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Friday, September 4, 2009

Brunei 40 Years in 4 Days

Lynett A Villariba wrote for the Philippines Daily Inquirer on 29th August 2009 about her visit to Brunei:-


Bonding in Brunei: 40 years in 4 days

By Lynett A. Villariba
Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE EXPEDITION was hatched during a reunion lunch when an overseas call came in as we were digging into our oysters and foie gras and dips and taro chips at Felix in Makati.

It was Philippine Ambassador to Brunei Virginia Honrado Benavidez expressing regrets in having resurfaced only recently in our e-group as she asked us: Could we come over before she ends her tour of duty in the “Abode of Peace” that Darussalam means?

Before we could settle for our dessert, we had already settled to go girl bonding in a land we hadn’t been to. We thought travel would be a delightful way to gain a fresh perspective on events and relationships, if not to test a 40-year sisterhood interrupted by career and family.

So with $420 worth of gold and vacation time, off we went.

Final five

Our delegation of five golden girls finally arrived at Bandar Seri Begawan airport lugging each one’s tale of transformation since we resolved in our college youth that nothing could make us quit in pursuing our dreams.

Marife Butalid Zamora took a respite from her Convergys command post to join us even as she remained wired and on call as country manager of the largest call center in the country. She would get a better appreciation of the well-liked work ethic of the 22,000-strong overseas Filipino workers in Brunei.

Former VP for a top Filipino fast-food chain, food technologist Reme Baclig was seeing Brunei again, this time for leisure, after having overseen her former company’s overseas expansion that has grown to 11 Jollibee outlets (serving halal food and no pork) in the capital city alone.

We had a doctor on board with us whom we fondly call Baby Doc. Elisa Baby Allado was an MBA (Masters in Business Management) graduate who made a 180-degree career shift at age 50 to become a doctor specializing in hospice care catering to terminally ill indigents.

For this, the UP Sigma Delta Phi Alumnae Association awarded her the Mariang Maya, given to distinguished member-achievers in social service and the cause of womanhood, for the sorority’s 75th year.

The instigator of our travel is one who could say yes as quickly as she turns her financial success into philanthropy that is as silent as the Pink Sisters in prayer. (I know she’d rather not reveal this but then she is half a globe away in New York City marrying off her only daughter Alarice.) The private Mona Lacanlale waived flying first class to join us in economy.

From the moment the embassy protocol officers facilitated our airport arrival, we were treated like royalty at every turn. Underneath the diplomatic cover is a discovery of an affluent land of no pollution (confined to abundant gas and oil installations); no typhoon; no tsunami (away from the Pacific rim); and a culture of no pickpockets, the 375,000 subjects loyal to their Sultan, fearful of God and the justice system.

To be affluent

You would want to be a wage earner in affluent Brunei if only for the fact that the government found no need to tax personal income. Talk about a tax haven for our overseas Filipino workers.

As for us, to prove how cautious and prudent we were at taking out Philippine money, we would spend only B$2 (about P66) buying from the champoy store of indigenous pickled fruit preserves whose names were unfamiliar but whose taste was exotic.

By the second day we were sampling the King’s gold up close at the 180-hectare, six-star Empire Hotel and Country Club, swimming at a portion of the beachside pool, and taking Dorchester high tea at Asia’s most opulent hotel Lobby.

Not only did we find gold-plated Roman columns and furnishings everywhere, we were also transformed into Midases touching gold-plated bathroom taps and toilet cleaning brushes, which we have had to squint lest our eyes turn jaundiced.

Our discovery tour progressed to the source of the kingdom’s wealth as we motored to Kuala Belait Oil town one hour away. Ambassador’s daughter Bianca and cultural officer Monette Garcia guided us past well-appointed recreational parks to the Billionth Barrel monument and then through an interactive science tour of the Oil and Gas Discovery Centre.

Not only were we lying on a bed of nails or experiencing an Intensity 8 earthquake, but Mona, who has taken over her late husband’s interests, was keenly observing the miniature presentation of the oil-gas production process that made the tiny sultanate a major world oil producer and fourth largest producer of liquefied natural gas in the world.

Mona ticked off the numbers that titillates: The average 180,000 barrels of oil a day and around .3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year turned out from oil fields and offshore sites amount to more than 90 percent of the country’s exports, assuring a well-to-do economy – the highest in Asia – secured from the global meltdown.

40 years in 4 days

Over breakfast and dinner of home-cooked food at the Ambassador’s residence named Ang Bahay, we lost no time catching up on 40 years in four days. Banters and serious laughter shook the stately house in a quiet suburban neighborhood with juicy retelling of the lives of six sisters: two married, two separated, one widowed and one single.

We reveled on the mundane, too, sifting fact from rumor on the colorful lives of royalty and Philippine celebrities within the 1,700 rooms of the world’s largest residential palace. However, the discreet diplomat made us swear on her Bible that what was spoken in Ang Bahay stays in Ang Bahay. For her sake, we complied.

But what can be said was that the Ambassador’s kitchen diplomacy extended all the way to Istana Palace as its residents’ reported favorite dessert is baked in Ang Bahay, aptly named Chocolate Cake Royale. (Could this be the secret ingredient of RP-Brunei close ties, aside from hitting the right notes with Philippine Magic Sing that make up the royal ladies’ past time?)

Our last lesson was on Brunei’s culture with visits to its National Museum and Malay Technology Museum. By evening, we joined the dinner that Ambassador Benavidez was hosting for the Muslim Filipino Association officers.

Capping more than a decade and a quarter career stint in Brunei – from Consul-General to Charge d’ Affaires to Ambassador – the outgoing Dean of the Diplomatic Corps for the last three years gave us the best education on Brunei and diplomacy in a blitz.

And, oh yes, about the treasure we came here for? We have taken it home with us.

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