The Real Temple Run

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What makes a 21k run around Cambodia’s Angkor Wat exhilarating

Back when Temple Run was a hit, I decided to someday go running around the jungle temples of Cambodia. Dodge some crazed gorillas maybe. Jump over ravines probably. Definitely with the dashing air of Indy Jones.

In July 2014, it came true.

The plan was to go around the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, from my hotel in Siem Reap and back to it in maybe three or four hours. My first half-marathon.

It was grand.

The sweat and blisters and vehicle smoke notwithstanding, the run was exhilarating, for three key reasons:

The change of landscapes — from Siem Riep’s bustling streets to the asphalted road with impenetrable jungles on either side to the majestic moat surrounding Angkor Wat — made for a real beholding of raw and rugged beauty. Add to the experience the monsoon rain that goes berserk one moment and gives way to the sizzling sun in another.

With a bit of imagination, I “saw” how ancient Khmers transported the 10 million sandstone blocks from faraway mountains. It is said that King Suryavarman II had the Angkor Wat built in the early 1100s, dedicating it to the Hindu god Vishnu. His ambition for the project was such that the temple — currently the world’s largest religious monument at 1.6 million square meters — would be a gilt heaven on earth — Mount Meru, home of the gods. It boggles the mind how such a colossal complex would be located in the middle of nowhere: now the complex is practically in a the middle of a vast forest, but in its heyday it was a city larger and busier than London at the time.

The air was fresh, crisp, and moist — far from what I was used to in urban Manila. Drizzles punctuated the run, but that only made it more exciting, and refreshing when needed. It’s good to plan your route well, though. There were stretches in the route that were hardly inhabited (but the roads were well paved); I didn’t have a bottle of water with me, so I had to run a couple of miles before I reached the nearest store. Don’t be like me.

Angkor Wat from its east entrance, at the moat’s edge.

So if you happen to visit Siem Reap, why not go temple running? It’ll be a unique experience. But don’t commit the mortal sin of not taking a closer look at the temples a day or two before your run (there are more than a dozen in Angkor alone). They are ruins, yes. But what treasures they hold. On that trip to Angkor Wat, I realized the impermanence of earthly life and glory, and how nature and time can overcome man in the end. If you want adventure and some introspecting, go to Siem Reap.

And don’t just go: run.

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Anatomy of a Toxic Relationship

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Phantom Thread (2017) weaves a story of love, revenge, insanity

Phantom Thread is a study on toxic relationships with a proposal on how to live with it — if you’re insane enough.

Three-time Oscar Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis plays the perfectionist fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. Set in 1950s London, heiresses and royalty come to him for their dresses. To these women, Woodcock is a god who turns them into silken queens in ermine coats.

Woodcock carries an air of silent dukedom and magnetism, a calm flirtatiousness that streams out in choice words. We see this perfectly when he retreats to the countryside and meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), the young, coy, and audacious waitress who serves him breakfast. The first time they talk, you’d think they’d known each other for years. Not that they talk profusely; they don’t, they’re British. In fact, a formal customer-waitress transaction ensues, but you know a life-long deal is already being negotiated. You just know one is tailor made for the other. They know it, too.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) believes he’ll never get married because of his profession. Photo: Focus Features

So soon Alma finds herself in London, working for Woodcock as assistant and model. But more than that, she is the old man’s muse and sweetheart.

Trouble begins to brew during breakfast when Woodcock demands fuss-free silence over the table. Alma was buttering her toast and tinkling some china and disturbing Woodcock from his dress-sketching reverie. The man stormed out of the room, enraged.

Woodcock then maintains a manipulative and demanding behavior that smothers Alma’s naivety. There’s already a preview to this attitude in the couple’s first after-date date, at Woodcock’s country cottage, when he took Alma’s measurements, with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) noting the numbers. “You have no breasts,” he said, casually. The startled girl apologized, and Woodcock just said, “no, no, you’re perfect” — to the girl’s baffled relief — “My job to give you some. If I choose to.” When Woodcock went out of the room to get a sample dress, Cyril noted that Alma actually has the ideal shape. The scene was weird, but you’re endeared, like Alma, to the thought that for once, what you thought was a weakness is actually a strength.

Breakfast is time dedicated to silence, at least according to Reynolds Woodcock. Photo: Focus Features

Too bad, Alma is too insecure to leave Woodcock inspite of his genteel douchery; she craves his attention, his esteem. At one crucial point, he tells her he doesn’t need her.

Then the world goes upside down.

Alma takes her revenge. The story goes to a sickening swerve, making you question your previous feelings towards the couple. Is it right to hurt the person you love, who happens to be a prick in tuxedo? Will you tolerate an endless cycle of abuse, knowing that…you can do something similar and reignite that early-stage romance?

According to one writer, the film seems to be the best “food movie” in recent memory. Photo: Focus Features

Phantom Thread — one of the Best Picture nominees at the 2018 Oscars — is a beautiful zooming in to contrasts: Woodcock’s posh lifestyle versus Alma’s rustic upbringing; his exact measurements and demands versus her haphazard outlook in life; his condescension versus her tacit rebellion; his superstitions versus her culinary science; his loving and wounding, and hers.

In the end, one may feel sympathy for the two loonies — for the old man who has not grown up and for the young woman who’s ready to mother him…their niche of Freudian f*ckery. But I bet no one wants that kind of relationship — a prequel to hell.

Help Wanted

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Kathryn Stockett’s The Help boasts humor and heartbreak

Everyone has a story. Many tend to have a ready audience; others struggle to make a few listen. But some of them just don’t get to tell it at all — because society forbids it.

Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, revolves around the lives of three women in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s who are bound by a uniting misery — alienation, a need to be heard.

But how can they overcome it? Aibileen and Minny are oppressed, black maids with their grim stories: Aibileen — still recovering from her son’s sudden death four years ago — has raised and loved 17 white children, some of whom have now unloved her because of her skin color; meanwhile Minny has more children (and a bigger mouth) than she can handle, and is reputed to cook Jackson’s best chocolate cream pie (chief villain Hilly Holbrook can attest to that). Skeeter, on the other hand, is fresh out of college and single — the worst combination for a decent white woman, according to her mother — and rather the ostrich among her flamingo friends: Skeeter is just too different. The three end up writing a book that would rock Jackson to the core.

Viola Davis as Aibileen. She was nominated in the Oscars for Best Actress. Photo: Dreamworks

Throughout the book, Stockett displays her genius in humor, drama, and nuanced characterizations. The story alternates through the perspectives (and dialects) of its three protagonists — equally insightful, of course, but Minny’s point of view is the juiciest and spiciest. She reminds you of the officemate who whispers between snortles on how tacky the manager’s dress was at last night’s gala.

The novel also has no shortage of heart-wrenching subplots: Aibileen’s relationship with her ward kid, Mae Mobley, who doesn’t get any love from her witless mother; Skeeter’s love-hate relationship with her own manipulative mother; and the overall plight of the black community described in the book.

What’s great about Stockett is that she made sure all the characters were flesh-and-bones human. There is a strong advocacy for equality, sure, but the sort that says whether black or white, people do good and bad. The characters’ complexities bring diverse flavors to the book’s 453 pages, which do not feel long at all.

Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly), Sissy Spacek (Hilly’s mom), and Octavia Spencer (Minny) have the most hilariously gross scene in the film. Photo: Dreamworks

Two years after Stockett published The Help — her debut novel — writer-director Tate Taylor adapted the book to a film starring Viola Davis (Aibileen), Emma Stone (Skeeter), and Octavia Spencer (Minny) who won Best Supporting Actress in the Oscars. The film was also nominated for Best Picture.

Totally not bad for a debut novel.

And I confirm the rumor is true: The Help is outstanding, both book and film. It’s one of those pieces of art that make you think — no matter your skin color or other data you put in your curriculum vitae— “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

Scandals and Snobbery at Downton Abbey

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Photo: Carnival

Why this period drama is worth binging on— in style, of course

I knew I was watching too much Downton Abbey when my thoughts started to acquire a British accent. I’m sure other pretentious non-Brit Downton fans experienced the same.

Downton Abbey is a multi-awarded British TV series that ran from 2010 to 2015. Written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), it follows the life of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, who all live at a majestic Jacobethan castle, Downton Abbey, with a story spanning 1912-1926.

Only a few days ago, it was announced that filming of a Downton Abbey movie will begin next month. For sure, interest in the series will leap again. I’m going to get my accent back.

Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) are one of the central couples in the series. Photo: Nick Briggs

So what’s the big deal about Downton?

Dame Maggie Smith — Professor McGonagall — stars as the indefatigably wry, prim, and sagacious Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet. I haven’t seen much of Smith’s other work except in the Harry Potter films, but it is in Downton Abbey where she, in true Violet fashion, barges into your consciousness and dominates it. All her lines are delivered with perfect comedic timing. Sometimes I imagine myself having tea with Lady Violet: I’d sizzle in her gaze like sauteed onion.

Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) is the prudishly wry matriarch of the Crawley family. Photo: Carnival

As a period drama, it’s a fascinating glimpse into an era we secretly miss. A time when people worshiped etiquette and chivalry. A time when people strove to show their dignity and their respect for others through what they wear. One striking feature of that period is how servants — particularly butlers, valets, and footmen — dressed up almost as well as their masters. As Downton’s butler, Carson, would say, that is how families distinguish themselves as noble, that even their servants reflect their glory.

Everything is in apparent order downstairs, thanks to the strictness of butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter). Photo: Gary Moyes

The characters (dozens of them!) are memorably endearing. Aside from Lady Violet, there’s her son, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Gratham, and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). They have three daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Season 1 begins with the family discovering the fate of the Titatic — Robert’s heir presumptive (and Mary’s second-cousin and fiance) had been in it. And so enter the Crawley’s middle-class distant relatives Matthew (Dan Stevens) and his mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), who definitely provide more texture to the drama.

And then there are the “downstairs” people, the servants, who lead lives as interesting as those upstairs. Carson (Jim Carter), the strict family butler, is the literal big boss, assisted by the stoic head housekeeper, Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan). They keep the household in order. But sometimes they have to keep their own employees in order, too, including rebellious head footman Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and his partner-in-crime Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran). And, of course, the Abbey has love teams: Mary and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Sybil and chivalry-incarnate Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Mary’s personal maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Robert’s valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle).

John Bates (Brendan Coyle) is the valet who ends up marrying head maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Photo: Nick Briggs

The series offers an intriguing contrast between the aristocrats and their servants and a perspective on how they ultimately are similar. Whether upstairs or downstairs, life is always rife with scandal and friendship and conspiracy and love. Perhaps the entire range of storylines in an effective dramatic series are explored here: deceptions, betrayals, trysts, verbal wars, actual wars, deaths. It’s feels galore.

The Crawley family and some of their servants. Photo: Carnival

Finally, Downton Abbey gives insights into how the social conditions of the time affected the characters’ lives. You’ll empathize with Mary, who has to figure out if she could marry Matthew, who is from a class lower than hers and is supposed to inherit what could have been hers by the fact that she’s the eldest child of the dower! (In the UK, only male heirs could inherit titles and properties of aristocrats.) You’ll find the dawning of feminism and moderate liberalism among the Crawley ladies encouraging, especially when Sybil motivates a maid to pursue her dreams of becoming an office clerk. You’ll also find how compassion and delicadeza are used when dealing with a homosexual scandal at Downton. Overall, the series provides a look into the transition from the stringent, prudish attitude of the 19th century to the modern, more libertarian mentality of the 20th.

Official teaser image for the Downton Abbey movie

Unfortunately, Downton Abbey isn’t available on Netflix. But it is on PBS Passport and Amazon Prime (and other sources *wink wink*). And while you probably don’t have to watch all 6 seasons to appreciate the movie, you’ll still miss one-fourth of your life if you don’t.

Try it. If it’s not your cup of tea or you don’t have time, don’t blame yourself. After all, as Lady Violet would say:

“Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s so middle-class.”

There’s a lot in Latin

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Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Why a “dead language” is worth studying or getting familiar with

Many people call Latin a dead language — as dead as its foremost perpetuator, the Catholic Church, which is 1 billion strong and 2,000 years old.

What these fools don’t get is the fact that many English words actually are Latin or have Latin roots. And often, when coining new words, people still use Latin morphemes (word components) without being aware of it: Brexit, social media, bullet journal, vape, app.

Like it or not, Latin is here to stay. And learning it — even just a bit — is going to make you perceive literature and life as more interesting.

Five of the many benefits of learning Latin are the following:

  • You’ll find stories behind the words you use. Take the word “baccalaureate”. It’s from the Latin term for laurel berry. In the 17th century (when “baccalaureate” was first used), laurel leaves used to be awarded to scholars — like ancient Olympic champions. Romantic nerds.
  • You’ll find it easier to guess the meaning of unfamiliar, Latin-derived words. Like, did you know the meaning of “antebellum” the first time you encountered it? Maybe not. But if you had elementary Latin, you’ll know that ante means “before” and bellum means “war”. So antebellum means before the war (particularly the American Civil War — Murica is such a fan of Latin — check their motto).
The Latin inscription above the Pantheon entrance in Rome is a display of hubris. It says, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built this.” Photo by Jessi Pena on Unsplash
  • You’ll be able to create new words with panache — just string relevant Latins words together and voila, verbum novum.
  • You’ll be able to connect to a time long gone, when Latin was the official language of the pious and the powerful. It still amazes me to know how, in praying the Angelus in Latin, one actually echoes the exact words of various Medieval and Renaissance popes and paupers.
  • Last but not least: you’ll feel intelligent. Newton-smart. BDE-level confident. But of course you won’t be flaunting your knowledge all the time. You’ll have to wait for opportunities, like being assigned to give the Word of the Day in a Toastmasters meeting; or look for subtle ways, like writing about your supposed Latin-savvy in one of your blog posts. Ouch.

So those are my top 5 reasons Latin is an interesting subject.

Yeah. It’s nerdy as heck. You can actually just forget I said those. Because, really, Latin can absolutely be useful in only one catastrophic situation: when the cab driver refuses you a ride, and all you can do is scare the hell out of him by rapidly reciting some Latin words and make him think it’s witchcraft.