Snail Mail Isn’t Dead: See you in the Postcrossroads

Oh, hey look! I’m back! After two years. Finally.

When I told my sister Pil that I’m about to start a new hobby collecting postcards, she scoffed at me and told me that it’s such a ‘tita’ thing to do. Collecting postcards? That sounds boring. For all I know, she could be right, but really, who knew sending postcards could be this fun?

About three months ago, I had the sudden urge to look for foreign casual penpals. I found a website for those looking for penpals online and I actually made correspondence with some users. Eventually, I lost interest since it was still over the web and it didn’t feel genuine to me. It seemed as if we were just exchanging Facebook messages albeit over a matter of days.

It was then when I started using Postcrossing, a crowd-funded web project that encourages people from all over the world to send and receive postcards. I have been a Postcrossing member (actually, my account is for Edge and I, but I do most of the writing) for exactly 72 days as of posting, but I’m so far enjoying this new hobby.

What makes Postcrossing so fun for me? Here are my six reasons:

  1. It’s affordable. Postcrossing isn’t really new to me; I’ve seen friends in the past who have been swapping postcards via the website. At that time, I wasn’t really interested mainly because I was afraid that sending mail abroad might be expensive. When I learned from PhilPost that sending postcards — whether locally or internationally — only costs Php 15 per stamp — I perked up! Regular Philippine postcards sold in bookstores costs about Php 20 to 25. Papemelroti‘s cute postcards made from recycled paper only costs Php 5 per piece. Designer postcards could be more expensive, but really, the choice is up to you. All in all, the total price for sending one postcard could be anywhere from Php 20 to Php 45. Not bad if you ask me.  (Note: Price of the stamp changes over time. Watch out for PhilPost press releases for updates.)

  2. It gives me a reason to be excited for the mail.  I used to dread receiving mail since all I’ve been getting are bills and other junk. When I joined Postcrossing, that all changed. Now, I always have something good to look forward to in the mailbox.

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    As hyped as Harry

  3. It took somebody’s effort for me to receive that postcard.  Wrap your head around this. Imagine a stranger thousands of miles away from you. They actually took the time to sit down, think of something to write, jot down your name and your home address, which probably sounds weird and alien to them (“Caloocan City? That sounds kooky.”). After writing, they walked to the postbox or post office, bought stamps, glued those onto the postcard which they later dropped into a postbox. The same goes for me. There’s something special about writing down a strange address in another country. It’s even more exciting when the website alerts you that the recipient has received your postcard. They are now holding a piece of your small labor. Thousands of miles apart. Wow.

    The postcards I have received so far.

  4. It allows me to listen to stories from people.  I’m new to Postcrossing and, so far, I have only received seven postcards (some Postcrossers have been members for years and their profiles show that they have sent and received thousands of postcards… Someday I’ll be like that too!). But each of these postcards tells a story. The senders tell me who they are, what they enjoy doing, what they love about their country. They let me know what their travel plans are. They share stories about the tourist spots on their postcards. They tell me about their pets and families. It’s nice to know a piece of information about a stranger from the other side of the planet.
  5. It’s entertaining to match a person with a postcard.  Whenever you get a new address to send a postcard to, Postcrossing shows you the profile of the recipient. That profile offers a glimpse of the recipient’s personality and interests, and it’s up to you to be creative in choosing a postcard that they would probably like. For example, one recipient in Germany said that he enjoys diving, so I sent him a photo of the corals in Balicasag Island, Bohol. I knew that it would be cold in Russia and Finland, so I sent postcards featuring the beautiful beaches of El Nido and Coron, Palawan. Another recipient from Greece said that she wants to see photos of lakes, mountains or volcanoes, so I sent her a postcard of Taal Volcano. And finally, a recipient from China proudly declared in his profile that he is a cat lover, so I sent him a postcard of a cat. It’s a match-making of sorts, and it’s fun to know that your recipients appreciate your choice in postcards once they send you a thank you note.
  6. It lets me travel… in a way.  Can’t get to Russia? Here, my postcard can. I’ve been to Europe, especially in Germany, the Netherlands, and Ukraine thanks to my postcards.  I’ve always wanted to return to Indonesia, but my postcard beat me to it. As a huge fan of crime shows, Locard’s exchange principle is on my mind all the time and I know that DNA from my skin cells has traveled to those countries through my postcard. There’s no long plane rides and immigration queues to think about too.
  7. It teaches me to be patient.  Patience is not my strongest suit. I hate it when things are slow. When I first started in Postcrossing, I was impatiently sitting at home, waiting for my postcards to come but there were none! Three weeks later, when I had somehow forgotten that I was supposed to be waiting for a postcard, the first one finally arrived. It was a pleasant surprise. Thanks to that experience, I learned to be more patient and to let things run their natural course. No need to rush. They’ll get to me eventually.
  8. It gives me a chance to promote the Philippines. Being a traveler, I am a huge supporter of local tourism. Through my postcards, I invite the recipients to come visit the Philippines and experience our magnificent tourist attractions and warm Filipino hospitality. Don’t worry, DOT, I use our official tagline: It’s More Fun in the Philippines!

Sending and receiving postcards may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure is mine. It’s an experience that lets you be part of a huge global village through traditional means that may be slower, but takes somebody’s precious time and effort. Labor of love, as they say. If you are somehow encouraged by my post, please register an account on Postcrossing and start sending away!

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So We Meet Again, Makiling

Earlier this Holy Week, we took a day off and headed to Laguna to climb Mt. Makiling.  This was not my first encounter with this famous mountain since, obviously, I had lived in its foothills during my entire college stay.  I was also required to climb the mountain for an elective course back in 2009.  The entire 8.2 km Makiling trail is divided into 30 shorter stations; I only reached the 22nd during my first failed climb so I’m thirsting for some redemption.

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Considering that my last decent climb was in 2011 when we scaled Mt. Pulag, I had a pretty tough time.  Luckily, Edge was with me, whispering words of encouragement and even carried my bag during the initial stretch, which was what I honestly think of as the difficult part.  It’s just a very long road that relentlessly slopes upward.

An hour or so during the climb, after we had reached Station 15, we finally reached the point where we had to enter the danger zone.  Here, we were surrounded by nothing but trees and vegetation, and the only thing we heard, aside from our own huffing and puffing, was the sound of nature.  It was quite overwhelming.

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Mt. Makiling is also known for its excellent biodiversity, and we happened to stumble upon hedges of pretty flowers and strange plants, as well as the infamous Rafflesia or corpse flower.

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The trickiest part of the climb for me was the part nearest the summit, starting from Station 25 (yes, I kicked Station 22’s fat ass).  The trail gets pretty steep in these parts.  Apparently, it had also rained a few days prior, so the trail was really muddy and slippery.  Still, despite these difficulties, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Laguna and nearby provinces, which made things okay.

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A view of Laguna, including Mt. Kalisungan in Calauan and Mt. Banahaw in Quezon.

Five hours after we had started, we finally reached the summit.  I was already aware that the Mt. Makiling summit itself is enclosed by thick vegetation, which covers the view.  However, since it was the Lenten season and the officials anticipated the influx of visitors, a tarpaulin was placed at the summit.  It congratulated the climbers for reaching the highest peak at 1,090 masl, and I must admit we had a very nice pat at the back.

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After a quick lunch, Edge and I began our descent.  I had the impression that we wouldn’t have any problems with the way down, but, boy, I was wrong.  I was just practically slipping and sliding down the muddy trails; my clothes were covered by dirt and grime.  We had managed to make it back to Station 15 before I cried out in pain and frustration, so we cheated and rode a habal-habal back to the gate.

All in all, despite being incapacitated for the next couple of days, I had fun.  It’s awesome to come back and finally conquer Makiling, six years after my first failure.  Oh, and did I mention that this climb is just some sort of training?  This is just a warm-up for our more ambitious climb on Thursday (eep!) on Mt. Kinabalu.

So help me God.

Beautiful, Blissful, Breathtaking Batanes

I realize that this is my first blog post in over three months, so let’s backtrack a bit, shall we?

2015 started in a truly happy manner for Edge and I.  Remember that, half a year ago, we got lucky and got ourselves a couple of tickets to Batanes, one of the most elusive provinces in the Philippines. It’s the big one situated right there, at the top of my bucket list, so I was just dying to cross it out.

Well, it’s been two months since we’ve been to that wonderful place and I must admit I’m still not over it.  A word of caution: this blog post will be chock full of photos of our faces.  For the Batanes itinerary, check out our other blog, The Backpack Couple.  [Check here, here, and here!]

The trip began in a frightening note for us when the flight was momentarily delayed.  Turns out, the weather in Batanes in January is as unpredictable as it gets. We were told that it was extremely cloudy in the province that morning causing visibility issues. I was waiting with bated breath and finally, after what seemed like forever, we were told to board the aircraft.

I rarely fly up north and I really enjoyed looking at the vast plains and mountain ranges of Luzon. But that was nothing compared to the rocky landing apparently experienced by all Batanes-bound flyers.  Due to its short landing strip, the proximity to mountains and the strong winds blowing from both the Pacific and the West Philippine Sea, it’s always challenging for pilots to steady the plane as it lands. Thankfully, we landed safe and sound.

What greeted us was the tiny and sleepy town of Basco, with its interlaced narrow streets and smiling residents up and about, tending to their daily businesses. The weather was amazingly cold; we had to don our jackets and scarves to keep ourselves warm.

After a few hours of sleep at the lodging house, we were fetched by our guide, Sir Art from the BISUMI Tours and Services, to begin the North Batan Tour.  Comparing the trip to a full-course meal, then the North Batan tour is just the appetizer.  The northern part of Batan Island, the largest in the province, is beautiful and breathtaking, especially for those who are not familiar with this type of scenery.

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The ocean view from the Vayang Rolling Hills.

The ocean view from the Vayang Rolling Hills with the partially clouded Mt. Isarog in the background.

The surreal coastline of the Valugan Boulder Beach.

The surreal coastline of the Valugan Boulder Beach.

A new talent discovered in Valugan Beach, balancing stones!

A new talent discovered in Valugan Beach, balancing stones!

Apart from its nature spots, North Batan is also rife with famous man-made structures.

The famous Tukon Chapel or Mt. Carmel Church.

The famous Tukon Chapel or Mt. Carmel Church.

Naidi Lighthouse, just one of the many lighthouses in the island.

Naidi Lighthouse, just one of the many lighthouses in the island.

The reason why I compared North Batan to an appetizer is because it excites you, gets your senses going and asking for more.  And that’s what happened to us; after our first day of touring, we wanted to see more. For our second day, we ventured to the opposite side of the island for the South Batan Tour.  This took us an entire day well worth the exhaustion because of the breathtaking scenery. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

That impressive cliff-face absolutely dwarfs me.

That impressive cliff absolutely dwarfs me.

Go down the hundred or so steps from the Chawa Viewdeck to get closer to the sea.

Go down the hundred or so steps from the Chawa Viewdeck to get closer to the sea.

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The view from Alapad Hill.

Look at that coastline! The locals call this Little Hawaii.

Look at that coastline! The locals call this Little Hawaii.

The pebbly sand and cold waters of Batanes' White Beach.

The pebbly sand and cold waters of Batanes’ White Beach.

The most famous home in Batanes: The House of Dakay.

The most famous home in Batanes: The House of Dakay.

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Do not even attempt to leave Batanes without visiting its famous Honesty Store!

Do not even attempt to leave Batanes without visiting its famous Honesty Store!

The most photogenic place of the lot, Racuh a Payaman a.k.a. Marlboro Hills.

The most photogenic place of the lot, Racuh a Payaman a.k.a. Marlboro Hills.

Another great thing to love about Batanes is its food.  For three days, we had our fill of delicious Ivatan dishes like lunyis (pork cooked in its own fat and a little bit of salt), pako (salad made from fiddlehead fern), and my personal favorite, uvud (savory balls made from banana trunk, fish and meat).

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The third day was hands down the most exciting part of our trip.  For this tour, we headed to the nearby Sabtang Island, which means that we had to ride the Batanes flat-bottomed fishing vessel called faluwa.  If you’ve ever had the chance of riding those ships that rock back and forth in amusement parks, kind of like Enchanted Kingdom’s Anchors Away, then consider that as training because you’re in for one very rocky ride.  At least you know that the park ride is safer because you’ll never know when the faluwa will hurl you into the violent point where the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea meet.  The waves are so high that the horizon and the island ahead completely disappear from view.  I kid you not when I say that this is not for those of weak stomachs; a lot of other tourists threw up in the boat.  Alas, we just rested our worries to the highly experienced Ivatan fishermen (and closed our eyes for most of the ride) and in just 40 minutes, we arrived at the island of Sabtang.

Sabtang is less-developed than its cousin Batan.  Here, the stone houses are practically untouched by time and the population is noticeably low.  The community, dotted by stone houses, even narrower streets, and hugged by massive forested mountains, will transport you into a different world.

Wearing the traditional vakul (for the ladies) and kanayi (for the men).

Wearing the traditional vakul (for the ladies) and kanayi (for the men).

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Another famous rock formation in Sabtang, the Nakabuang Arch.

Another famous rock formation in Sabtang, the Nakabuang Arch.

Sabtang is also home to my most favorite destination in Batanes, the one our guide repeatedly described as the Filipino version of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, called the Tinyan Viewpoint.  Reaching this place is somehow challenging because it involves quite a bit of hiking, but the views are absolutely spectacular.  Everywhere you look, it’s very, very surreal and out of this world.

To this day, I still shiver whenever I think of this view.

To this day, I still shiver whenever I think of this view.

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We toured Sabtang for half a day and then it was time to return to Batan via the heart stopping faluwa ride.  The waves were even stronger in the afternoon because of the high tide.  We were soaked from head to foot when we arrived in Batan.

Looking back on all of our local trips, I would probably consider Batanes as the most beautiful place I’ve been to.  It certainly is the most photogenic — point your camera anywhere and you’re sure to get a good shot.  It’s also the place with the kindest residents I’ve ever met.  The locals sport genuine smiling faces and polite attitudes certainly missing from the big city.  Interestingly, the province of Batanes has an astounding 0% heinous crime rate; the only crimes that occasionally happen here, we were told, are petty ones like stealing fruits from your neighbor.  A pretty forgivable offense if you ask me.

That’s how I began my year, by crossing out one of the biggest items from my bucket list.  I wouldn’t even think twice about putting it back on the list again and again, just to give me an excuse to return to this wonderful paradise.

Backtracking 2014

Despite its fair share of heartbreak and tragic losses, 2014 is something that I consider as one of my better years.  It’s truly been a year of discovery and rediscovery, realizations, success, love and family.  I scoured through the many memories that I’ve created this year, and these would be what I would place on 2014’s pedestal:

5.  San Antonio Spurs winning the NBA title

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Yes, it’s in the top five.  Read through my Facebook and Twitter timelines and one glaring fact that you would know about me is that I’m a huge San Antonio Spurs fan.  I have been since the early 2000s.  Since my team’s last Finals victory in 2007, it has been a long road filled with challenges and disheartening early exits.  After a heartbreaking 2013 where the Spurs were dealt with the franchise’s first NBA Finals loss, watching the team come back harder, faster, smarter and stronger for this year has been such a thrilling experience.  Here’s to hoping for a back-to-back championship win, something the Spurs haven’t done before.  Go Spurs Go!

4.  Fourth anniversary with Edge

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Last July, Edge and I kicked off our fourth anniversary as a couple.  We went to Boracay (his first time there), where we spent the next three days swimming, snorkeling, parasailing, walking and playing by the beach and pigging out.  It was a weekend different from our other backpacking trips, since we allowed ourselves to relax as much as possible.  I’m quite excited for our next anniversary trip, no matter where that may be.

3.  Landed a new and better job

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I’ve always believed that working a job is a lot like being in a relationship.  I’ve been in several relationships so to speak, and all of them never worked out.  What I have right now is a great one.  When I applied for this job, I honestly never thought that I would get it since I always underestimate my capabilities.  Now, I’m here, and I’m just so thankful.  It’s a tough job that brings out the best and worst in me.  It has allowed me to visit places and do things I’ve never done before, as well as meet important people I never thought I would have the pleasure of meeting.  Simply put, I’m just glad that with this job, I’m confident that I’m treading my truly chosen career path.

2.  First overseas trip with the family

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It has been so long since our last family trip.  That’s why our family trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam last November is really a special one.  The trip was actually marred by the tragedy when a friend, my brother’s girlfriend, suddenly passed away.  Nonetheless, we tried to make the best out of the situation and still had fun.  I’ve gotten used to traveling with Edge, that’s why it was a nice to see new places, eat strange food, and learn about a fascinating country’s history and culture with my family and relatives.  I really hope that we get to do this again soon!

1.  Visited three countries and ten provinces with Edge

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This is where most of my savings for 2014 went.  Heh.  Edge and I manage to tick off a lot of items off our bucket lists when we went to Bolinao, Pangasinan in January; Miri, Malaysia and Brunei in March; Oslob and Moalboal, Cebu and Baybay City and Sogod, Southern Leyte, as well as going back to Tacloban City in May; Boracay in July; Legazpi City, Albay, Biri, Eastern Samar, Capul Island, and Catarman in August; back to Dumaguete and Bayawan City, Negros Oriental in September; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in November.  Nothing really beats the feeling of fulfilling your wanderlust with someone you love.  2014 also saw our blog The Backpack Couple‘s transition to a dot com blog, a big milestone for us.

That said, thanks for the memories, 2014.  I’m ready to let you go.  Time to shake the problems and emotional baggage off and look forward with positivity and motivation.  Come at me, 2015.  I’m ready for you.

Travel Truly, Madly, Deeply

Last Sunday, Edge and had the chance to attend the Travel Madness Expo 2014 at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City.  Already on its third year, the expo showcases exhibitors ranging from famous local and international airlines to leading travel agencies, as well as tourism offices of different governments all over the world.

While most aim to sell ticket deals and tour packages, there were some exhibitors who pulled a few cool gimmicks.  At the Sabah Tourism Board booth, for example, we had the chance to talk to a couple of tourism officers who gladly gave us some advice and the contacts for our ambitious Mt. Kinabalu climb next year.

On the other hand, the carnival-inspired Qatar Airways featured a gaming booth where guests can shoot balls and win soccer jerseys (Qatar made a bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup).

My favorite, the Japan Pavilion, even put on different shows at different times throughout the day.  We were treated to a spectacle of traditional Japanese painting, koto-playing, and authentic sushi-making.  They even have a booth where guests can write their names in hiragana and katakana, two of Japan’s writing systems.

One of my favorite moments in the expo was stumbling upon this travel deal for North Korea — the hermit kingdom, the land of the Kims, the sworn enemy and poor little brother of South Korea.  I’ve always been fascinated with this country and I never had the slightest expectation that travel tours to NoKor would be available in the Philippines, so imagine my delight when I found this deal.  The tour is expensive — minimum of around Php 75,000 — but the possibility of setting foot in NoKor someday keeps my hope alive!

The highlight of this expo, my day, my year, and probably of my life was when we scored some Basco, Batanes tickets from Philippine Airlines!  Edge and I have always planned to reach this elusive province, but with exorbitant plane fares, I’ve always treated Batanes as a dream.  On a regular day, Basco round-trip ticket prices from SkyJet and PAL would range from Php 15,000 to Php 20,000.  However, we managed to buy our tickets from the expo for the sweet, sweet price of only Php 3,200+ (round-trip) per pax.  Thank you, PAL!

See you soon, Batanes!

See you soon, Batanes!

In summary, the Travel Madness Expo 2014 can be described in a few words: freebies, deals, and savings, savings, SAVINGS!  A huge thank you and kudos to the organizers.  Can you please hurry with next year’s expo? 🙂