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We Arrived: A Weekender in La Union

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I last posted about my travels here. So much has changed since that trip to Turkey, and I have tons of writing to catch up on. But exactly because a lot has changed, I think this is the best travel post to start with—a trip I went on exactly a year ago, which was also my first time to travel with a partner.

That’s right. I’ve gone from backpacking it solo to traveling with a significant other. Late last year, I made a compilation of personal travel tales that I haven’t yet decided to publish. The story below was included there. It’s cheesy and old, but there’s nothing wrong with some cheese once in a while. And since I decided to put this out here, I figured why not go all out and share the video I created as well?


18 August 2017

The sky was dark when we hit the road, but the moon smiled down on our journey. Armed with a tank of gas and a trunk of supplies, we tuned in to our playlist and followed Waze over 300 kilometers north to the surf town called La Union. The trip wasn’t a first for him, but it was for me and for Us. So, in a way, it was a first for him, too.

“Get some sleep,” he told me after our pitstop on the North Luzon Expressway.

“I don’t sleep when the driver’s the only one awake,” I said.

Up I stayed as we drove through provinces, dodging vehicles that lagged on the road and hurtling toward the changing sky. Soon, the first haze of light peered over scary, indistinct blurs of black. In the middle of the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway, we enjoyed the free show. I rolled down my window and, with the wind whipping me awake, captured part of nature’s greeting.

Months before, when We were just He and I, he and I had agreed in our preference for sunsets. That morning, he asked me, “There’s a different charm in sunrises, right?”

I agreed.

The last one I saw had been on my ill-fated flight to Santorini. I had been sleepy too, sitting alone in a plane full of strangers. I’d drifted off and woken up to find we were right where we started—in Athens.

This time around, I sat in a car with someone who had grown to know me better than most. I fell asleep somewhere in the first towns of La Union, but when I woke up, I found we had arrived exactly where we set out to be.


“What time are we going to hike?”

I groaned and curled myself tighter in the passenger seat. The last time I’d opened my eyes, he’d told me we were parked at the famous Flotsam and Jetsam hostel. He’d asked about our hike then too, but I’d closed my eyes and murmured I needed to sleep.

“It’s 8:30. Let’s hike now so we can have lunch then take a nap after.”

Through bleary eyes, I peered at him. I almost snapped. Didn’t he understand I needed to sleep? But it was my first time there, and we said we would hike. So I forced my muscles into motion, stretched out my limbs, and told him I needed to pee first.

After a long tricycle ride, we arrived at the jump-off point to the falls. Instead of excitement, I felt trepidation. My unathletic self was not prepared to hike. But hey, I survived Cappadocia and Santorini. This time, I had the proper footwear. I’d be fine. Or so I told myself—until I crossed that first river and ended up with a broken left sandal. Luckily, our guide Nixon volunteered his own sandal and barefooted it the rest of the way. The sandal was about two sizes too big, but at least my right one was okay.

Twenty minutes later, that broke too.

We hiked into the forest, passing small rice terraces and dramatic cliffs. At one point, we heard people singing karaoke. I realized that this adventure of mine was home to someone else.

“I think we’re near,” he told me as I huffed my way through the trail. He’d said that one time too many that I didn’t believe him when we actually were near the falls.

One close call along the river and more trekking later, we arrived. I heard it before I saw it—the rush of Tangadan Falls. Then I felt it, the gentle spray of water on my hot skin, and later, the insistent shove of the current against my body. There was only a spattering of people there. The solo female traveler and her guide. A couple of guys. Us. And it was just right.

“So, was it worth it?”

I looked at him with the falls at his back, and I breathed a sigh of relief and wonder. “Hmm. I guess it was.”


A long nap and a satisfying dinner later, we arrived at the main reason we traveled to LU. El Union Coffee. The small, open-air room smelled of the best beverage on earth and sounded of music and laughter. We took the last available table between the water station and a group of friends playing cards. I sat and captured the hand-drawn sign and coffee paraphernalia on video, while he bought me coffee like usual.

We often joke that I said yes to him because of all the gayuma he put in my coffees. Maybe if he had brought me that dirty horchata back then, we would’ve been a We months ago. Then again, maybe that was the perfect time for our journey—two months and six days after the night we drove home and I blurted out that random, “Okay.”

As we enjoyed our coffees and a big small serving of s’mores, I marveled at how we’d arrived there. Two opposites sitting together, sharing our love for sunsets (and sometimes sunrises), music, and coffee. And the girl who’d grown to enjoy wandering alone realized there might be something to traveling with a partner in hand. No less me, just now part of a We.

Musical Review: ETO NA! Musikal nAPO! by Globe Live x 9 Works Theatrical

When I found out 9 Works Theatrical and Globe Live would be mounting an original musical featuring APO Hiking Society songs, I was mildly surprised. I liked some of their songs, but those I knew were the modern versions, not the originals. And while I knew of APO, I didn’t really understand how big a role they played in the rise of Original Pilipino Music or OPM.

On the other hand, when I told Vince about Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!, he got that wide-eyed look on his face. Of course I had to bring him along. To complement my take as a relative APO newbie, I asked him to write his own review as a fan—another He Said/She Said like what we did for The Lion King. But first, some facts:

5 Things You Should Know Before Watching Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!

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Photo courtesy of Leo Castillo

    1. APO Hiking Society, better known as APO, was one of the pioneers of OPM. Composed of Danny Javier, Jim Paredes, and Boboy Garrovillo, APO helped push fellow musicians to create Filipino songs instead of simply covering American ones.
    2. Eto Na! Musikal nAPO! is the first original musical collaboration between 9 Works Theatrical and Globe Live. I first heard about it during last year’s press preview for A Christmas Carol, when Globe Live’s Joe Caliro teased us about their next big project.
    3. While Robbie Guevara has a track record of directing musicals, this is his first attempt at penning one himself. Robbie got the idea from APO member Boboy as early as 2013, and he decided to build it around the story of how the group started and evolved. Taking on the enormous role of musical arrangements and orchestrations are Daniel Bartolome and Orly dela Cruz.
    4. Following a group of college friends vying for a singing and songwriting competition, Eto Na! stars Mark Bautista, Jon Philippe Go, Jobim Javier, Alfritz Blanche, Jef Flores, Jon Abella, and Vyen Villanueva. Joining them are Rita Daniela, Marika Sasaki, Sab Jose, Raul Montesa, and Noemi Gonzales.
    5. The remaining shows are on August 11 and 12, 17-19, and 24-26, 2018, at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater, Bonifacio Global City. Friday shows start at 8pm while Saturday and Sunday shows run at 3pm and 8pm.

She Said

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Photo courtesy of Leo Castillo

I went inside the theater just hoping to enjoy good music and have a break from reality—and that’s exactly what happened. From the moment the band started playing an instrumental medley of songs, the music kept coming at us. Some, I recognized: classic favorites like “Panalangin,” “Ewan,” “Pumapatak ang Ulan,” “Nakapagtataka,” and “Batang-Bata Ka Pa.” Others took me by surprise, like “Di Na Natuto” and “When I Met You,” both of which I hadn’t realized were APO originals. Of course, there were those that were completely new to me. Luckily, Eto Na! provided the perfect opportunity for me to get to know APO music better.

The plot may be set during the time of Martial Law, nationwide curfews, and pay phones, but it still feels relevant today. Eto Na! covers themes of love and family, patriotism and personal ambition, and tying them all together was that solid bond of friendship. As I play it back in my mind, I find some gaps in the story, but I hardly noticed in the moment. The storytelling was so engaging, with witty remarks that underlined how different things were back then. There was just the right amount of quips to set us into laughter, timed at just the right moments. After the music, that’s probably my third favorite thing about the show.

Right at the top for me has to be the cast. Each of the actors brought something special to the stage, whether it’s Jobim Javier‘s outlandish charm as Butch, Alfritz Blanche‘s deep, rolling voice and adorable dramatics as Sonny, or Rita Daniela‘s magnetic performance and amazing vocal control as Anna. More than their individual talents, it was their chemistry as a group that really shone through. The entire cast made it so easily to believe the love and conflict they sang about, and they sang it all so well.

This here ranks among my most enjoyed musicals, and it makes me so proud of Pinoy talent. Definitely a must-watch!

He Said

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Photo courtesy of Leo Castillo

I first came across APO’s music when they released their Kami nAPO Muna and Kami nAPO Muna ULIT albums around 12 years ago in collaboration with the biggest local acts back then. Listening to “Nakapagtataka” and “Tuyo Na’ng Damdamin” sang respectively by Sponge Cola and Silent Sanctuary really got me hooked. Soon, I was listening to the entire albums, and then next thing you know, I was listening to the original recordings by APO themselves. So yes, I consider myself a millennial fan of APO music. And I’m glad to be one.

Learning about Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!, I instantly wanted to watch it. So it was quite a pleasant surprise when I found out Marian was invited to the press preview of the show with me as a plus one. Finding out that my college friend, Jon Philippe Go was part of the cast as Ray, made it triple the treat.

Fast forward to how I feel, I can without a doubt say that the show was amazing. From how they incorporated the songs to the story and to the topnotch performance of ALL the cast members. I laughed with “Blue Jeans,” felt lovestruck with “Panalangin,” utterly heartbroken with “Tuyo Na’ng Damdamin” and “Nakapagtataka,” felt the frustration of “Batang-Bata Ka Pa,” and was left longing with “Awit ng Barkada.” It was an emotional roller coaster that I would ride over and over again. Nothing but a standing ovation at the end.

I would recommend everyone to watch it. If you’re an APO fan, it’s a must. If you aren’t, then great! It’s an ear-opening experience of the epitome of OPM music.

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Photo courtesy of Leo Castillo

Eto Na! Musikal nAPO! is only running this August, so don’t miss your chance to watch it! Get your tickets on Ticketworld before the best seats run out.

BlocNation Launch + Zedd in Manila

Last month, my friend Lyra invited me and Vince to Zedd’s concert in The Cove Manila. Little did we know that the passes were actually to the launch party of BlocNation (BNTN), which was held in a private cabana at the concert.


Vince and I had to do some waiting and explaining because our tickets weren’t being recognized by the scanners, but then we found out that we should’ve gone through a different entrance. Still, get in we did. We soon found ourselves in one of The Cove’s special cabanas being welcomed by a rep of PouchNation.

While BNTN was completely new to us, I was already familiar with PouchNation. It was the system I used to buy tickets to this year’s Philippine Art Fair and assign them to my companions. What I particularly enjoyed about it was how it allowed us to check in online and skip the registration lines at the venue itself. That’s convenience right there! [Learn more about PouchNation here.]

Opening Act: BNTN


And that brings us to PouchNation’s brainchild, BNTN. It’s said to be the world’s first decentralized Initial Coin Offering, and to be perfectly honest, that painted a huge question mark on my face. Bitcoin and ICOs are concepts I’ve yet to fully explore. Luckily, I got a taste of it at the launch.

We were given wristbands with the BNTN token, which we used to “pay” for our drinks without the need for cash. All users had to do was to load it up at specific terminals then tap it to pay. I love how simple it is and how it reduces the need to keep a lot of cash on-hand. Oh, and it’s not just for events but for booking hostels too. Now that’s something I want to try for myself!


Zedd Hits the Stage


Being the EDM concert newbies that we were—fine, that was just me—Vince and I were there by ticket time, which meant we were about three hours early. BUT when Zedd hit the stage, all my sleepiness fled. I was up on my heels, because how could you not be when it comes to Zedd?


I thought it wouldn’t be as impactful because there were no live singers and he was just one guy with all that equipment, but I was wrong. That one guy had the crowd wild and the sprawling area of The Cove electric with energy. Sure, Zedd’s music’s undeniably infectious with catchy lyrics and rocking beats, but he gave them a different dimension—something you wouldn’t get from just any DJ spinning his tunes. From the way he dropped those beats and built up the tempo to the way the lights and the visuals perfectly synced with the music, it was such an engaging experience. It almost felt like he was telling a story with an intro, a climax, and an end.

Close Encounters (aka Why You Should Look up from Your Phone)


Zedd played for almost two hours straight, and I barely felt the time pass. It gave me a taste of why music festivals are so popular. The energy’s different from your usual concert, and I got a high that had nothing to do with illegal substances or alcohol. He was definitely worth the wait…and at the end of it, I got the surprise of my life when the elevator doors opened and out he came, surrounded by his bodyguards.

For a few seconds, he stood just an arm’s length away from me. Our eyes met, and just when I processed that yes, it was Zedd, he was whisked away. I was left blinking at Vince, who hadn’t realized what just happened. We tried to go after Zedd, but he was gone.

I didn’t even get to sneak in a selfie.


Still, it was a great night—my first brush with dICO, my first EDM concert, my first time to see Zedd up close and personal. Not too shabby for this tita!


Check out this cool video of BlocNation’s launch party at Zedd’s concert! Guess who makes a quick cameo?:))

Q&A with Calvyn Grandling and Noxolo Dlamini + Musical Review: THE LION KING in Manila

If there’s one song I’ve been singing for the longest time without knowing the lyrics, it has to be The Lion King‘s “Circle of Life.” I’m sure I’m not alone in this—although the English lyrics are easy to understand, there’s that African chant that perfectly sets the mood for this iconic Disney musical yet leaves plenty of space for, ahem, improvisation.

The Lion King is part of my childhood soundtrack, and its stage adaptation has long been on my list of must-see Broadway musicals. So when I heard that Manila would be their first stop in this year’s international tour, there was no way I could miss it. Luckily, I didn’t just get to see the show, I was also invited to an exclusive lunch with Calvyn Grandling and Noxolo Dlamini, otherwise known as Simba and Nala.

A Date with Calvyn and Noxolo


Held at the Solaire Resort and Casino, the Cast Lunch was an intimate affair with some of Globe Live’s customers, ambassadors, and media friends. Calvyn and Noxolo (apparently called Noxy for short) welcomed us with a sweet rendition of the classic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Then it was time to chow down on grub that was significantly more substantial than Simba, Timon, and Pumba’s usual fare.

Once we had filled our bellies, we settled down for a Q&A with the King and Queen of Pride Rock. Here are a few snippets from that session:

How do you prepare to portray Nala?

Noxy: When you walk into the room, you really have to channel your inner lioness and what you think a lion would be… A lot of our movement comes from the Javanese. It’s not on all fours. It’s just remembering the stature of a lion and exuding it.

What do you think of the Philippines and your Filipino cast members?

Calvyn: I personally love the culture over here. I think you’re setting a big standard for the world where we are gonna go, and I just feel like [it’s] the best place for us to start this tour off. It’s about culture and this warmth from the people. People is everything. Food is everything. Not traffic, but all else I really love. Our little Simbas and little Nalas are Filipino, and their smiles and their love and their talent is incredible.

Is there a difference in the production of the Lion King in the Philippines?

Noxy: What’s special about the performance that Filipinos are getting is the authentic sound of the African. There’s a lot of South Africans in the cast. Majority of the performers are actually South Africans so it’s a really beautiful sound… It’ll definitely be a different sound. If you watched it in New York, this is definitely more African.

20180412_135506What advice would you give aspiring theater performers?

Calvyn: Keep believing in yourself ’cause a lot of people will tell you what they think of you. Your directors and everybody around you would give you a picture of you that they want you to be. But know who you are… Keep reminding yourself of those five things that you love about yourself, and those will be the things that become your inner song that keeps repeating in your mind whenever they say you’re not the person that they want for this job. Then you’ll be fine with it because you know who you are. And keep working at it… Preparation is key. Our bodies are our business so we have to look after ourselves.

Noxy: If you can’t breathe without it, then you know it’s the one that you have to do. This industry is not easy because as we know there is a lot of rejection, but you need to bounce back, and you need to remember why you started to begin with. Remember how it feels like to not do it so you make sure that you do do it. And always work hard at it. You can’t always just focus on one part of your talent, but you need to make sure that you’re able to acquire other skills, like singing and dancing and acting and this and that. Make sure that you’re proactive in what you do… Just make sure that you’re open-minded, and open up your heart and your mind to learning experiences. Just always go for it. It’s not easy but you do what you gotta do.


He Said, She Said: A Review of The Lion King


For a change, I thought I’d invite my regular theater companion of late to share his thoughts on The Lion King from a guy’s point-of-view. We often have clashing opinions, but we pretty much agreed on this one. Read on for a his-and-her review of The Lion King in Manila.

He Said:

They said that The Lion King has one of the best opening acts of all musicals with “Circle of Life,” and I couldn’t agree more. Seeing all of those costumes while the drums were beating was quite a treat, and I could feel my adult self time traveling back in time when I first watched the animated movie as a kid. That’s how good the production is. That also sets the bar in a way similar to how a child views his dad as Superman. You want the performers to give you that sense of wonder and joy you had as a kid, which in truth might not be really fair. I felt like I expected my Simba to really be that petulant lion pup who grows to be a hesitant but mighty king or my Mufasa to be that commanding figure with that deep James Earl Jones voice to make me want to listen (tough shoes to fill, I know) every time he speaks or sings. Unfortunately, they didn’t live up to my expectations. I can say though, the musical made me love Timon and Pumbaa more and made me despise Scar just a little bit further but also form a grudging respect for him.

But I left the theatre feeling like a child again, and wishing I could just stay with Timon and Pumbaa and “Hakuna Matata” life away.

She Said:

More than its popularity and awards, it was the nostalgia that made The Lion King such a must-see for me. It had been part of my childhood, and the music alone could take me back to the time I watched it on VHS.

The press called it a visual spectacle, and it was easy to see why. The entire production exuded creativity. The animal costumes integrate with the human body so well and create the atmosphere of an animal kingdom on stage. Throw in sets which glide and lower onto the stage with precision and lighting that paints each scene with emotions, and you’ve got a delight for the eyes. As the cast of various animals appeared for the “Circle of Life,” I couldn’t help but smile and feel like a kid again, with my eyes darting from one side of the stage to another.

We intentionally didn’t listen to the Broadway soundtrack before watching, so while we knew the songs from the movie, there were new ones too. Even the familiar ones had a more mature sound with clear African influence. Unfortunately, none of the new songs really stuck with me, save for “He Lives in You,” which Rafiki sings to the adult Simba.

One of the problems with having an attachment to the original film is that I had expectations regarding how the characters would sound. While most of the cast did a good job bringing their characters to life, I felt that our Simba (played by Calvyn’s alternate, Felipe Flores) and Mufasa (Mothokozisi Emkay Khanyile) lacked the vocal power I wanted to hear from the king of the Pride Lands. Noxy had a more mature yet undeniably feline approach to Nala, and Antony Lawrence portrayed a cunning yet mesmerizing Scar. My favorites have to be Pierre van Heerden and Jamie McGregor, who really nailed the comedic duo Pumbaa and Timon, and André Jewson’s masterful miming of Zazu. I also have to mention Ntsepa Pitjeng, who entertained as the stick-wielding Rafiki.

The Lion King‘s theme of finding your place in the world resonates still—even more now than it did when I was younger. It’s easier to sympathize not only with Simba’s self-doubt, but also his struggle between enjoying a life of no worries (“Hakuna Matata!”) and taking on the responsibilities of the King. Adulting, as we like to say now.

Overall, The Lion King is indeed a spectacle and a glorious celebration of creativity. I’d recommend it to Disney fans and to anyone who just wants to enjoy a feel-good, world-class show.



Catch The Lion King at the Theatre at Solaire until May 20, 2018.  Tickets available at Ticketworld!


Musical Review: HIMALA by The Sandbox Collective x 9 Works Theatrical

Watching Himala: Ang Musikal taught me two things. First, that I hadn’t seen it before. Second, YES—the hype was real.

Everyone said it was an experience that would stay with you, but I didn’t want to pin my hopes on other people’s opinions. After watching the play for myself, I can say that it was a musical experience unlike any I’ve witnessed before. It was disturbing and painful and beautifully made, and I hope more people get to enjoy it.

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From the moment I entered the Power Mac Center Spotlight and walked into the remote barrio called Cupang, I felt that charged hush in the air. The seats were arranged theater-in-the-round style, with the audience separated from the small, open stage by simple wooden fences and sparse stalks of leaves. As people wandered into the center, there were no performers, only townspeople of Cupang dealing with their personal struggles in the midst of drought. I had a front-row seat to Elsa’s confession to their priest about seeing the Virgin Mary. I watched from the sidelines as Elsa’s healing powers made her a celebrity, and I witnessed Cupang and its villagers change and descend into chaos with the onslaught of tourists.

At times, it was confusing. I’d hear a voice from a distant corner then peer at the opposite direction when another group comes bustling in. But it grounded me further into the reality of the scene, making me feel like I was there—a bystander taking it all in with a mounting sense of dread at what was to come. There were times Elsa and her best friend Chayong were just inches away from me, and I felt like I was intruding on their private conversation and their pain.

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Yes, director Ed Lacson Jr‘s staging was immersive and unique. The intimacy of it challenged the actors to stay rooted in their characters, and they delivered. Whether it was Kakki Teodoro providing dark humor as Nimia, Neomi Gonzales being the dutiful and devout Chayong, Sandino Martin struggling to find the means to work abroad, or Floyd Tena trying to keep the peace as priest—each of the people onstage told their own personal story and helped build the collective tragedy of Cupang. Aicelle Santos stepped into Elsa’s skin with so much conviction that I had no doubt she had found the essence of the controversial lead. Despite the relative silence of her character, Bituin Escalante portrayed Elsa’s mother with quiet strength and steadfast love that especially shone through in her solo.

One of my favorite parts about Himala was how sound—and sometimes the lack of it—was as much a character as the people. Having only a lone piano as accompaniment highlighted the emotion in the actor’s voices. And by going mic-free, their voices sounded crisper and purer, showing off the compelling lyrics of musical director Vince DeJesus.

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I used to wonder why the most memorable musicals are the saddest, most dramatic ones. But while I love happy musicals and that light, bubbly feeling they give me, I realized that the highs of their happy ever afters pale next to the vast, aching lows of tragic theater. Sadness and heartbreak and those other emotions that fall on the dark end of the spectrum pierce deeper and leave an ache long after the cut.

Himala resonated all the more because it was so genuinely Filipino and hit so close to home. Even though it was based on the 1982 film, it still felt relevant. The struggles of the characters still hold true—the yearning to belong, the need for something to believe in, the desperation to survive. At times, I wanted to look away or stand up and yell at everyone to snap back to their senses. It made me think about how easy it is to get caught up in the frenzy of the crowd and to judge when you’re on the outside looking in.

But Himala showed that many individual stories make up a headline, and these stories involve people who, like us, have their own dreams and problems. Its parting song reminded me that we are miracles in ourselves and that we are capable of making miracles. It’s a heavy, powerful message that could just help change the world. It left me asking myself, “What miracles can I create for others?”

Definitely a must-watch.


HimalaCharacterPosters2 Ricky Lee and Vincent DeJesus’ Himala: Isang Musikal will be showing at the Power MAC Center Spotlight, Circuit Makati until March 4, 2018.

For inquiries and tickets, contact 0917.5545560, 586.7105,, or Ticketworld at 891.9999. For a list of show buyers and contact details, please visit The Sandbox Collective or 9 Works Theatrical online. 

6 Things You Should Know About Himala: Isang Musikal

When I heard of Himala: Isang Musikal last year, I wondered if I had ever seen the film it was based on. A part of me thought I had watched it in one of my Filipino classes, but I wasn’t sure. After last week’s press conference, my memory is still as hazy as ever. Everyone from the production and cast to the press raved about how unforgettable the piece is, making me think that, maybe, I hadn’t seen it at all. If I had, I would remember. Right?

That seems like I’m blindly subscribing to other people’s claims though—ironically, a theme this story plays upon. If I want to find out for sure, I have to see it for myself.

Luckily, I won’t have to wait long. The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical are bringing Himala back to the stage this February, and from the sneak peek that I got, it’s set to be one emotional rollercoaster of a musical. Read on to learn more about this production, and enjoy a preview of its music!


1. Himala: Isang Musikal is an original musical adapted from Ishmael Bernal’s 1982 film.

Penned by Ricky Lee, Himala tells the story of the people of Cupang, an isolated barrio in the thick of drought. They find hope in Elsa, who claims to have the gift of healing after having a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As news of Elsa spread, curious visitors pile in, and the town descends into chaos in their struggle to survive.

Lee derived the name Cupang from ‘coping,’ saying, “This is a community of people who are suffering and coping.” He shared that his writing was initially rejected because it wasn’t a love story, but he feels fulfilled by the success of Himala and its many reincarnations.

It was musical director Vince DeJesus who took on the task of adapting Himala for the stage in 2003. He first saw the film when he was 15 and believes that it becomes more relevant as you grow old. “It has many layers—faith, faithlessness, fanaticism, how a good person can go wrong in an effort to be loved end up being broken,” he said. 2018 marks the 15th year since DeJesus finished writing the libretto with Lee, and he’s excited to celebrate it with a new cast.


2. Ed Lacson, Jr. landed the role of director of Himala at a drinking session.

Lacson shared that he was drinking with DeJesus and some friends when they offered the musical for him to direct. He accepted but thought that was just the alcohol talking. To his surprise, he got a call from Vince two days later asking for a meeting. “Then it dawned on me that they were really serious when they asked me,” Lacson said.

It was in his college years that he first saw Himala, and the images were burned in his mind.  “When I was starting out, the musical made an impact, and it was one of those things that drives you in your chosen path,” Lacson said. “I feel like there’s a new generation like me who would benefit from seeing this particular material. That drinking session was almost 2 years ago. And it took us almost a year and a half before we found the right people to produce it.”


3. Himala marks the first collaboration between The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical.

Although The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical are family, this is the first time they officially partnered for a production. Anna Santamaria, the Operations Director of The Sandbox Collective, said they had been looking for an original Filipino musical for a while. They learned Lacson was searching for someone to mount Himala, which was perfect. “It’s a powerful play with haunting and beautiful music,” Santamaria said.

Santi Santamaria, the Executive Producer of 9 Works Theatrical, shared that it was the best time for them to help The Sandbox Collective, especially with such an iconic musical. They had worked with Lacson before and believed that no one would be able to direct Himala better than him. But Santamaria had a condition for Lacson—he had to create the set for last year’s run of A Christmas Carol. And so he did.


Photo courtesy of The Sandbox Collective

4. Himala‘s restaging features a completely new—yet still star-studded—cast.

Awit Awardee Aicelle Santos leads the cast as Elsa, with Kakki Teodoro joining her as the former prostitute Nimia, Neomi Gonzales as Elsa’s childhood friend Chayong, Sandino Martin as Chayong’s former lover Pilo, David Ezra as Orly the filmmaker, Bituin Escalante as Elsa’s mother, Floyd Tena as the priest of the town, and Omar Uddin as a child.

Rounding out the cast are Jenny Villegas, Glenda Liao, Cristy Peredo, Matel Patayon, Sigrid Balbas, Hazel Maranan, Raflesia Bravo, Roxy Aldiosa, EJ Pepito, Joshua Cabiladas, Kits Falcis, Roby Malubay, Gary Junsay, Mano Domingo, Neil Tolentino, Jasper Jimenez, Onyl Torres, Chuck Hipol, Ivan Panganiban, Alfritz Blanche, Ronna Gubba, Nel Gumalog, Katreen Dela Cruz, CK Manlili, Anjanette Vargas, Hannah Grefaroa, Joshua Isidera, Nhoel Obsequio, Eizel Marcelo and Andrew Estacio.

When Aicelle learned she had landed the role of Elsa, she was happy and excited, but only for about three minutes. Then, the enormity of her role sank in, and she felt scared. She confessed that she is still in the process of finding Elsa—a challenge that she is up for. Luckily, she has the entire town of Cupang rooting for her.


5. This stripped-down production of Himala is said to be an immersive experience.

Instead of trying to mount a bigger and more spectacular production, Lacson went the opposite route. “I wanted to go simpler—to distill it and to really simplify and find the strength in the stories and characters, in the ironies of all those little scenes where you see them as people making decisions to survive and cope [with] the everyday happenings,” he said.

He described his style as minimalist, including only the elements needed to tell the story and push it forward. Unlike previous stagings, he opted not to put choreography, relying on the strength of his cast in building their individual characters. He will, however, follow the tradition of limiting accompaniment to a single piano. There will be no microphones, just the piano and human voice. He believes this will make it easier for the audience to connect emotionally to the characters and locate them onstage.

As for the immersive element? Audience, prepare to be part of the set. Because of the limited space, Lacson decided to push the scenic elements to the sides, effectively putting the set on the audience. “It’s more of a feeling of coming into the town of Cupang,” he explained.

6. Himala is a Filipino story that’s as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1982 and 2004.

“How did an entire town—an entire country—end up in that situation because of one girl’s statement, whether it’s true or not? It’s very common nowadays,” said Lacson. Despite the role religion plays in the story, he doesn’t think it’s the central theme. “It was just a vehicle of telling this story. For us to see how Filipinos decide,” he explained. “It’s so Filipino sensitivity—the decision-making couldn’t happen anywhere else. The situations, everything has to happen in the Philippines.”

This restaging began as a passion project for Lacson, DeJesus, and their partners, but they knew they wanted to do it for a new generation. Lacson believes that anyone’s first experience of Himala is and will always be the best, so this is meant especially for new viewers. He said, “Hopefully, in removing the artifices, the spectacles, we go down to the core of the film, the core of the musical, which is people trying to cope and survive. Hopefully, that’s powerful enough for you to get in the story and be invested in it. And hopefully, you’ll leave the theater feeling something. Not to be entertained or be taken away from the current happening but to really experience something and feel something.”

Ricky Lee and Vincent DeJesus’ Himala: Isang Musikal will be showing at the Power MAC Center Spotlight, Circuit Makati from February 10 to March 4, 2018. For inquiries and tickets, contact 0917.5545560, 586.7105,, or Ticketworld at 891.9999. For a list of show buyers and contact details, please visit The Sandbox Collective or 9 Works Theatrical online. 

See you at the theater!


Himala: Isang Musikal is a production of The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical, together with MAC Cosmetics as the official makeup partner, Lyric as official music partner and Privato Hotel as official hotel partner. Special thanks to Ayala Land and Fringe Manila.

Journeying in Winter

I often travel in spring.

At first I did it out of necessity, because the break between March and June was the longest we had as students. Then, as I fell deeper in wanderlust, I learned that those months were the best time to travel around Europe. The air still carried with it a certain chill, yet the sun burned bright into the night, allowing me to walk around even after closing hours. By then, nature would have shaken off the last of the winter frost and would bloom with color and life. I got the longer days without the mega crowds and price hikes of summer. Perfect.

The closest to winter I’ve experienced was when I was sent to Germany for training in November. I remember borrowing coats, thermals, and gloves—anything that could keep me warm in temperatures that we didn’t get in Manila with air conditioning. My colleague and I walked around all bundled up, ducking into cafes when it got too cold. I got sick after that first day. I woke up with the world spinning around me, the slightest movement making me groan.

I bounced back in time for our training and made it through two other sightseeing trips. While I enjoyed exploring the Christmas market in Hamburg, I remember feeling weighed down by my layers of clothes. We visited Berlin’s Topography of Terror at four in the afternoon and saw the moon floating in the sky. Days were short and cold, and they tempted me to stay indoors with a warm cup of coffee.

So though I dream of experiencing the first fall of snow and leaving marks like angels in the ground, I have to admit I’m quite wary of winter. Ironically, I traveled to Europe last spring, and now I find myself stuck in winter here in the tropical land I call home.

No, it hasn’t been snowing. Still, I feel the signs of winter all the same. It’s there in the shorter days and the evening chill, but more especially within me. Everything feels dialed down. Muted. It seems that as the temperature drops, so do other things—my energy, my productivity, my drive. Few things sound better than simply tucking myself in bed and letting the season pass me by.

During our final prayer meeting for the year, we talked about winter as one of the seasons of our lives. How the darkness of our circumstances makes it easy for us to lose our sense of direction and purpose. How our inner light grows dim, and we seem to stall.

The talk couldn’t have hit closer to home. I’ve known for a while that this isn’t the best period in my life. As I approach the big 3-0, I feel the need to catch up with everyone else but lack the will to do so. My heart feels heavy with anxiety, and my dreams seem so far away. Sometimes, I wonder if they’re still there at all.

In my notes, I wrote, Stay the course. Spring always follows winter. It may be delayed, but it is sure to come. Learn to wait for God’s perfect time.

It always comes down to that, doesn’t it? Waiting. That has always come hard to me, whether I’m waiting in line or waiting for a big moment to happen. It’s even harder when I wait for bad things to pass. Yet when I think of the things I had to wait for, I realize that they do come. And when they do, their value feels greater for my having waited for them.

A friend of mine told me how excited she was for the things that would unfold in my life. As surely as a seed takes root and breaks through the frost, so too will my struggles bear fruit. For now, I continue to put one foot in front of the other and journey on, no matter how thick the snow or dark the road. I’ll travel at my own pace, keeping faith that God’s plans for me are so much better than any itinerary I could make.

And one day, I’ll wake up and realize that spring has come.


Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 (NABRE)

No One Can Determine the Right Time to Act

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

What profit have workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time, but has put the timeless into their hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.

Featured photo by Larisa-K via Pixabay

Musical Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Globe Live x 9 Works Theatrical

With the Christmas rush in full swing, I avoid going to Makati and BGC, especially on a Friday night. Yet last week, we braved the TGIF traffic to watch Globe Live and 9 Works Theatrical’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I missed it last year—I couldn’t miss it again. Luckily, the roads cleared enough that we arrived at Bonifacio High Street with enough time for a quick dinner.

In the Globe Iconic Store amphitheater, we stared at the lopsided brick buildings onstage and the oversized clock crowning them. People filed in, many of them families with kids buzzing with anticipation. I was excited—excited to see how they would top their production of Disney’s Newsies and to experience some snow.

Soon, the stage lit up and music swelled. Time for some holiday magic.


A Christmas Carol opens with an English town caught in the flurries of the holidays. Everyone’s merry and giving, except rich old Ebenezer Scrooge (Miguel Faustmann). He scolds kids, turns away pleas for donations, and rejects his nephew’s invitation to their Christmas dinner. As he says, “It has nothing to do with me.” Bah humbug.

On the eve of Christmas, the ghost of Scrooge’s former business partner Jacob Marley appears in chains. He warns Scrooge that he’ll be doomed to a similar fate unless he changes his selfish, miserly ways. Then comes an intervention of the otherworldly kind. The ghosts of his Christmas past, present, and future pay him a visit to show him the misfortunes that have made him bitter, the realities he has chosen to be blind to, and the possible consequences his greed may have on other people.


The folks at Globe Live and 9 Works really took me on a ride with A Christmas Carol. In the opening scene, they dropped me in the thick of the town’s holiday excitement, which reminded me of Christmas in the Philippines—families coming together over food, surrounded with lots of lights, colors, and music. Everything was bright and happy, but in came Scrooge to ruin the fun. Then night fell, and an ominous mist filled the stage.

As part of the audience, I knew that the ghosts were actual people and that this was a child-friendly play, yet I still felt a slight chill at how realistic the apparitions seemed. Each ghost had its own unique character, from the flamboyant Ghost of Christmas Past (Franco Laurel) to the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present (Nico Dans) to the manic Ghost of Christmas Future (Rissey Reyes).

Each haunting stoked different emotions in me—sympathy for Scrooge’s miserable childhood, disgust at how badly he treated others, and a mix of sadness and anger at the bleak future they painted. With each scene, they turned up the tempo, so that when we came to the appearance of his tombstone, I felt much like Scrooge probably had—exhausted, regretful, and convinced that there needed to be a change.


The original material is rich on its own, with Charles Dickens’ classic novella serving as a solid foundation which award-winning Alan Menken and Lynn Arhens colored with music. Yet the cast and crew really brought it to life with so much energy and creativity. I love how they gave it a modern spin, adding what felt to me like an ethnic, almost tribal element—particularly with the scene of the Ghost of Christmas Future.

They combined lights, sounds, mist, costumes, and movement to make a spectacle of the big scenes, but I also enjoyed the intimacy of the quieter ones, especially when it came to the family of Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit (Jon Abella). My favorite moments were the ones where I saw the vulnerabilities of the characters—young Scrooge (Diego Soler) left as an orphan, Bob Cratchit buying a Christmas chicken with his son Tiny Tim (Elai Estrella), and old Scrooge watching his nephew Fred (Arman Ferrer) with his family. I have to confess though, some parts of the dialogues weren’t clear to me because of the sounds.


I can’t compare this second run of A Christmas Carol to that of last year’s, but I can say that I truly enjoyed the musical. Director Robbie Guevara promised a show better than his last, and he and his team delivered. Miguel Faustmann amazed me with his unflagging energy despite his many quick changes. Blocking shifts, dances, even being lifted by a horde of ghosts looked all too easy for him, and he was perfect in the role of Scrooge.

Franco Laurel, Nico Dans, and Rissey Reyes were equally convincing in their roles, first as folks Scrooge ignored in town, and ultimately as the three ghosts of Christmas. I was especially impressed by Rissey’s transformation from the weak beggar to the wildly dancing Ghost of Christmas Future. Jon Abella’s performance as Bob Cratchit had me feeling for him both as an employee and a struggling father, and Elai Estrella charmed me as his sick yet happy son Tiny Tim. It was interesting to see the interactions between the veteran actors and the younger stars. I could feel how tight-knit the cast was and how they supported each other.


Before watching the show, I hadn’t read Charles Dickens’ novella nor seen any of the movie adaptations (at least, that I can remember). Now I understand why it’s such a holiday staple. The story hit me right in the heart. With all the outside noise and worldly perceptions of what it is to live a full life, it’s easy to get caught up in my own wants and needs and overlook other people. As another year closes, A Christmas Carol reminds me to reflect on what I’ve done, what I’m doing, and what more I could do—not simply in relation to myself, but for the people around me as well. And in this merriest of seasons, I am invited to give more of myself to others.

A Christmas Carol 2017 Cover Photo

Enjoy the holiday spirit by watching A Christmas Carol with your loved ones! It runs at the Globe Iconic Bonifacio High Street Amphitheater on December 7-9, 14-16, 21-22, and 26-27 at 8 PM, and on December 10, 17, and 25 at 7 PM. For tickets, contact Ticketworld at 891-9999.

Scroll down for some photos from the play!


A Christmas Carol is a production of Globe Live and 9 Works Theatrical, with MUD (Make up Designory) as the official makeup partner. Special thanks to Bonifacio High Street.

A Christmas Carol is presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI).

6 Reasons You Shouldn’t Miss Globe Live x 9 Works Theatrical’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Nights are growing colder, lights are twinkling around the city, and traffic is building up everywhere. Our favorite—and longest-running—holiday is here.

When I think of Christmas, I think simbanggabi, noche buena, and bibingka, hamon, and ensaymada with family and friends. We’ve got plenty of traditions for this merriest of seasons, but who says we can’t use more?

Enter Globe Live and 9 Works Theatrical.

Last year, they debuted A Christmas Carol, inspired by New York City’s yearly staging of the same musical at Madison Square Garden. They’re bringing it back this December, and it’s gearing up to be bigger and better than before. At the press conference, director Robbie Guevara of 9 Works explained that this was always part of their plan, saying, “We will be mounting a Christmas show every year to make it a tradition, to help make Christmas more fun. It’s not a bah-humbug thing to come and watch a show during Christmas [and during Christmas Day].”

Whether you caught its run last year or have yet to watch this musical, here are six reasons to include A Christmas Carol in your holiday festivities:

A Christmas Carol 2017 Cover Photo

1. We could all use some cheer

It’s been a tough year, with troubling news popping up left and right. But despite how bleak things get, there’s always something to be thankful for. What better way to be reminded of that than by Charles Dickens’ classic tale? A Christmas Carol tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter wealthy old man haunted by the ghosts of his past, present, and future. Each encounter awakens the goodness in him and shows him what Christmas really means.

It may have been written back in 1843, but doesn’t it still sound relevant today?


2. The music was created by Alan Menken

There’s nothing like great music to strike up a festive mood. And if there’s a composer who’s mastered magical music-making, it’s the award-winning Alan Menken. Think Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Tangled, and the recently mounted Newsies. For A Christmas Carol, Menken paired up with lyricist Lynn Arhens to create music that evokes the spirit of Christmas.

Check out this preview of “A Place Called Home,” Young Ebenezer’s duet with his fiancée Emily—the video’s quite blurry, but you can hear the music just fine!

A Christmas Carol show photo by Jaypee Maristaza 2

 3. It’s not just a rerun of last year’s show

Globe Live and 9 Works Theatrical may have brought back the same source material for this year’s Christmas show, but it’s far from a rerun. Globe Live executive producer Joe Caliro said, “It’s the same musical, but a different show.” They’ve tapped a different set designer—Ed Lacson Jr, who also did the set for Newsies—and with that, had to think of new ways of staging the show.

Coming from their successful production of Newsies last July, they’re challenging themselves to raise the bar once more, especially when it comes to choreography. Director Robbie Guevara said, “People always ask me, ‘What’s your best show?’ I’ll always say, ‘My next one.’”

I truly enjoyed Newsies, so I’m expecting one heck of a show come December.


4. It brings together theater veterans and promising new talents

Here’s one more thing that’s different—the cast! While you’ll see some very familiar faces, you’ll meet new ones too. Miguel Faustmann heads the returning cast as Ebenezer Scrooge. Joining him are stage veterans Franco Laurel as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Noel Rayos as Jacob Marley and Mr. Fezziwig. Nico Dans plays the Ghost of Christmas Present and Rissey Reyes, the Ghost of Christmas Future. Bringing their unique energy to the stage are young performers Elai Estrella and Jaime Yupangco, who alternately play Tiny Tim.

You may also recognize some names from the rest of the cast: Jon Abella as Bob Cratchit, Tricia Canilao as Mrs. Cratchit, Dawn Eduave as Mrs. Fezziwig, Laurence Mossman as Young Ebenezer, Arman Ferrer as Fred, Mitzie Lao as Emily, Gian Gloria as Sally, Krystal Brimner and Rayne Cortez as Grace Smythe, Tory Cortez as Jonathon, Omar Uddin and Diego Soler as Scrooge at 12, Simone Martinez and Cerise Ramirez as Fan, Joe Ng and Bourne Luna as Fred’s son, Kyle Francisco as Martha Cratchit, MC dela Cruz as Mr. Smythe, JP Basco as Young Marley, Josh Ramirez as John William Scrooge, Kendrick Ibasco as Beadle, Vyen Villanueva as Mr. Hawkins, Jourdan Bartolome as Old Joe, Mariella Laurel as Scrooge’s mother, Peachy Atilano-Guevara as Mrs. Mops, Shalee Vicencio as Mrs. Hawkins, and Joni Galeste.


5. It gives us a way to share some love this Christmas

Joe Caliro, Globe Head for Creative Marketing and Multi-Media Services, said, “We chose to stage A Christmas Carol again because it resonates with the colorful holiday celebrations here in the Philippines. It also teaches us the valuable lesson of giving, which is what the season is all about.”

In line with that, A Christmas Carol will feature the “Wall of Miracles” display. We can decorate this with ornaments sold at the venue. The proceeds will be combined with a donation of Globe Live to the HERO (Help, Educate, and Rear Orphans) Foundation. So not only will those ornaments add more Christmas flair, they’ll also help keep military orphans in school!

A Christmas Carol show photo by Jaypee Maristaza

6. It runs on Christmas Day

That’s right—on December 25! After you’ve finished eating noche buena, opening gifts, and catching up on sleep, head on with your family and friends to the Globe Iconic Bonifacio High Street Amphitheater and round up your celebration with A Christmas Carol. Last year’s Christmas Show had an audience of around 3,000 people, with some arriving as early as 3 PM to set up their blankets on the grass.

If you’d rather avoid the crowd, you’ve got plenty of show dates to choose from. The show will run on December 7-9, 14-16, 21-22, and 26-27 at 8 PM, and on December 10, 17, and 25 at 7 PM. For tickets, contact Ticketworld at 891-9999.

Scroll down for some photos from the press conference. See you guys at the theater!

A Christmas Carol is a production of Globe Live and 9 Works Theatrical, with MUD (Make up Designory) as the official makeup partner. Special thanks to Bonifacio High Street.

A Christmas Carol is presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI).

Three days in Istanbul, Turkey

In my previous post, I wrote an overview of my experience in Istanbul, a city that’s so much more than what the headlines say. (Read why here!) We only stayed there for three full days—hardly enough to exhaust all it had to offer. It left me wanting to go back, and I will someday. After all, I still have to ride a hot air balloon over Cappadocia.

I’ve never been one to keep tabs on my daily expenses, but I do try to keep track of the places I visit. Here, I share our DIY tour of Turkey’s historical, religious, and cultural center. Check out my travel maps as well as some tips and photos. For a detailed list of my stops per day, click the leftmost icon on each map’s title bar.


Day One – Walking up and down the streets of Sultanahmet



One of my favorite things about Istanbul is how many of its landmarks are within walking distance of each other—particularly in Sultanahmet, its old city. We’d chosen an Airbnb right in the area, which is perfect for both sightseeing and eating. After breakfast and coffee at Cigdem (good food and service!), we explored Sultanahmet Square, where we found the German Fountain, Obelisk of Theodosius, Serpent Column, and Walled Obelisk. *Tip: Look for the plaques and signposts marking each monument. They have descriptions in English. 

From there, we were supposed to visit the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Camii. Since it was closed for prayer time, we went ahead to Hagia Sophia—the great church-turned-mosque-turned-museum that put Istanbul on my bucket list. We spent about two hours following our audio guide, which isn’t included in the ticket price but is highly recommended. Don’t miss the climb up the ancient ramp to the Upper Gallery! *Tip: Entry costs 40TL, but if you plan to visit several stops over 5 days, you may want to get the Museum Pass for 85TL, which will give you access to the Topkapi Palace and Harem, Chora Church, and a number of other museums.

Since we were low on battery gadget-wise and energy-wise, we headed to Divan Yolu Street, their main boulevard. My target? DÖNER. We ended up at Antik Büfe, which sadly didn’t live up to my expectation. As per our brother’s advice, we had dessert at Grande Cafe, which offered beautiful views of the Sultanahmet area.

After we had our fill, we walked up the street to the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul’s most famous underground water reservoir—unfortunately not covered by the Museum Pass. I first saw this in Dan Brown’s Inferno movie, and while it was quite impressive (the Medusa heads especially), I would’ve appreciated it more had there been an audio guide or more information.  *Tip: Entry costs 20TL, but it might be better to visit when there’s a concert going on.

Finally, we got to enter the Blue Mosque, which turned out to be my favorite stop. It’s gorgeous from the outside alone, but inside, it’s very intricate, ethereal. It gets its name from its 20,000 blue tiles, and I’d say this is a must-see in addition to the Hagia Sophia. *Tip: Entry is free, but you’ll have to take off your shoes. Women are required to cover their heads, shoulders, and legs with the wrap provided for free.

Still tired from our flights, we capped off day one with dinner at Ortaklar Kebap Lahmacun and grabbed ice cream on the walk home. *Tip: Try their lahmacun, or Turkish pizza. Portions are huge!

Day Two – Seeking different views of the city


We kicked off day two with breakfast at Mado. It has several branches, but the one along Divan Yolu offers a nice view—ask to eat at the upper levels. Rain was forecast for the day, and we got our first taste of it as we walked to the Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman Empire’s imperial palace. There were several groups of students touring the area, so we ditched the recommended route and went to the Harem first. With its elaborate walls and ceilings, it’s a feast for the eyes. Tip: Cost: 30TL + 15TL for the Harem, but both are included in the Museum Pass. The entire Topkapi Palace is quite big, so allot a few hours for this if you want to maximize your visit.

All that exploration got us so hungry that we didn’t want to venture further than Divan Yolu. We ordered our own plates of köfte (meatballs—yum!) at Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi. They served it with a basket of bread, from which I assembled a meatball sandwich to eat later. Since traveling with my sister means eating dessert, we went next door to Hafiz Mustafa, where she sampled different baklavas and I drank my Turkish coffee.

To work off those calories, we walked to the Grand Bazaar, known as the oldest shopping mall in the world. Shoppers are spoiled for choice here, but we just had some money exchanged and headed on to the Suleymaniye Mosque. It’s a bit of an uphill trek as it’s perched on one of Istanbul’s seven hills, but it makes for a nice, more peaceful visit. Tip: Entry is free, with the same restrictions as the Blue Mosque. Head on to the terrace behind the mosque for a different view of the city. 

Time to head over to the other side of the Bosphorus. We crossed the Galata Bridge on foot to the tune of different languages and the scent of fish, then hiked up a narrow, winding road with artsy stores to the Galata Tower. We were supposed to visit just in time for sunset, but upon seeing the line snaking in front of it, decided to go ahead with it. The wait was much longer than our actual visit. The views were nice though cloudy—honestly, I could’ve skipped this. Tip: Entry is 18.50TL. As an alternative, eat at its restaurant or any other restaurant/bar with a view.

Speaking of a restaurant with a view, my sister’s Google search led us to the nearby Leb-i Derya. We managed to get in without a reservation and found that it did live up to its high ratings. The view, and the restaurant itself, was gorgeous and the food was delicious…and pricey. We split our orders then walked to Karakoy Gulluoglu, which had been recommended to us for its desserts. Tip: GO. It’s baklava heaven. Expect a crowd and remember to pay at the cashier first before placing your order.

We ate our baklavas by the riverside then, too tired to make the trek home, tried their public transport for the first time. It was a struggle to buy our tram ticket—thankfully, the next guy in line offered to help us!

Day Three – Across and crossing the Bosphorus River

For our final day in Istanbul, we woke up bright and early to catch a tram to Dolmabahce Palace, which served as the home of the Sultan after Topkapi Palace. It was our farthest stop but was well worth going the distance for. With its mix of Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Ottoman style, this palace is magnificent and the largest in Turkey. Unfortunately, photos inside its buildings aren’t allowed. Tip: Entry costs 40TL—not included in the Museum Pass—but is worth the price considering your tours inside the buildings will be guided. Check for the schedule of tours in your language.

We’d planned to catch the 2:30pm Bosphorus Cruise, so we took a tram back to Eminönü, from which the ferry would depart. Famished, we ate at the first restaurant we found interesting—Tatseven Restoran. This was a stroke of genius, as their döner turned out to be the best I tried in the city. Just nearby was Coffeetopia, a specialty coffee shop that I would gladly go back to. The joe was great, and so was the ambiance.

Just before 2pm, we walked to the Sehir Hatlari office to buy our tickets for their Short Bosphorus Cruise. The ferry was free seating, so we settled in at the outdoor area of the second level. For around two hours, we sailed peacefully from Eminönü to Istinye and back, stopping at Üsküdar and Ortaköy to let people off. Tip: The short cruise costs 12TL, while the full cruise costs 25TL. Bring a sweater or scarf as it can get really cold—and keep an eye out for dolphins!

It was a day for different kinds of public transportation, as we decided to take the underground railway Tünel up to Istiklal instead of walking up as we had the day before. That gave us enough time to visit the Galata Mevlevi Lodge, the city’s first Mawlawi house. Since we missed the whirling dervish ceremony, our visit was pretty quick. Tip: Entry costs 10TL and is included in the Museum Pass. Check their site for the schedule of ceremonies.

We stopped at Ozsut for snacks and a toilet break before going to Santa Maria Draperis for Sunday mass. It was a small Catholic church tucked away between shops and restaurants along Istiklal street. There were only 14 of us, each from our different part of the world, all coming together for the same purpose. The mass was in Spanish, but the priest translated his homily for us English speakers. He spoke of being based in Manila for 5 years, and I was amazed at how our paths crossed. Definitely one of my most memorable experiences in Istanbul.

For dinner, we followed Anthony Bourdain to Dürümzade, where we found delicious dürüm (Turkish wrap) sold cheap. Tip: It’s open 24 hours! Dessert was künefe, a cheese phyllo pastry, from Taksim Sutis. One tram ride later, and it was a wrap for my first visit to Istanbul. ♥♥♥

Up next? Cappadocia!