SUN,  SEA,  SHIP  AND  STREET  FOOD

MANILA, OCTOBER 29, 2006 (STAR) LOVE LUCY By Lucy Gomez - The trip started deliciously and indulgently, with three big packs of Mauna Loa macadamia nuts and a medium-sized bar of Toblerone dark chocolate that I chanced upon at the DFS inside NAIA. It was all I could do not to kiss the display rack when I saw the shelves full of the luscious nuts, in many varieties no less, as they are forever out of stock at the groceries I frequent. Together with my arsenal of paperbacks and trusty notepad and pen, alternate bites of the two treats tided me well over the flight delay, the broken air conditioning at the airport lounge, and the estimated four-hour trip to Singapore via Cebu Pacific Air where the cruise was to kick off.

Out of maybe four chances to take a Star Cruise over a period of two years, here we were, finally, onboard the Virgo that was sparkling in cleanliness, cheer and promise. And after a systematic, impressively well-organized check-in, amid a flurry of happy hellos from the Asian but predominantly Filipino crew, we settled into the cozy cocoon that was our cabin, home to us for the next four days or so.

I fell in love with the cabin space immediately, if only for sentimental reasons. It was not grand as grand could get, but it pushed me gently back to a time far, far away, long gone but always happily remembered, to the summer vacations and holidays of my childhood. Those were the pre-Superferry days, when long journeys on big ships carrying passengers, luggage, and dreams were de rigueur back and forth between Ormoc, Cebu and Manila. The cabins then were far from fancy dandy, but there was something about the sturdy bunk beds, the artless desk and chair, the vinyl tiles, and the private toilet that was comforting in its basic simplicity and utter lack of sassiness. The white sheets were sometimes threadbare, but they were always newly laundered and still smelling faintly of detergent and feeling starchy, and the name of the ship was always unceremoniously printed on them in block letters that were faded on some.

Our Virgo cabin had the same cozy ambience except that it was thoughtfully done in hotel room manner, with colorful almost kiddie carpeting that matched the drapes, and a compact couch adjacent to the mirrored desk and chair. We were like little people playing house in a little matchbox, tucked neatly in this great, big ship, laying on pristine white sheets not unlike those found in five-star hotels, with our own bath and toilet, clothes cabinet, and mini bar. There, too, was an added feature in our room that easily became my favorite – a tiny, scenic balcony with a little plastic table and two plastic lounging chairs that looked out to sea. I was happy to be there, on the balcony and on the ship; we all were, actually.

Prior to this trip, between both my husband’s and my own schedule, add to that my daughter’s many activities and self-imposed pink projects, we were busy as could be, maybe even more so, because we had this seemingly long and languid trip to look forward to and we admittedly had bit off more than we could chew. But all that already seemed so far away now that we were at sea, and we happily, if unintentionally, eased into a balmy kind of tiredness, the kind that invites you to stare guiltlessly into space, doodle aimlessly on a sheet of paper, daydream, or sleep as much as you can and as long as you like, as if all the time in the world was yours and yours alone and there is nothing more important to do. So, we promptly dozed off, maybe even before our weary bodies melted into the softness of the bed, and long before we even started sailing.

Seven bursts of loud, wailing noise jolted us from our slumbers, and we all rushed to deck for what was to be a safety drill that ended up making one feel safe, really. How’s that for reassurance? Amid hushed talk and nervous but laughing remembrances of such movies as Titanic and Poseidon, the drill unfolded and the lady beside me, Fatima was her name, bolstered our semi-scared, semi-confident thought balloons by saying that her husband was captain of another ship and when the ship capsized (scary, scary, it does actually happen!), everyone was safe on the many lifeboats as they hung on to the ample supply of lifejackets. Wet and shaken, she said, but safe. And she smiled, a big bright-eyed smile that said "All will be okay, even when it’s not." She had that story to back her up. I just prayed silently in my thoughts, there standing on the deck draped in lifejackets, and remembered again the many big ships I boarded as a young girl, though they were definitely not as huge as the one we were on now. Back then, prayer was the only safety drill my sister and I had, and even then, as I still feel it now, that was/is the most important safety drill. On one particular trip when the seas were very rough, we opened the heavy, rounded cabin windows, and threw a rosary out to sea in an act of pure faith and hope while our cousin Johanna wailed, half-laughing, half crying, scared of the sharks and big octopus, worried that the new clothes she bought and the many yards of tela she carefully chose from the big fabric shops of Manila would get wet, if not lost, and/or never see the light of day. Her tears ceased as soon as the turbulent waters did, and then she would be back to her funny, crazy self, eating her horde of Jack and Jill potato chips and wrinkly cold hotdogs while dreaming up designs for new clothes. It was a very happy, surreal time, giddy and young, and we always recall it laughingly.

Onboard the Star Cruise, I was content, and from the faces of most other passengers, so were they. There are many things to do 24/7. Even when we docked in Malaysia, we were not pressured to pounce on the new place and discover as much as we could. We went where we could, as far and as long as time allowed (by 5 p.m. we had to be back on the ship, it would not wait for us) and because we had official work to do (we were there to shoot episodes for Lagot Ka for GMA-7) we did not see much of the place, except for an old, old temple and a jetty that was actually home to real people living real lives, an old jetty that did look like it still belonged to a different time in the very distant past. There was something faded and wistful about it, even when there were people laughing, kids playing, old women putting rollers on each other’s heads, people selling this and that. There was even music playing from ancient looking musical instruments I did not recognize, but I do not know if it was for a happy occasion or a somber one. Life seemed to move normally, but the place seemed sad and misty, even if the people were not.

I remember, on our way back to the tour bus, stopping by a food cart planted quietly on one side of the street. Richard and I tried a peanut pancake of sorts, but when we bought it we did not know what it was, except that it looked good and smelled even better. Ban chang kuih we later found out it was called. It was delicious, eaten piping hot on an even hotter day, and we could not have had it on a finer day. Directly across the man and his cart was a convenience store that sold paper, candies, and drinks, among many other seemingly insignificant odds and ends, as well as some very pretty hand-painted parasols. I wanted to buy one except that I had no place to put it at home and I worried about how bulky it would be in our luggage.

That night back onboard, some of us went to the karaoke bar (we were actually a group of 45) where most everyone sang (sometimes) and/or murdered song after song (very often). But the fun we all were having was heady and so real you could almost touch it. The boys in the group put on an impromptu show, mainly to amuse themselves, but they ended up engrossing the roomful of Asians, Americans, and Europeans, such that by dawn and until we finally crawled back to our cabins, we all were still making monkeys out of ourselves, and having a blast doing so.

We woke up our hearts and eyes still mirthful at the memory of the night that was, but it was already way past lunchtime and we were too tired, too sleep-deprived, to brave the hour-long road trip to the beautiful beaches of Phuket, not because it was too far but mainly because we had to, again, be back by 5 p.m. What could we possibly see within that little window of time, give and take travel time, back and forth?

Instead we swooped down on the makeshift, impromptu banquet the locals had set up on port. It was not really a banquet, if you go by strict definition, but it sure felt and smelled like one, especially to foreigners like us. It was perhaps their version of our dampa and carinderia combined, replete with both the ambience and the on-the-spot cooking, and we feasted on many servings of traditional Thai fare and even more servings of what perhaps was the sweetest fresh coconut juice I have ever had in my life. There was also a colorful, neat showcase of squid and fish balls, chicken parts, and quail eggs in crispy wrappers and such, skewered on sticks and fried unapologetically in hot, obviously cholesterol-laden oil. Across the food station were the fruit ladies, and there was something about their raw, ready smiles and ruddy cheeks that made me want to buy all the fruit they had to offer. When I asked what this or that was, they would pull me to them, peel the fruit, and feed me. The same they did to Richard, and whoever else cared to try. The fruit ladies, bless them, were unconsciously, unknowingly motherly. The lanzones from Thailand tasted the way lanzones is supposed to taste but with an almost pure sweetness that rivals sugar. We hoarded our share of fresh fruits, as did most others, and boarded the ship without seeing much of Phuket but tasting a lot of its street food. That was enough for the foodie hidden in each one of us.

That night was our last on the ship and the memory of it was capped by the iconic Captain’s Dinner, a grand show of tasteful pomp, where everyone was in a celebratory mood, dress-, emotion- and appetite-wise. I was actually sad that it was our last night on the ship. I had fallen in love with the tenderness and restfulness of life at sea, in a span of just three days, and it was wonderful to be able to do things in full, enjoyable little bits instead of in a harried, mad haste.

On ship and at sea, there was an undercurrent of quiet that could be had at any time of the day that made me feel I was far from the real world but not so far away from it that I could not be called back at a moment’s notice. It was very easy to feel contented with being where I was, with who I was with, then and there.

I was happy to spend many hours of my last day on ship in the bright, cold library, alternately writing, daydreaming, reading, and just sitting quietly with my love. During the first few days, it would just be sleeping and drawing and doing silly things that are never too silly for a child of six. Often it would be just about feeling and enjoying the naked kiss of the sea breeze or huddling up against each other in the cold night, warmed by thoughts, blankets or coffee. And sporadically but habitually enough it would be systematically getting together for meals and stories that overlapped and never seemed to have either a start or an end. Oh, how we ate, even when we were not hungry, more so when we were. At one point, I actually prayed for restraint for all of us, for we ate as if it were our duty to do so, as if there was an ancient Egyptian before us, and we were his slaves, and he would punish us with his leather whip if we refused just one more spoonful, one more bite. But good food was always forthcoming, and coupled with good company, how could any normal appetite refuse?

So we smiled, and ate, and laughed, and ate some more. Yes, we were always stuffed with food. But we were also overflowing with cheer, and hope, and a plethora of many other such good things and feelings. It was a time to recharge and refresh, each in his own personal way, coming from his own life and circumstance, and to be thankful for the gift of family and friends. Through it all, it was wonderful to feel so tiny and be overwhelmed by the vast ocean that seemed to stretch farther than dreams ever could and look up in the night to see a midnight sky dripping with stars that shone like diamonds and hope. I was happy to just be. And I was so grateful then, as I still am now, as I know I always will be, to the One who has given it all – sun, sea and ship. I was but one of hundreds of passengers, and I am certain that they too had many, many moments akin to mine.

Back in the streets of Singapore, especially on Smith Road in Chinatown, we succumbed yet again to the innocent seduction of food, the freshest seafood and delicious gooey noodles, steamed white chicken, perfect tom yum and fragrant rice. There also was exotic stingray cooked to gastronomic perfection, delicious except that I could not fully enjoy it because I know its like very recently killed Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, loved worldwide. I resented it for being so good yet so bad it actually took someone’s life. I know it is silly to blame a fish but this feeling will pass, so allow me to just wallow in my reasoning (or lack of it, as the case may be). All this deliriously good food spiked with hot spices we tempered with endless gulps of the sweet juice of fresh Thai coconuts, available every two meters or so. After dinner we would walk the streets that snaked around Chinatown, by then done with the last drop of juice of the nth coconut, and on to the sweet white meat which we ate with bare fingers and scooped with the help of teeth, or whole coco shells we whacked and chipped on walls and sturdy posts. It was almost primitive, delicious, and truly enjoyable.

At Sentosa Park, we marveled at a combination of nature’s gifts and man’s talent, getting a natural high on the luge and the breathtaking views from the top.

These things I know for sure: 1) I would, in a heartbeat, go back onboard the Star Cruise Virgo (it was dazzling in cleanliness, impeccable in service, many thanks to the efficient crew onboard), and still eat as much, and as often; 2) I regret not having bought even just one hand-painted parasol; and 3) after all the fruits both fresh and dried I tried, day in and day out, our mangos are still the best in the world.

I also know that all the things I loved on ship and at sea, guiltlessly choosing to do the perfect nothing amid the many somethings available, all the quiet time you can have together and with each other, with the balmy wind and the slush of the ocean, the merrymaking on board, the beautiful sunsets, the gentle unfolding of days and nights, the occasional seasickness even, the happy meals – these are why cruise ships will always be both sentimental and magical.

On the cruise ship, the only thing sweeter than the lanzones I constantly ate were my daughter’s wet, loud kisses, and the only thing richer than the macadamia nuts I munched on for days on end was the time my husband and I spent together. It makes for a truly happy heart looking far out into the rosy pink horizon.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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