six months later, upon the invitation of Miss Markova, I enrolled at the New York’s Carnegie Hall and trained with master ballet teachers Vitale Fokine and Vera Nemchitnova.

What won’t you leave home without?

Mi scapulario y mi rosario – two valued possessions I have had with me with since my days at the Assumption Convent.

Other than a member of the family, who would you like to be seated next to on a flight?

Mother Teresa. Though I have met the soft-spoken nun who is full of cariño, several times before – moments that are so preciously special to me, where I always get goose bumps all over without fail – I never seem to have enough of her.

Who is your ideal traveling companion?

La Chona Kasten. We were forever roommates whenever we traveled abroad for the many fashion shows we modeled for. She was completely out of her mind – say, half crazy – but was loads of fun and I loved her dearly. Let me tell you what happened one night while we were in Bangkok. After a successful show before a standing room only audience, we retired to our room, had a shower, washed our hair with shampoo and all. Then we realized we were both hungry. Starving was more like it we very quickly traded our bathrobes for our trench coats and opted to search for food. It was late and no restaurants remained opened at our hotel. At the lobby we bumped into our friend the late Colonel Lee Telesco who offered to join us. The globetrotter that he was, he knew exactly where to go. Together we took a cab, crossed town and found a full-of-ambiance place to eat. Being a true gentleman, he asked, "Dear ladies, may I take your coats?" Chona and I looked at each other and simply froze. How could we? How could we when we had very little on us – almost nothing at all. Que barbaridad. We all then just laughed.

Name your favorite city abroad?

New York – no hay otro egual – even if only for the Broadway musicals. That’s where most of my funds go. A show here, another show, the matinees, evenings. Besides, I am a woman eternally on the go, y me gusta el gulo de Nueva York.

What is the first thing that you do upon checking in at a hotel?

I fervently go on my rounds, carefully spraying Lysol all over the room, concentrating on the specific areas where people came in contact with. I don’t miss electric switches that have been touched by human hands. Inasmuch as sprays are a no-no when traveling by air, surprise, surprise I still do it from a bottle this time with a trapo.

Let’s talk favorites now. Favorite restaurant?

Two easily come to mind. First is the Le Scoglio de Friscio in Rome. Without a doubt, they serve the best antipasta in the world and their seafood is fresher than fresh. Another favorite is La Cote Basque, which was introduced to me by Tito Amading Araneta, a true lover of excellent food. Centrally located in the heart of Manhattan, it has the most desirable Spanish dishes.

Favorite museum?

The Guggenheim in New York.

Favorite hotel?

The Kahala Hilton in Honolulu, the choice venue of some of our most memorable fashion shows.

Favorite resort?

Dos Palmas in Palawan. Es absolutamente precioso.

Favorite landmark?

Corcovado – the oversized Christ outstretched on top of the highest mountain, overlooking the enchanting bay of beautiful Rio de Janeiro.

Favorite store?

I have many favorites and I continue to count. Serendipity in New York is one. The Neiman Marcus in San Francisco is another. Any store can bring joy if they have something I care for. You’re right, even a K-Mart!

What is the best travel advice you were given?

Be careful, vigilant, watch your steps, be on your toes. My mom constantly reminded me not to overspend – as if there is no tomorrow – while on a holiday. Sad to admit, I seldom heeded her advice – not totally anyway.

Describe your most memorable trip?

My very first trip – that’s understandably why – and my last trip – it’s always so – please don’t ask me why.

What is the strangest thing you have done on a trip?

Travel alone – at my age – to the States right after 9/11.

Who would you like to bump into – dead or alive – during your travels?

Bin Laden – just to ask why, why, why has he so much hatred in him, to turn the entire world upside down, like no one has ever done before. El gran porque.

Name an event anywhere in the world you would like to participate in?

Be a living witness to experience the end of the conflicts of war.

Let’s fill in the blanks. "Where in the world …… only in the Philippines."

"Where in the world, most specially in catastrophic times, will you still see people smiling and waving before cameras, only in the Philippines."

If I had more time, I would ….."

"….climb the Himalayas – as inspired by Shirley MacLaine’s Climb Every Mountain, a book I read many years ago."

Name a city you have never been to, but would like to visit someday?

Lhasa in Tibet and Kathmandu in Nepal.

Name a country you wish to explore?

Any country on the African continent that offers a safari with no guns and no shooting – a safari where one only observes the call of the wild at close range

If you could be transported anywhere in the world right now, where would you like to be?

Rome. I have always been lucky in Rome – una buena suerte – as every time I am there, I get to see or at least catch a glimpse of the Pope.

What is your favorite spot in the Philippines?

Sin duda, mi casa.

If you could reside anywhere in the world, where would it be?

You guessed it right – New York!

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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