The Kingdom of Happiness, Bhutan

 

 

Bhut- Tiles Kingdom

 

A couple of weeks have passed since Patrick and I got back from our Bhutan trip, and we still can’t get back to our normal lives. It was one of those trips that was (as much as I refuse to use cliches) life-changing. Bhutan has set the bar for our future travel choices.

One of the last countries to open its doors to tourism, Bhutan is a small kingdom that sits in the Eastern Himalayan mountain range, flanked by China and India. It was ruled by absolute monarchy until 2008 when they had their first democratic elections. It is one of the most exclusive travel destinations in the world. A trip to Bhutan will require commitment, planning, and some saving up. But once you get there, you get to experience a small piece of an unspoilt environment, culture, and people.

The Royal Government of Bhutan has adapted a policy of “High Value, Low Impact” tourism. This means no mass tourism, no budget travel deals, no big chain establishments. They are very cautious about growing and developing their tourism industry and have decided to promote Bhutan as a high-end destination. This way, they can preserve Bhutan’s pristine environment, culture and society. Every visitor must spend a minimum of $250 per person per day (or $200 per person per day in the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December). This rate covers hotel accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay, internal transportation, tours, camping and trekking. A portion of this fee goes to tourism royalty to fund free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, and infrastructure projects. Your licensed Bhutanese tour operator should be able to explain and arrange everything for you including your visa.

I knew that at some point in our lives, we would go to Bhutan. Patrick has been very fascinated by this “kingdom far, far, away.” So it was a complete surprise and a major blessing that I met Amala Destinations’ founder Ee-Cheng though a common friend, Ole Eugenio of Options Studio. Amala Destinations, licensed in both Bhutan and Singapore, is a “bespoke travel service” that focuses on unique and authentic experiences in Bhutan and other locations. Ee-Cheng invited me to Bhutan to experience Amala’s very carefully considered and personalized service in order to prepare me as the spokesperson/ambassador for Amala Destinations. Patrick came along to help me shoot videos (yes, we will have Video Postcards!).

I’ll be writing a quite few stories about the 8-day journey we took to Bhutan. Now I know why it’s referred to as “the last Shangri-la” and “the kingdom of happiness.” The minimum daily package is actually a small price to pay for the gift of seeing a pure, untouched world.

 

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We arrived in Paro on a flight from Bangkok. Bhutan has two airlines — Drukair and Bhutan Airlines.

 

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Most incredible landing experience. Our plane had to zigzag between mountains. I’d never seen hills up-close from a flying plane before.

 

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Mount Everest as seen from our airplane window (this was taken during our departure).

 

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Back in 2009 only 9 pilots were qualified to fly in an out of Paro, Bhutan. It has a short landing strip nestled between mountains. Planes can only fly during the day. And much of the flying relies on actual sight and not computer instruments.

 

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Loved the casualness of Paro International Airport. Everyone was posing for pictures on the tarmac.

 

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Airline personnel wearing the traditional costume, the gho for men and kira for women. Bhutanese are mandated by law to wear the national attire at work and official activities.

 

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At the airport, we were greeted with this beautiful billboard of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck.

 

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The immigration gate. All visitors need a visa to Bhutan, pre-arranged through a licensed Bhutanese operator. One cannot just go to Bhutan on their own. It is government regulation that all visitors be assisted by a licensed Bhutanese guide during their stay.

 

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Upon arrival in Paro, we visited the Tachogang bridge, a hanging iron chain bridge built by Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo in the late 1300s. He is said to have built 108 of these iron chain bridges around Tibet and Bhutan.

 

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The iron chain from ca 1300.

 

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The bridge was surrounded with colourful prayer flags.

 

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I was a little nervous crossing the bridge. But the sound of the clear water and prayer flags flapping in the wind calmed me.

 

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There was a newer bridge, with wooden floor boards. Apparently that’s what is used by cattle and those who want to cross easier.

 

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The prayer flags, stamped with Indian sutras, come in sets of five different colours arranged in this specific order – blue, white, red, green, and yellow. They represent the five elements — blue symbolizes the sky and space, white for the air and wind, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth.

 

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Bhutanese prayer flags trace their roots to Tibetan Bonism. Not all Buddhists practise the hoisting of prayer flags. Generally, in Bhutan, prayer flags are hoisted for happiness, long life, prosperity, luck and to offer karmic merit to all sentient beings. When the wind blows, the prayers and mantras stamped on the flags will spread good will and compassion into everyone within that space. Prayer flags are believed to benefit all, not just the person who raised them.

 

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This is downtown Thimphu. No traffic lights, just a traffic cop in an ornate gazebo.

 

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We visited a nature reserve where the takins live.

 

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The takin is Bhutan’s national animal.

 

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More prayer flags over Thimphu

 

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Patrick and I at Thimphu lookout point. Sometimes, the 4th King of Bhutan (the father of the current king) can be seen riding his bike in this path.

 

Bhutan is marketed as the “Kingdom of Happiness.” This is not to be confused with the “happiest place on earth,” for that we have Disneyland. Do not expect to see Bhutanese people laughing and smiling all the time. It’s not that kind of happiness.

Bhutan has a unique concept for development. Instead of only measuring the GNP or Gross National Product, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck created the concept of GNH or Gross National Happiness in the 1970s. It basically means, they will lead the country to development and progress, but they will give equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being.

There are four pillars in Gross National Happiness – good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. GNH is the reason why Bhutan is developing its tourism policy for only “High Value, Low Impact.” Yes they want to develop and be accessible to the outside world, but not at the expense of their culture and environment. The King has put a lot of importance on the preservation of their culture and the well-being of each Bhutanese. Example, all Bhutanese farmers own their land. Farmers children are given scholarships to good schools. I encourage everyone who is interested in local governance, urban planning or strategic planning to study this concept.

On New Year’s Day my brother in law, Fr Dennis Paez, in his homily, asked us to contemplate on the meaning of the greeting “Happy New Year.” We spend a lot of time on the pursuit of happiness through people, things, thoughts, places — always looking for the key to happiness. He said the true key to happiness is when you give it away – when you make someone else happy. He encouraged us to do something to make another person happy, and not expect anything in return.

In Bhutan, I witnessed that kind of happiness. Amala Destinations took us to Gangtey, one of the prettiest valleys in Bhutan. There we stayed in a luxurious lodge, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, overlooking the valley. Amala’s founder, Ee-Cheng asked if I wanted to see the village where they donated a new roof for a small monastery, an informal project initiated by one of her guests. Apparently her guest felt so moved by Bhutan that he wanted to give something back to the community. With no formalities, the guest donated cash. Amala’s co-founder Phub Dorji personally took charge of buying roofing material at the border near India. Dorji was able to hitch a ride with an empty truck and got the iron roofing material delivered to Gangtey.  The villagers did the construction. Amazing.

This little act of kindness and generosity went a long way for the monks and villagers. At the end of our visit, the village elders served us tea and biscuits. I was moved to tears.

 

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We drove down rough roads across the Phobjika Valley.

 

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Our destination.

 

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Amala’s Ee-Cheng and I walking through this village. Bhutan’s economy, one of the smallest in the world, is predominantly agricultural. The major contributor to their economy is hydroelectric power, which is exported to India, and tourism. Majority of the population still live in farms, which they own.

 

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This is the monastery and the new roof donated by Amala Destination guests. All structures – homes, farm houses, temples, monasteries are made from mud brick. Typical roofing material was made of wood, kept in place by stones (they didn’t have metal nails). Recently, the government has started to encourage home owners to choose corrugated iron, as it is more practical and environmentally sustainable (wood has to be replaced regularly).

 

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These are slate shingles. Also used as roofing material, kept in place by heavy stones.

 

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Here’s what the new roof of the new monastery looks like. Corrugated iron, anchored by wooden planks and stones.

 

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Here,  Amala’s founder, Ee-Cheng and I pose for a photo with village leaders.

 

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It was quite cold for me, though nothing like Arctic weather we get in Canada. During the day, the sun cancels out the cold alpine temperatures of the Himalayas. Note that the villagers were just wearing rubber slippers while I was in double layers, thermal socks and trekking shoes, haha.

 

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Traditional Bhutanese architecture uses stacked earth or mud bricks as construction material. Roofs are made of light material, traditionally wood planks held in place by stones. Metal nails were not available. Here you can see the new roof, donated by Amala guests.

 

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This is the kitchen of the monastery.

 

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Monks’ kitchen.

 

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Monks’ pots and pans. Notice they have electricity. This valley only got electric power three years ago via underground cables. This was done in order to protect the habitat of the once-endangered migratory black necked cranes.

 

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The bukhari, a wood-burning stove, is the typical heater in this region of the world.

 

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In another room, they have open fire stoves made of mud brick.

 

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During our 8 days in Bhutan, we saw their grandest temples. But this modest temple in a far-far-away village in Gangtey left the biggest impression on us.

 

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As a sign of respect, tourists are asked not to take pictures inside temples. I was “allowed” to take photos in this one, but I decided not to. I wanted to keep that respect. I just documented whatever was outside the holy room.

 

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The very steep ladder that lead to the temple.

 

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Monasteries and temples are so important to the Bhutanese life. It is actually the centre of their village life. This small temple probably dates back to the 16th century or earlier. It was touching to see how much importance the local villagers put in caring for their temple.

 

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Centuries-old murals depicting Bhutanese ornamentation and Buddha’s life.

 

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Centuries-old iron bowl used to light incense

 

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The monastery and the temple.

 

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After our visit to the monastery and temple, the village leaders invited us to sit behind the temple structure.

 

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Turns out they had prepared some snacks for us.

 

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The village leaders served us hot milk tea and crackers.

 

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There were no expectations from both donors and recipients. There was no ceremonial hand-over, no speeches, no thank yous. And yet this simple act of serving us tea spoke volumes of both the sincere generosity and deep appreciation that went on. It reminded me that if you want to do good, you can do good.

 

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I was so honoured and humbled to have experienced this. I wish the actual donors could have been the recipient of the villagers’ gratitude.

 

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Thank you, Amala Destinations, for taking us on this incredible journey.

 

I still have so many stories to tell about Bhutan. There were a lot of jaw-dropping moments like stunning views, luxurious hotels, and bucket-list architecture like Tiger’s Nest monastery. But it is the silence and simplicity in the ordinary Bhutanese villages, that left Patrick and me so enamoured by this pure and untouched culture.

It was a real privilege to have been given a chance to be with them.

 

Read about the hotels we stayed at in Bhutan here.

 

Disclosure: This trip from Bangkok to Bhutan was sponsored by Amala Destinations, a bespoke travel service delivering authentic experiences to enrich and enlighten, with focus on Bhutan, Bali and other special journeys. I am now the spokesperson/ambassador of Amala Destinations in the Philippines.

 

 

  

Aruga

 

 

Sometime before Christmas, my family and I got treated by Rockwell to an overnight staycation at Aruga by Rockwell. December was so hectic that I wasn’t able to book our room right away. We ended up staying at Aruga just a few days before Christmas. We loved it so much, we bought another night and stayed the whole weekend. I was able to do all my Christmas shopping done in Powerplant Mall.

It was lovely playing house with the kids at a place we already knew so well. We loved that everything was within reach. Aruga is connected to Powerplant Mall underground, literally 20 steps on foot. Let’s backtrack a bit. I didn’t even know Rockwell had serviced apartments. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that there is this option for visitors coming to Manila – 114 fully-furnished apartments with the same level of service, maintenance, safety and attention to detail as we have come to know about Rockwell developments in the past.

 

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A lovely gift welcomed us at our two bedroom suite.

 

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In it were treats from Aruga partners within Rockwell – treatments in Emphasis salon, movie passes, facials, yoga services and Kerastase hair treatments.

 

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The living and dining room.

 

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The kids took over the couch at night. Jumanji was on TV.

 

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View from our window

 

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Free golf cart shuttle service within the Rockwell compound…

 

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… which the kids loved!

 

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Before bedtime, we received another gift delivered by the staff – milk and cookies from Eric Kayser.

 

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The view at morning.

 
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The first morning, we had breakfast at Rockwell Club.

 

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The second morning, we chose Refinery for breakfast.

 

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My Fifi.

 

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I did some last minute shopping at Powerplant Mall. I stocked up on DAPHNE Home Scents x Bench (yes, I buy my own products).

 

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Shopping spree at Gingersnaps.

 

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The kitchen was completely furnished. I cooked a couple of meals. The room also had a washer and dryer.

 

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We had a two-bedroom suite. This is what the second bedroom looked like.

 

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Bathroom amenities

 

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Throughout the stay, I’d find random little notes Lily left lying around.

 

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Lily got a letter from the house keeper.

 

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After getting that note from Rin, Lily wrote this. On our way out, the kids saw Rin. They gave her a hug. I asked how they knew it was Rin. She said, they read her name plate.

 

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I love turndown services. And Aruga does it so well.

 

For more information www.arugabyrockwell.com

 

 

MAC Cosmetics in Boracay

 

 

Leave it to MAC Cosmetics Philippines to present the Spring-Summer 2015 beauty trend report in the island paradise of Boracay. Every season and new collection in the past has so far been launched in very interesting and glamorous events. This one sets a new standard for seasonal launches. MAC Philippines flew the country’s top editors and a few bloggers to attend the presentation by Director of Artistry Romero Jennings. We all stayed at the luxurious Shangri-la Boracay for a couple of nights.

Here are some highlights.

 

Can't think of a better place to see the MAC Cosmetics SS2015 Trend Presentation. We're in paradise! #MACSS15boracay  #MACtrends #DaphneandNBS
Upon arrival we were treated to some island essentials – the Face Protect Lotion SPF 50 and Mineralized Charged Water. I had my DAPHNE & NBS margarita pouch. And my favourite pair of sunnies – Thierry Lasry limited edition.

 

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The Shangri-la welcome. Yes to tropical fruits anytime.

 

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Flying in, I wore my DAPHNE x Seek the Uniq wrap skirt.

 

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My spacious room.

 

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We were treated to a facial at Chi The Spa at Shangri-la Boracay.

 

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With my best bud Ingrid Go, and Manila Bulletin’s Arnel Patawaran and Town & Country’s Nicole Limos.

 

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We each had our own spa cottage.

 

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Orchids everywhere.

 

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I swear, my future cottage will have a lovely courtyard like this.

 

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MAC hosted a beautiful welcome dinner by the beach garden.

 

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Our table.

 

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Lovely personal touches. Our water glasses were engraved with our own monograms.

 

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So much loveliness.

 

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With my BFF since birth Mel Lerma.

 

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The cocktails were specifically designed inspired by lipsticks – Heroine, Ruby Woo, Morange, Candy Yum Yum and Sin.

 

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What the cocktails looked like.

 

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With MAC Director of Artistry Romero Jennings who flew in from New York and Country Manager of Estee Lauder Group Mel Lerma.

 

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The smores bar was a big hit.

 

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I finally got to wear my black silk dress that I bought from Magali Pascal in Bali. I love that shop.

 

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Shangri-la Boracay at dusk.

 

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MAC sent makeup artist Gee Vee to my room to prep me for dinner. Such luxury!

 

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Monogrammed linen napkins at our farewell dinner.

 

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Ingrid and I at the farewell dinner

 

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Perfect place to wear caftans.

 

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I wore mine during the day. My favourite caftan, from Mist in Bali.

 

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My DAPHNE & NBS hummingbird tote bag came in handy.

 

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Off to the beach to catch the sunset. Wore Melissa sandals.

 

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We did the sunset thing…

 

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Until it turned like this.

 

MAC Cosmetics Spring-Summer 2015 trends as interpreted by Romero Jennings, here.

 

 

Mexico, Me and the FEMSA Collection

 

 

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Have you checked out the FEMSA Collection at Ayala Museum yet? This is a rare exhibition that’s on display until November 9th.  Mexico: Fantastic Identity, 20th Century Masterpieces of the FEMSA Collection, includes 60 art pieces by Mexican artists. It will take you on a journey through the different movements that transpired in Europe in the 20th century and how they have influenced the works of Mexican artists. I attended the gala opening upon the invitation of the Mexican Ambassador to the Philippines.

 

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“We are honored to bring the FEMSA Collection to the Philippines for the first time, allowing us to further our goal of promoting education by encouraging appreciation for culture and the arts,” said Carlos Salazar, Chief Executive Officer of FEMSA.

 

Mexico: Fantastic Identity, 20th Century Masterpieces. FEMSA Collection sets about a superb Diego Rivera cubist oeuvre completed during his stay in Europe, followed by a significant assemblage created both by muralist José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, along relevant representatives of the Mexican School of Painting. These works display themes that reflect the Mexican national identity after the Revolutionary movement. Last century’s Vanguard and the self-styled Rupture movement – which promoted abstraction, geometrism and other plastic forms – similarly concur in the exhibit. The show is also accompanied by a photographic collection of artist’s portraits, several of which were produced by well-known Mexican photographers such as Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide.

 

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Being a bad girl. Photos were not allowed, but my friend (who shall not be named) snapped this. Oops. Sorry. But it’s Frida Kahlo! And a very significant piece!

 

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Left: Frida Kahlo’s My Dress Hangs There 1933, oil and collage on masonite 45.5 x 50.5cm. Frida painted in the US while her husband Diego Rivera was painting the mural at Rockefeller Center. It symbolises her longing to go back home to Mexico. You can also see references to industrialism and the social ills it brings. Right: Photograph of Frida Kahlo’s work and portrait of Frida. Photo from FEMSA media release.

 

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With friends in government — I knew them before they joined this government. Secretary to the Cabinet of the Philippines Rene Almendras and Presidential Adviser on Political Affairs Ronald Llamas. (I am wearing a charm necklace from Mexico City.)

 

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Photo from FEMSA media release.

 

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Photo from FEMSA media release.

 

I loved seeing all my favourite Mexican artists under one roof, and right here in Makati. I haven’t really written about it yet, but I had a huge Mexican period during the first half of the 1990’s. I worked on some projects there under the urban planning group I worked for in Canada. It was in Mexico that I found interest in rediscovering my roots in the Philippines. I saw a lot of similarities with the culture and history of both countries. During that time, I immersed in all things Mexican – from art, history, food, language, crafts, literature. Seeing some of the FEMSA Collection here really brought me back.

I don’t have many photos of my stay in Mexico. No photos at the house of Frida Kahlo. This was pre-digital era. Gasp! Most of my photos are at my mom and dad’s house in Toronto. I found some that I had brought with me to Manila. Here are some scans.

 

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Me in 1994 with an unfinished mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros from the 1940’s in Escuela de Bellas Artes, a cultural center in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico.

 

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In Hacienda El Soyatal, Aguascalientes. I was a 24 years old here.

 

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During one of my project management trips to Aguascalientes, I took a side trip to the state of Zacatecas, an old mining capital with beautiful colonial buildings.

 

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Zacatecas was one of the principal centres of silver mining from the early Spanish era until the 20th century

 

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The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City was massive. One of the world’s best. This is in front of the Mayan gallery.

 

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I spent one Easter in Mexico City and witnessed the many devotees flock to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. I didn’t know it then, I eventually became devoted to Our Lady.

 

I love Mexico. I am, to this day, greatly influenced by their art. I would love to one day take my family on a long trip there. It’s been too long for me. Time to rediscover.

And I am a huge fan of many Mexican artists especially Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo. I used to drag my mom, dad and sisters to far away galleries just to see some Frida Kahlos on loan – like in Mc Michael Art Gallery north of Toronto and the Knox Albright Gallery in Buffalo. And all these before Selma Hayek made the Frida movie.

 

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If you haven’t yet, you should go see the FEMSA Collection before it goes away on November 9th. Photo courtesy of FEMSA media release.

 

Mexico: Fantastic Identity, 20th Century Masterpieces, FEMSA Collection will run from September 30 to November 9, 2014 at the Ayala Museum.

 

 

Taal Vista Hotel

 

 

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I have fond memories of Taal Vista Hotel. The kids love it here because they get a great view of the volcano.

 

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Our last trip there, they brought their telescope and sketched the full moon and volcano.

 

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The view is fantastic.

 

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Photo from 2012, Stella was just 2 and a half. Must visit again soon.

 

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They also make the yummiest hot chocolate… traditional tsokolate.

 

Diamond Deals Flyers

 

Press release:

Taal Vista Hotel has Diamond Deals you’ll really want to steal. The landmark Tagaytay hotel is celebrating its 75th Anniversary this year and offering guests overnight stays starting at Php5000 with breakfast for two and a Php500 Food and Beverage credit at the multi-awarded Café Veranda. Special discounted Diamond Deals will also be offered at the sales pavilion of the Taal Vista Hotel touring exhibit. Guests can get Php500 off weekend rates, complimentary upgrades on weekday bookings and up to Php750 Food and Beverage credit at Café Veranda.

Discover 75 years of stories and memories at Taal Vista Hotel: History and Heritage. The interactive multimedia exhibit curated by renowned cultural scholar and former National Museum director Corazon Alvina will highlight the significant historical milestones of Taal Vista Hotel as well as the city of Tagaytay. The exhibit showcases the hotel’s rich history, legacy of quality service and stories of memorable experiences. It is currently touring select SM Malls from September 18 to October 29.

Taal Vista Hotel is a landmark hotel in Tagaytay City known for its iconic view of Taal Lake and Volcano. For inquiries and reservations, please call +63 (2) 917 8225, +63 (46) 413 1000 or +63 0917 809 1254. Stay connected with Taal Vista Hotel. Visit the website at www.taalvistahotel.com, like Taal Vista Hotel’s Facebook pageTwitter and Instagram.