POSTSCRIPT / December 6, 2001 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Anthrax has been around all this time

NEW YORK — But where is Osama bin Laden, the prime target of all that death and destruction in Afghanistan? They have killed almost everybody, including surrendered Talibans, but no corpse bearing the likeness of Osama has turned up despite the $25-million prize on his turbaned head.

Possibly running out of excuses, defense officials were showing on TV days ago an elaborate network of reinforced caves housing a self-contained haven complete with everything Osama would ever need while sitting out the bombings.

The cut-away looked like a revised rendition of the underground shelter where Iraqi boss Saddam Hussein supposedly cowered while the US was bombing everything around and above him on orders of then President George Bush, Senior. That’s one unfinished business that Junior has to attend to while on the warpath.

Now the US is asking Pakistan to help locate Osama. Why, we ask ourselves, has the elusive recluse donned a head-to-toe burqa and slipped across the border disguised as a distressed Afghan woman?

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ANTHRAX SCARE: Over here, Americans are still in jitters over what they suspect to be germ warfare being waged against them using anthrax and other deadly microbes cultured for mass destruction.

We don’t mean to belittle the anxiety of our American friends, but we’re starting to believe that this is all paranoia. Where there is livestock, anthrax and such could just be lurking around — like we’ve had anthrax in the Philippines, minus the hysteria, ever since the carabao appeared on the farm.

My barber is not traveling with us, but if he were here he would dismiss everything with a yawn. Anthrax has been in the States all the time, we can imagine him lecturing to us, except that Americans never noticed it until the authorities started warning of germ warfare about to be unleashed by Osama & Co.

The reason why they cannot trace the source of the anthrax spores is that the microbes could be almost any place where the wind blows after passing ranches and livestock farms.

Some symptoms of anthrax are similar to or overlap those of other ailments, so anthrax victims in the past may have been diagnosed for something else more common or more easily recognizable. But with full focus now on anthrax, every person downed by symptoms resembling those of anthrax are declared its victims.

If we had the time, we could write a blockbuster screenplay on anthrax and cash in on the scare before we fly back to the Philippines this week.

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EASY CANADIAN VISA: Putting anthrax talk aside over the weekend, we slipped up north to Montreal across the Canadian border, then westward to Toronto, and then back down again to USofA via Buffalo, NY. “Slip” may not be the right term, though, since we were fully documented and highly visible when we passed through.

We want to make kuwento first on the documentation since many Filipinos are interested in visas, border crossing, TNT matters and the like.

If overtaken by wanderlust when you’re within 15 minutes of the Canadian border and you’re holding a valid multiple-entry US visa plus an outward plane ticket, you may just walk in unannounced and ask for a Canadian visa right there at the border.

But being one not inclined to leave to chance such iffy matters, we bothered to go first to the Canadian embassy in midtown Manhattan. It’s a breeze if you have a multiple-entry US visa already. The fee is US$50, which is not refunded in case your application is turned down.

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VISA PROCEDURE: You walk in, get a number and fill out a simple (compared to the US visa application asking about everything pertaining to you, your associates and your relatives) form while waiting. When your number is called, you submit the form with your passport, are interviewed and you pay right at the one-stop glass window.

If you’re American or hold a US permanent resident card (aka “green card” although it’s not green at all except for a narrow strip at the back), you don’t need a Canadian visa — in the same reciprocal way that Canadians don’t need a US visa to cross over.

Temporary visitor’s visa applications in the New York consulate are accepted only on Wednesday mornings. Having submitted your application, you take a walk or repair to one of the countless restos and fast-food joints around the area, or gawk at the over-publicized Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center, and come back for your visa in the afternoon.

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FRIENDLY WELCOME: New York to Montreal is about seven hours on good roads, which makes it the equivalent of driving from Manila to Mt. Mayon in Albay. If you’re still the speedster that you were in the Philippines, you need a radar detector to help you elude the patrols. But once in Canada, you have to hide that gadget as it’s illegal over there.

Compared to their ever-suspicious American counterparts, Canadian immigration officers are angels. You would think they were sent by the Canadian tourism office to welcome an emissary of our Secretary Dick Gordon.

Their customs people are just as cordial. We handed our customs declaration and the smiling officer glanced at it, crumpled it into a ball, threw it into the trash bin (no relation to Osama) and waved us through with a wish to enjoy our visit. But maybe that was because we were not lugging a dozen bulging balikbayan boxes.

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EUROPEAN AMBIENCE: Montreal is really beautiful, even in autumn when there’s some slush and the trees are bare. It’s certainly more pleasant than New York. The city is not just Frenchy, but French, and it exudes a European ambience that never fails to seduce the tired traveler.

It is also metric, like the rest of Canada, which means you now weigh things by the grams and not ounces, and you count kilometers instead of miles. But while the kilometer posts may set you at ease, the road signs in French may baffle you if you’re not equipped with basic francaise.

A visiting Pinoy will find Catholic sites reassuring. The Notre Dame cathedral has an awesome interior and a Gothic altar whose fine details are accentuated by the exquisite lighting. The side altars are alit with candles left burning by devotees with special intentions.

You hie off to the huge St. Joseph church set upon a mountaintop and, although in an entirely different setting, you are reminded of Lourdes in France by the countless crutches left by the sick who had been miraculously cured.

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FINALLY, NIAGARA FALLS: Toronto, where we also stayed overnight, was to us a mere stopover on our way to Niagara Falls. Having seen all those fantastic pictures of the falls, Niagara is suddenly demystified. It’s suddenly just a lot of water tumbling over a cliff and whipping up spray before quietly flowing downriver.

Maybe the natives are aware of this fall after the ascension of expectations, that a visitor can’t spend his day just staring at the water. So they have put up a casino, some haunted-house arcades, a duty-free shop, souvenir stores and other tourist traps to keep ‘em lingering and spending.

One earth-shaking discovery we made after we crossed the bridge back to the USofA was that American immigration officers could also be nice and, believe me, almost as pleasant as their Canadian counterparts on the other side. We hereby apologize for our low regard for US immigration officers. There.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 6, 2001)

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