Dashing through the snow (travel tales)

Published November 29, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Jaime Laya


I missed what would have been my first snowfall.  It happened on Thanksgiving Weekend the year I was in graduate school at Georgia Tech. Tatay had kept in touch with Texan GI Joseph Slay who was billeted with us during the 1945 Battle of Manila. He invited me to visit and I spent a couple of days with him in Austin and San Antonio. Then off to New Orleans for an afternoon walk around the French Quarter and the overnight Greyhound back to school.

I arrived in Atlanta at dawn, welcomed by icicles hanging from every tree.  While I was away it had snowed, then warmed a bit, and then froze. In the bright morning sun, the campus was a giant cave with golden stalactites.

WINTERSCAPE Moscow’s Red Square in winter (Google Images)

My first real dash through the snow was three weeks later when my classmate Peter Martelloto and I drove to New York for the holidays. We left mid-afternoon, passed cold and bare fields; and eventually the empty streets of Richmond and Philadelphia, arriving before dawn at Peter’s home in snow-covered Brooklyn. I was 20 then and all-nighters meant nothing.

Naturally I scooped up a handful and threw my first snowball. The welcome was as warm and enthusiastic as Italians know how. Then, off to Manhattan where I spent the rest of the week slushing through dirty half-melted snow.

Cousins Ed and Nilda Lagumbay invited me to stay with them at 110th Street West that many young Filipino diplomats called home, among them Vesta Cuyugan who rose to be Ambassador to New Zealand. In a one-in-a-million chance I ran into my former economics professor and U.P. fellow faculty member Dr. Amado A. Castro at packed and freezing Times Square and we greeted 1960 together.

Later snowy and freezing encounters were less exciting. We shiver when it’s 28 degrees Celsius; in Arizona on my way home it was minus 8 degrees Celsius.

I was back in the U.S. a couple of years later, to California for more graduate work. It rarely snows in the Bay Area, but true to its name, it does in the Sierra Nevada.  Yosemite Valley is incomparable year-round but is spectacular in winter. I tried skiing, headed straight to a snowbank and gave up after five meters.

It was winter when I was first in Beijing, just before diplomatic relations were formally established. I had two thick wool coats on but it was seriously cold. Outside, were, battalions of leg-powered bicycle riders all in blue and black. On a subsequent visit, barely a dozen years later, no bicycles were in sight—streets were jammed with cars and lined with skyscrapers.

On another China visit, I got caught in a hailstorm, mothball-sized ice balls noisily clattered on rooftops and on heads of people unlucky to be out without hard hats or thick umbrellas.

Winter is sosyalan time in the west and as member of a mission headed by First Lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, the trip coincided with the Wiener Opernball, held at the Vienna Opera House.  It’s one of Europe’s social highlights with some 5,000 guests dressed and bejeweled to the nines, sipping champagne, watching maybe 200 pairs of debutantes and their escorts on a formal waltz, and then dancing till dawn.

A temporary floor is built over the orchestra pit and auditorium, making one enormous ballroom from backstage to the entrance doors. Boxes were filled with nobility, celebrities, and the rich and famous of business and politics. Mrs. Marcos made a dramatic entrance and was escorted to the Presidential Box.

Wearing the de rigueur white tie and tails (a.k.a. frac), I was in the box of the Philippine delegation entranced over the entire scene and the beautiful people gracefully gliding to Strauss’ “The Blue Danube.” The heaters were at max and sweat gushed from every pore. I had a bad cold the rest of the trip.

Just as memorable was my one Russian visit. I was headed for St. Petersburg (still Leningrad then) and the Hermitage Museum and had a connection in Moscow. It was November, still autumn, but it was already teeth-chattering cold and already getting dark at 4 p.m.  I remembered Tolstoy and sympathized with Napoleon. Having no food was bad enough, but no food and no firewood!

I had one of the best seats on the Aeroflot flight to Leningrad, i.e., the middle of a three-seater bench before a narrow table across which was another three-seater bench.  My benchmates were two babushkas and across from us, three more babushkas. They were congenial company and we had a pleasant conversation in sign language Russian and Tagalog. As we were landing, the grandmother across me said in broken English, pointing to her pwet. “This no touch bench.”

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