Quezon City: North as Eden

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Cities are human creations. We build cities based on our needs, in the design of our highest ideals of living. Oftentimes, though, caught in the frenzy of our desires, we keep building and building, until our own creations alienate us. The proof? We are exhausted by our cities, by our own creations. We can’t wait to get away for a breather from it all.

Before I became a resident of Quezon City, I went to this city whenever I wanted a weekend of watching movies, buying books, and then eating good, all under a reasonable budget and without having to deal with the stress from dense crowds. It was the nearest haven away from the city of my roots, and ultimately, exhaustion. After I transferred residence and started living in QC for good, I hardly found the need to cross back to Makati or Manila anymore. Everything that I need is in QC, and I take such pride in it that I often encourage friends to travel up north, and just meet me in QC. It’s a city that, after drawing me in for good, still does not tire me at all, and a place where I am confident I can invite friends and family for recreation and relaxation.

And therein lies what I observe to be the thing that separates QC from Metro Manila’s other cities: it has the ability to rejuvenate travelers. How come? Because the people who built this city did not obliterate nature – they worked with it, such that despite being urbanized, QC remains natural. Despite being the most populated Metro Manila city, QC is not plagued by intolerable population density. And precisely because it is huge, the largest Metro Manila city by land area, it remains not fully explored yet. QC is not perfect, plagued as well by typical city problems such as pollution and traffic, but it has somehow found the balance between building and preserving. Much of the earth from which Quezon City was carved can still be seen. It’s a city that manages to mirror the heaven that inspired it.

Cubao: Fields of harvest

Whenever I am asked how I would describe Cubao, I always liken it to being a cross between Ayala Center of Makati and Quiapo of Manila. Cubao possesses the welcoming warmth of Quiapo, its melting pot vibe, but churning in a bigger space, and cleaner. And while it does not exactly have the slick look of Ayala Center, its layout possesses a connectedness which is simpler, with streets and walkways mostly running parallel with each other, and the key establishments built in rows, from the crux of EDSA and Aurora Boulevard. Cubao is easy to navigate.

Cubao’s role as the pioneering commercial district of QC can be traced back from the 1960s, when Negros sugar baron J. Amado Araneta built Araneta Coliseum, then the world’s largest coliseum. The Coliseum became the centerpiece of Araneta Center, a 35-hectare commercial estate which would later be managed by Don Amado’s family. Just as QC was, for a time, the capital of the Philippines from 1948 to 1976, Cubao with Araneta Center became the alternative to Manila’s overcrowded Quiapo and Binondo commercial districts. Cubao’s glitz would later be eclipsed by Makati, after the development of Ayala Center by the mid-1970s. This explains much of that retro air which Cubao also exudes. Despite continuing development, walking the streets of Araneta Center constantly gives me a feeling of walking back in time, in the heydays of its prime in the sixties.

I witnessed a lot of my most unforgettable concerts in the Coliseum, being the regular site of international and local concerts and sporting events. When there is no concert, or collegiate basketball game to look forward to, I derive much of my entertainment from Araneta Center’s main mall, Gateway. Its cinema complex offers comfortable seating and a stylish lobby, occasionally housing photographic or painting exhibits. Sipping a grape snow cone bought from the concessionaire while seeing these exhibits before the film starts already is sure to make my day.

Another Cubao draw is its reasonable shopping and dining options. I recommend the three main stops – Ali Mall, Farmer’s Plaza and Farmer’s Market. Historic Ali Mall, named after boxing legend Muhammad Ali, prides itself as the first major shopping mall in the Philippines. I go to Ali Mall to hang out at the cafés in its bridgeway. For bargains on clothing, bags and shoes, there’s Farmer’s Plaza. With less than a grand, and with sales clerks up for haggling, I can shop for three fine dresses from Farmer’s Plaza’s tiangge, and may even buy earrings or necklaces with the change. For some wet market shopping, there’s Farmer’s Market, famed for its fresh produce.

Within the enclosed market grounds is Dampa, a food court-style dining area where diners have the option to buy fresh fish and other seafood from the wet market, and have them cooked on the spot. Farmer’s Market is also popular for its cutflower and potted plants section, which has been relocated across the main market building, to accommodate more sellers. The bonsai shops are a must-see, and they offer these for as low as Php500, in decorative pots with white pebble or fresh moss trimmings.

Eastwood City: Towering earth

Envisioned by developer Megaworld Corporation as a “live-work-play-learn township,” Eastwood City in Libis rises above southeastern QC with its skyscrapers, housing top international business process outsourcing offices. IBM, Dell, Accenture and Canon are but a few of its high-profile Cyberpark tenants. As the Philippines’ first Cyberpark, the 17-hectare Eastwood City plays a major role in raising employment, with its 100-plus tenant companies having already produced 55,000 jobs, as stated in their 2013 annual report. Eastwood City’s luxury condominium towers are home as well to over 25,000 residents, and Megaworld continues to expand Eastwood’s shopping, dining and entertainment centers.

Now, I do not work in Eastwood, nor have the need to frequent it, which means that all my rare Eastwood visits are actually deliberately planned for entertainment (mostly to see 3-D films, since their cinemas are finely equipped for the technology, and are the most accessible high-end cinema in the southeastern Bagumbayan area), and dining. In Eastwood Cinemas, a butler can deliver snacks and drinks directly to your fully reclining seat. My go-to place after a movie date is usually Johnny Rockets where I would binge on a burger, or just have a soda while stuffing the jukebox machine non-stop with coins, to play retro American pop songs. On occasions when I come here with friends, another stop would be Somethin’ Fishy for its midnight morning buffet. A lot of the buffet’s fanatics come from barhopping, or simply from a full night of work, craving comfort food or latenight recovery dinner.

Those who wish to reward themselves with world-class shopping may check out Eastwood Mall for designer labels like Gucci and Prada. Those who wish to shop for gadgets can go to Eastwood Cyber and Fashion Mall, also lined with stalls of bargain dresses, bags and shoes. If you feel like strolling further, follow the path of the Walk of Fame, where names of celebrities are set in metallic stars in the fashion of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I find it interesting that other characteristic elements of Eastwood go along with the earthiness of QC. Its malls were the first to allow people to walk their pets, gaining the nod of animal welfare groups like the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, while Eastwood Mall prides itself on having a “Central Park,” an outdoor botanical garden with a lagoon, to enhance the shoppers’ exploration. Eastwood’s creators may be aiming for the skies, but with a seeming awareness that they can only reach it if they remain rooted to the natural.

La Mesa Eco-Park: Last frontier

“Jurassic Park!” a friend exclaimed as our car entered the gates of La Mesa Eco-Park. Of course no dinosaur jumped on our path, but indeed, the lushness that confronted us evoked an ancient time, when the earth is much younger. La Mesa Eco-Park is said to be “the last forest of its size in the metropolis.”

La Mesa Watershed and Eco-Park is an ecological park and nature reserve. Right next to the 33-hectare park is La Mesa Dam, which may be viewed by climbing up over 100 steps across the park’s Flower Terraces. The 27-square kilometer earth dam supplies most of the water in Metro Manila, including Quezon City.

People flock to this forest-within-a-city to simply be immersed in nature. It’s typical to see people here just walking around, whiling away the hours through the thicket of trees, and looking up and around. A lot would engage in photo walks, and it is not unusual to see couples having their pre-nup shoots. But for the more active, the park has various features to indulge one’s adventure cravings. The zipline “Slide For Life” runs across the Flower Terrace and offers a sweeping view of the park. There is also the Bungee Jumping Trampoline for those who opt for a vertical high. If riding is your thing, there are two options: horseback-riding and biking. There are numerous bike trails within the park, also fit for trail running.

I highly recommend boating in the lagoons, where each canopied boat can accommodate as many as four people. Paddles are provided, so make sure you assign the rowing to someone really good. The Orchidarium and Butterfly Trail are two other picture-perfect places to hang out in, while the swimming pool is ideal for relaxation, filled with saltwater instead of chlorinated water, which ensures a healthy dip.

ABS-CBN Foundation, one of the partners in saving the watershed and maintaining the park, reports: “To date, there are a total of 82 endemic species that were planted in the La Mesa Forest Nature Reserve as a result of the reforestation. As of November 2012, the forest rehabilitation has reached its early completion. La Mesa is now considered a ‘carbon sink’ as it absorbs 3 percent of the total carbon emissions of Metro Manila.” Surely comforting words. La Mesa Eco-Park may be the last forest of its kind within any city, but its preservation at least assures us that it can live on.

Maginhawa Street: Temptation row

There was just one place I used to frequent in Maginhawa Street, a live jazz cafe, now gone and relocated. It saddened me to see it go, but this is one hard truth about being a restaurant in this 2-kilometer dining strip – you must really be up for the challenge. Those who have remained here over the years have really earned their place.

Among Maginhawa’s enduring pioneers is Van Gogh Is Bipolar. It was my first visit, therefore, I bore with me all the weird stories I heard about the place. I heard of how unruly diners will not be served their food, and would be left waiting for nothing. I heard the place imposes rules, like leaving footwear at the door and setting one’s own bill. And I heard the owner is bipolar, and he’s the one who cooks the food. Despite my little fears, I was aware that the weirdness is the place’s main draw. Later, I saw that far above weirdness, Van Gogh Is Bipolar is a place where our imperfections and weaknesses are embraced, even celebrated. Yes, in Van Gogh Is Bipolar, each of us is acknowledged as having a little cuckoo in the blood, and that’s alright.

Jetro Rafael, the owner, explains it better, with a laugh that surely calmed my apprehensive nerves: “It’s not for everybody, it’s not even for my father.” The restaurant is his home. Every inch bears his imprint, from the quirky interiors and artworks, down to all the dishes he created and cooks.

“I knew I love to create, I love using all my senses,” shared Jetro, who has degrees in Fine Arts and Family Life and Child Development, the later equipping him in counseling and understanding his condition. The restaurant actually rose from some urgent desires: to share his healthy mood-altering “cuckoo diet” made up of all-natural ingredients, “to remove the stigma on people with medical conditions,” and to express his creativity. To partake of the food he prepares, “It’s like you’re eating my painting,” he says.

And then it was time to dig into the ‘painting.’ We had the Bipolar vegan salad, Larry Flynt’s Cabbage Experience, made of one whole freshly boiled cabbage, basil, tomatoes, mangoes, and other organic ingredients. Cabbage, which has vitamin C and folic acid, helps our bodies release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and prevents depression. Cleansing our palate for the next dish was Courtney Love’s Potion of the Day, a concoction of fresh and organic fruit extracts and wild Palawan honey. Next was the mystery main course, a chicken dish he made just for us. The unnamed dish was delectably juicy and tender, and the natural oils of the chicken temptingly glistened under the restaurant’s faint mood lights. Jetro then took out some white wine for us to pair with the chicken, and closed the captivating dinner by treating us to shots of Goldschläger, the iconic Swiss schnapps with flakes of gold.

And just like that, my misconceptions about having a scary dining experience were all proven wrong. “My condition is not a curse, but a gift,” he says, stressing that Van Gogh Is Bipolar has afforded him means not just for self-expression but also for showing people the “grace to appreciate life.” These are food-for-thought I never expected I would hear in the place, even in my days in the old jazz café when I had always wondered what happened on Van Gogh Is Bipolar’s side of the street, like Eve wondering about what the bright red fruit tastes like. Now I know.

University of the Philippines-Diliman: Cradle of creators

It does not surprise me at all how students and alumni of the nation’s premier state university can wax rhapsodic about their school, “UP naming mahal.” I’m not from UP but I love it, being one of the many weekend warriors who go to the campus on Sundays to run the course of its 2.2-kilometer oval.

Simply traversing the path of the oval exposes the traveler to the architectural, sculptural and landscaping marvels of the campus. While much of the landmark buildings were built in the 1950s, they were all in line with master plans laid down even before the Second World War, such that the overall vision for the campus reflected influences of the City Beautiful Movement in the United States, which emphasized monumental grandeur, wide open spaces, picturesque layouts and architectural idioms like mirror or twin buildings.

After the war, construction resumed, and the iconic structures by iconic artists started rising: Palma Hall and Melchor Hall mirroring each other (by UP’s chief architect Cesar Concio); the parallel halls, Gonzales Hall housing the heritage museum and library, and Quezon Hall with its grand pillars and bridge (both by National Artist for Architecture Juan Nakpil); the restored Carillon, still accurately chiming every hour; the twin buildings Benitez Hall and Malcolm Hall (by National Artist for Architecture Juan Arellano); Vinzons Hall with the first-ever reinforced concrete monument in the country, “Cry of Balintawak;” the sculptures “The Spirit of Business” and “Nine Muses” (by National Artist for Visual Arts Napoleon Abueva); the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice showcasing works by four National Artists, the only one of its kind in the country (with the floor mura  “River of Life” by Arturo Luz, the back-to-back hanging crucifix by Napoleon Abueva, the stations of the cross murals by Vicente Manansala, and the church designed by Leandro Locsin); and UP’s most loved monument, the Oblation (by National Artist for Visual Arts Guillermo Tolentino), arms spread out and looking up to the heavens.

Most of these structures may be seen by taking the path of the oval, while others may be seen by taking the side streets that run parallel to the course. Heading to these streets also lead to the campus’ other attractions, such as the restaurant Chocolate Kiss inside Bahay ng Alumni, and the legendary Mang Larry’s Isaw, just a short walk from UP Church.

I used to hear critics lamenting how we Filipinos do not value architecture and sculptures, how we always overlook our monuments, leaving them to rot away in oblivion. The UP Diliman campus serves as proof that we are capable of appreciating and valuing our monuments. Above that, UP’s masterful layout, buildings and sculptures attest to our ability in creating beautiful things that respect the land. After all, in these grounds where our human creations stand in glory, the decades-old acacia trees of the oval are not at all overshadowed. The grand canopies continue to grow, and I run beneath the arms of the earth.

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