Saturday, September 21, 2013

How I Survive as a Highly Sensitive Person in Chaotic Manila

I am a very introverted Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Note the caps. I'm not talking about merely being touchy or over-emotional, I'm talking about certain people who are actually biologically rigged to feel and react more strongly to sensory stimuli than the average population. A leisurely Googling brought me to discover about this fairly new physiological study, and it was very comforting to know that there's finally something to describe this "condition". I hope knowledge about HSP's would spread farther and wider so that family, friends, and bosses would understand that people like us aren't simply overacting.

Among the quirks of being an HSP is that crowds make us very uncomfortable. All that depression, anxiety, anger and various shit that many everyday people are carrying - easily gets into our skin. That's why it seemed like a joke of the universe that I had to be born in the world's most densely populated city and live among the world's most emotional people.

It is not all pain and suffering though. Being an HSP for me is more a boon than a curse. Creativity, curiosity, spirituality, and a rich inner life are just few of the perks of being an HSP. Art and music and all things beautiful excite me, therefore I search for and surround myself with them. Regardless of what the cynics say, there's still much beauty in this world, and yes, even in suffocatingly crowded Manila, if one knows where to look.

A quiet afternoon in General Luna street.

1. Portable Music Players. I've had them since the early 90's - from my no-name cassette player in high school to the 160gig iPod with noise-cancelling earphones shoved into my ears right now. I never leave the house without it and it's become virtually a part of my physical body. It's a miracle I haven't got any hearing problems yet since I often listen at maximum volumes. Whether I'm in a rush-hour commute or drowned in the noise of the corporate office, the music in my ears instantly transports me to another, more pleasant world.

Bakasana. Getting there.

2. Exercise. I consider exercise more as a way of life rather than merely a solution to fix something on the body. The benefits extend way beyond looking better physically, it also helps a lot to feeling better mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This year I have learned to leave the confines of the gym and took my exercise to the swimming pool, the running track, the yoga studio and the boxing ring and it has actually become more than a lifestyle, but a passion. Strength training improves my endurance, which serves as a layer of protection against strong, unpleasant physical stimuli. Yoga, though I'm hesitant to categorize it as "exercise", is specially quite valuable in helping me learn how to temporarily tune down my hypersenses, or at least my reaction to stimuli.

My meditation-friendly bedroom when I was living in Alabang.

3. Reprogramming the mind. Being hypersensitive means being easily annoyed, rattled, ashamed or depressed, and when I am in any of these states I would often come up with irrational thoughts that do more harm to myself and to other people. While I was reading a book on the train, there was a guy who kept popping his bubble gum throughout the half-hour commute, the sound was so annoying and I could still hear it even with my iPod on at maximum volume. I was getting so riled up that I began having evil thoughts like "accidentally" stepping on his foot on the way out. I'm training my mind to raise an alarm bell whenever thoughts like these come up, and try to counteract it with the voice of reason: "This guy isn't deliberately trying to annoy me", "If you had bubble gum right now you'd be popping it too". Changing how your mind reacts can be quite difficult - like potty-training a kitty. I find that it's a lot easier when I heave a deep breath and try put to on a smile however fake it is. Eventually the devils in my mind would be banished anyway and I end up genuinely smiling at myself.

barbara's cafe intramuros manila
Having coffee like an ilustrado at Barbara's Café.

4. Cafés. I avoid Starbucks as much as I could. Although there are a few exceptions, they tend to be so crowded and tend to have a loud-mouthed group of friends who would spoil your introspective Nescafé moments. Those quaint, lesser-known street-side cafés are more to my liking. I would rather go for a teh tarik and a kaya toast in Kopi Roti, or a banana-split in that old ice cream parlor in Escolta which exudes a pleasant, American-era vibe. An Illy cafe inside a bookstore branch is my favorite art spot. When reviewing for the French exams, I tend to hangout in the coffee shops near schools and find myself surrounded with young people solemnly reading their textbooks. On weekends, even popular cafés and tea joints in the business districts become cozy sanctuaries due to the absence of the working folk.

Serene and a bit creepy. San Agustin museum.

5. Museums. A silent place filled with art and history, it's an obvious choice for an HSP to run to when escaping from the city's madness. Ayala Museum updates their exhibits from time to time, and a walk inside the San Agustin museum is not to be missed. Unfortunately, museums in Manila are quite few and far between - just like nature parks, which HSPs sorely need. 

Crêpe Flambée au Grand Marnier, by Monsieur Gigi at the Salcedo Market.

6. Weekend Markets. Yes, there are crowds but they are not (usually) the unpleasant types. While I try to hold myself from buying every shiny trinket that I see, I wallow in the festive air and savor my excitement to explore these interesting curiosities around me. Fortunately we have a growing number of them, from the posh Salcedo market to the artsy and bohemian Escolta market.

Riding a calesa in Intramuros.

7. Explore, explore, explore. Manila has the biggest malls in the world because Manileños are such mall rats. But spending my weekends aimlessly strolling at malls just make my weekend feel so un-special. Besides I have already been spending the rest of the week in a crowded, soulless, concrete box. I would rather be walking (or running) on the streets, learning in a classroom, attending a workshop, watching a play, doing sports, trying out a new resto, having coffee in a quaint little corner, or just simply trying to discover new places and new things to do. Don't listen to what the SM commercials say - "We've got it all for you!" my ass. There is a huge world outside the malls waiting to be explored.

Learning about Manila from Carlos Celdran at La Monja Loca.

8. More people can be fun too. Not all crowds are bad. Living in a city with a population of more than a million offers lots of opportunities to meet interesting characters. Widening my tiny social circle is one thing I would no doubt find challenging but the prospect makes me excited as well. Though I'm not quite ready yet hitting up a conversation with a stranger, I'm opening myself up more and have promised myself not to try scrambling away whenever a stranger in the café, yoga studio or gym initiates a casual chit-chat. Besides, I'm in my 30's. I'm already too freaking old to by shy.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Om Sweet Om

February 2013. It was a very hectic Friday at work just like the days and weeks before. I was taking an afternoon walk during my break to shake off the stress when I remembered a friend's suggestion to try yoga. I've always been interested in it but I was always coming up with a thousand excuses to put off actually going to a yoga class: I'm not flexible, it's expensive, there's no yoga studio nearby, I'd rather play Starcraft, etc. But then I was getting fed up of the monotony of my daily routine that I was quite ready to jump into something new. After some quick Googling on my phone, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there's a new studio that's just opened near my office (Bliss Yoga). Incidentally the place was just a few steps from where I was taking a walk at that time so I immediately decided to drop by. I was even more delighted to find that they were offering free classes that week as a promo to attract new people in the area. It's as if the stars conspire that day to finally get my ass to a yoga class.

I remember how difficult it was walking into the class for the first time - especially since I was alone, no friends to secretly giggle at each other with. It was Sunday morning. Seeing these fresh, lithe, beautiful creatures in really nice yoga outfits got me all the more intimidated, out of place, and feeling awkward. I was already tense and my mind was racing before the class even started.

What the hell have I gotten myself into?

The teacher came in and after a short introduction we were asked to stand up and do the yoga poses. This is it. Not knowing the names of the poses I just tried to manage what I could to mimic what the people around me were doing . The teacher kept telling us to focus on what I mistakenly heard as the "vagina breath" or something, which really didn't matter as I could only manage to huff and puff all along. Why is this making me feel so stressed? Isn't it supposed to do the opposite? It was almost an hour and a half of painful exertion, awkwardness, and feelings of stupidity. I kept glancing at the clock on my cellphone anticipating the end of the class, but time, like a mocking devil, was running painfully, teasingly slow.

And then, after what seemed like eternity, the class was finally coming to a close and we were asked to lie down. Just lie down, and close our eyes. Like a corpse. Shavasana - that's what the pose is called. It was the first Sanskrit asana name that I learned. I was simply anticipating to rest my limbs, until the teacher said the words: "let go" - and that was when the magic happened.

Let go. And I realized how tired I was of being so conscious of myself. How tired I was from trying to look good to others and trying to fit in. How tired I was from over-thinking and how I hate my brain for coming up with those irrational thoughts of anxiety, fear, and envy. It was not merely the poses I'm really grappling with, it was me. It was a trick. The poses were just tools. The problem was my mind more than my tight hamstrings. I was finally getting the idea of what it was all about. Coming into this realization brought a little smile in my face as I lay there splayed like a drunken Buddha. I finally let go. And the breath that followed was no longer a strained attempt to catch my breath, but a breath of relief, accomplishment, and gentle, calming bliss.

It was love at first sigh.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Murti Shopping in Manila Markets

Golden Tara.

I made a visit to the Saturday Market at Escolta, a monthly bazaar set up by a collaboration of artists who call themselves 98B. It was held at the beautiful yet deteriorating Perez-Samanillo building and is part of an effort to revive this historical corner of Manila. Used to be a high street shopping district in the 60's, now totally rotting, run-down, and teeming with beggars and seedy, ugly people.

The market was filled with the weird and wonderful: 80's vintage, bamboo amplifiers, home-made robots, 50-peso watercolor portraits, bone pipes, and lots of affordable art works. There was one bardic chap who was selling stories for 20 pesos. It was quite hip and bohemian, and for some reason I am reminded of Neil Gaiman's novel "Neverwhere". While I was rummaging through stuff, a few shoppers suddenly burst into song singing a medley of 90's Filipino hits. It turns out that they are performance artists, and after the song they performed some story about an electric fan. Weird. I love it.

 Saturday Market at Escolta.

It was tough to decide what to spend my weekend money on but as luck would have it, I found a replica of the Srivijaya-era golden Tara found in Esperanza, Agusan del Sur. I finally have a Filipino deity on my altar! The seller told me a longish story about its history and archaelogical significance and stuff, but really, dude, just take my money. Pagan friends went green with envy as soon as I instagrammed a photo of it.

On Sunday, I met up with Aldrin and Jonathan to shop for some deity statues in an arcade in Dapitan. We've heard from friends that there's great bargain to be found here. True enough, the arcade looks like a treasure trove of Christmas giveaway ideas. It was a total feast for the eyes: Buddhist statues, kokeshi dolls, replicas of Rococo paintings, antique santos and Egyptian relics. Unfortunately it was sorely lacking in Greek statuary, which my Neokoroi friend was hoping to buy. All was not lost though as we have found a very nice looking figurine of Avalokitesvara-Guan Yin and a ceramic portrait of Lakshmi, Sarawati and Ganesh, both for just a measely one thousand pesos. We're hoping to come back after a few pay days to buy some more.

Knick-knacks at the Dapitan arcade.

Monday, June 17, 2013

As Above, So Below

My first peak and my first dive.

The town of Anilao in Batangas is just a two-hour drive away from Manila but it brought me to entirely different worlds. In just one weekend, I did two amazing things which I have only just dreamed of doing: climbing a mountain peak and scuba diving. What's even more fun is doing it with fellow, earth-loving pagan friends. 

Local mountaineers rate Mt. Gulugod-Baboy (aka the "Swine Spine") as one of the easiest peaks to climb but we still ended up with Bikram-yoga sweat after just a few minutes uphill. After about an hour and a half of huffing and puffing and taking short breaks to catch our breath, we finally emerged from high grass and were surprised by how different and beautiful the mountain-top landscape was. It felt like we have just stepped into the Windows XP default wallpaper. There's a great feeling of accomplishment and natural high just standing on top of the mountain and looking at the land below. It would've been cool if we set up camp here but we had to prep up early for a morning dive.

When in Batangas, have barako coffee (my favorite).

The seaside diving resort we stayed in was quite cozy. The porch was wide enough to lay our mattresses on, and so we had the mountain breeze and the crashing waves lulling us to deep, restful, delicious sleep.

We had our dive master Pixie teaching us the basics of scuba diving. Thankfully It wasn't too complicated as I thought. I couldn't get over how cool I look the first time I wore my diving gear. We had to take a boat to the diving site and the preparations took quite a while before we finally plunged into the sea.  As we go deeper and deeper I was growing in awe at the alien, dream-like, underwater world revealing itself for the first time around me. It was so beautiful, I could cry. Seeing it was one thing, feeling it is another. The sense of being weightless is just indescribable, I felt like a spirit hovering over the seabed. I emerged from the waters with a bleeding nose because my right ear had problems equalizing, but I was relieved after being told that it was quite normal among newbies. I slept that night dreaming of Finding Nemo land.

I'm hooked. I'm saving up for a PADI course right now.

 Tired feet on top of the mountain.

Feeling the mountain breeze.

 Waking up by the sea.

Laughing at the instructional video.

 Prepping for the plunge.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Making Magic Ink for Paper Talismans

I ran into this wikiHow about making ink out of teabags, and I thought how nice it would be to make some for writing symbols on paper talismans.

Of course I'm not happy with just making normal tea ink. So I added some bay leaf and star anise and lemon peel and rose petals into the brew. Those sort of happy, positive, love-and-light magic herbs.

It ended up smelling so sweet I could imagine rainbows and stars coming out of the tea. Using it as ink is quite a bitch though. It's not very "clingy" on the material I used, which is the back part of a document suited for my spell, and the stupid "ink" keeps feathering out on the paper. Using a nib pen is also another matter. I didn't realize those things need some mad skills to write with.

My talisman ended up the size of a hanky because my tea-ink writing skills are useless on anything pocket-sized.

It must be noted that this stuff isn't something you could keep indefinitely. Just a week in storage and it already grew molds.

So I'm back to tea-stained papers and my magical Parker jotter. I'm never probably going to use a nib pen again until I learn some calligraphy, which is sort of in my to-do list and is up there with sending surprise letters  to friends written on parchment sealed with wax and sent through a pigeon the post office like the good ol'days.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sweet Concoction

The cider vinegar and honey mixture is an age-old concoction used as a medicinal base, called oxymel, as well as a refreshing drink when mixed with water.

I always use Bragg's Cider Vinegar and some cheap, locally-made honey sold in Tanduay bottles because the imported ones are so expensive. I found that there is actually a ready-made mixture from Wescobee being sold at some posh grocery stores, which I intend to try some day.

It's well-known for it's numerous benefits from curing arthritis to increasing the immune system (by helping the body's alkaline/acid balance). Personally I use it as a remedy for moderate cough and cold and sometimes as a ritual drink. I like the taste by itself but occasionally I have fun with it by mixing it with calamansi, fresh oregano, or mint. When using fresh herbs, I would steep the crushed herbs in a glass of hot water for a few minutes, then adding the honey-vinegar mixture in as a sweetener. My friend, the herbal witch Eric swears by putting some small garlic into the jar of the honey-vinegar mixture to give it flavor, and putting a teaspoon or two of the mixture in a glass of fruit juice.

Even with no colds, no coughs, or no arthritis, it's still nice to have a jar of this mixture around. It lasts long, and it can be a healthier alternative when you're craving for calories.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


"The joy of life consists in the exercise of one's energies, continual growth, constant change, the enjoyment of every new experience. To stop means simply to die. 
The eternal mistake of mankind is to set up an attainable ideal." 
- Aleister Crowley

During the past three months I have thrown and given away enough stuff that could fill a mini-van.

Stuff that I used to own: exercise equipments, furniture, catholic statues, magical tools, old clothes, bags, four pairs of shoes, tons of books, dozens of CDs/DVDs, a desktop computer set, and other knick-knacks from inside my room. I have also cancelled club memberships and credit cards and I'm not even done yet.

The past few years have all been same-ish to me and every time I come up with a new year's resolution I'm always wishing to have a Big Positive Change™ in my life - that is, while I'm still mustering enough courage and fortune to quit my job and live my dream to travel to places.

I realized change wasn't happening because I was holding too much on stuff. And I began to feel how my life is full of so much needless clutter. These things in my room, they aren't really me anymore. To Hel with you, things, I'm not going to let you define me no longer. So good riddance.

Some stuff were very easy to dispose of, but a few required moments of pondering before going into the garbage bag. Interesting how throwing trash can be an introspective and enlightening activity.

Do I really need this? Why am I keeping this? What, so I could use this in the future? Will I let that future happen? No, I don't think I want that kind of me anymore.
Once I got rid of material stuff, I felt like I just freed up something inside me. It kind of feels refreshing.

Much of what I own now are things I have chosen to be important to me, and there's finally space for something new. Somehow, I'm already hearing that Big Positive Change™ coming this way.

Kali Durga, great spirits of change. Beltane 2011

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I Can Finally Swim!

Our P.E. class in second year college was swimming, which I never attended at all. I was afraid of the water - I did not know how to swim - and I was very uncomfortable with the idea of having to wear skimpy trunks in a public pool. My non-attendance cost me a slot in the dean's list, but meh, I thought, better that than die of drowning or humiliation.

Every time my friends or co-workers go out on a swimming excursion I end up wading in the shallow parts of the pool while being totally envious of those who were frolicking freely in the water. I got sick of it.

Almost spontaneously, I dragged my ass one weekend to enroll in Bert Lozada Swimming School.  My first challenge was actually wearing a pair of tight-fitting Speedos. Actually learning how to swim was another matter entirely though. I found that it was harder than I expected thanks to my aquaphobia. By the end of ten weekly sessions I only got to learn how to float and to swim like a drowning cat.

Philippine Columbian Association
FQS, EVF, SPL, ape index, stroke rate.. I had no idea swimming could be so technical! 
I just wanted to reach the other end of the pool. 

I wasn't content so I decided to take it further. I enrolled in Aqualogic, which is reputedly a top-notch swim school. The price, though, is quite top-notch as well, being more than double than what I paid at Lozada's. But every centavo was worth it for me. I had really awesome coaches. At the end of the lessons, and after a several practices at public pools on weekends, not only was I finally able to swim, but I was immensely enjoying it too! The orgasmic joy I had after finishing my first 25 meter lap over 10 feet deep water was priceless.

So swimming is the first sport that I actually learned and I can't believe how I love the water now, though I still have a long way to go to become really good at it. My skin has gotten darker and my butt is now whiter than the rest of my body but I'm actually liking my new color - it means I'm going out more often now and spending less time living vicariously through the computer.

Pool surfing

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Boracay - The Paradise Next Door

I was more curious than excited when my friend and I booked a flight to Boracay. Growing up in the Philippines - where everyone is just two hours away from a beach umbrella as they say - I believed I've seen enough beaches in my lifetime. I thought Boracay was just like any other white beach I've been to, only with cooler parties. Thankfully I was wrong.

The island may be tiny but it's packed with long stretches of Nat Geo cover-worthy scenery. At early mornings when the tide is lower, the scenery is even more surreal. My camera just couldn't handle it. It's more than just a feast for the eyes: the powdery white sand is so soft and just lovely to step on. Despite the tourist crowd that somehow takes away the idyllic-ness (idyllicity?) of the place, it still gives off that special vibe that takes your worries away. Watching the sunset, hearing the sea and the birds, is like a warm fuzzy blanket for the soul.

By the third day of our vacation, what peace the island had was even more disturbed by the ruckus of drums and shouts of "Viva Santo Nino!". It appears we have just arrived in time for the Ati-Atihan Fiesta (and to think I have left Manila amidst the chaos of the Feast of Nazareno). It seemed like an entire barrio paraded on the beach, and tourists have no qualms joining in for photo ops. Tropical beach, fiestas, and people having fun - heck, it almost felt like we were on a set of a tourism ad.

Enjoy these photos of seemingly endless stretch of luscious white sand beach...

....and crystal clear turquoise waters. 

It gets crowded in the middle of the beach and the water is green with algae, but it's still not that bad.

The sunset isn't bad either.

The grotto is the island's iconic landmark.

A parade along White Beach kicks off the province's week-long Ati-Atihan fiesta. 

The other side of the island stays serene.

Just me, helmet-diving, and pretending that I'm enjoying feeding the fishes while I'm nervously holding on to dear life.

Very nice looking, and very expensive, tribal trinkets sold by the beach.

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