Gracias, Brunei

"I was thinking of buying an I ♥ Brunei shirt but I don't love Brunei so I didn't", said the tourist who I first met aboard the hotel mini-bus on our way to see the Regatta competition.

True. Wearing one would make you a lying endorser.

I have been holed up here for almost three months now and though I have made friends and somehow unwillingly settled in the way of life, I still could not say "love"... because "love" is a strong word. However, there are plenty of good things I can say about Brunei.

Lovely, even on a cloudy day

I anticipate getting out of work to see the colors of dusk that pops out in the wide, wide sky each day.

I appreciate how people will pull up on the street offering a ride because no one really walks on the street. I get to explain that walking is my exercise.

I enjoy going to work each day and seeing the clear blue sky without skyscrapers interrupting my view. Everyone has a car, every single household has an average of 2-3 cars, but the roads are never, ever full. No traffic jams.

I like the fact that everywhere I look I see nature waving its hands at me. I see vast open spaces, trees, and sometimes surprises like a gecko staring at me or a scrambling monkey come my way.

I am still baffled at how this country is the 5th richest in the world but I have never seen the rich citizens rub it on everyone else's face, well, except for the fancy cars I commonly see on the streets.

I envy how I could not see any obvious signs of inequality of wealth distribution. I've asked around if there are homeless people. They say yes there are homeless people but I don't see them wandering on the streets because apparently, the government takes care of them. Crime rate is almost zero. There was a time when we left our car door unlocked and opened wide (silly, yes) for a couple of hours, with all our laptops inside.  We came rushing back when we saw the door open only to find all things intact, nothing missing. Oh how I wish to have the same thing for my country.

I applaud the government in the way they take care of its people. Free education, free health service, no income tax, and again.. no income tax.  The socialist policies in place make the citizens happy. Life is good for Bruneians and though political analysts out there might say a lot of things about the how country is managed, the people love their ruler. In one of the blogs I have read, most people have developed political apathy. Who wouldn't? If all your needs are provided, your government is the last thing you will need to worry about. The only reason why people are not flocking over here is that it is almost impossible to be a citizen. I've met someone who has been here for the last 25 years, heck, I even know someone who was born and both of them are still not citizens of this country.

Although the biggest turn-off for me is the lack of entertainment, with Brunei being a dry country, I realized that the bonds people form here are forged over good conversations. They actually have fun sober. I may sound like a total hypocrite but wouldn't it be lovely to have a nice conversation without having to wait for the alcohol to work its magic? I found it absurd at first but I got used to the idea already.. or better yet, I know now where I can get my Jack+Coke. Foreigners can bring 2L of alcohol in so I brought my wine and vodka with me and we usually drop by an open secret place I now call MH for a drink or two. Or if a drinking spree is badly needed, you can always cross the border.

Life is good in Brunei. So what is not to love?

I am happy for the Bruneians that they get to enjoy things that most Filipinos could only dream of. In a way, I envy the good life they have. But in my present state of mind, when I am always yearning and striving for who-knows-what, Brunei and I don't exactly gel. Some things are amiss. I need to feel the vibrance which keeps me on my toes each day, I need to have that push to keep on getting better, I need to serve my senses with alternating periods of calm and frenzy. When things are going well, it is easy to feel contented. I have always found the word contentment as a double-edged sword. Although everything is served, I refuse to be in a place where life is rosy because it forces me into being stuck and complacent, disguised as contentment.

However, I am never the type to close doors. I believe that we must never, ever dismiss something for good, especially the place that made me know a lot more about myself. For now, I am eagerly looking forward to the next stop. Home, that is.

Rode a Bike in Vietnam, With A Scar To Prove

If a picture paints a thousand words, I'm pretty sure this one shows a happy lady on her bike, wearing a smile to mask a grimace.

A year and a half ago, I embarked on a challenge to finally learn how to bike at the age of 26. With the help of a friend who patiently taught me and who actually researched how to teach an adult to ride a bike, I was finally able to go around my neighborhood on 2 wheels, even braving the trail at Timberland. I also tried to bike around Manila, crossing Edsa from Magallanes to Makati, and that was probably the only day when I spit so many expletives, all aimed towards jeepney drivers.
I wanted to go for something bigger. The dream that I had in mind was to go biking in a busy place, where no one knows me. I wanted to bike in another country's busy streets. That specific country I pictured in my mind was Vietnam. 
Fast forward to November 2012, I finally step foot on the motorcycle-crazy streets of Vietnam. 
I did not dare find a bike in the streets of Ho Chi Minh, where the probability of being killed while crossing the street or even just walking on the sidewalk (if there's even one) is rocket high. Then we came to visit the small, ancient town of Hoi An where we emptied our pockets and splurged on great food. Since the town is a Unesco Heritage site, much of the place is protected, and most streets are closed to traffic, except for bicycles. Hoi An looked safe enough to go biking around.
So we declared our second day in Hoi An as Bike Day. We rented out bikes and went around the town early in the morning. It was such a joy biking around and stopping anywhere we wanted, taking photos of the shops that thankfully opened late in the day, and following the locals getting around with their daily lives wearing their conical hats. 
The good thing about Hoi An is, there are plenty of places to explore, all a bike ride's distance away. On our way to An Bang beach late in the afternoon, rain suddenly poured. We were already out in the open highway when rain started falling like pellets, and since I am almost always never ready for the rain, I was soaked even before reaching the beach. From being immobile in 2011 to biking in the open highway under the rain a year later, I felt like I have finally reached the pinnacle of my late bloomer biking dreams. I felt invincible.

An Bang Beach
The wind was cold and it was probably not a good idea to go swimming, and the sky looked like it was going to let another batch of rain out. We decided to make one last stop inside the town of Hoi An before finally calling it a day. I needed to have my photo taken: me on my bike, with the lanterns and shops as background. A photo that screams Biking in Hoi An.

We made our way back to the town, which always got busy with tourists at night. With many people out on the streets, it was quite tricky to maneuver past groups walking like they owned the streets. It was still good though since the streets were closed to vehicles. Feeling like I have earned a new badge in my biking career, I felt confident overtaking tourists walking slowly on the street. As I maneuvered to the left to try to overtake a group of 4 tourists, a motorcycle popped out of nowhere and was suddenly running close on my left side. In between running down a tourist and smashing against a motorcycle, my hand decided to go left, locking handle bars with the motorcycle, and in a split second, I said hello to the gray concrete street.

Imagine my ego crashing down with me. The whole afternoon I was elated with my biking skills, and suddenly, I got into a minor accident.

And just like a kid who does not want to be embarrassed in front of her friends, I quickly stood up, brushed myself clean, took my bag, grabbed my bike, and smiled to let everyone know I was fine. I made a mental note that the motorcycle and the driver crashed down with me (meaning I did not go down without a fight haha). That made me sound so evil but we were not really running at a high speed so the crash did not really harm us, except for the wound on my knee, a few scratches on my leg, and a bruised ego.

After putting some liniment on my wound, we decided to go ahead, take a photo, and go home. I was shaking when I rode the bike again, my legs turned to jelly, and paranoia dawned on me. Someone honked at me because I could not navigate through oncoming traffic for a few minutes.

Finally, we reached the spot.

I put a smile on and tried not to wince for the camera.

Biking in Vietnam will be remembered. And if ever I forget, I just have to look at the scar on my knee and be reminded.

Bike photo by Aaron Manila.