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Archive for June, 2014

A Tale of Two’s: Che’s Wedding Piece (Circa 2012)

IMG_6115There are two more weddings in the family coming up in the next few weeks. And as always, it will be a time for relatives to show up and welcome the new members into the fold. Besides the two grooms, I suspect my own “instant” family would be scrutinized as well.
My “new” two year old girl is currently the light of my life. Each morning she greets me with a thunderous (yes, she has a booming voice at her age) “hi!” and a tiring day at the office can always be wiped away with just a welcoming hug from her at the end of the day. I now realize, a kid in the house is always crazy, but pleasantly fun.
It wasn’t too long ago when my Dad too enjoyed the pleasure of a child in the house long after all of us kids were already of school age. During a Holy Week vacation in Ilocos, we chanced upon Mother Sandra and asked her to join the household once again. I went biking to Zone 2 (pronounced as “Son-to” in Bantay) with my grandfather to find Mother Sandra and lo and behold, there she was with her own mini-me…a two-feet high miniature Sandra. I don’t know what they were arguing about, but the mother and daughter were having a tug-of-war scene appropriately near the family sow’s muddy pen. This prelude was evident of the strong-willed personalities of both mother and daughter that would characterize their relationship through the years.
Ironically, this personality would serve Sheryl or “Cheche” as we fondly called her, quite well. This early independence allowed her to play alone, or with other children, even as Mother Sandra was busy with household chores and couldn’t watch over her. If she got into a fight with other kids, we would know, because she would come rushing home without a word. Yes, we never fought any of her fights for her because she could certainly take care of herself even at 2 or 3 years old. We would only find out the next day how bad it was when an angry aunt would come over to our house complaining that Che made a much older 7- year old cousin cry the previous day.
Yes, she would occasionally get herself in trouble but she always knew how to get out of them. Once, she broke my Dad’s ashtray in his office. Mother Sandra distinctly heard a crash and something breaking, but when she got to my Dad’s office, there was nothing on the floor…just Che standing there suspiciously. When asked what happened, little Cheche refused to admit to anything. Mother Sandra asked her where the broken pieces were and Che’s classic reply was, “Problema ko na yun..”
At home, the closest to her age was Gayle who was at least 6 years older. You would think Gayle would be the bad influence on her, but no…they were “partners-in-crime”. They both had a penchant for those dried pusit (squid) in small packs, grilled streetfood like “isaw” (chicken intestines) and “adidas” (chicken feet), and that iced delicacy, “iskrambol” (flavored ice shavings) although they were prohibited from eating those things. So they would sneak out of our side gate instead of the front where Mother Sandra could catch them. They would hug the fence-wall, sliding stealthily like spies and run to the neighbourhood sari-sari store to buy their favourite snacks. Together they stand, and together they fall so to speak…and so these two finally ended their “reign of terror” when they both fell victim to due “consequences” of eating dirty streetfood. Mr. Combantrin was the only solution and it had Cheche spouting her undying love for her mother in the toilet because she thought she was at the point of death.
As a student, Che was also unusual. She never had to be coaxed into going to school everyday, or doing her homework. She would display that same independence unless she needed help with a drawing (she would come to me) or with her math (she would go to Giselle). With Mother already in Rome, Mama was her official guardian and Che never gave her reason to go to Stella Maris to have a special meeting with the principal or the guidance counsellor. Even in high school, she was never the problematic teen. Once Mama was required to attend a school event and she nonchantly went, thinking it was like any other activity. She got the surprise of her life when during a song number there was a soloist, and it was Che! Gayle was the only one with the courage to try out for the Glee Club before, so like any other little sister, Che followed suit. But of course, she was always capable of going beyond whatever we accomplished like any other younger sibling.
And so it was, when it was time for her to apply for university. The family’s deepest frustration of not having a dentist in the clan was thrust upon her even as she hoped to follow our footsteps in going to UP. But it was not in her cards to become one of our sorority sisters, because her destiny lay in UE, a well-known school for dentistry. There, she applied herself to her studies the same way she always did. Experiencing failing marks for the first time, she did what was necessary and took the make-up summer classes. Maybe she always thought of Mother Sandra in Rome, working very hard for her education that kept her on the right path. She always put her studies as her priority even at the most unusual times.
Once, there was a big fire that engulfed the squatters area near our house. The flames got so big, our home was also at risk of being burned down as well. We had to evacuate like the rest of the people, moving the cars, taking our valuables with us. But for Cheche at that time, her books and laboratory manuals were her “valuables”. And in the heat of the moment, things got dropped on the ground as we all rushed out and scrambled for safety. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the fire did not reach our house. When we were asked if there were any losses or damage to property, Che was hilariously the only victim because her books fell in the water from the firemen’s hoses.
By the time Che asked to live away from home, we were confident enough she could be left alone as an adult already. She would come by for her clothes, stay the weekend but always went back to her dorm in time for her classes. When she was reviewing for her dentistry board exams, we hardly worried about her and only occasionally asked if she had done the rounds of the classic pilgrimage sites like Our Lady of Manaoag, St. Jude, Sta. Clara and Baclaran. She never lost confidence and probably never even considered failing. And even if she did, she simply shrugged her shoulders and promised herself she’d try again. That was how strong and resilient she could be.
By the time she was a bonafide dentist, employed at an established dental clinic in Binondo, she never stopped being hardworking. She put up her own dental clinic with a few of her old classmates and even started various endeavours like an Ready-to-Wear (RTW) clothes and a food cart business. One thing Che was never lacking is courage and a risk-taking demeanour that always allows her to land on her feet. For Che, there are no mistakes or failures because she carefully assesses her risk exposure and if there are any losses on her part, she would make sure she didn’t do too badly.
I believe Che is the same with her lovelife. She always knew what she wanted and that was non-negotiable. The real challenge was finding a guy who would be confident enough to handle her strong-will and independence. Truly lucky is the man who would manage to “tame” her because she could be a real “partner for life”, a source of strength, a sanctuary from all of Life’s hustle and bustle. She can be a true lover and carer – someone who can feed you the tastiest dishes and yet scold you for getting sick and not taking better care of yourself.
Yes, Cheche can be a real challenge, but I assure you she would be really worth it. So good luck to you Elmer and may your years together be truly blessed.

Turning of the Tide: Reflections on my nephew, Tudoy

IMG_4593This month, some of us in my family will be celebrating our respective birthdays. But the clan’s milestones are not limited to celebrations of our natal days. There is a wedding in the family that Ate Marie once again has found a reason to make her annual visit to Manila. Tudoy, my oldest nephew, is getting married to his girlfriend, Hani this May 2010.

Unlike Gayle, (and probably the rest of the Titas, including ninang Edlyn) I didn’t get a chance to get emotional during the wedding proper. I was too busy being hot and uncomfortable in my new Barong, or was too caught up taking photos with Giselle’s newest high-tech camera. But going home after dropping off Ate Annette and her family last night, the long drive to Fairview made me realize the swift passing of the days.

Not long ago, Lolo Teofing’s pride and joy was his first grandson, Tudoy – the promised bearer of his great Leonin surname. For almost three years, Manong Butch himself was under so much pressure to produce the necessary “heir”. After all, he was Daddy’s only chance at propagating his lineage. Tudoy’s arrival brought great happiness, and relief, to both Grandfathers. The result, there would be a perpetual “tug-of-war” on who gets to spend quality time with the favorite grandson.

It had Daddy driving (and almost getting lost) to far-off Pasig, back when it wasn’t as densely populated as it is now. Later, Tudoy would be brought to Kamias with his yaya Salve to spend some days with us. Around this time, Manong Butch was also being sent to Vienna, Austria and Tennessee, USA to undergo some long-term training. There was even a time that both parents were away with Ate Rhoda visiting Manong Butch in the USA, and Tudoy was shuttled between his grandparents.

Yaya Salve was quite handy being around during the early years, but Tudoy wasn’t particularly difficult to care for anyway. Even when he broke both forearms playing on the monkeybars at the playground, and both arms were in casts, he wasn’t difficult to bathe or dress. Came the day when he didn’t need to have a yaya, his Titas and the platoon of maids at Kamias were enough to watch over him. But even then, he would just play with Che and the rest of the kids at the compound, tinker with some high-tech stuff and figure out our Japanese telephone with an answering service function, or simply watch TV when told to stay indoors, and lay quietly to sleep on his designated mattress in the room Giselle and I shared with him come bedtime.

On summers when the maids would be away on their respective vacations, the Titas would be left with the household chores. As our resident ward, Tudoy would also share in the duties. He would sometimes help me clean the house and feed our 12 dogs. He would have his own apron to wear in the kitchen, and help prepare the family meals. Yes, believe or not, even at a young age, Tudoy was comfortable, and safe, in the kitchen. Never did he hurt his finger cutting up vegetables. He would help stir the casserole in the pan while standing on a beer or softdrink case, and never would he have an accident. Once, after the few vacation times spent with us, he quipped, “Tita Germaine, I always learn something new around you”.

Tudoy’s growing up years was also a chronicle of our lives. He was there when Albert, Gayle’s then persistent suitor, got caught in a rainstorm while visiting Kamias. Gayle was frying some tocino for dinner when a blackout occurred. Under the light of a few candles, Gayle couldn’t see that the meat was getting overcooked. Later, as we ate the burnt tocino, Tudoy commented insightfully about Albert, “Tita Gayle, mahal ka nga talaga niya…kinakain yung tocinong niluto mo e, …kahit sunog.”

If you are also wondering where Tudoy’s presence of mind during the Ondoy floods came from, it was also because of his exposure to the annual flooding in Kamias every rainy season. And of his computer gaming skills, heck…he introduced us to the first generation computer games like “Pacman”, “Family Feud” and “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” back when computer monitors were green and data were stored in 5.25 floppy disks!

I would say, Gayle had every right to get teary-eyed at the ceremony and reception. She and Tudoy had a lot of bonding time after school when they were young since their buildings were quite near each other in UP Diliman – Gayle at the College of Home Economics and Tudoy at the UP Integrated School. Sometimes, they would even pick me up at the College of Law before going home to Kamias.

All these would pass too quickly, as Tudoy got accepted to Philippine Science High School and we would see less and less of him. Though once he was in college already, I would occasionally come across him at the Faculty Center or AS while I am on my way to my own MA class.

Soon after his graduation, with his new job at Shell in Batangas, the whole family came for a visit one Halloween weekend. It was just a day trip after all, but we all had a glimpse of Tudoy’s new life and his prospectively bright future.

Hani’s introduction to the rest of the family a few years later, only signaled yet another phase in Tudoy’s young life. As Hani’s now legendary waistline slowly became a perennial standard of measurement for the Titas, it was evident to us that Hani was here to stay.

Tudoy’s vows to Hani at the Church, and Roy’s very engaging toast as the Best Man at the reception, would make Lolo Teofing very proud of his grandsons had he lived to see this day.

Congratulations to the newly-weds, Tudoy and Hani! Long Live Teofilo’s Tribe!

Asia’s Zoos

IMG_4274Much like Singapore, whose name “Singapura” meant “Lion City” after a Sumatran prince saw a lion-like creature upon landing on its shores, Surabaya is also a place that got its name in reference to some animal. For Surabaya, it’s actually two – “Sura” from “shark” and “buwaya”, the crocodile. Some ancient Javanese myth had these two creatures fighting over the territory, so the story goes. As such, a giant sculpture of a shark and a crocodile in deadly combat grace the entrance of one of Asia’s biggest, and oldest zoos located in Eastern Java.

I had always made it a point to put local zoos on my list of tourist attractions to visit during my travels abroad. I already got to visit the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari in July 2006 after attending a Legal Pluralism conference. In August 2006, I went on a month-long Applied Study Program on Sexual Diversity in Indonesia. While my first time in Java in June 2006 mainly kept me in the Western area of Jakarta and Depok, this 28-day training would bring me to Surabaya which was in East Java. Besides being known as a popular international port area and playing a significant role in the independence of Indonesia from the Dutch, Surabaya also had the honor of having a historically significant zoo.

Established back when the European Colonials still lorded over much of Asia, it was meant to have the most extensive collection of animals in Indonesia. Because it is already old, some of the cages and animal’s living spaces still seemed cramped compared to most modern-day zoos. But the actual area the zoo covered was one of the largest I’ve ever seen and my legs ached from walking the distance from one enclosure to another.

Surabaya Zoo had the usual “large” animals – elephants, giraffes, zebras, camels, ostriches, a couple of lions, some tigers, a cheetah, Malaysian Sun Bears, as well as some gorillas and monkeys. But there were at least two creatures I needed to see because they were indigenous to Indonesia; and that was the orangutan from Borneo, and the Komodo Dragon from Papua.

Orangutans were said to be even smarter than gorillas and could communicate with humans better. They had facial expressions and their hands can grasp you like a real person. But the adult orangutan I saw looked so depressed and turned away as we approached to view it. Komodo Dragons, on the other hand, are notorious “meat-eaters” that will not spare humans if given the chance. Their bites are lethal because their saliva is full of bacteria that can cause infections on a wound. If you don’t get eaten right away by a “pack” of dragons, you can probably walk away but you won’t have much time left. The Komodo Dragon is a “patient” predator and will wait until you get so weak, you can’t fight it off anymore as it begins to feast on your flesh.

A few years later, after having visited our own Avilon Zoo in Rizal, I would say it was the only local zoo that could rival its foreign counterparts both in size and its menagerie of animals. It was only in Avilon that I got to see the Malaysian tapir, a capybara, an Australian wallaby, a meerkat, a gibbon, and an Indonesian fresh-water crocodile with a very narrow snout.

Like all modern zoos, it considered bigger spaces for the animals. Instead of steel bars and wire fences all the time, deep moats were built around their living areas to separate the animals from the viewing public. At least, this gives the animals a less “claustrophobic” environment. There are also more of those “petting zoo” features which Manila Zoo also offers. At the ponds, you can throw the “giant” Amazon river fishes some raw chicken heads and watch them scramble for the food. You can also feed the gibbons and orangutans by throwing them a few bananas over the moat. You can have a hawk and a falcon perch on you. You can hold the boas and pythons and have your picture taken. You can even have a photo with a “smiling” orangutan named “Trixie”.

For the long drive outside Metro Manila via the San Mateo national road, Avilon Zoo is worth the trip, even with the rather “pricey” entrance fee. For kids who have seen Manila Zoo, the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, and even the Malabon Zoo, Avilon would be quite a treat.

Speaking of “petting zoos” and safaris, the Philippines already has many to boast about such as Subic’s (Zoobic) safari. Yet it is ironic that I saw my first safari in another country, particularly the Night Safari in Singapore. After a women’s rights follow-up training in Bandung in 2007, my good friend and officemate, Atty. Dash and I decided to stay awhile in Indonesia and do a little more sight-seeing. Through her distant relative based in Jakarta, we got to visit Bogor’s famous safari.

Bogor is just outside Jakarta, and like Bandung, it’s slightly elevated location gives it a rather cool atmosphere much like Tagaytay. Bogor’s highly popular safari allows you to bring your own vehicles to the track, and you can get close enough to actually feed the animals from your car windows. But given the dirt roads you must traverse, it is advisable that you bring a four-wheel drive. You can also purchase some fruits and vegetables from the vendors lining the road right before the entrance. Hawking their wares, they remind you that you need something to feed the animals with.

It’s quite amazing seeing these animals approach the vehicles and “demand” to be fed. The singular experience of actually having wild animals such as zebras, impalas and gazelles eat “right off your hand” is incomparable. Sometimes they even continue following the cars to ask for food. However, at the enclosure for the “big cats”, we were advised to keep our windows closed and not get out of our vehicles. A gamekeeper armed with a tranquilizer gun is on stand-by and sat in his own jeep a few feet from the animals. An adult tiger cut in front of our vehicle, simply taking its time in crossing the road, as lions lounge away at their treehouse. Seeing them up close like this was indeed a little scary considering their size and strength. Bogor will always be my “ultimate” safari experience!

At my age, I am still quite fascinated by zoos and the animals one can see there. Wherever I go, zoos and safaris will always be on my itinerary. That’s why I can never forgive myself for missing out on the Giant Panda Bear at the Beijing Zoo in May 2007. Oh well…maybe next time.

Quezon City’s Hidden Treasures

IMG_0929Lately, I’ve rediscovered my penchant for the outdoors. First, it was just because of my need for exercise and the close proximity of the La Mesa Ecopark to where I now live. The clean air had been good for my lungs and I haven’t been having asthma attacks in quiet a while. All the greenery also reminded me of the University of the Philippines campuses where I studied – both in Los Banos and Diliman, where I used to enjoy long walks whether alone or with company.

Except for those college years in UPLB, I have lived in Quezon City for most of my life. It’s only now that I realized how fortunate I was to be living in Quezon City. Besides being good for exercise, QC parks can also be cheap alternatives for other recreational activities, especially these days when “hanging out at the mall” can be very expensive. Movie theater admission fees are now worth five times what they used to cost, mere “window-shopping” eventually makes you buy something anyway, and to get seats to rest your feet, you need to eat something at a restaurant or even just the food court. For simple economic considerations, “free” entertainment seems the better option.

In UP, you can jog, walk your dog, or cycle around the Sunken Garden or track and field oval provided you bring your own equipment. There are also a lot of spaces for some amateur badminton, Frisbee throwing or other ball games in the area behind the Oblation and the Lagoon. At the QC Circle, there are bikes for rent – for adults or kids, singles or with a sidecar provision for passengers. There used to be a roller skating rink too, a few decades ago. Nowadays, teenagers still bring along their in-line skates, skateboards and wave boards there but are no longer restricted to certain areas.

For residents of nearby Kamias, UP and Teacher’s Village, QC Circle boasts of the daily “free” aerobics sessions at its center area near the Quezon Memorial itself. I even heard the latest fitness program includes the “sponsored” ballroom dancing sessions for senior citizens at the different pavilions. Owing to Charito Planas’ initiatives and the QC local government’s support, QC Circle’s “attractions” have also expanded to tiangges, garden shows and various restaurants. Of course, the open areas are perfect for family picnics. Kids can run around and play, while adults can just sit or lie around in the grass. This many UP alumni still do with their families at the Diliman campus, although in QC Circle, there are even modern and safe playgrounds now.

If you are willing to pay a little extra for entrance fees, QC’s most recent development is the “Circle of Fun” amusement center. With the closure of Cubao’s famed “Fiesta Carnival” a few years ago, today’s QC kids have this alternative for their childhood memories. Opened just a few months ago, Circle of Fun has the same reasonably-priced rides and “fun houses” Fiesta Carnival used to boast about. However, the caterpillar rides of my youth have since given way to faster and “cooler” roller coaster rides which can turn upside-down, the spinning cup-and-saucer ride is now more of a complex “octopus” ride, while the “swinging” Ship-Ahoy or Crazy Galleon ride just became bigger and even “crazier”.

Meanwhile, also at the Elliptical Road is the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, located between North Avenue and East Avenue, where it has two entrances. The black sun bear of my childhood named “Bruno” is no longer there; neither are the live pawikans or large sea turtles at the center building and the “monkey-eating” eagles (now known as the Philippine eagle) housed at the giant aviary. Renamed “Ninoy Aquino” Parks and Wildlife in the late 80s, it is now home to rescued exotic animals under the care of the DENR’s protected wildlife bureau. Some are neglected “pets” while some are endangered species being smuggled by opportunistic traders.

Besides various sea eagles, parakeets, owls or kuwagos, there are migrating “swamp” birds like herons, storks and egrets called “tiklings”. There are also snakes in various shapes and sizes, and our unique salt-water and fresh-water crocodiles. Occasionally, there are mammals like our local monkeys, deers, and wild boars. Recently, there was a local relative of the squirrel and the civet cat, also a musang and an alamid. And like the La Mesa Ecopark, our indigenous plants and trees there are named and marked, such that walking around is like a biology class, only more fun. They have also expanded the man-made lake, complete with cement benches and a viewing “dock”. It’s now more of a lagoon, but I hear fishing is allowed there.

On the other hand, La Mesa Ecopark is still by far the largest park in QC and the most “modern” in its attractions. It’s main objective is not just preserving the site as a watershed and natural reserve, but also to generate environmental awareness and responsibility among Filipinos, especially Metro Manila residents. It’s main hall or reception area is an Ecocenter where organic products are sold and waste management lectures are given. Just in front of it, beside the Super Ferry-sponsored boating area, is a vermiculture farm and herb garden. Further down, which is actually the entrance to the Ecopark proper, are indigenous trees like narra, acacia, and apitong which usually populating watershed areas for their big roots and expansive foliage. There are also the common fruit-bearing trees like pomelo or suha, coconut, mango and santol trees, interspersed with sturdy mahogany and the colorful “fire tree”. “Bottom-growers” like ferns and grasses also abound, but here each flora and fauna has a purpose, even the birds, bees and butterflies.

What makes the Ecopark more exciting is the additional features it has. Entrepreneurs have been allowed to sponsor the paintball, zipline and wall-climbing activities which private companies utilize as part of their Team-building. Meanwhile, below the long staircase-viewing deck of the dam itself is a fishing area. The old pool is now for pre-arranged functions only, but two new pools are located at the Aquacenter. One is designed to appear like an infinity pool, where its “trimmed” gutters make it safer for kids along with its “invisible” barriers beneath the water line. The other pool is designed for swimming laps and is arranged in lanes, so here is where most of the adults swim. There is also some horseback-riding now along the old fitness trail near the orchidarium, and an ampitheater has been built for other open air events. Of course, the old pavilions are still being rented out for private functions, while there are now some blind masseurs at a tent near the Rent-a-Bike and food stalls area. Although some families still bring their own food for picnics, there are available food items sold at the handful of kiosks dotting the Ecopark proper, including an organic and health food outlet.

For me, besides the regular exercise, I have taken the opportunity to practice some amateur photography as well. I’ve always been partial to taking “nature” photos, and after some striking views of the trees and waterways, animals have proven to be quite interesting subjects too.

So indulge me, as I mix together a few things that presently make my life more bearable – nature-tripping, writing and basic photography.

Singaporean Sojourn

PIC42006 was an exceptionally difficult year for me, and I was only momentarily distracted from my pains by the occasional trips that came my way via international trainings. The first of these was in June through a legal pluralism conference in Indonesia. An old friend who worked in the field of alternative lawyering had regularly heard about it, but this was the first time that “gendered perspectives in law” was to be an actual panel. We both threw our hats in, sending abstracts in the area of sexual orientation law. When our acceptance letters arrived, they even came with a full scholarship. Our plane fare, accommodations and lodgings were to be fully sponsored and reimbursed!

I was both excited and afraid. It had been more than a decade since I last traveled outside the country – at least 15 years in fact. And there would be some plane transfers during a stopover in Singapore. Of course that shouldn’t be a problem since I could read and speak English, but I was really, really poor in navigation and in getting directions. Plus, I would be traveling all alone this time. My friend was also accepted to a special pre-conference training and would be leaving ahead of me. I was following him to Indonesia two days later.

My problems were slightly eased when the office allowed me to go “on official time” to this international conference. Hence, I got to have an official (red) passport and free travel tax at the airport. But I had to get tips from my stewardess sister about other airport decorum – immigration requirements, terminal fees and check-in procedures especially for baggage. The tedious security checks and other pre-departure rituals seemed simple enough until I got into my seat on the plane. On the flight, all I had to deal with was airline food and the claustrophobia-inducing toilet.

The minute we landed in Singapore, I knew I was on another planet. It was too clean and orderly. And the airport was HUGE! Changi airport was really one of those terminals where you can actually set up residence. Besides the many restaurants, shops, lounging areas with cable TV and movies, there were massage chairs for weary travelers, free internet service for the extremely busy and even a gym with a shower room for those with enough time to kill. All this I learned from the map I got from the information booths. I mean, I am just in the airport and I already need a map? I haven’t even been outside the terminal to see the rest of Singapore!

While I was thoroughly amused by the different indoor gardens they had set up for a little “natural and outdoorsy” atmosphere (there was a cactus, orchid, and fern garden), I began to realize that such a big space would also mean longer walks to farther departure areas. Of course, they already made this easier by providing “walka-lators” (the horizontal equivalent of escalators) for passengers en route to their departure gates. I had seen, and used, one these before in Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong and thought they were just for the elderly or the extremely lazy. But in Singapore’s Changi airport, one would be smart to take advantage of this contraption.

As if that wasn’t enough to awe me, I was instructed to ride the “train” for the other terminal where I was supposed to get my connecting flight. Take note, it wasn’t a bus or a shuttle, but a high-speed train on a real railway system connecting the two terminals. I walked, got on the “walka-lators”, tried both the stairs and elevators, before finally boarding the train which will take me to the other terminal.

Eventually, I managed to get on my flight for Jakarta. I was somehow comforted by the thought that on the way back, I would be traveling with my old friend, Gary, and meeting up with my Mom and stewardess sister in Singapore. Problem was, my Mom and sister had booked flights and accommodations already, while my friend and I only had our return tickets via Jakarta-Singapore-Manila with delayed flights. But we were assured there were many backpacker hostels and really cheap bed-and-breakfasts in Singapore.

Three days of the conference passed like a blur to me. From Jakarta international airport, we were whisked by our student guides to Depok, an area just outside the capital. We were cooped up at the University of Indonesia (UI) campus both for the conference and lodgings, so I didn’t really get to see much, although it did remind me a lot about my own alma mater, the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. And except for a quick pasalubong shopping spree in one of Jakarta’s biggest malls, that was as much of Indonesian culture that I was able to soak up at the time.

Meanwhile, my stewardess sister, Giselle was already preparing to visit Sentosa Island. Unbeknownst to us, my Mom had her own contacts in Singapore and was also making plans to see them. Besides shopping, our mother had a mind to visit some friends from our parish.

Gary and I arrived in Singapore late in the evening and discovered the free airport shuttle only drops off travelers near the big hotels like Raffles. Since we also didn’t realize it was the Singapore Holiday Shopping Spree week, the really cheap places were all fully-booked. Fortunately, the lady at the airport information desk was really helpful and found us reasonable lodgings for our limited budget. Interestingly, it was in the red light district.

So the adventurous spirit in Gary and me kicked in; we believed it won’t be so bad. It would mean the area would be still alive and kicking even in the late night. And given its 24-hour nature, surely there would be some really cheap eating establishments as well.

True enough, the streets were still littered with people when we arrived past midnight. At the reception, we saw couples coming and going, alighting and boarding the elevators to the privacy of their rooms. Once, a pair of Asian-looking girls came in, looked at us and started talking in Tagalog. “Sige na, kunin mo na yung isa o…”, the older one said, gesturing at poor old Gary. It was then we realized the truth behind the rumors about domestics in Singapore moonlighting in the skin trade on their days-off. I was both saddened and shamed by the hard realities of daily life of fellow Filipinos abroad.

The next day, we rode the famous inner-city trains and got a view of the rest of Singapore. We met up with my family at their swanky hotel beside a nice park. Even with the clear use of infrastructure and industry by the Singaporean government, they were equally deliberate about keeping some “green space”. Besides the parks and gardens intentionally inserted within housing and business areas, street pavements were lined with trees and shrubs to maintain that “environmental” look.

I realized that for such order and cleanliness to have been possible, the Singaporeans would have to be so “disciplined” as a people. That wouldn’t be so difficult in a country where autocracy and dictatorship was a by-word for many years. They can even attribute their apparent economic success to that kind of leadership as well.

There were at least three things we needed to see in Singapore – the aquarium, the zoo and the botanical garden. We took a cab for Sentosa and rode the free tour bus around the island. First stop was the famed Underwater World which rivaled Hong Kong’s own Ocean Park aquaria. But while Ocean Park had ceiling to floor glass windows to view the various sea creatures (at least that was what I saw in 1990), Singapore’s Underwater World actually features a long glass tube where tourists are moved by a walkalator to view various fishes and sea mammals swimming above and around. Their collection of water animals was also quite extensive, including sea horses, jellyfishes, squids, cuttlefish and other crustaceans. My Giselle, who used to dream about becoming a marine biologist, absolutely loved it and was in complete awe. Last time I saw her get so excited was when we went to Bais City, Negros Oriental in 2005 and she saw live dolphins. My Mom, on the other hand, was quite fixated on the deep-sea, spider-like Giant Crab. As she stared lustily after it, I knew other things were on her mind since crabs were her favorite seafood after all.

The nearest attraction after the aquarium was Fort Siloso. Much like our Corregidor Island, Singapore’s Sentosa Island played quite a role during the Second World War. At Fort Siloso are remnants of the old encampment, it’s guns and cannons, and look-out towers. Inside are various photos of World War II as it happened in the Asian region – the battling Japanese and American soldiers, the European and Asian civilians caught in the crossfire and imprisoned in the underground tunnels, the ships and aircraft carriers that dominated these waters. There is even a life-size diorama of how the Japanese Navy surrendered to the joint Allied Command that retook Singapore and other Pacific islands. Although it was quite interesting to know about such historical facts, it was too much like our own Corregidor for anything else to impress us.

Somewhere along the way, we got that token visit and photo session with the Merlion and the Carlsberg Tower before Mama started acting up because she was already getting tired. She insisted we take a taxi back to the city proper instead of the cable car or the shuttle bus. Fortunately, Giselle and I were still in high spirits and we managed to visit the Botanical Gardens. Being graduates of UP Los Banos, we greatly appreciated the “nature trek” through the gardens which had a great display of orchids and other ornamental plants, as well as the herb and spice gardens which featured “basic” ginger, garlic, and onions, as well as basil, oregano, sage, tarragon, rosemary and thyme. The Botanical Gardens covered a great area and except for a few photos and a walk by the lagoon, we had to rush off to see Singapore’s famed zoo. Since it was along way off, we got there pretty late and missed the last tour.

By some happy coincidence, however, we were right on time for the Night Safari. Much like our own Subic (Zoobic) Safari, there was a ride that allowed you to get close enough to the animals, provided one did not get off the vehicle. The Night Safari of course featured most nocturnal animals, and once more Giselle got so excited. There were some big cats and predatory birds, like that panther which flashed its eyes at us as we passed by, and that big owl swooping down on a small rodent that will serve as its meal. Meanwhile, we also caught some animals during their feeding time and watched them drink from their waterholes.

By the time we finished, we weren’t very interested in the cultural show that followed and simply wanted to go back to our hotels to rest. Giselle finally caught up with Mama at their hotel after dinner, since Mama had finished visiting her own parish friends. On the train, I was already falling asleep on my feet, so Gary left me at our humble accommodations to do some “Singapore nightlife” by himself. I spared myself that since we had an early flight back for Manila the next day.

Indeed it was a hurried, and harried, tour of Singapore after all. But it had served its purpose well – some international traveling and quality time with my Mom and sister. And for a moment, I was taken away from the realities of my troubles. It was a “sojourn” in every sense of the word.

The Magic of Bali

Almost everyone dreams of going to Bali, that exotic Indonesian island just off East Java. The promise of sun, sea, and surf is the reason most Caucasian tourists are drawn to it. And indeed, for all its worth, IT IS a vacation spot to die for. During the day, one can swim, shop and go sight-seeing. And in the evenings, one can drink, dance, and party all the night long. By some ironic twist of fate, I was lucky enough to visit the place at a time when I was in dire need of some personal healing.

During my Applied Study Program in 2006, an invitation to attend Bali’s annual Queer Film Festival was extended to our Surabaya hosts by the local LGBT organizers. But the short trip was by no means a “pleasure trip”; it was business-as-usual for us interns-trainees. Our three-day visit would be jam-packed with activities – film showings including an exclusive “private” screening of a documentary, visits to local gay groups working on HIV/AIDS advocacy, and some mentoring sessions from Dede Oetomo of Gaya Nusantara.

Besides, being the only female and lesbian in our group, I was really getting fed up with all the testosterone from hanging out with straight and gay men all the time. Thus, I specifically requested our lesbian host in Bali to introduce me to a nice, English-speaking lesbian who could show me around the island’s LGBT hotspots to help me with my project study. True to Indonesian-style “hospitality”, she succeeded in hooking me up with a young lesbian based in Bali. I didn’t realize then that she would play such a vital role in my memories of Bali.

While we had other companions from Surabaya, they were taking the cheaper, more tedious land-trip with ferry transfers, much like our local RORO (“roll-on, roll-off”) system. At the time, a weird phenomenon was occurring somewhere in the outskirts of Surabaya. A local oil company building its pipeline had punctured some natural underground tunnel, and made hot mud spew out. The hole continued to emit lava-like material even after several days already, and with no signs that it would ever stop, it has started to contaminate the nearby communities’ water supply and waterways. Travelers and motorists have been diverted to a different path since the lava flow had also affected a national highway. Our poor friends had to take a longer route that would take them almost a whole day’s travel.

So my group took a domestic Garuda flight instead, shortening our travel time to a maximum of an hour or two. Flying over the rest of Java, there was a great view of one of Indonesia’s active volcanoes. Just like Kawa Puti in Western Java, I was unimpressed only because I was Filipino and we had Taal and Mayon volcanoes to be so proud about. Nonetheless, the volcano appeared majestic from above, with small puffs of smoke billowing from its crater to join low-lying clouds.

Arriving in Bali, I wondered about its rather small airport for international tourists. It was like our ordinary domestic airports in the provinces. I thought our international airports in Cebu and Davao were much bigger and at par with modern standards. Then again, their local carriers were also tiny, dragonfly-like contraptions like we have in the Philippines for domestic, inter-island flights, so who am I to judge.

The hotels and beach resorts were off to the coastline still, so we had a bit of a drive to make before we could check into our rooms and refresh ourselves. We were informed in the van that since it is expensive to stay in Bali, we were to share our accommodations with our Gaya Nusantara partners-guides. But because of Indonesian religious and cultural practices, and I was the only female in the group, I was not obliged to share my cottage with anyone. What luck!

Upon checking in, we immediately headed for the famed white sand beaches of Bali. Kuta Beach is a known surfing area for its big waves. Soft, almost powdery, granules under my feet, wind in my hair, I watched the giant waves intermittently rise and rush the shores. For miles on end, the even coastline and coral-less waters stretched as far as my eyes could see. It would really take a while to walk or jog from point of the beach to the other. I didn’t dare try to swim in those crashing waves; instead, I got myself my first henna tattoo from a resident artist on the beach. Some ladies also offered body massages and a combination manicure-pedicure service right there on the beach, but we didn’t have much time anymore as dusk was slowly gathering around us.

Bali’s sunsets are also quite something to see. While sunsets are always ideal to see on the beach, there are just some places on this earth that provide the best views for a setting sun. Watching that orange orb transform the horizon from yellow to orange to hot pink, before falling into a gentle blue-gray and finally, black with wisps of white light, one can just stand there mesmerized, unaware of the passing of the minutes. There is such peace that falls upon everything, and you find yourself letting go of all the day’s troubles, knowing that tomorrow is another day, another opportunity.

After a bit of rest and a quick shower, we were suppose to grab dinner and head to the first screening. But my new lesbian-friend offered to pick me up at our beach resort and take me for dinner at a really famous restaurant.

The restaurant she took me to, Made’s Warung, was quite popular with expats and tourists. Their menu offering was extensive and included Western choices. After eating fried tofu, assorted veggies and chicken for days on end, I yearned for something closer to Filipino cuisine. In fact, I desperately missed my pork diet. Asking me what I wanted to eat, I told her that I was dying for some grilled babi. She laughed and explained that Bali is culturally Hindu-dominated, so eating pork is allowed while touching beef is not. After almost three weeks of not having pig’s meat, I finally got my wish. But something about my order still reminded me that I was in Indonesia – the dish was still spicy hot! But this time, instead of creamy, chili-hot much like our Bicolano dishes, this sauce was swimming in chili-infested oil. It was all reminiscent of that spiced-up soy sauce used for wantons and siomais.

The food was still great of course; tasty and delicious. Really yummy, in fact! And the restaurant itself was quite impressive. The atmosphere alone is an ambience worth spending for. Candle-lit tables abound, but were always filled up too quickly. Huts like our bahay kubos were a more private option for dating couples, but this was not so fascinating to me anymore because it was commonplace in Filipino restos and beach resorts. The restaurant also had a fancy bookstore and souvenir shop to browse from while you wait for your dinner, or right after your dessert.

Meanwhile, the Queer Film Festival was being shown in the club strip. Heavy traffic always occurred in the area since the different bars were always filled to the brim with guests and customers. While most of these clubs appear “unisex” or for straights, there are some which are clearly “identified” to be for LGBTs. And while in the Philippines, we have “GROs” and “escorts” that front for our subtle skin trade, in Indonesian bars, bartenders and waiters/waitresses blatantly flirt with you to send a clear message. I would also learn that certain massage services in hotels also “dummy” for the sex industry. Around this time, except for known “bath houses”, I believe spas and massage centers in the Philippines have not yet been popularized enough to double as prostitution dens for LGBT customers.

After the film showing, we went our separate ways as the gay men and MTF transgenders went to the gay bars. I joined our lesbian host at an exclusive party which lasted until the wee hours of the morning. At 3AM, the bars and clubs remained brightly lighted and blaring with music at a distance, while the quiet and darkened beach cottages stood mute to the rhythmic roar of the ocean. Nothing could be more romantic than walking home under the moonlight, skies so clear that each and every star was visible. I slept, physically tired, but deeply comforted. I did not feel so alone or out-of-place anymore.

I woke up to an equally bright morning. The sun shining its warm rays on everything and the day soon became hot and humid. Fortunately, we were driving inland that day, towards the cooler, higher points of the island where we would have a private screening at a film director’s home. We were going to see her documentary entitled “The Last Bissu”, about the Indonesian counterpart of our Filipino babaylan, transgender religious leaders of the olden days which will soon be lost to the oblivion of ancient Indonesian traditions.

Although the drive only seemed like a Manila to Tagaytay travel, the place called Ubud is more like Baguio with its cramped, densely-populated environment and its reputation for being an artists’ haven. A market area had stalls set-up tiangge-style where an assortment of souvenirs were sold – from batik cloths to wayang puppets, to indigenous musical instruments and wooden house decors.

Meanwhile, from the film director’s home, we caught a view of the nearby villages which were still very much agriculture-based. A small community actually had a miniature rice terraces on the hills near a stream bordering their own homes. I guess the villagers knew about making the most of the rainwater before it causes a mudslide or flows into their water source, causing much siltation in their waterways.

On the way back, we took a late lunch at another popular tourist restaurant, Warung Murni. Besides trying out the local cuisine which was heavily-influenced by Indian recipes, we got to eat Balinese style – sitting on cushions and mats beside a low table about two to three inches from the floor inside a native bamboo hut. And I remembered stories my grandmother told me; about the old Ilocano tradition of eating meals before a very low dining table which now seemed to be borne out of our strong Indonesian ancestry.

After a brief shopping spree for souvenirs, we went to a large museum which housed paintings and sculptures of different Hindu gods like elephant-headed Ganesha and multi-armed Kali. A giant mural of the epic story “Ramayana” graced one huge wall. Interestingly, our mentor, Dede pointed out the sculpture by the pond as a depiction of an “intersex god”. The artwork clearly showed a figure with breasts on its chest, as well as obvious male genitalia.

That evening, before another round of film showings, we had a buffet dinner by the beach courtesy of our local LGBT hosts. Lighted by tiki torches all around, chairs and tables were set right on the beach. Food and drinks were in abundance – both Indonesian cuisine and Western choices, so I headed directly for the pork dishes. I ate the sate babi and babi guling quite heartily while watching the new films. After eating, I left early, joined by my new friend. I was totally enjoying the amenities of my beach cottage – the pool, the giant bathtub, the gigantic bed and efficient room service.

The next day, we were meeting up with at least two NGOs working on HIV/AIDS. The Indonesians are not so hypocritical about the skin trade even with their predominantly Muslim culture. They are also not quite so naïve when it came to safe sex practices and HIV/AIDS prevention. Tourist destinations like Bali are hotspots for the sex industry and the government and NGOs are not remiss in their duties about educating the public on STDs and HIV/AIDS. Both information and services are easily accessible, and condoms given out for free are a dime a dozen here.

Our last day in Bali was a “free day” for sight-seeing and shopping. There were some old ruins to see in Tanah Lot, best-buy souvenirs along Poppieslane, and that other fancy restaurant near Jimbaran beach with a breathtaking sunset. There were still so much to do, like bungie jumping and para-gliding, but with so little time left, we nixed those adventure activities.

Taking that last flight out that evening, I finally understood why I fell in love with Bali and the memories I took home with me will certainly last me a lifetime.

Out of the Country: My 1st Trip Abroad

My first trip abroad was an advance graduation gift from my parents in 1990. My cousin, Edlyn and I were sent to enjoy Hong Kong and Bangkok with her Abaya cousins and Tita Azon as official chaperone.

Besides learning about passports and traveler’s cheques, I became acquainted with immigration and customs procedures as well as basic airline etiquette. Mama accompanied me to DFA at Roxas Blvd. to apply for my first passport and then to Cocobank to get some traveler’s cheques. But she wasn’t there anymore as I learned how to operate the airline foldable table for meals, or the aircraft lavatory’s sliding door. The seatbelt was easy enough because it wasn’t my first time on a plane after all, having flown to Bacolod before with Ate Marie to meet her future in-laws. When the stewardess handed us some earphones, I also figured out where to plug it for some music. On the other hand, Edlyn complained that her earphones didn’t work, until I saw that they weren’t plugged in yet.

Immigration and customs are always such a hassle. You need to bring out your passport to check if the data you’re putting are correct. The same goes for your flight details – airline and flight number, country of origin and airport of destination. You have to be so careful with the information you put in, or risk further hassle at the immigration counter.

This became evident when after a day trip to Macau, Schenzen and Guangzhou, Edlyn and I were stopped at the Hong Kong immigration counter and detained for some intensive interviews. There was possibly two reasons for this: one, because this was right after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Chinese authorities were on a look-out for students who were all trying to escape to HK; and two, because the beginnings of human trafficking of Filipinas was fast gaining ground. Although I doubt it that doting, conservative Tita Azon would ever be mistaken for a Mama-San.

To prove my point, once we got to Bangkok, that city known for its skin trade, Tita Azon promptly complained about the location of our hotel as being in the red light district. Heck, we were on a budget tour, you can’t really complain much about accommodations, but complain she did. She even asked her only son in Manila to badger the family travel agent to move us to different lodgings. Not getting what she wanted, she would proceed to rant and rave about our “unacceptable” lodgings.

After our dinner at the hotel, the waiter politely asked if we liked our meal. She blurted out, “No, it wasn’t good. I cannot eat it.” Embarrassed, the waiter asked again, “Was it too spicy for you?” But she was already walking away and shaking her head, clearly a discontented customer. When we got to the elevators, we found that one of them was under repair, and only one was functioning. Looking down at the dark and dangerous shaft, she expressed panic again, saying “Ano ba naman ito, papatayin tayo dito!”

But that wasn’t all I remembered about that trip. South East Asian tours are generally associated with shopping sprees, and shop we did. While bargaining for a lower price is allowed, once you touch the item and bargain for it, be sure you will buy it or the vendor will get very mad at you. In Macau, the sales clerk was so incensed with Tita Azon’s “negotiations”. Our Chinese-Portuguese tour guide intervened and said, “These are Filipinos, you HAVE to let them bargain…” In Hong Kong’s Mongkok district, I made the mistake of bargaining for an early edition Walkman and then changed my mind about purchasing it. The Chinese guy was so mad at me for wasting his time and blurted out a bunch of Cantonese words which I presume would be foul and blasphemous on my account.

One other thing I learned about traveling abroad is one begins to appreciate what she takes for granted in her own homeland. My first concern is always about food and knowing where to eat. In HK, the real Chinese restaurants were so expensive and the menus were all in Chinese you can’t decipher them. So we ended up eating at all the possible McDonald’s branches in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island for our meals. In Bangkok, we were also at a lost half the time at the incomprehensible offerings in the menu, but at least they had pictures so we just pointed at what we wanted to eat.

That’s another thing – language. In Hong Kong, the non-English speaking Chinese were so rude up to the point of shooing us out of their stores so they won’t have to deal with us. In Thailand, while more often than not the Thai people we encountered didn’t speak a word of English, they simply smile when we come to a communication impasse. So that’s something to remember: just because we Filipinos speak perfect, American-twanged English, it doesn’t mean we’ll be understood everywhere else in the world. Better get over that Americanized-ego of yours and learn some basic terms for your country of destination.

Finally, we forgot that something as culturally-imbedded as the exercise of religion could be so complicated once you’re abroad. To Tita Azon’s chagrin, Catholic churches are not at every block or street corner in Hong Kong unlike in the Philippines. We had to ask around whether there was a parish somewhere in either HK Island, Kowloon or Aberdeen where we could hear Sunday mass. We did find one; a very small Catholic chapel where most of the church-goers were also Filipinos, mostly overseas workers.

All in all, I had fun with that first trip abroad. In HK, we got to go to Victoria’s Peak, rubbed that Buddha’s tummy, saw the Ocean Park aquarium and rode the Crazy Galleon and ‘The Dragon” roller coaster. In Macau, we saw the contrast and combination of Chinese and Portuguese culture and bought jade for luck. Guangzhou and Schenzen were just like any rustic Asian countryside, even with the real 12-course Chinese meal and authentic Chinese beer we had at its popular tourist restaurant. While Bangkok is best remembered for its shopping opportunities, I liked our tour of the Rose Garden where the orchid exhibits and the elephant show were the highlights of the visit. (I found some of their native dances appeared too similar to our own Philippine “tinikling”). Thus, from that time on, every trip abroad is simply a reminder of what I miss about the Philippines – because there really is no place like home.

Changing Landscapes 2: Youthful Reminiscings

As we moved further north, another well-known story from my youth is the famous church at Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur. Built on top of a steep hill, it was in honor of the Virgin Mary who appeared on top of a guava tree at the same site. One of the UNESCO heritage sites of Ilocos, much of its red brick and original limestone are still intact although I noticed that the original marker has been replaced. I was told that a new parish priest removed that image of Mama Mary on a guava tree. After that, the town of Sta. Maria experienced a succession of calamities – typhoons, floods and earthquakes. Finally some old folk persuaded the parish priest to re-install the marker, albeit a different one. And they even put the same image on the side wall of the church which was already cemented thereby marring the original façade. It has become partly unrecognizable from back when UP Los Banos Humanities class field trips used to make the annual trek to Ilocandia.
A bit of good news greeted me however, when I was informed that the current mayor has developed a decent footpath and staircase going up to the famous site of “Paddak ni Angalo”. To see this so-called footprint of the giant Angalo, one had to hike up a slippery dirt trail up the mountains. Nowadays, cemented stone steps facilitate the long climb up where one can also glimpse some waterfalls and mountain springs. But I am not sure if they have developed the spot enough to encourage swimming.
Speaking of the giant Angalo, legend also says he had a wife. The giantess, Ara was said to be buried near the coastlines of Ilocos Sur, and “Suso Beach” was named after her because from afar, the mountains form the figure of a woman with the mounds of her breasts forming the rolling hills. Sadly, the view I saw during my latest visit to Ilocos looks like a woman who just had a mastectomy. Extensive quarrying activities allowed by the local officials have destroyed this legendary image. No longer can parents regale their kids with stories and folklore that one can point out in the landscape during their long drives up.
That wasn’t the only change in the Ilocos Sur coastline that caught my eye. During the Marcos era, Imelda wanted to make local tourism as a means of self-sufficiency for each municipality. In the towns of San Esteban and Narvacan, tourist rest stops and mini-parks were established. Even if the powerful waves and rocky beach didn’t make them ideal swimming areas, picnic tables and swimming pools were available at these facilities. But I was told that these were allowed to slowly rot away – unused and unmaintained with no hope of being revived.
Coming up the great Abra river, the famous Banawang bridge comes into view. A perennial feature in various 1980s Filipino movies, this bridge has endured numerous typhoons and floods. But several reconstructions over the years can no longer sustain or ensure its safety feature and a newer bridge had to be built alongside it. Appearing as sturdy as it used to, it can only be used by light vehicles now and the buses and trucks that regularly traverse this route are compelled to use the other bridge. Still it remains a majestic structure against the backdrop of the ancient mountains and mighty river. It’s no surprise many still stop by for a foto-op or two.
In Vigan and Bantay, many of the ancestral homes I took for granted in my youth have disappeared. The very few which remained have fortunately been salvaged to serve as part of the Heritage Village. The plazas I used to play in and ride my bike have become cramped with stage platforms, basketball courts and commercial establishments. Even the church compounds now seemed smaller – with the Easter Sunday “salubong” scaffolding made of cement and metal now permanently standing in its grounds. It used to be made of bamboo and plywood. Hence every year, you never know which street corner it would be constructed on and every other barangay can have the chance to play host.
Although my sisters had visited Ilocos too at one time or another, I wondered if they saw it as I did. Did they also feel a sense of nostalgia like me? Did they even notice the big changes in these old places, or were their memories of our childhood too foggy already to remember any of the things we saw then as kids.
I hope that someday we can take this trip down memory lane again together.

Ilocos: A Lesson in History, Culture, and Cuisine

Every year, I manage to visit my parents’ hometowns in the Ilocos region. Fortunate enough to time it with official travels, but without the privilege of a private vehicle, I am compelled to take the long bus ride consisting of at least 7 hours on the road.
As in my youth, the road trip is part geography lesson, history and culture, and even a bit of a foodfest. I remember when my parents then would try to entertain us with everything they could think of – naps, food, folklore, stories from their own childhood. My Dad would speak of the old railroad that took him and his family to La Union during the evacuation from Manila in the early 1940s, the swamps in the Candaba area where he hid with fellow guerillas as they survived on Bulacan’s watermelons. It was during that time he contracted malaria and became a non-viable blood donor since. From Pampanga to Capas, Tarlac, he would point out some markers commemorating the infamous Death March. He had these horror stories of a big, black sow wearing wooden clogs, which blocked their bus during a night trip he took to Pangasinan when he was already in college, and this big tree by a mysterious bridge where many vehicular accidents happen.
Through it all, we unconsciously learned about the geography of Northern Luzon and even a bit of Philippine history without realizing it. I found out why some parts of Pampanga and Bulacan flood so easily during the rainy season and why there are so many migratory birds flocking to its rice fields at certain times of the year. Nowadays, not many people realize that this area is part of the great marshlands of Candaba. I understood why vast tracks of Tarlac are planted to sugarcane and the Ilocos region is confined mostly to cultivating tobacco. I also came to know that before Dagupan boomed into the provincial capital that it is now, before World War II, it was merely composed of marshes and numerous fishponds locals took their livelihood from.
And so I remember all that until now whenever I travel North. And I try to share that information with Toni since she’s from the eastern side of Northern Luzon. All she knows is the route from Bulacan to Nueva Ecija to Nueva Vizcaya to Isabela and then it’s already Cagayan Valley.
In late 2013, I literally took a tour of Ilocandia – four provinces in four days. While I had taken Toni to La Union and Baguio in 2012, it was such a whirlwind trip that it didn’t leave much of an impression on her. I always promised her we’d do it right the next time. And the complete travel experience to Ilocos includes partaking of the local cuisine wherever you can find it. And yes, Virginia (tobacco), there is more to Ilocos than our longganisa.
Although not much of an eater, I indulged Toni the usual travel fare on buses. Vendors climb aboard our bus offering sweet corn, pork chicharon, and gua(va)apple. From Dau, Pampanga to Tarlac City, assorted sweet treats such as pastillas and macapuno balls abound.
I used to say you just know what part of Ilocandia you’re in already by the kakanins being sold. Somewhere in the Ilocano portions of Tarlac and Pangasinan, one gets offered tupig. Known for its wrapping of elongated strips of banana leaves, it’s actually made from rice flour (malagkit), grated coconut, coconut milk and brown sugar roasted over a fire. On occasion, I encountered “special” versions of this grilled delight with peanut crumbs or sesame seeds for added flavor. Being the probinsyana that she is, Toni recognizes most of the ingredients even before I realize it.
In Ilocos Sur, the favorite is the gelatinous kalamay made from malagkit rice, coconut milk and that dark brown sugar in blocks known as panucha. Sweet and viscuous, it is similar to the popular tikoy of the Chinese. Oftentimes, it is contained in the bao or halved coconut shells much like the binagol of region 8. After my radio guesting in DZTP Radio Tirad Pass in Candon City, we were gifted by no less than their Mayor Singson with their famous Candon Calamay. Meanwhile, in Ilocos Norte, the tinubong is the kakanin of choice. Made from the same ingredients as the tupig, the main difference is that the malagkit, coconut milk, molasses, and grated coconut mixture is stuffed in bamboo tubes before being grilled over hot charcoals. To get to the tasty stuff inside, one must learn the trick of cracking open the bamboo tubes by hitting it against the ground or against a wall. Finally, how can anyone forget our legendary bibingka. Sticky and gelatinous like kalamay, it is now prepared with cheese grated over it. The “royal” version is extra soft and sticky that it actually melts in your mouth.
From my travels to nearby Asian countries, I observed that our kakanins is a cousin to many Indonesian and Malaysian fares of similar concoctions. I am not sure if it was just a matter of culture and common heritage, or the abundance and availability of the ingredients, but one thing for sure, this type of food is both filling and satisfying as an “energy” booster for all the hard work required under the hot Asian sun.
The secret also to enjoying the traditional cuisine of any locality is knowing exactly where to find it. (Remember that Dutch couple who toured the Philippines and complained about our food? Well, who would be stupid enough to ask for Vigan longganisa at a 7-11 store?!)
Any Vigan Heritage Tourist who did his/her background homework would know enough that the “plaza” is the place to be. While in the olden days the plaza held some political and religious significance to be the center of any township with its proximity to the parish church and the town hall, nowadays it maintains its reputation as the “it/eat” place.
And, it isn’t just about the “where”, but the “when”. Depending on what you want to eat, you also have to carefully “time” your gastronomic experience.
Arriving at dawn in Ilocos Sur, Toni didn’t want to lose any time at all and wanted to partake of the traditional Ilocano breakfast. So this early, while the plaza is already hustling and bustling, the morning offering is the “singalaw”. Appearing like the classic pinapaitan, this beef-based broth is served hot with cattle innards but without the bitterness. Instead, it is seasoned profusely with Sukang Iloko. For the faint of heart and un-adventurous palate, there is Jollibee, Chow King, and a few other fast food restaurants if you want to stay with your familiar comfort foods. Otherwise, go for the other Ilocano breakfast of Vigan longganisa and eggs with fried rice.
Already in the midst of the Heritage Village, we decided to visit some of the famous churches and museums before heading home to rest. While doing the Vigan tour, one can’t miss the St. Paul Cathedral and the Salcedo Plaza in front of the Provincial Capitol. But it is essential that one visits at least one of Vigan’s three popular museums. The ancestral home of Fr. Jose Burgos of the famous GomBurZa (the 3 Filipino priests executed by the Spaniards and are now considered heroes) is the only one run by the government, and although a little dilapidated compared to the others, it still introduces one to the Ilocano culture and heritage. For young kids, this small venue would prove most interesting for its dioramas – miniature depictions of life in the Ilocos. From the mini Chinese junks (trading boats), one can learn just how much trading the merchants from mainland China (and probably Taiwan) did up and down the Northern Luzon coast. It also explains why the Chinese businessmen were so integrated in Vigan high society even before, and nowhere is this more exemplified than in the Syquia Mansion (and Quirino) museum. There is also a display showing how the famous churches were built from the blood and sweat of Filipinos under the polo (forced labor) system, an example of the tobacco industry activities straight from the plantations to the curing houses where the leaves are dried, and an artist’s take on the death of the young General Gregorio del Pilar at the Battle of Tirad Pass near Candon.
Successfully evading the notorious Ilocos midday heat, we waited until afternoon to visit the other museums and tourist sites. By the time we finished, it was perfect merienda time and we headed for the Empanadaan, a corner of the Burgos plaza where the classic Ilocano emapanada is made. Fresh from the hand-rolled dough to the vegetable fillings, it is now served with ground meat or longganisa and eggs as a “special” version. Large vats of oil for deep fat frying are evidence that your food gets served hot and fresh off the stove. Toni was so pleased to find that these food stands also offer ukoy. And although I am avowedly averse to taking vinegar with my food, this is one of the few times I actually enjoy it. In fact, it is the sukang iloko and the lasuna (native mini-onions) which are crucial to enjoying the Ilocano empanada. My Toni loved it so much we kept coming back for the next three days.
I noticed that there are now pork barbeques being sold alongside the empanadas. These grill places stay until early evening and the unusual yet tasty combination also makes for a great dinner fare. I am told that grilled food is such a favorite amongst tourists that the Ilocanos decided to also integrate it in their tourist attractions.
We were quite fortunate to be joined by my Mom on this trip, so it was she who mentioned to Toni that another popular Ilocano fare is our miki. This noodle soup of sorts is chicken-based and colored with achuete. Once again, the uniqueness lies in the special home-made dough that looks like the slightly-flattened linguine pasta. At the new must-see place “Hidden Gardens”, we tried their own version of miki which was garnished with bagnet, another meat favorite from Ilocos. As we ate an early dinner, Mama likewise hints at another meat delicacy – the ladek, our so-called version of the sisig. Bits and pieces of cooked pork formed into meat patties, ladek is wrapped in banana leaves and can be frozen in storage until ready to be eaten by simply placing over freshly cooked rice like the Bicolano pangat.
While touring the Heritage Village looking over the different stores’ wares, one already gets an idea what to bring back as souvenirs and pasalubongs The classic abel blankets are a favorite as well as the burnay, the unique clay pottery still being made in the North. Recently, the chichacorn of various flavors has also become a trademark Ilocano take-home. But true-to-form, Mama once again introduced Toni to a traditional Ilocano product – the basi wine from San Ildefonso. Carrying the brandname “Gongogong”, this bottled beverage made from fermented sugarcane juice is the alcohol of choice of Ilocanos since time immemorial, and was in fact the reason for the great Basi revolt in Philippine history. Today, it has found a resurgence as a favorite pasalubong item and because of its export quality, many Ilocano emigrants and overseas workers bring these as souvenirs for friends and compatriots. And even when we’re already originally from Ilocos, we can’t help but bring back most of these goods on our annual visits as if we’re also tourists experiencing Ilocandia for the first time.
For me, I find that the ever changing landscape of Ilocandia makes me see it with new eyes everytime. Besides, watching my beloved Toni enjoy the trip not only brings back my childhood, but allows me to have new memories to cherish as well.

Changing Landscapes Part 1: Legendary La Union

When people wonder why I proudly declare myself as a “GI” or genuine Ilocana even as I already grew up in Metro Manila, they soon find out that it’s because my parents and grandparents from both sides of the family all hail from the North. While I can understand the language and still speak a few bits and pieces of Ilocano, I only got to spend a few weeks of each year in the region when I was growing up. But one of the highlights of our summers then was the annual trek to the beach and this had to be in La Union. With its long coastline, gently sloping into the sea and its soft, gray sands, it was the perfect beach destination before heading for Baguio to cool off.
Though I agonized about the long drives before, now I remember them with fondness as I keep returning every now and then and notice the big changes in the countryside. As one enters the province of La Union, you come upon a fork in the road that is the town of Rosario. This is where a right turn means you’re heading to Baguio through the Pugo-Tuba route, and a left turn means you’re heading towards Ilocos through the coastal towns of La Union. At this junction, there used to be a rest-stop, restaurant cum mini-museum. This circular structure with wide, open windows that let the cool air in especially in the summer, used to house Ilocano artifacts and traditional tools and implements that proudly introduced our Ilocano heritage. Now, all that stands is an old, dilapidated building that serves as an unintentional playground for kids, or a temporary shelter for transients, but not even used by the local government as a security outpost.
I remember Rosario for its treehouse I use to climb in my youth. Today, several other La Union towns sport treehouses of their own like Agoo and Balaoan, what with their big acacia trees still standing and perfectly preserved. Through Sto. Tomas, Aringay, Bacnotan, San Juan, Agoo, Bauang and San Fernando, we could catch an occasional glimpse of the South China Sea. When I was a kid, squeals of delight would erupt in the car from my sisters and I as we intermittently get a view of the inviting blue sea. “Malapit na, malapit na tayo sa beach!” my Mom and Dad would promise us, so that we’d quiet down a bit. Nowadays, it’s quite difficult to catch even a glimpse of the beach. Too many commercial establishments have been built by the roadside thus covering one’s view as you drive by.
My family is related to the Aquinos, Borjas and Gaerlans of San Juan, and we used to stay at the family beach resort, named after Lolo Mariano and Lola Pilar in Bauang, La Union. I remember MARPIL’s cottages would sometimes be occupied by uncles, aunties, and cousins but a few doors would still be rented out to vacationing foreigners. While fathers, uncles and lolos drank and had their favorite pulutan – kambing, and our mothers, aunties and lolas played mahjong at the resto-pavilion, us kids would frolic on the beach all day.
For those who can remember, this same stretch of beach would be shared by neighboring resorts like Nalinac, Long Beach, and Cresta del Mar. But today, only Long Beach still exists.
Since the big earthquake of 1990, the coastline seems to have moved and the long stretches of sand reaching out into the ocean have disappeared. No more areas for sunbathing or sandcastle building, or space to do an early morning jogs. Waves now lap constantly at the raised foundations of resorts, hotels and beachside restaurants. Receding tides sometimes offers a small stretch of sand, but more often than not, the sea has encroached upon the seaside spaces of my youth. During a visit to Long Beach a few years ago, I was shocked to find the seawaters so close to where we were eating. I could see and hear the evening waves crashing unto the rocks beneath the restaurant’s floorboards as if any minute the sea would just engulf us. In Bauang and San Fernando this is the reality: there is only the sea for the beach frontage itself are all gone.
Meanwhile, the big, scary waves of Agoo and San Juan have become the main tourist attraction here. The same great, crashing waves which our parents warned us about and kept us from swimming in these areas are what surfing enthusiasts have come to conquer. Big business has boomed around this and surfers are now regular visitors, giving new life to the resorts and hotel industry here. Surf shops, restaurants and coffee bars have likewise emerged in the recent years.
In La Union, like the rest of the Ilocos region, the old churches are a must-see. As kids, we used to hear mass either at the St. William’s Cathedral of San Fernando or the Basilica of Agoo. The latter was built during the time of Tourism Secretary Aspiras, a known Marcos crony. It got so controversial because of the church mural which included the face of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos as well as the Aspiras couple. Nearby, across the road, there used to be a museum of sorts where proud Ilocano traditions and culture were displayed. There were religious artifacts dating back to the Spanish colonizers, some old books and documents from the American Period, and World War II memorabilia from the Japanese Occupation. Today the building is part of the local government center, and underneath stands the Senior Citizens Center.
While many people flock over to Manaoag in Pangasinan, Piat in Cagayan Valley and Penafrancia in Naga City as popular pilgrimage sites, few know about Our Lady of Namacpacan in La Union. Legend has it that during a time of great drought and famine descended on La Union, an image of the Virgin Mary came to feed the starving people, hence the name “namacpacan” – which means to feed. A church was built in her honor and the spring underneath the church is said to produce miraculous healing waters. And to get so-called nourishing liquid is free, but people must bring their own bottles and containers to get some.