When I suggested to Margie that she write her travels for Inquirer Lifestyle and later on, to compile these travel essays in a book which we could title My Universe, I thought it would make a good travelogue by an icon and a celebrity, the country’s first Miss Universe. It was only as I began to read and edit the essays that I realized, no, this is no ordinary travelogue. It is reading more like a cliffhanger—because with bated breath you tag along to her trips all over the universe, from the top of the world, literally, to the bottom, or to the most arid desserts.
(My Universe is available at select Bench stores in Metro Manila.)
This Miss Universe is no ordinary tourist who sightsees, takes a selfie, and posts on social media. She’s a fearless adventurer who, on a trip to Zimbabwe doing the awesome Victoria Falls (one of the world’s wonders), nearly drowned while completing the most difficult levels of rafting; she fell into the deep—not only once. Men and women of weaker stuff (like us) would have just walked away after a selfie.
But not Margie Moran-Floirendo, the travel adventurer, the culture consumer, the documentarian/writer, and the mother, who dared do what her young daughters loved to do on their travels just so she could hover over them and bond with them.
Margie compiles her 24 destination essays (25 including her Miss Universe stint in New York City), from Alaska to the Turtle Islands, Zimbabwe. She has enough destinations to fill the alphabet, and the world map. The early page has a world map filled with dots to indicate the spots she has visited.
Twenty-five of those destinations are in My Universe, with photos: Alaska, Arctic Expedition, Ascot, Atacama Desert, Bolivia, Boracay, Bukidnon, Chile, China, Cuba, Disneyland, Downton Abbey, Holy Land, Ireland, Kapatagan: Mt. Apo, Lake Sebu, Mexico, Mount Sinai, Morocco, Patagonia, Rosales (Pangasinan), Tanzania, Turtle Islands, Zimbabwe, with photo caption spreads on Bhutan, Croatia and India.
Ahead of the pages on her globe-trotting years, she recalls the beginning of it all: the year she reigned Miss Universe, stayed in a “permanent” suite at St. Regis Hotel in New York City, where one day, at the lobby, this interesting man with a handlebar mustache walked up to her, introduced himself. Thus began her bonding with Salvador Dali!
Margie was a 19-year-old who didn’t know about Dali, except that she found his surrealist art scary, so that when the artist later offered to paint her—depicted like a goddess emerging from a wall—she refused. And that was how our Miss Universe lost her chance to have a place in the history of world art. In her essay, Margie looks back on the missed opportunity, and how she could have been the only other woman painted by Dali, the other being his wife, Gala.
Margie writes about the year that changed her life forever:
“….the Spanish bullfighter El Cordobes did not have me on his short list of winners—until I spoke to him in Spanish….
“…. Who do you consider the greatest man in the world? I did not want to mention my father because he did not give his consent to my participation in the pageant. Nor did I want to say President Marcos since, in 1972, he declared Martial Law, and I would have received hate mail from the victims of military rule. So thinking that I would sound more international, I wrote, President Richard Nixon. He was then the most experienced politician, and he had just won by a landslide when I joined the Bb. Pilipinas Pageant. Shortly after I won the local pageant, I did not realize that Stella Marquez-Araneta mailed the same form to the Miss Universe Organization. The Watergate Scandal investigations had begun, and I could not withdraw my ‘greatest man’ reply….
“…. I received a letter of gratitude, on the White House stationery, personally signed by President Nixon. Well, not many beauty queens get such a souvenir from the President of the United States. But I did—no matter that I landed the cover feature of Esquire’s lampoon issue…
“…. I had a permanent suite at St. Regis Hotel… In a permanent suite adjoining his studio, he stayed for 14 consecutive years with his wife, Gala. Since I lived in the hotel, I encountered the surrealist visual artist Salvador Dali in the hotel lobby in October 1973. He approached me, introducing himself as Salvador Dali. I was 19, he perhaps was 69, and since Google did not exist, I did not know who he was….”
Margie now tells TheDiarist.ph, in laughter: “The stupidity of a 19-year-old.”
In Alaska, she chased the Aurora Borealis: “…. When the tour ended, my eyelashes were covered with frost, and it felt like my nose and toes were about to fall off from frostbite….”
In the Arctic expedition, on to the North Pole, she spotted a polar bear.
In Bolivia, backpacking in extreme altitude, she writes a significant discovery: “….We took a colorful rowboat to the Isla Del Sol, one of the most religious sites in the 16th century, revered as the place where the sun and moon were created and where the legendary Manco Capac founded the Inca dynasty.”
In England, this Downton Abbey fan just had to have high tea at Highclere Castle, and visit the scenes of her favorite episodes.
She crossed the border between Bolivia and northern Chile and traveled deeper into the Atacama Desert, “one of the driest places in the planet…. Land of golden brown volcanoes and salt flats,” she writes. She would star gaze in what she considers as “one of the most beautiful places.”
In Ireland, she visited and stayed in medieval castles, and stayed in the Victorian mansion of her friends from Manila, Gerry and Virginia Lane.
She climbed Mount Sinai: “My beast of burden was named Michael Jackson, and I half wished he would break the steady cadence of his padded footsteps and switch to the moonwalk….” Of that trip, she writes, “It does change you.”
She reached the end of the world—Patagonia: “I packed my winter clothes at the end of South American fall with my two daughters, Monica and Gabrielle, to head on to Patagonia, Chile and Argentina, traveling the reverse route taken by Ferdinand Magellen before he landed in Cebu Island….”
She supported the World Wildlife Fund in Turtle Islands on the southern edge of Tawi Tawi. She writes, “On this island, turtles lay up to 101 eggs, and in that delicate stage, they must not be disturbed…. Accommodations are essential and very basic. The discomfort is likely the situation that best describes the geographical layout that determined adventure seekers choose over the urban comforts….
“I slept among the men and waited my turn in the outback shower and restroom. But all that distance from everyday creature comforts was meant precisely to protect the turtles from predatory poachers.”
Her account of Zimbabwe is the cliff-hanger. You are on the edge of your seat as you read her rafting on Victoria Falls—with hippos at bay:
“We proceeded to our first adventure: game viewing upstream above the gorge. When we arrived at the take-off point, we felt somewhat odd. It was not a boat as we expected, but two kayaks small enough to fit two in each. Younger Gabbi took the one with the guide while I acted as Monica’s captain. We stayed close behind our guide’s kayak, and as instructed, we stayed in the middle of the stream because on the banks were herds of hippos. By the first bend, the first group was bathing on both sides. Monica seemed calm and collected, but she started to paddle vigorously downstream because she feared an attack.
“‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
“I’m scared!’ she said.
“But the longer we journeyed, the hippo population got larger. Finally, after telling her to relax and stay calm because hippos could smell panic sweat (my unfounded theory), her imagination became wilder when she recalled reading a short story in Readers Digest.
“’Mom, I read that a family was canoeing some time ago in this river, a large crocodile leaped out of the water and grabbed their eight-year-old girl who was never found.’
“She was on the lookout not only for hippos, but also for crocs lurking underneath our flimsy kayak. I assured her that only baby crocs resided in these waters. I paddled, staying clear of the hippos, but I kept imagining a croc grabbing my daughter.
‘All set, we rapidly paddled as we approached its head, ready to shift to a vigorous motion. ‘Hard Forward!’ We worked with all our strength as we went through the rapids. I was seated in front and suspended on the 10-meter drop when fear overcame me, as the rafter shouted, ‘Get down!’ Before I could crouch and grasp the safety line, the raft suddenly turned turtle over us. The mighty thump on my chest, the pull of the cold water eddied around me spitefully splashing against its boulders, the river filling up my lungs, I panicked.
‘I was brain-dead. I struggled to keep my eyes above the water, but the whirl kept pulling me down. It was eternity, with death staring me in the face’
“In a flash, my mind wandered back to struggling through unseemingly untameable waters after I slipped and went underwater in our swimming pool as a kid. Not one part of the briefing lingered in my mind. I was brain-dead. I struggled to keep my eyes above the water, but the whirl kept pulling me down. It was eternity, with death staring me in the face.”
At the onset Margie made it clear why she wrote the book: “My book is a tribute to my travel companions, the people I met, and those who encouraged me to share my experiences. I hope it will inspire others to embark on their own journeys and discover the world’s wonders.”
Not meant for commercial distribution, the book was given to family and friends at her post-birthday dinner she hosted last month at Manila House. She spoke at the cozy dinner where members of the Alice Reyes Dance PH performed.
In her remarks she said how, even in childhood, she was footloose and adventurous. As a six-year-old, she once stepped out of the house, took the tricyle, and wandered around their neighborhood in San Juan all by herself.
That curious six-year-old went on to explore and conquer the universe.
Margie Moran-Floirendo’s My Universe is available at Bench store at High Street, BGC; Studio Dimensione, BGC; Minimal By Studio Dimensione, BGC; and Bench x Katutubo at Bench Tower, BGC.