Playful in Palawan: Life in the Philippine Countryside Series

Day 1 – Feb. 5, 2017 – (Sunday): Puerto Princesa on Two Wheels

The place is orderly and clean” was our initial impression of Puerto Princesa as our driver made his way around the city towards Socrates Road after he picked us up in an old, white van at the small airport in this capital city of Palawan.

Subli Guest Cabins would be our overnight shelter in the city that day as Matthew & Johan would be jetting-in from Manila the next morning for our northbound, overland trip to the touristy and popular but more remote El Nido.

We arrived at the guest cabins – made of concrete and bamboo-  in high spirits in spite of our red-eye flight from Siem Reap that included a 6-hour sleep-depriving wait inside Manila’s newer and spacious Terminal 3 airport.

After we verbally agreed with the young and bubbly receptionist that we would rent their only Honda scooter for PHP 600 (USD 12) that day, we wasted no time to shower and to get some sleep as soon as we checked-in.

One of the hammocks underneath the huge mango tree that dominates the compound
Quiet surroundings provided deep sleep in spite of the spartan amenities inside these huts
This 125 cc Honda scooter would take us around the city – and beyond!

Refreshed from our 3 plus hours of rest, we strapped our helmets and ventured out at 3 PM along with a bagful of dirty clothes– only to run out of gas just a few meters away from the compound.

Ruby flagged a passing ‘tricycle’ (a very common form of paid transport in the country that’s similar to ‘tuk-tuks” – which is a motorcycle with a ‘sidecar’ for extra seating passengers)  and they returned with petrol in a 2-liter PET plastic bottle.  For good measure, we filled up the tank another PHP 90 (USD 1.80) at a nearby Shell gas station along Malvar Road after we finally got going.

Riding a scooter, motorcycle or even a bicycle is one of the simple joys of life that we, as human beings, tend to overlook. With the wind on your face and the sights and sounds of the surroundings all over you, one’s sense of adventure is elevated by having that constant awareness of the dangers being on the road so that you hold on to dear life on that handlebar.

We saw a body of water to our right immediately after we passed by the public market so we made a right turn on the next intersection. The road narrowed markedly and took us to a sweeping descent that ended at a small park -the Puerto Princesa BaywalkAlong its stretch were numerous open-air food stalls that overlooked a cove that is part of the Palawan Sea.

It was just about 4 PM but 2 or 3 food stalls were already doing some business and so we opted –K’na Boyet sa Baywok- for the one where a couple of tables were occupied by a group of tourists.  Once seated, the aroma of that familiar calamansi and soy sauce flavored BBQs that’s very popular all over the archipelago, sharpened the hunger fangs even more.  We sidled towards the charcoal-fed grill where several pans filled with assorted sea offerings vied for our attention.

Helmet off, Ruby at the Baywalk in Puerto Princesa
Ruby enjoys her green mango shake while waiting for the food to arrive

An order of grilled “pork liempo” (grilled, marinated pork belly), shrimps sautéed in butter and garlic, rice, a mango shake & two bottles of San Miguel Light beer set us back for about PHP 750 (USD 14.50).

Bellies filled, we then set our sights for Baker’s Hill and asked for directions from the very amiable waitress who suggested that we might as well visit Mitra Ranch as both were in the same area.

Amidst moderate traffic, as it was a weekend, it didn’t take us long to find our way towards the city’s main highway, Puerto Princesa North Road but had to ask directions from locals twice to get to the junction of PP South Road that would lead us to our destination We dropped off our laundry bag at a shop along the cemented two-lane highway while trying to find our way towards Baker’s Hill.

Like most roads in the city outskirts, the narrow road that goes up towards Baker’s Hill was so puzzlingly unmarked that we overshot it by a few miles in spite of asking directions 2 or 3 more times — the last one from a mechanic working on a wheel of a small truck along the grass-lined fringes of the highway. The tall trees behind the shop gave us glimpses of the rice fields beyond.  They would punctuate the highway the farther we got away from the city proper.

Baker’s Hill turned out to be just a family compound with –you guessed it a bakery, an open-air restaurant, and a souvenir stall.  It became popular as a ‘snack-stop’ for visitors going to Mitra Ranch.  It tries hard to become a major tourist attraction in the city simply through word of mouth as well as via recommendations by past visitors on travel websites.  The bakery sells mostly pastries and snacks notably the different varieties of the ‘hopia‘ (thin, flaky pastry filled with mung bean paste).

Locals and tourists mill around the entrance to the bakery at Baker’s Hill, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Inside the bakery – all the good stuff for the sweet tooth

Just a few meters uphill, Mitra Ranch offered a better view of the city atop the hill as well as horseback riding and zip-lining.  The place was opened to the public after the death of the family patriarch, Ramon ‘Monching’ Mitra, Jr., who was an esteemed senator.  Unfortunately, he lost in the 1992 Philippine presidential elections in spite of being tagged as the early favorite to win it all.

Dusk was upon us after we picked up our laundry and headed back to the city.  We had decided to have an early bedtime since we needed to be up early to meet the couple at the airport for our morning trip to El Nido.  Moreover, with our weather-beaten faces and aboard two small wheels that offered minimal comforts, tiredness had crept in on our bodies once again.

It was already dark once we reached the city proper and got lost once more; only to find ourselves buying some delicious ‘lechon (roasted pig) for dinner from a makeshift stall in front of a shop that sold various solar-powered devices.

After handing us the take-out goodie in a plastic bag, the middle-aged vendor summoned us at the edge of the sidewalk and pointed to an intersection where we would make a right towards Malvar Road.  His instructions sounded like music to our ears.

It was about 8:30 PM when we made the final turn back to the comforts of Subli’s compound aboard our trusty scooter.

Day 2 – Feb. 6, 2017 – (Monday): The Road to El Nido 

It was about 8:45 in the morning and the air was crisp with a light gust from the east.  It made the flowers -protected by a low, concrete encasement- sway to its rhythm.  I spotted the driver who was holding a sign with Matthew’s name on it while he waited just a few yards away from the exit gates of the Puerto Princesa airport and chatted with him.

Just an hour ago, we had checked out at Subli and had taken a tricycle to meet Matthew and Johan for our van ride to El Nido.  Matthew had arranged for the rides as well as our accommodations in that popular destination north of Puerto Princesa.  We would be out of the airport by 9:15 aboard a van that badly needed a new set of shock absorbers.

Ruby at Subli’s dining area the morning we checked out to meet Mat & Johan
Johan, Mat & Ruby at Palawan’s Puerto Princesa airport

The driver briefly stopped by a hotel with a cheesy name-D’ Lucky Garden Inn– and picked up a young couple from the U.K. who joined us for the trip.  The four of us would be staying for a night in Puerto Princesa at this same hotel after our El Nido escapade.

D’ Lucky Garden Inn’s very eclectic landscaping left an impression on us

The very long (almost 5 hrs.) and tiring ride mainly along the two-lane but cemented Puerto Princesa North Road was really uneventful except for a few stops where the driver loaded up on a few more passengers along the way to augment his earnings.  There was a mandatory stop at an ‘agricultural checkpoint‘ where we bought some drinks from a nearby store.  At kilometer 131, just along the highway, we had our lunch break at Elfredo’s Manokan & Seafood Restaurant somewhere in the sleepy municipality of Roxas.

Mat & Johan about to clean-up their plates at Elfredo’s restaurant
Along the Puerto Princesa North Highway towards El Nido

We would pass through undulating roads along the fringes of the municipalities of San Vicente and Taytay (the first capital of Palawan dating back to the Spanish colonial period and where the small Fort Santa Isabel – constructed in 1667- still stands until, on a small rotunda,  we bade goodbye to the PPNR and veered west towards the Taytay-El Nido National Highway.

Previews of what to expect in El Nido would manifest along the T-ENNH as the road got steeper while it followed the Malampaya River.  Majestic views of a few islands would behold our eyes as soon as the van crested a steep hill.

We finally arrived at the terminal in El Nido at about 3 PM and a short tricycle ride (PHP 50 or USD) whisked us to our hotel’s downtown office along Calle Hama.  

A woman in her mid-20s with hints of Middle Eastern ancestry confirmed our reservations and radioed for 2 smaller tricycles to pick us up.  She also gave some insights as well as her impressions about the entire place and handed out a simple map of El Nido that included a list of massage parlors, bars, and restaurants located nearby.

Simple map-guide in downtown El Nido, Palawan provided by Caalan Beach Resort

The road that led to Caalan Beach Resort was too narrow -barely a meter wide in some areas- that on several occasions along the way, either our ride or the incoming one had to stop and gave way to the other.

The cemented road followed the shoreline until you hit an unsealed portion lined by coconut, banana & other small fruit trees as well as a variety of ornamental plants with nipa huts, slow-slung houses, two-story concrete hostels, sari-sari’ stores (a small, family-operated shop that sells sodas, snacks & various household goods typically attached to the house), makeshift food-stands, dogs by the roadside, all mingled in a locale called “Barrio Taiyo(Taiyo Village).

At the resort, we were greeted and offered welcome drinks by Bee who informed us that she’s simply helping her parents run the place along with her husband, John, when they’re in the country for a vacation.  She added that her father -married to a Japanese- was an engineer from South Korea who decided to settle in this part of Palawan when he got assigned near the area during a road construction project.

We finally settled in our second-level room with a balcony that offered magnificent views of several islands in the bay, the immediate & largest one among them being Cadlao Island.

That’s our room on the right, 2nd level inside the Caalan Beach Resort in Barrio Taiyo, El Nido, Palawan
This is the view from the terrace if you to stay in the room seen in the preceding picture

Mat & Johan checked out the beachfront but found it too rocky and the nearby waters too shallow to take a quick swim so we all just had a quick nap before heading out back to town to have dinner after briefly waiting out the mild drizzle brought by dark clouds that passed by.

The beachfront at Caalan Beach Resort was too rocky to take a quick swim in.

Calle Hama is the unofficial party street in El Nido since it’s where most tourists end up after their sorties along the beach.  It’s a narrow, interior road, hence, it is closed at night to all vehicular traffic –except for tricycles owned by resorts along the coast– to allow enough space for all the touristy goings-on.

Because of poor or even non-existent urban planning & zoning, it suffers, just like most remote bayside resorts all over the country, from its failure to exude any charm or appeal.  The area is simply a potpourri of haphazardly-erected food stalls, souvenir shops, hostels, houses and where locals, backpackers barely out of their teens and elderly tourists mingle and simply wander around.

After trying out a few pieces of barbeque-on-a-stick from a sidewalk stand, we got bored with the area as it was a bit early and took another tricycle ride towards Bulalo Plaza. 

We stopped just a few meters after we exited the junction of Rizal Street and the Taytay-El Nido highway.  Unless you’re a local, and although the place is open 24 hours every day, it is, nonetheless, so easy to miss as the very small signage is overwhelmed by the cliff walls and the surrounding greenery.

We climbed a few steps into the eatery and we’re ushered to a table right in the middle of the place by a pleasant, effeminate waiter who introduced himself as Megan.  The entire setup looked more like a kitchen converted into a restaurant that has about 8 wooden tables and bamboo benches in a squat, elevated location that fronted the highway.

Two orders of the house special, ‘bulalo‘ (beef shank soup with vegetables), a plate of ‘seafood sisig’ (a variety of minced seafood sautéed in a sizzling skillet topped with chilis & fresh egg), rice, sodas, and a bottle of beer were more than enough for our stomachs.  Afterward, we decided to walk back to town to shake off some of the cholesterol deposits.

Along the way, Mat & Johan inquired from a roadside travel and tour stall for the earliest trip back to Puerto Princesa on Wednesday in order to catch the underground cave trip on the same day.  Mat balked at the idea after learning that they would not only barely make it to PP on time but that he would also lose the money he paid for our already-booked and scheduled return trip.

Mat and Johan just outside a travel & tour stall along the Taytay-El Nido National Highway

Back at Calle Hama to get our free ride back to the resort, the trio went shopping for souvenirs while I scoured the place for some cold beer in cans.  I managed to get some but they were not cold so I searched in vain for some ice.  Our driver suggested that I could just ask them for free back at the resort so our tricycle squeezed back into that same narrow alley, its motor sputtering in the stillness of the early evening along the shore.

Ruby showed up later in the room holding a block of ice wrapped in plastic that Bee gave her. While they all prepared their things for the island-hopping trip the next morning, I sat back on the bed to enjoy my ice-filled glass as I slowly poured the country’s best beer –San Miguel– into it.

It was a luxury that I would regret in the next few hours; in fact, for the next few days.

Day 3 – Feb. 7, 2017 – (Tuesday): Island Hopping Tour Day 

Immediately after breakfast, John tapped on our door and informed us that we need to get prepared for the island-hopping tour by 9.  A few guests had already milled around the nipa-roofed gazebo where we could see them choose and pick among several sizes and colors of snorkel gear neatly arranged atop a low table in the middle of the sandy floor.

Early morning in El Nido

Last night, however, my seemingly innocuous decision to ask for some ice for my warm canned beer resulted in vomiting episodes and several trips to the bathroom – bad water– that rendered me so physically exhausted.  But who wants to miss a cruise of the islands on a very nice day in El Nido?

He prepped us along with 6 other guests on what to expect during the ‘island-hopping’ tour and offered great tips on how to ‘survive’ the almost day-long trip water trip.  Then, without John, our boat crew of 4 led by a spunky Palaweña in her late twenties herded us to a quarter-mile walk along the shore towards the deeper part of the bay where the resort-owned outrigger was moored.

Yesterday afternoon, before we headed downtown for our dinner, we had agreed to purchase island-hopping package C (hidden beaches and shrines) which began with almost an hour-long ride towards Tapiutan Island.  Our group was barely enjoying the waters in our snorkel gear when a coast guard band of two aboard a small motorboat waved us to move to a different location to protect the coral reefs in the area we’re on.

Tapiutan Island from a distance

The next stop would be ‘Secret Beach‘.  It is accessible via a narrow portal that leads to a cove with shallow water surrounded by limestone walls that had seen a good slice of mankind’s history. The big boulders below the water made it just an ideal place to waddle around and enjoy the sun.

Lunch aboard the boat consisted of a salad medley made cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, grilled ‘pork liempo’,  steamed ‘tahong‘ (mussels), grilled ‘tambakol‘ (skipjack tuna) complemented with slices of watermelon and pineapple.  We also bought fresh coconuts from an enterprising vendor on a boat who also sold canned soda and beer.

Boats converge in the calm waters in Matinloc Island where island-hoppers have their lunch

After lunch, our boat headed to the Hidden Beach, which was the most difficult part of the trip for non-swimmers as one had to fight a swell near the edge of the cove amidst huge rocks that were being constantly slammed with waves.  At least 2 boat crews had to assist each guest who either couldn’t swim or just wouldn’t dare venture into the dangerous waters.

The last leg of the tour was a brief stop at the Helicopter Island –so-called because its silhouette resembles a heli when viewed from a distance-where we took pictures of the majestic cliff walls.  We missed those beautiful sunset views as gray skies were the theme for the rest of the afternoon.

Matt & Johan at the shore of Helicopter Island, El Nido, Palawan
Bong – the web author- in El Nido, Palawan

It was almost 5 PM when we finally made the channel crossing back to the bay and a short walk along a narrow, tree-lined path leading to the back door of the resort where some drinks and biscuits awaited us.

Day 4 – Feb. 8, 2017 – (Wednesday): Back to Puerto Princesa on a Bum Stomach  

My stomach felt a bit better after a cup of tea and a Pepto-Bismol tablet.  Breakfast consisted of two boiled eggs as I was too weak and tired to even go down to the restaurant.  The styrofoam box with my dinner lay untouched on top of the shelf.  Last night, after the boat trip, Mat & Johan went back downtown to get some food and to check it out a bit more while Ruby just opted to stay in order to help me out in my struggle with the stomach bug.

We quietly packed all stuff and our still-damp clothes as the lack of breeze from the bayfront and that it had been mostly overcast for the remainder of the afternoon after the boat trip didn’t help the somber mood.

A narrow tricycle but with enough space for the 4 of us took us back to town for our ride back to Puerto Princesa.  At the bus terminal, I looked out for our luggage while they took off on foot in search of a pharmacy to get some anti-diarrheal tablets, electrolyte mix, and bottled water to, at least, stabilize my bum stomach on the long trip back to PP.

For reasons unbeknownst to us, just a few miles out of El Nido, we were transferred to another van already loaded with 2 other passengers.  The van was more comfortable so we didn’t complain.  The return trip was uneventful except for a lunch stop at an open-air restaurant that offered a nice view of the hillside and a glimpse of the waterfront further down.

We all managed to doze off in the air-conditioned van along the way, maybe partly in anticipation of all the activities when we reach PP or partly because our bodies were still recuperating from those strenuous water activities we had yesterday.  Or, maybe, it was simply just another one of those sleepy, beginning-of-summer days in Palawan that’s perfect for a siesta?

By 2 PM, we’re back in the city of Puerto Princesa and we had to wait for a few minutes at the odd mixed-business-and-living-room-like reception area of the enigmatic D’ Lucky Garden Inn – – our overnight shelter for the day before we head back to Manila the next morning.

The place had such an unusual appeal because of its maze of very narrow passageways that leads to several doors that will leave you guessing where they will lead you to next.  My suspicion is that the entire place is an ‘all-purpose lodge’ that can accommodate all patrons either looking for a quick 3-hour ‘love motel’ service to monthly renters.

Mat had booked two separate rooms for us and both had that unmistaken scent of a love motel which I could simply describe as a mix of household bleach and a strong musk fragrance. Mat and Johan’s room even had a motif- a red mosquito-net-like fabric draped over the center of the double-sized bed.

One of the maze-like alleys inside D’Lucky Garden Inn – Puerto Princesa, Palawan

After settling down in our rooms, cold showers we rested for the remainder of the afternoon until the couple took off again aboard another van for the ‘firefly watching’ trip in an area of the Iwahig River where a penal colony is situated nearby. They would be the only takers for the PHP 1200 (USD 24) per head tour as the inclement weather discourage other tourists.

Meanwhile, Ruby wandered all over to sort out the entire compound while I simply stayed inside the room to battle with the bacterial infection that had now settled to the lower intestines.  The numerous trips to the bathroom made me so hungry that the ham & cheese sandwich, fries, and a bottle of Sprite that I ordered did not last long on the serving tray.

Mat had sent a text message to inform me that we both were already asleep when they returned from their trip by 9:30.  They would report the following morning that while they enjoyed the food at the restaurant stop before they took the boat for the firefly watching, just a few of them showed up and failed to dazzle with their fireworks as it briefly rained during the trip.

Day 5 – Feb. 9, 2017 – (Thursday):  Puerto Princesa Airport in 3 Minutes

Since our one and a half hour flight back to Manila was scheduled for noon, just after having their early morning coffees, the trio took up on the offer of one of the receptionists- whose husband owns a tricycle- to give them a ride to Baker’s Hill and Mitra Ranch, at a discount.  Ruby decided to return to Baker’s Hill simply to buy that delicious hopia again, this time, as ‘pasalubongs’ (presents) for the folks back in Manila

The young couple at the zipline experience inside Mitra Ranch, PP, Palawan
Entrance to the former Mitra family residence in Palawan. It is now a family-run museum.

With renewed spirits after in bed for almost 18 hours since we arrived, I decided to look around the place after a hearty breakfast of ‘cornisilog‘ (corned beef hash, fried egg, and fried rice). My bum stomach had markedly improved after the continuous intake of the electrolyte mix, cold Sprite, and Diatabs.

The ‘lucky garden’ was just immediately across our room and so I made a few trips between the bathroom and the garden as well as the restaurant just to the right. I took a few pictures of the surrounding areas to while away the time as I waited for the trio to return.

A nipa hut at the middle of the D’ Lucky Garden Inn’s interior garden
Probably the owner himself was the chief landscaping architect of the entire place

Sometimes you visit a place and one bad experience would be enough to ruin your entire perception about its people.  On the other side of the coin, the friendliness of the people in a particular place could be so overwhelming that you wished that you had stayed much longer.

Palawan is one of those places that could be categorized on the latter.  Its people will afford you with just the right amount of personal space so that you could simply introspect in your life’s journey and enjoy what the entire island has to offer.

Ruby, Johan & Mat at Puerto Princesa airport’s boarding gate
Malaysian-owned Air Asia planes at Puerto Princesa airport

After the trio arrived, an almost brand-new white van picked us up at about 10:50 AM.  From PEO Road, it made a left turn towards Rizal Avenue, then after a brief moment, turned right into an open gate.  After that very long trip to El Nido and back, we’re all taken by surprise by that rather brief interlude of a ride to the airport.

At 10:53 AM we quietly unloaded our bags from the van and headed for the check-in counter of Air Asia for the flight back to Manila.

Adventures in Siem Reap: Khmer Kingdom of Lam Lot

During our short trip to Siem Reap to marvel at the spectacular temples in the Angkor complex – Angkor Wat is just the centerpiece in this massive Khmer kingdom- we learned not only about the ancient past but also how young Cambodians look up to the future.  Thanks to our young ‘tuk-tuk‘ driver, Lam Lot, and the universality of the English language.

Aboard his black colored cart with that distinctive purple seat covers and pulled by a 125 cc. motorcycle, he informed us that he had invested about US$1450 ($550 for the cart & $900 for a popular Japanese-brand motorcycle) for his contraption after he left his all-around job at a hotel that paid him US$ 100 per month.

Taxis are very rare especially in the outskirts of downtown Siem Reap which made the tuk-tuks the most convenient way to get around the city.   Although shops are abundant that rent out motorcycles, scooters, ATVs, and bikes but you’re on your own to figure out your way around.

Educated by Buddhist monks, Lam Lot is the epitome of the new breed of young Cambodians who are determined to not only forget their grim, yet not-so-distant past and focus on the now but are also willing to embrace new technologies.

During the Pol Pot regime, simply being an intellectual was already a death sentence.  These days, thanks to the internet and the tourism boom, young Cambodians are much more aware of what’s going on in and outside of their country and are also willing to step up to the plate to propel their country forward.

Ducks for sale: a young Khmer woman on her way to the market

Lot -he preferred to be called by that name -is employed by the hotel (Sekla Villa Angkor) where we stayed that has a stable of about 4 or 5 tuk-tuk drivers to transport guests around for free as a marketing ploy.

We got endeared to him by his persistence to converse with us in English although we have to literally stick our ears to his mouth in order for us to comprehend what he meant.

Accompanied by hand gestures, we were able to relay most of what we wanted to accomplish while we toured the city.  He also refused to take our tips -we persisted- for the trip from the airport to our hotel and informed  (yes, almost scolded) us that everything was part of the hotel deal.

Our young tuk-tuk driver proudly showed his social media profile on his smartphone

Before we headed to our room, we paid for the “grand circle tour” ($5) as well as for the “sunset viewing” ($10) in one of the temples along the way but made us wonder why the former didn’t already cover the latter.  We also reminded the young lady receptionist that we wanted the same tuk-tuk driver that brought us in.

The next morning, immediately after we had our breakfasts, Lot greeted us with his sheepish smile and provided us an overview of the grand circle tour of the Angkor complex using a map that he pulled out from the canopy of his tuk-tuk.  He had also brought a cooler that he filled up with ice and several bottled water.

Except for our lodging, we had done almost no research about the Angkor complex and we all thought that going to Angkor Wat was simply a matter of visiting another UNESCO World Heritage site in maybe a couple of hours, take a few pictures, head back to our hotel to rest and then pick another interesting spot to visit in the city.  How wrong we were.

Siem Reap, in spite of its eclectic blend of the old and new, its provincial and small city charm, had already instilled a mixed feeling of excitement and sadness inside me yesterday after I saw piles of garbage strewn all over the place just a few miles from the airport and inside the city proper.

A small creek floating with food take-out boxes and an assortment of plastic debris nearby our hotel didn’t help to contradict that sadness–that, sometimes, border on outright disgust.

Soon, the narrow inner roads gave way to much wider, cemented roads where, from a distance, we could see a cluster of tall, white-colored structures with bright red roofing — the Angkor Complex Visitors Center.

Tourist buses, scooters, and tuk-tuks vie for space at the Angkor Visitors’ Complex

Lot told us to get our tickets inside and pointed to a spot where he’ll meet us amidst the pandemonium of people — tourists that poured out from numerous tour buses, cars, tuk-tuks, scooters, bicycles, peddlers, tour guides, etc.– in the parking lot.

He had also explained to us along the way that ticket prices were increased from US$37 for a single day entry (usually $20) and the special “‘buy 2 days & get the 3rd day free” to $62 (usually $40) to take advantage of the influx of Chinese tourists visiting Cambodia for their holidays since it’s their Lunar New Year.

The US dollar is the unofficial and widely accepted currency in the country although locals will still gladly take Cambodian riels.  Most shops will either give your change in riel or dollar depending on what’s available.

Now armed with our 3-day passes, we drove for another mile or so until we reached a checkpoint manned by two uniformed personnel who verified our faces with the pictures on the passes and punched the date we entered located at the back of our tickets.

It was after we made a short right turn towards our first stop in our grand circle tour that we all realized how massive the Angkor complex was. This is going to be a very long day.

Our first stop: Prasat Kravan (modern name: “Cardamom Sanctuary”). Features very fine interior brick bas-reliefs.
Very detailed carvings everywhere you look!

The temples in the almost 16-mile long ‘grand circle tour’  not only mesmerized, tantalized, and dazzled our eyes but also made our feet very sore.  Unfortunately,  I had lost my custom-made foot orthosis on the flight to Manila (we traveled to Siem Reap via Hanoi from Manila) and the off-the-shelf foot support that I used did not help much either.

There were several occasions during our 3-day sorties inside the Angkor complex that I just preferred to stay in the tuk-tuk with Lot because of the constant pain on my left ankle while my wife and her sister, Rosana, excitedly clambered up the steps of the taller stone towers.

Past noon saw us sleeping in a row of hammocks beside a roadside eatery near Neak Pean which is an artificial island with a Buddhist temple as its centerpiece.  Most eateries inside the complex -as well as the tuk-tuks– have hammocks that provide a quick way to take a nap.

Tired from all the walking, tourists take a nap in hammocks provided by a roadside restaurant near Neak Pean

We were so tired after we emerged from the west gate of the next temple, Preah Khan, that we had the comforts of the hotel bed in the back of our heads as soon as we boarded Lot’s tuk-tuk once again.

Nature vs. Culture: Old trees interlaced among the ruins in Preah Khan

The Bayon was so big that we all decided to just take a few photos aboard the tuk-tuk, revisit the place the following day and head back to the hotel instead.  Not after we passed by a memorial for people who died in the ‘killing fields’ during the Pol Pot regime.

Before we headed to our room, Lot informed us that he would take us to a massage parlor – they’re all over the city – to soothe our tired legs and bodies as well as a night tour of downtown Siam Reap.  We had to do this impromptu trip in a jiffy as we still had the “sunrise viewing” of Angkor Wat that required us to be up by 4:30 AM the next day.

If there’s a compelling reason to return to Siam Reap, it would be those massage parlors.  Not only were the massages ridiculously cheap -as low as $1.50 for an hour-long foot massage- but they also served as the perfect way to end your very, very tiring day inside the ancient complex.

You would do your conscience a big favor when you tip well those masseuses and masseurs as we all agreed that those low rates straddle the thin line between slave labor and gainful employment.

Mid-morning at the east gallery side of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat’s east façade as captured in this GoPro clip

Very early the following morning, after we picked up our breakfasts in paper bags from the receptionist, Lot motored us to a different route for our dawn viewing of the magnificent Angkor Wat — the main reason for our Cambodian trip.

We eventually spent almost half a day inside the splendid Angkor Wat whose walls, lintels, nooks, and crevices were adorned by some of the most fascinating carvings and inscriptions the human race had ever seen.  We also managed to venture as far as the outer, eastern portion of the complex.

For the Khmers, life simply goes on; content with the knowledge that the temples will remain with them for as long as they live.  For us visitors, we can only enjoy every moment of this special opportunity to marvel at one of mankind’s greatest creations.

Later on, he showed us another part of downtown that’s popular among expats and had lunch at a fast-food joint that featured an eclectic mix of just about everything on their menu.

This fast-food restaurant’s olive-oil fried chicken recipes were really delicious.
So similar to the ‘tap-si-log’ (and variants) dish in the Philippines. But this one had a “Korean-twist” — fried rice with kimchi.

Afterward, Lot recommended that we visit the fishing village of Kompong Phluk, which took the better of 1.5 hours for the one way, back-breaking trip on mostly unsealed roads.

It was almost like a scene from a “Mad Max” movie as our boat meandered along the murky Tonlé Sap river whose stench competed with our curiosity for any marine or human activities on this surreal backdrop.

On a muggy day, the sight of these house on stilts is surreal — like a ‘Mad Max’ movie
Fishermen ply their trade along the riverbank of Tonlé Sap

The Tonlé Sap river ends on a lake with the same name and connects it with the 7th longest river in Asia — the Mekong.  Just like the river, this huge lake had suffered great sedimentation due to the exploitation of its resources.  A patina of brown seemingly tints the water as the sun’s reflection bounces from the bottom towards the surface.

Dusk arrives in Tonlé Sap Lake
A Buddhist temple sits atop the banks of the Tonlé Sap river

On the way back to our hotel, Lot would point to us the dusty road that leads to his parent’s house where he and his young wife stays.  He pays for the family’s food and utility expenses.  A few more miles on the same highway, he would point to a grocery store owned by a relative of his wife where she helps out.

On our last day in Siem Reap, Lot would take us again to the old market early in the morning where we bought a suitcase for all our extra stuff since we arrived in Hanoi exactly a week ago.  He also helped us get discounts for all our souvenirs in the tourists’ market nearby the very popular night attraction in downtown —‘Pub Street’.

Parking a tuk-tuk can be difficult in the old market

After we packed all our bags and turned them over to the front desk for custody, we checked out of our hotel and allowed Lot to make the decision for us how to spend the remaining 8 or so hours we had to spare before our late evening flight to Puerto Princesa in the Philippines.

Without wasting any time, he drove us to the temples in Ta Phrom which is a much smaller complex east of the Bayon.  Because of the humidity, I decided just to stay aboard his tuk-tuk while I peruse my newly-purchased guide book, “Ancient Angkor” by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques.

The Ta Prohm’s entrance gate. It is a temple-monastery with mostly silk-cotton trees interlaced among the ruins.
Touring the Bayon alone would take you the entire day…or, a few weeks!

While we waited for the sisters, we had our late lunch at a spot where locals and tuk-tuk drivers eat -there was a pair of tourists on backpacks- and had fried chicken wings and fish and sautéed mustard greens that went along with a heap of steamed rice.

After we had picked up the sisters, we passed by the Bayon again with the hopes of just relaxing in one of its many open spaces near the water since the noonday heat had jacked-up the humidity scale much higher.

He suggested that we buy some snacks and drinks once outside the Angkor complex and suggested that we proceed to a “picnic spot where he often goes when he and his wife were still sweethearts“.

The place turned out to be West Baray, a man-made lake or reservoir that was constructed in the 11th-century and was a crucial component of the Angkor complex during the heydays of the Khmer empire.

Some construction is going on in the artificial island – the West Mebon, where a magnificent bronze Vishnu still stands- located in the middle of this huge reservoir that covers an area of about 1,760 hectares (4,349 acres).

It’s very popular with locals who go there to picnic, take naps, or a quick dip on its murky, brown water.  There are no gates either where you pay a fee upfront to enter.  Lot simply spoke to an elderly woman who proceeded to find a spot for the 4 of us amongst the numerous huts that were on stilts.

Taking it slow and easy in West Baray after all those walks inside the Angkor complex
Enjoying fresh coconut juice at the reservoir (West Baray) in Siem Reap

Each hut seems to have a few hammocks randomly strung on it but we found it more refreshing to lay on the mats strewn on the bamboo floor.

It was in this rustic setting, after we had some snacks, that I pondered long and hard on the calm waters of the West Baray.  My thoughts drifted to the days when I was still a young kid growing up in a sleepy town called Baclaran.

Manila Bay was my West Baray and the nearby Redemptorist (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) Church, although not afloat in a body of water, could have been the West Mebon.  The noonday heat had reached its peak and a slight breeze from the north lulled the three of us into a slumber while Lam Lot borrowed a piece of cloth from the same elderly woman as he prepared to take a swim.

In my short dream, various nostalgic moments rumbled through my head but they were not too vivid enough for me to recollect when I woke up smiling afterward – except for one: that I was walking along the grass-lined walkways inside the Angkor complex where the Khmer people were all smiling at me on a quiet day sometimes in those ancient days.

How Long Until Halong Bay?

After the more than 3 hr. van ride from Hanoi Old Quarter (we stayed at a deceivingly cramped but comfortable hotel –Hanoi Guest House– along Mã Mây Road)- my initial impression of the place was, “here we go again, just another tourist-packed place hyped-up by all those travel magazines.”

The van ride ended at a bland, squat, white-washed terminal building (Tuan Chau International Marina) whose design seemed a bit out of place and where our guide instructed us to wait until we were handed out 2 tickets.

All ‘junk boat’ tours to Halong Bay start at this architecturally-inapt building
Ruby and Rosan wait for their boat ride
A brightly-decorated boat…always ready for Halong Bay cruise

It was not until we went past the visitors’ building, saw the open waters as we followed the throng of tourists queuing for their boat rides, that my biased, unimpressive opinion about the whole trip slowly gave way to both astonishment and awe.

For US$72 or less (depends on what tour company you booked with) that included stops for lunch (not free) & some shopping along the way as well as the included simple lunch during the boat ride in the bay, it was an okay deal as you’re visiting a UNESCO world heritage spot.

Scorpion and snake-infused ‘medicinal’ wine, anyone???
A ‘cooking show’ on the boat just before serving lunch

Whether you’re part of a big group or hire a special boat all for yourself, Halong Bay is sure to offer that special connection with nature and reinforce the fact that traveling is the best form of education. One’s romantic notion of a place as seen on those glossy magazines and books will now depend on your own perception while you’re actually there —you can now paint your own picture.

Among nature’s wonders

Our Halong tour had the option to either explore some of the islands in detail either by a smaller boat (max of 4-5 persons) or by kayak (max of 2). It also included a longish stop at an island where you’ll hike up a steep bluff to explore the caves — this alone really sweetened the deal.

Up this steep bluff lies one of the entrances to the caves
Time and water created these mammoth formations inside the caves

It would be a good idea to spend a night or two -depends on your budget- and explore the other areas of the bay where you can actually walk along its shores and take a swim while having a nice view of everything.

In the nearby areas surrounding where most of the tourist buses parked, we just did not see activities like swimming or any other water sports.

You can ride a smaller boat or paddle a kayak to explore the numerous islets
These islets dot the Gulf of Tonkin

At the end of the day, on that return trip back to your hotel, you’ll have that smile on your face that you had finally visited that “famous, picturesque place in Vietnam.”

The Spirit of Summer in Nueva Ecija: Life in the Philippine Countryside Series

Day 1 – Jan. 31, 2016 – (Sunday): Nueva Ecija here we come

Rey, who would be driving, arrived at my aunt’s house at about 3:45 AM that balmy Sunday morning.  January usually is the height of the dry season in the archipelago but the cool westerly winds also gave that early part of the day a calm and almost comforting atmosphere.

I hardly had any sleep that night as I was still suffering from the late effects of jet lag as well as from the non-stop noise coming from the tricycles and scooters.  My aunt’s house straddled the main road in that part of Imus that had become a veritable commercial area — a far cry from the rural appeal the place had for me where I finished my high school years in the mid-70s.

We wasted no time and left for Mandaluyong – where we ended picking up Rona, and her mother, Nita (my mother-in-law) as well as Ronald’s family (his wife Winnie and twin sons, Dominic and Benedict) – as we’re running late.  But not after stopping by at a drug store where Rey bought some medicine for his stomach ulcer and at a gas station where we inflated the tires to their correct pressure.  After all, the trip to Nueva Ecija, in spite of our very early start, would be about 5-6 hours.

Ronald had married a coworker while he was a teacher in a private school in nearby San Juan, Metro-Manila.  Winnies parents hail from Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija where both had been tilling a sizeable piece of farmland that was entrusted to them.

They don’t own the title to the land but only get a portion of the rice harvest.  Nueva Ecija owns the title of being the ‘rice granary of the Philippines’.

Nueva Ecija map
English: Map of Nueva Ecija showing the location of Santo Domingo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was almost 6 AM when we left Manila and its outskirt cities as we entered the first of three expressways to our destination.

Along Mindanao Avenue in Quezon City, we used a connecting road to enter NLEX (North Luzon Expressway).  This two-lane expressway (this would be the equivalent of a secondary road in advanced countries) would go all the way to Santa Ines in Pampanga until we utilized another connector road somewhere in Tarlac to another expressway called SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway).  We traversed only a short portion of this newly built two-lane highway until it dead-ends in the city of Tarlac as we veered east to the final expressway, TPLEX (Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway).

The road narrowed after we utilized the Aliaga exit along TPLEX and found ourselves along the old MacArthur Highway that was once the main artery if you’re going north of these islands.

You know that you’re already in Nueva Ecija when portions of the road are used to dry out ‘palay‘ (unmilled rice) as well as the presence of numerous passenger tricycles.

We finally arrived in the town of Santo Domingo five hours after we left Mandaluyong.  The trip covered only about 250 kilometers (155 miles) yet it felt like one of the longest days I was on the road because of the numerous turnouts we took after we got out of the expressways.

Winnie’s parent (Willie and Gloria) house is a low-slung, single-story concrete structure located about a few hundred meters from the main feeder road surrounded by rice fields.

I was immediately attracted to a set of varnished bamboo chairs two of which are longer than the others – in the small lobby of the house that overlooked the rice fields. What perfect spots to take a quick nap!

After we had been introduced to the entire family, I used my bag as a pillow and stretched my tired body in one of the long chairs that faced the rice fields while Ronald and his wife went to the nearest fresh market using the family-owned tricycle to buy what was needed for lunch.

Lunch was almost ready when I woke up an hour later.  Winnie had been busy grilling the large yet fresh ‘pusit‘ (squid), several pieces of fish locally called ‘dalag‘ (mudfish), and pork spare ribs marinated in ‘calamansi‘ (small limes) and soy sauce.

Winnie’s mother also prepared a version of ‘pinakbet‘ whose ingredients were freshly harvested from a nearby plot of land planted with mango trees and assorted vegetables. A side dish of green mango salad and copious servings of their multi-grained rice were also laid out on the table that they had set up outside the house.

Grilled 'pusit' (squid) and 'pork liempo' (pork belly)!!!
Get them while they’re hot!!!
The kids can't wait to lay their hands on the food!
Kids can’t wait for lunch to start

After lunch, I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures of the rustic sceneries and then headed back to my makeshift bed and took another nap.  The magnificent view of the verdant rice fields seems to have cast a hypnotic spell upon me that in no time I was in dreamland once again.

Lunch time in Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija
Shimmering grains of 'palay'
‘Palay’ grains dance with the wind

At about 3 PM, Rey reminded me that we should leave for Talavera before it gets dark as we might not find it easy to look for my relatives’ place.

I had planned to visit my uncle, “Tata Amado”  (the only living brother of my late father) and cousins in the nearby town of Talavera and it was one of the reasons why I had agreed to join the trip.

Along with Ronald and Winnie, we managed to get to the Calipahan Bridge – the only landmark that remained in my memory on how to get to the place – in about 40 minutes using the interior roads.  We had to ask for directions twice until we found the house of my cousin, Fidela, or “Ate Dely” as we use to call her when she was still in a teenager and was staying with us in our house in Baclaran.  She’s the second to the eldest in the big family of my uncle — 8 daughters (Lucena†, Fidela, Ila, Vita, Tate, Fina, Divina, and Ata) and an only son, Ambrosio or “Ambo” who’s about my age.

It had been more than 30 years since my last visit to Talavera and the last time was during the summer break before I entered my freshman year in college.

I had brought along my bike on that trip and was able to pedal as far as the boundary of the province with Nueva Viscaya.

After “getting acquainted” with my Ate Dely for almost an hour -Rey wandered around the vicinity while the couple took a quick trip to nearby Cabanatuan City on a tricycle- I moved on to visit the rest of my cousins whose houses were just next to each other — just a few meters away from Fidela’s.

Some of the siblings’ houses were built on the ancestral lot the family had owned and a portion of the old house where they all grew up was still there.

Upon seeing my Tata Amado on his wheelchair in the veranda of their old house, my mind raced back to the time when I was in my late teens, and everywhere I looked, it was fresh and expansive.

I could still visualize the seemingly unending rice fields, the carabaos on a shed, the pomelo and other fruit trees as well as the dusty road that led inwards to the town — the same road where Ambo and I used to ply our bikes on our way to Pantabagan Dam.

Except for the now crowded road, everything seems to have been taken over by an amalgam of concrete, steel, sheet metal, and other appurtenances to what humans call progress.

And, I felt a deep sadness in my heart and that same question beckoned — “Why do we have to grow old?”

Pictures were taken, a lot of questions were asked and answered, and met some of my nephews and nieces whose names and faces I won’t probably remember as the next time I’ll hopefully visit them again they would have all be grown up and changed and have their very own families.

The sun was almost setting down when we decided to head back to Santo Domingo.  But not after passing by a busy 7-11 store where Ronald bought 3 bottles of San Miguel Grande and a roadside “ihaw-ihaw” (barbeque) stall where we got several orders of grilled “pork liempo” and “lechon manok”.

The rest of our companions were already on their sleeping attires when we arrived.  We had our beers and BBQs for dinner –along with a plateful of rice and a vegetable dish.

Winnie’s father and brother later joined on the table as we spent the rest of the evening listening to stories that primarily focused on how their family had settled on the place.

Day 2 – Feb. 01, 2016 – (Monday): The Road Back to Manila

A mosquito net plus an electric fan enabled me to get some deep sleep and so I grabbed my camera as I took nature’s call outside to take a few pictures of the surrounding areas at daybreak.  It was about 6 AM.

The narrow dirt road that leads to a cemented one that will take us to the main highway was still empty and the horizon painted dominant colors of varying shades of gray and yellow.

The mound of hay at sunrise
Hues of blacks and yellows
All quiet for now along the dusty road in Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija
Dawn in Sto. Domingo, Nueva Ecija

I staggered back inside the house to make myself a cup of coffee.  Everyone seemed to have wakened up early except one of the twins who was still snuggled in the cushion of the sofa in the living room that served as their bed.

Someone had prepared the kitchen table ready for a quick breakfast — a Thermos bottle, packets of instant coffee as well as chocolate, and a blue plastic bag full of bite-sized hot “pan de sal” were already neatly laid out.

I grabbed a few pieces of the tiny buns as Ronald emerged from the door near a hand-driven water pump and held up two cans and asked if I wanted either corned beef hash or sardines for him to sauté.  “Both,” I replied and, immediately, I headed to the veranda to enjoy the morning view of the rice fields with my impromptu breakfast.

Thumb-sized 'pan de sal' for breakfast
You could easily eat 5 to 10 pieces of these very small ‘pan de sal’ during breakfast!!!
Rey chats with Winnie's mother before we departed for Manila
Rey and Gloria enjoy the early morning breeze just outside the ‘veranda’

After everybody had their breakfast, we took turns fetching water from the manual water pump using plastic pails for our showers.  I used the smaller outdoor toilet located near some bamboo trees and tidbits of memories streamed to my brain about how I used to go through all these morning rituals during my long stays with my cousins in Talavera.

It was about 9 AM when all of us got ready for the trip back to Manila.  But not after passing by the small parcel of land centrally located among all the rice fields in the surrounding areas that Ronald had called “gubat” (forest).

We had to walk along very narrow footpaths to reach it so we parked the van along the road where there was a treehouse nearby.  My mother-in-law was not able to come along as she required a wheeled walker so Rona decided to stay with her in the van for a while.  She would join us in the ‘gubat’ a few minutes later.

The ‘gubat‘ serves as a perfect resting area and refuge for farmers after tilling the land for hours not only during the hot, dry months but also during the typhoon season when sporadic rains and howling winds batter the rice fields.

‘Manong’ Willie had erected a small hut with an elevated flooring made of bamboo and nipa.  Both – bamboo and palm – came from the trees that grew abundantly on the fringes of the same tract of land.  The underside of the hut served as a temporary coop for native chickens and their young broods until he has decided where to put up a permanent and bigger one on the land.

Except for electricity and a permanent water source, the ‘gubat‘ could well be a good place to be in case of a calamity since it’s not only elevated but also self-sufficient.  Fruit trees were abundant as well as a variety of vegetables were planted all over the place.  There were also several pigs as well as ducks that roam freely in the open spaces.

Winnie plods along the narrow 'pilapil' (foot path) towards the 'gubat' amidst the verdant rice fields in Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija
Winnie on her way to the ‘gubat’
From the outside looking in - bamboo trees grow abundantly in the 'gubat'
Bamboo trees are abundant inside this tiny forest amidst the ricefields in Santo Domingo, Nueva Ecija
Out of Nueva Ecija on our journey back to Manila
Entering a new province in Luzon. Out of Nueva Ecija and into Tarlac
Ancestral home of Filipino martyr, Benigno "Ninoy' Aquino, Jr. in Concepcion, Tarlac
The late Filipino senator-turned-martyr and national hero grew up in this house

We lingered on the place for over an hour with my mind trying to connect the span of years that had separated my long-gone youth to the current state of my being.  Time surely has its ways to temper even the most outrageous dreams of humankind.

And so, it was during this brief summer interlude in Nueva Ecija that I had come to realize that although my idealism may have long been gone, my appreciation for life and all its blessings will always remain.

Cagbalete Island: Life with “Aling Baby”

Day 1 – Feb. 15, 2016 – (Monday): Gone to Cagbalete Island

I wiped away the sleep from my eyes at about 3:30 AM only to find Rona, my sister-in-law, already busy in the kitchen.  The night before, we had bought some “pan de sal” at a store adjacent to the place where we had intended to eat a version of the famous “Ilocos empanada“;  at the “Fariñas Ilocos Empanada located across the Mandaluyong city hall complex along Maysilo Street.

However, they had closed earlier than usual that day for general cleaning and so to appease my empanada craving, we bought instead “lechon manok” and “inihaw na liempo” (grilled chicken and pork belly respectively) from a small stall called “Mang Boks.

English: Map of Quezon showing the location of...
English: Map of Quezon showing the location of Mauban (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rona’s youngest son, Matthew – fondly called ‘Balong‘ and who suggested the place – and his wife, Johan (just two months married) together with one of my wife’s first cousins, Lelen, would be my companions to Cagbalete Island.

We hailed a taxicab that took us to the JAC Liner bus terminal in Kamias, Quezon City.  The bus fare was PHP 270  (USD 5.70) per and this first of only two daily direct trips to Mauban, Quezon supposedly would take about 4 hours.  It arrived more than an hour late after making numerous stops – loading and unloading passengers – after it exited the South Luzon expressway in Sto. Tomas, Batangas and meandered around the cities and towns – San Pablo, Tiaong, Candelaria, Sariaya, Lucena – that surround mystical Mount Banahaw.

Aboard bus on the way to Mauban, Quezon
On our way to Mauban, Quezon
Candelaria town hall -- in the province of Quezon
Taken from the bus – Candelaria Municipal Hall

Tricycles awaited passengers after they alighted from the bus.  We informed one of the tricycle drivers that we’re headed to the pier – to Cagbalete Island – and so we chose his ride as it was next on the queue anyway.  The young driver suggested that we pass by the public market so that we could buy some supplies that we may need on the island.

It turned out that we needed much more time in the market after not only we realized how unprepared we were for the trip but also we’re very hungry after the long bus ride that included an extended rest stop in Lucena Citys grand central bus terminal.

We offered the driver extra money if he would be willing to wait for us.  He agreed but reminded us again that there were only two ferry trips to the island every day and that the first one is due to leave in about an hour or so. I immediately looked for a place to eat while the rest did their shopping.

I found a restaurant that advertised “tapsilog(beef “tapa” –  beef marinated in vinegar, spices, and garlic, then dried and fried – with a serving of fried rice (“sinangag”) plus a fried egg (“itlog“)) and placed two orders along with a serving of “bulalo” (beef soup). Balong and Johan arrived a few minutes later with two big jugs of water and cookies. They placed their orders while I bought a package of fish-flavored “kropek” (flour cracklings) from an elderly lady selling an assortment of snacks.

I looked up the menu board again and noticed that the place also served a version of the province’s famous “pancit habhab.”  Also known aspancit Lukban” in honor of the town where it originated, the very distinct taste of the noodles is what it’s all about.  As soon as we cleaned up our plates, I placed three (3) more orders of the noodle dish for our dinner in case we could not easily find a place to eat on the island.   Lelen, meanwhile, looked for beer as well as some bread to go with the delectable ‘pancit’.

We loaded our goodies to the waiting tricycle and the driver took us first to a nondescript office of the local port authority where we registered our names and paid the island’s environmental protection fee of PHP 50 (USD 1.05) per.  Several PHP 10 paper tickets served as the receipt with the name of the place we intended to stay on the island scribbled on them.

Mauban port authority office
Paid environmental protection fee here
Back streets of Mauban, Quezon
Back streets of Mauban, Quezon

The oversized “banca (canoe) with double bamboo outrigger was still busy loading some of its cargoes and passengers when we arrived at the port of Mauban at about 10:50 AM.  We registered our names again on a ledger that was passed around and paid the ferry fee of another PHP 50 (USD 1.05) per.  The boat did not leave until about 11:30.  I snapped away on my small Canon camera as the “M/B Neneng” slowly pulled away from the port of Mauban.

We got seated in pairs with a woman in her mid-fifties together with a small girl sandwiched between us in the midsection of the boat.  I could immediately tell that they were locals returning to the island. As with the rest of the passengers, you could also easily tell who are the residents of Cagbalete Island.  Their sun-bronzed skin and low-key demeanor evoked in one a muted understanding of how life must be on the island.

Aling Baby's granddaughter
Natasha looks to the camera
Approaching the port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island
Nearing port of Sabang

The sticky feeling one gets in Manila’s dissipated as the overcast weather and cool northeast winds that locals call the “amihan” smacked our faces as the boat progressed east towards its destination.

We had to shout in each other’s faces to communicate as the boat’s diesel engine purred loudly behind and the skimpy vinyl covering held up by bamboo poles did not help the cause.

I hope all our gadgets and devices can hold their charge while we’re on the island,” I yelled to Matthew.

You will be able to charge your devices on the island,” the woman beside the little girl butted in her low voice.

I smiled to acknowledge her response and asked if she knew a place where we could stay on the island as we really hadn’t made any reservations yet.

Aling Baby offered her place for PHP 200 (USD 4.25) a night.  I agreed but thought that it was too low so asked her again if that was really the price she wanted and that we wanted to check out the house first and she just nodded.

We talked more about the details of her house as well as about how life is on the island but our conversation was cut short when we noticed that the boat’s engine had stopped.  It was almost 12 noon when she reminded me to remove my socks and foot orthosis before we disembarked.

The water at the tiny port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island was very shallow so we transferred to a smaller banca that brought us to the white sand lined banks of the island.  People milled around the port but Aling Baby whisked us to a small alley that led to a series of narrow but cemented passageways.  We passed-by several stores, a ‘barangay‘ (village) hall, a billiard parlor, a small chapel as well as a tiny stall that sold pan-grilled hamburgers.

A satellite dish protruded in front of the wood and bamboo house with a thatched roof that sat right across an old, manual water pump locally called, a ‘poso.’  Adjacent to it was an elementary school along whose far end would be another narrow passageway that will ultimately lead you the other side of Cagbalete Island.

Welcome sign in the port of Sabang in Cagbalete Island
Welcome to Cagbalete Island
A satellite dish sticks out of the house
Best way to get TV signal in Cagbalete island
Elementary school near Aling Baby's house
Nice elementary school for the villagers
A view within a view
A room with a view in Cagbalete Island

We checked the second level of the house where we’re supposed to spend two nights on the island and found the two rooms more than sufficient and so we told her that we all agreed to her offer.  She informed us that she has another house – without a bathroom – near the other and less populated side of the island.

Although all of us were so tired having started the day very early, adrenaline kicked into gear and we all got so excited to explore the island and tagged along with her.

Our room for a night in Cagbalete Island
Cagbalete Island: We slept soundly here
Lelen heads out to the east side of Cagbalete Island
Lelen leads the way to the other side of the island

The ‘other house’ turned out to be a nicer looking and more spacious bamboo hut.  However, we took a pass on it after we learned that we had to get our water from an old well.  And, no TV.

Fresh water inside a mossy well in Cagbalete Island
Deepwater well near Aling Baby’s cottage
Aling Baby tags Mat & Johan along while Lelen takes five
The muddy portion on the way

We met a couple of tourists going the other way along the ‘cogon’ (wild grass) lined path and followed their tracks as we sidestepped a few puddles and muddied sections.  Except for a badly maintained vegetable field operated by the municipal government in a cordoned-off area, there were hardly any other signs of agricultural activity in this part of the island.

The passageway ended at the back of one of the island’s many resorts named “Villa Noe,” where I eyed another visitor about to take her late lunch in the open restaurant. We marveled at the spectacular beauty and tranquility of the entire place and agreed that ‘this,’ indeed, is the Cagbalete Island that we saw in all those beautiful pictures on the web.

We took a lot of pictures, waded in the warm water, and, finally, leisurely walked along the white sand coastline headed north as Aling Baby narrated facts as well as tales about Cagbalete island.

It could have taken us about an hour to walk all the way back to the main port so we agreed to take another boat ride when we chanced upon one immediately after we passed by a private resort.  Although fatigue had finally set upon all of us, we still immensely enjoyed the brief ride as not only it began to rain very hard but also the waves kept splashing water on us aboard the small ‘banca‘.

Aling Baby of Cagbalete Island
Aling Baby takes a break
The best form of transportation in Cagbalete Island
A ‘banca’ on the quiet waters of Cagbalete

We never realized how soaked we were until after we gave the boatman a token of PHP 100 (USD 2) – he did not ask us for money- and retraced our steps back to Aling Baby’s first house on our dripping wet clothes.

Back at the house, we took turns fetching water from the ‘poso‘ to shower.  We saw a series of clothesline immediately before the front door so we hanged all our wet belongings and then tried our best to make ourselves feel at home in the very cramped confines of the lower portion of the house.

The rain had turned into a drizzle by 2 in the afternoon when Balong and Johan decided to take a nap upstairs.  They would not come down until about 5:00 to eat some bread and the last of the ‘pancit habhab’ neatly stored inside a plastic container.  The restaurant in Mauban had placed them in three containers one of which I had given to Aling Baby before she left for her other house so as to give us some private time.  I had also given her PHP 200 (USD 4.25) so that she could “load up” on the satellite dish subscription – PHP 120 (USD 2.50) per month – in order for us to use the TV upstairs.

She left her two granddaughters in our care when the smaller one did not like to come with her to the other house.  The mother of the small girl, Natasha, had just left a month ago for Kuwait to work as a domestic help while the parents of the bigger girl both worked in Manila.

Both girls were easy to babysit as they played together until the bigger one got tired and decided to take a nap upstairs as well.  So we kept little Natasha preoccupied with her toys by giving her ‘kropek‘ pieces – which she had particularly come to love – whenever she gets bored.

So Lelen and I spent that rainy Monday afternoon in Cagbalete island drinking one of the two 1-liter San Miguel beer bottles that blended perfectly with the ‘pancit Lukban’, the bread and 3 pieces of ‘longaniza‘ (local sausages).  Being a fanatic of any famous regional ‘longaniza‘ in the country, I had espied the sausages in one of the ‘carinderias‘ (small stalls that sell already-prepared foods) on our way back to Aling Baby’s house.  I had requested Lelen to get a few pieces while he also looked for some ice for our already-warm beers.  All the while, I kept an eye on little Natasha while she played.

Throughout the time Balong and Johan had slept, there was no electricity.  Aling Baby had explained to us earlier that her house was hooked up to one of the generators operated by the municipality and that power would come up only from 6 to 10 in the evening.

We babysat her while Aling Baby prepared dinner
Our Tuesday night dinner
Huge squid that would be our lunch the next day

Aling Baby would return a few times to the house to show us the huge squid (medium-sized by her standards) that she had bought for PHP 60 (USD 1.27)  and asked how we liked them cooked.  Then to make sure if the TV now worked.  She also made sure that we’re hooked-up with the boatman, Sergio, who would take us on a tour of Cagbalete island tomorrow.

Day 2 – Feb. 16, 2016 – (Tuesday): Going Around Cagbalete Island

The effects of the sleeping tablet wore off and I was up at 4:30 only to find myself alone inside the mosquito net that Lelen and I shared. I strapped on my foot brace and gingerly scaled-down the 3 steps of wood that made up the stairs and saw him already prepared for another day.

Power was still off inside the house and was partially dark outside but the lights were still on in the alley next to the house so that gave some illumination to the house while I prepared a cup of instant coffee.  Last night, before we slept, Aling Baby’s youngest daughter had brought a Thermos jug with hot water and cups for the purpose.

After the caffeine took its effect on me, the two of us decided to see the beachfront at first light and did not bother to wake up the newlyweds.  Again, along the way, some of the stores were already selling bread and cooked food and we found the ‘chicken adobo‘ inside a glass showcase simply too tempting.  It was PHP 30 (USD 1.76) per order and would go well with a few cups of hot rice at PHP 10 (USD 0.21) per. We took note of the place and reminded each other to remember to pick up a few orders on our way back from the beachfront.

We took many pictures of life in Cagbalete Island at early dawn: the fishermen tending their boats and fishing nets, an old lady propped on a concrete wall scanning the horizon, a few workers of the resort owned by the mayor of Mauban sprucing up their beachfront, a middle-aged person getting his therapy piling up white sand upon his legs and a few locals just walking along, preparing for the new day.

A colorful 'bangka' (canoe) in Cagbalete Island
Early morning in Cagbalete
A view of the western shore in Cagbalete Island
Not bad a place to have morning coffee
Dawn had just broken in Cagbalete Island
Floating luncheon area
The mainland of Mauban can be seen on a clear day in Cagbalate Island
Port of Sabang as viewed from the northern side

I wished I could have the best of both worlds as I admired and absorbed all the beautiful natural surroundings before me that I almost cried.  I had seen more beautiful ocean views in the Americas but had never relished wading in their cold waters.  Here, it was just too perfect.

We headed back to the house at 6:45 and found Matthew already having coffee and the light inside the house back on.  Lenlen went back to the ‘carinderia’ for the rice and ‘adobo‘ which we all had for breakfast along with the ‘adobong pusit‘ (stewed squid) that Aling Baby had prepared.

After breakfast, I informed Aling Baby that we were not going to spend the second night in the house because we wanted to experience the other side of the island but that we’re still going to pay her our agreed-upon two-night fee. We also told her that we might stay at “Villa Cleofas” as we had originally planned.  She offered to cook our meals for us so she gave her cell phone number on a piece of paper that I hastily shoved in the back pocket of my swimming shorts.

While we waited for Sergio, a vendor dropped by selling big clams inside two plastic bags for PHP 20 (USD 0.43) per so we bought and handed them over to Aling Baby.

Sergio, – whom locals called “Momo” – arrived before 8:00.  We walked a much shorter route to the port where his ‘banca‘ – “Choktaw” – was moored.  He and his apprentice guide toured us through the various points of interest in the island namely:

  • the “Sandbar”  – a narrow piece of land covered in white sand that jutted out even at high tide where mangroves abound.  We saw several huts for rent but they were all empty that particular day.
Lelen & Mat enjoy the view at Yang-in sand bar in Cagbalete Island
At the sand bar
These young mangroves at the sand bar in Cagbalete Island will eventually form into a thicket
Very, very young mangroves

the “Ilog” (River) – an area in the island where salt and freshwater meet. We counted 8 fiberglass fish pens in the area which, according to Sergio, could hold up to a 1000 ‘bangus‘ (milkfish) fry per breeding.  There would be three (3) breedings per season and a good harvest in a season could well pay off the initial start-up costs.

'Bangus' (milk fish) farming in Cagbalete Island
A fish farm at the ‘ilog’
Expanse where fresh and sea water meet ('ilog') in Cagbalete Island
The fish pens were empty when we visited
  • The Snorkel area – for almost an hour, we swam and snorkeled in this deeper area where corals and colorful fishes could be found.
Mat & Johan try out snorkeling in Cagbalate Island
Snorkeling is one of the best ways to enjoy the island
Johan and a colorful starfish -- Cagbalate Island
Johan shows off a colorful starfish
  • Bonsai Island”  not really an island but simply a portion of a reef that shows up during low tide.  There are two small mangrove patches interspersed with a few dead ones on the reef, hence, the name.  Situated directly across Villa Cleofas, it would not be presumptuous to assume that the owners could well have given the spot the name to add a little mystique -as well as to attract patrons- to Cagbalate.

Locals would always be delighted to tell you the story about the cargo ship, loaded with sacks of flour, that crashed into the reef and how the entire population of the island had fresh bread and pancakes for a very long period of time after the disaster.

It was almost 11:00 when Sergio dropped us off at Villa Cleofas so that we could check out the place.  We informed a woman inside the restaurant that we wanted to see the cottage we saw online that cost PHP 1500 (USD 32).  We passed by a group of tourists in two tents as she led us to the far end of the resort and showed us the 10 x 20-foot room with a single bed with a very thin mattress.

We decided to look for another place after she told us that we would also have to pay PHP 500 (USD 10.64) extra for the electricity -from 6 PM to 6  only- since we’re the only guests that would occupy a cottage that night.  Mat and Johan volunteered to check out the other resorts north of the island that included Villa Noe.

An hour had passed but the pair had not returned and so I asked Lelen to look after our things while I took a leisurely walk along the white sands in the hope that I would encounter them along the way.  I walked past a camping-only resort, then an empty but fenced area before the nice bamboo & nipa made cottages and clean surroundings of “Joven’s Blue Sea Beach Resort” attracted my attention.

Although the resort was empty that day, I checked out the cottage that was being cleaned to see how it looked inside.  Impressed, I picked one –Sampaguita– that was located beside the bathrooms.  I informed Mat and Johan, who saw me while I negotiated with one of the resort’s attendants on their way back, that I had already agreed to the same cost of PHP 1500 for a night’s stay here — electricity included.

A view from Joven's Blue Beach Resort in Cagbalate Island
Joven’s resort
Our 'sampaguita' cottage while at Joven's Blue Beach Resort in Cagbalete Island
Our home away from home for 2 nights

We had a very late lunch of “pork liempo” with extra servings of rice (PHP 520 or USD 11) in the resort’s restaurant immediately after we had rested, showered, and settled down in our newly-found home for the night.

Sergio and his apprentice showed up a few hours later and accompanied us to that much-hyped ‘Bonsai Island,’ which was very visible during low tide and which we found to be unimpressive at all.

They must have sensed our disappointment with ‘Bonsai Island’ so Sergio promised us that they would pick us up again at 6:00 the next morning to show us another ‘ilog‘ as we headed back to the resort.

It was already dark when we got back at Joven’s but our spirits were all buoyed up not only because the entire resort was all lighted up but also Aling Baby had brought us some food for dinner!  In our absence, she had dropped off the dish of “sotanghon” (vermicelli mixed with the clams that we had bought in the morning and sautéed in onions and slivers of ginger), rice, plastic spoons, and the Thermos bottle.

After dinner, Mat and Johan put up the mosquito nets and were asleep by 10 while Lelen and I ordered four San Miguels (PHP 45 or USD 0.96 per) from the restaurant.  I lit up a mosquito coil and placed it under the bamboo table to fend off the buggers while we drank our beers until Len decided to call it a day after he had emptied his second bottle.

I did not sleep until 12:30 AM after I had written a few pages in my notebook what had transpired that wonderful day in Cagbalete island.

Day 3 – Feb. 17, 2016 – (Wednesday): Leaving Cagbalete Island

Lelen was already out walking along the shore as I prepared my 3-in-1 coffee mix at 5:30.  The electricity would be out in half an hour but I wasn’t worried since I had charged all the batteries for the camera while I wrote in my notebook last night.

The newlywed woke up an hour later while Sergio and his buddy showed up at the resort after about another hour and brought along the 1.3 kilograms of ‘alimango’ (blue crab) as well as several pieces of smaller crabs local to the island that he had placed inside a big plastic water bottle.  I had ordered them last night and cost PHP 400 (USD 8.50) per kilo for the blue crab and PHP 100 (USD 2.13) for the small ones.  I also handed over the PHP 1500 (USD 32) boat fee that we owed him -and his apprentice- for yesterday’s island tour.

The morning was crisp and, while the sun had barely colored the horizon, there were a few wispy clouds as we headed south towards the ‘other ilog.’  We all glanced at the resort manager as she sat on a chair, a cup of brew in hand, communing with nature as we passed by.

Mat, Johan and the apprentice boatman/guide
Casual stroll along the west side of Cagbalete island
Lelen enjoys his coffee amidst the beauty of Cagbalate Island
Lelen enjoys the natural beauty of Cagbalete island

Half a kilometer after we passed by Villa Cleofas, the shore inclined a bit and we noticed more vegetation in the area. Immediately after Sergio showed us the ‘hidden swimming pool’ (actually a swamp) where a lonesome carabao sat nearby, we came to a stop at a gap where a passageway of freshwater funnels out to the bay that seemed to split Cagbalete island into two.

Lush vegetation as we approach the 'other ilog'
We had Cagbalete island all to ourselves
Our apprentice guide playfully created this mound of sand at the 'other ilog' in Cagbalete Island
Cagbalete Island: Castle in the sand
'Hidden' swimming pool. Can you spot the carabao?
A carabao takes a break at this lagoon
The east side of the 'ilog' (river)
The other ‘ilog’ in Cagbalete Island

We explored the mangrove-lined banks for almost an hour and concluded that the area must be very popular to campers as we saw a few items that only visitors of Cagbalete island could have brought: empty bottles, cookie and candy wrappers, some shoes, and a sandal missing their pair and an assortment of various colored nylon ropes left hanging on the bushes.

It was 9:00 when we headed back to Joven’s to prepare for our trip back home.  We opted to take the last boat ride to Sabang in order that we could enjoy the lunch that Aling Baby had prepared for us.  Sergio had promised earlier to pick us up at exactly 12 noon.

Just like last night, all the way from her house near the well,  Aling Baby had brought all that we needed to make sure that we had a memorable brunch before we left Cagbalete Island.  She laid out a modest feast for us that included a big pot of steamed rice, the day’s catch, ‘timbungan‘ (goatfish), fried and presented on banana leaves as well as all ingredients to make a sumptuous dipping sauce.

Johan and Lelen dish out brunch
Cagbalete Island: Lunch at our cottage
Fried goat fish or 'timbungan'
Take me back to Cagbalete Island

Sergio arrived on time and amidst the din of the banca’s engine, all of us remained silent during the brief ride back to Sabang.

And back to where it all started.

Three Days in Cabuyao, Laguna: Life in the Philippine Countryside Series

Day 1 – Jan. 24, 2016 – (Sunday): The Call of Cabuyao, Laguna

Old habits are very hard to get rid of and two of mine are bicycling and swimming. These activities,  thankfully, had tempered the late effects of polio on my left leg- an affliction that I got when I was about 3 years old.

Laguna, particularly Barrio Pansol, had been my swimming locale of choice after I graduated from college and dropped out of medical school.  My life was at a crossroad and I spent a great deal of time contemplating the whys and what-ifs of life in the healing waters of Laguna Hot Springs.

Our van left Imus at about 10:30 AM on a cool yet another sunny day.  We traversed the newly-built connector roads between Cavite and Laguna, and so we were in Cabuyao in about an hour and a half, as we picked-up orders of “rellenong bangus” (grilled, stuffed milk fish) and “lechon manok” (roasted chicken) along the way.

New roads connect the province of Cavite with Laguna
From Dasmariñas, Cavite we used this new access road to Laguna
Jeepneys ply the national highway in Cabuyao, Laguna
We stopped to buy ‘Andok’s lechon manok’ (grilled chicken)

Cabuyao was once a sleepy town (now, a city) of Laguna that is about 27 miles southeast of Manila.  Aboard our road bikes, we used to ride past the town on our many cycling jaunts to Los Baños back during the days when the South Luzon Expressway, from Manila, went only as far as the municipality of Alabang and so we had to use the interiorly-located national highway to go further south.

Barrio Banay-Banay, Cabuyao is where my first cousin Carol and her husband, Arthur, found a second home after having spent most of their careers in Cavite.  The couple met at a company that dealt with industrial plastic products located along the national highway in Bacoor, Cavite.  After they got married, they had lived in nearby Imus but decided to move here after Arthur’s father passed away and left a self-made, bamboo hut on a piece of property located about half a mile east off the national highway.

We found Arthur roasting “pork liempo” (grilled, marinated pork belly) and “bangus” (grilled milkfish) on his improvised grill and also got accustomed to the incessant barking of their four (4) dogs – who are these people?

I had been to their place before – in late 2011 – and so I immediately noticed the changes. There was a new shed for the carport that Arthur had fabricated himself in his spare time using his rudimentary skills in the art of welding. They had also constructed an all-concrete, two-story structure with an open deck in the previously bare land at the back of the bamboo hut.

Arthur and Carol's new car port shed
At Carol and Arthur’s place in Cabuyao, Laguna
Open roof deck - ideal for exercising the fighting cocks and drinking sprees
The couple’s simple roof deck in Cabuyao

Immediately after Carol arrived from the store, we began the impromptu luncheon party that consisted of what Arthur had prepared, our pick-up orders as well as a dish of “pinakbet” (an assortment of vegetables dressed in fermented shrimp or fish paste)  and “tinolang manok” (chicken soup with ginger and young papayas) that featured one of his native, organically grown chickens.

Carol’s father -my uncle-, Ricardo (fondly called, Kuya Ading) who is about to turn 95 in a few days, along with his care provider, Emma, also came for the visit as well as my three aunts —  Tita Yeyit, Ising, and Nita. Rey, our driver, also acted as our unofficial tour guide as he had been to this same trip on several occasions in the past.

After lunch, the old soul in Kuya Ading easily got bored and requested the group to head back to Imus. I had informed Tita Yeyit several days before the trip that I would be staying in Cabuyao for a few days so that I could go and revisit my favorite resort in Barrio Pansol which was just a few kilometers south.

A few hours after the group departed, at about 3 PM, the trio of myself, Carol, and Arthur went to the hot springs via the South Luzon expressway as traffic would be heavy along the national highway at that time of the day as Arthur suggested.  We passed by the new and impressive city hall building complex along the way and emerged at a less busy section of the national highway just a few kilometers from our destination.

Just like Cavite, several towns of Laguna that is close to Manila had seen rapid urbanization.  I felt nostalgic yet saddened to realize that some of the familiar spots that gave the place its rural appeal when I used to be here on my almost weekly swimming sorties several years ago had all but disappeared and were now replaced by concrete structures with commercial signs.

We parked the van on an empty lot that, in my honest recollection, used to be a restaurant.  After we paid the entrance fee (PHP 80 or USD 1.70 per) and rented a dressing room (PHP 100 or USD 2), I was so excited to rediscover the place once again.  I immediately felt that I was in the same place as I had been more than two decades ago as I noted that nothing much had changed around the entire resort.

Back in the early 90s, I used to have long conversations with the late owner, Jesus Candelaria (or, Mang Jess as I used to call him), who had intimated to me how he had paid very little for the entire place that used to be a favorite spot of carabaos (Philippine water buffalos) to cool-off.  He had also informed me that most of his sons and daughters were living abroad and that his nieces were the ones that ran the place.

The marvelous waters flow from the north side of the slightly smaller than an Olympic-sized pool where several boulders – hidden by a wall – further filter them.  The water source is the legendary Mount Makiling with its still-visible signs of volcanic activity in spite of it being declared as a dormant one.

We soaked in the healing waters for almost 5 hours and stayed mostly in the area where the water comes out from the boulders and where there’s also a stainless-steel bench for the disabled hidden from view by the chest-deep water.

The trip back to the house via the national highway was brief as it was almost 10 PM when we finally left the resort.  After we hanged our wet clothes and towels, showered, and took a quick dinner of the leftovers from lunch, Arthur led me to the bamboo table and held up two liter-bottles of San Miguel beer.

The beers, the greasy meat leftovers, and good stories that reference the past are always the perfect ingredients for a good night’s sleep.  I was in bed at 12:30 am.

Day 2 – Jan. 25, 2016 – (Monday): A Surprise Visit to Barrio Mamatid

Still jet-lagged, I woke up at 4:30 AM and found Arthur already feeding his brood of animals – chickens, hens, roosters, fighting cocks, quails, ducks, geese, dogs, love birds, and two pigs – and so I chatted with him for a while.

Like the typical Filipino male who lives in the province, Arthur is a fighting cock aficionado.  He and his wife, Carol – a first cousin on my mother’s side – also operate a small store that primarily sells livestock feeds as well as other needs of the cockfight enthusiast, along the main highway that is about half a mile away from their house.

The open spaces adjacent to the newly-built house are where Arthur found his joys in life — his inner peace.  There, twice a day, he feeds all his farm animals with the same care and devotion a good father gives his children.

Awake before dawn, Arthur feeds his flock of chickens, ducks, hens, pigs, geese, dogs and quails.
Up before dawn, Arthur feeding his flock of animals
Carol and Arthur's room in the new house where I slept for two nights
My room in Cabuyao for 2 nights

At about 6:15, we had breakfast of “pan de sal,” fried eggs as well as the leftovers of fried ‘banguspork liempo’ and the ‘lechon manok’ from yesterday’s lunch party.

Two hours after Arthur left the house at around 6:45 aboard his Yamaha scooter, I decided to take a stroll around the surrounding areas and to look for a store where I can ‘load’ my cell phone.

In the Philippines, a mobile phone’s airtime is refilled with a wide array of ‘loads’ that span from one day to a year depending on your budget and need. ‘Loading’ kiosks had become a cottage industry in the entire islands as vendors get a small commission. I found a store right across the university funded by the city and opted for the 3-day “GOUNLI50.”  However, I found out that most of the gimmicks pandered by some telecoms providers in the country almost border on fraud.

Carol and I went to the store at about 11:30 aboard a ubiquitous ‘tricycle’.  It is the most common form of motorized transportation all over the country.  We ate lunch inside the store after I briefly chatted with Arthur’s elder brother who lives in a low-slung house located at the backmost part of the property owned by their family.

By 1:30 PM, and after we had attended to the needs of store customers, Arthur and I boarded the trusty Yamaha scooter for the trip to Barrio Mamatid – about 6 kilometers southwest of Cabuyao.  We would be paying a visit to a co-contract worker/friend of mine back in the early 80s when I worked in Saudi Arabia.

As fate would have it, I met Ernesto’s son, Ervin, by chance, in the healing waters of Laguna Hot Springs in Barrio Pansol last night.  We exchanged calls and text messages afterward and decided that today would be the most opportune time for me and his father to see each other again after more than 30 years!

We spotted ‘Erning‘ (as Ernesto is more fondly called) sitting in his “pakwan” (watermelon) stall and yelled out his name. He immediately recognized me and we gave each other hugs like long-lost brothers. However, I felt the thug of that mixed feeling of joy and sadness after I saw him up close and realized that he had aged so much.

We were both in our 20s when we first met on that farm near an oasis in Al’Hair which was about 20 miles south of the capital, Riyadh.  Back then, the kingdom was a magnet for foreign contract workers as the country embarked on a massive modernization program that was funded by the world’s insatiable demand for oil.

Their house sits on a corner lot of about 500 square meters.  Part of the property had been turned into a computer rental place owned by one of his sons.  There were about 25 personal computers with LCD screens that operate on the same concept as jukeboxes of yesteryears and called ‘PisoNet‘ (One Peso Internet).  Drop a peso into the slot and you can surf the net/use the PC for five (5) glorious minutes.

Ernesto handed me a few peso coins and I showed him some of our old pictures in Saudi Arabia that is on my website.  While at the computer shop,  I asked him if Laguna de Bay is nearby. He nodded and so the three of us walked the short distance of about 400 meters to the edge of the lake.

Ernesto and Bong near the edge of Laguna de Bay in Bo. Mamatid, Cabuyao, Laguna
Ernesto and Bong met in Bo. Mamatid — after 32 years
Bong and Arthur near the edge of Laguna de Bay in Bo. Mamatid, Cabuyao, Laguna
Bong and Arthur near Laguna Lake in Barrio Mamatid

Ernesto informed us that while fish can still be caught in the lake, the taste had been compromised and that you need to clean them very well as a result of urbanization on the fringes of the lake that had rendered the once-clear waters to an almost light chocolate color.

All over the Philippines, much of the smaller towns that surround a big city had slowly lost their rural feel — all the farmlands had almost disappeared because of the urban crawl.

Back inside the house, Ernesto served us “balut” (boiled 18-day fertilized duck eggs), slices of ‘pakwan and iced water while we reminisced our days in Saudi Arabia, about our families and, of course, local politics.

We bade our farewells to Erning and his wife at about 3 PM. We headed back to the house using the very same roads we took earlier.  We passed by rice fields that were transformed into vegetable patches during the off-season, subdivisions, factories, and small mounds of haphazardly-strewn garbage along the way.

Back at the house, I rested and showered away the heat while Arthur headed back to the store after he had fed his flock and had prepared a vegetable dish that featured “puso ng saging” (banana hearts or budding banana blossoms) . They arrived back from the store at about 6:30 PM and we had dinner of the same leftovers except for the vegetable dish with copious servings of white rice.

After dinner, Arthur hopped aboard his scooter to buy San Miguel beer in liter bottlesTonight, he informed me earlier, is one of those 2 days in a week where anyone of his friends would drop by their house and they would drink the night away.

He came back with three (3) bottles of the local brew and in the area adjacent to the carport where there is a set of low-slung table and two long benches all made of bamboo, we opened up the first bottle while we waited for his friend.  Arthur cracked open all the balut’ that Erning had graciously allowed us to take home (together with a ‘pakwan’) to serve as our “pulutan” (appetizer).

We were halfway through the first bottle when his friend arrived in a nice-looking SUV.   He brought with him a plastic bag that contained an orange-colored fried dish called “okoy” (small shrimps with slivers of vegetables deep fried in batter).  Arthur had told me yesterday that he is also the godfather of his friend’s – who’s an architect – older son and that on some occasions, both father and son would be present in their drinking sprees.

Having finished all three liters of beer by almost 11, I had to go to the bathroom thrice to relieve my bladder before I slept soundly way past the wee hours of the morning.

Day 3- Jan. 26, 2016 – (Tuesday): The Commute Back to Imus, Cavite

I woke up at 5:30 to prepare for the trip back to Imus, Cavite.  We had hotdogs, fried eggs and big ‘pan de sals’ for breakfast that Carol had prepared earlier.  Afterward, I took a few more pictures of their place before we left at about 8:00 that morning.

From their house,  Carol and I took a tricycle (PHP 10 or USD 0.21 per person) to their store where I bade farewell to Arthur. We hailed a ‘jeepney‘ to the bus terminal in Santa Rosa, where we waited for an air-conditioned van to fill-up passengers. For PHP 55 (USD 1.17), it took us to Pala-Pala, Cavite where we caught our final ride to Imus.

Arthur's trusty scooter
Arthur’s ride in the barrio
Two cute dogs man the gate
Two of the couple’s numerous pets

It was about an hour trip but the travel time from Pala-Pala to Imus Toll Bridge (PHP 10.50 or USD 0.22) was about the same in spite of the shorter distance because of the traffic. Like Laguna, many a sleepy town in Cavite, notably Imus,  had fallen victim to rapid urbanization that began in the early 80s.

I finally took another tricycle ride (solo for PHP 25 or USD 0.53, which I found to be an outrageous amount since the distance is just about 400 meters;  I should have just walked if not for my disability) back to the house. I was in Bayan Luma 3, Imus by 10:30.

Ate lunch of “chicken afritada” (chicken stewed in tomato sauce) and “menudo” (a variation of the Mexican comfort food and not as soupy) at about 11:30 AM and took an hour nap afterward on my Thermarest.

Ate Nene (wife of my aunt’s late first cousin, Rodolfo ‘Rudy’ del Rosario) dropped by at about 4 PM together with a husband and wife friend of hers. She was trying to sell a parcel of land owned by her late husband and brought with her signage for the purpose.  The property is located at the back of my aunt’s house, some three houses away.

Tita Yeyit arrived from her shopping with Carol and Nelia in SM Bacoor by 7:00. And so, for dinner, I ate the piece of ‘Shakey’s Pizza‘ that she had brought and slept at around 9 PM.


Windy Fairfield

The car danced to the rhythm of the almost-howling winds that gust on the stretch of road that connects Interstate 80 with I-680 from Fairfield in the north going southwards to Benicia. Another work day had passed and I was on the road once again for the return trip back home to Fremont — 60 miles away from where I work on that part of the Bay Area.

Fairfield had come a long way since it had been incorporated as a city in 1903. Most of the city’s groundwork was laid-out by Capt. Robert H. Waterman, who, together with A.A. Ritchie, purchased the area’s original grant for $50,000 in 1850.

(1) Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, (2) Golden Gat...
(1) Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, (2) Golden Gate Bridge, (3) San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, (4) San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, (5) Dumbarton Bridge, (6) Carquinez Bridge, (7) Benicia-Martinez Bridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The new city received a major economic boost in 1942 with the decision of the U.S. Air Force to build the Travis Air Force Base on a huge tract of land surrounded by hills, east of the area. This base was put into good use during the Vietnam War and, presently, still serves as a major departure point for military units based abroad –and maintains its position as the number one employer for most of the city’s population.

Most of the towns situated in the city are nestled among the numerous slopes that dot almost the entire area. Hence, when the winds blowing from the San Francisco Bay arrive into area, these hills serve as conduits for the rushing airflow and may give reason as to why it’s a ‘windy city.’

The entire area is also a favorite stopover of motorists because of its proximity to some of best recreational spots in the entire state.

Napa -with its wineries – and Sonoma -with its famous hot springs & spas – lie southwest, Reno and Lake Tahoe, as well as the state capital of Sacramento, are all within one to two-hour drive away to the north.

And yes, the famous city of San Francisco is just an inviting 45 minutes drive south of Fairfield.

Today, the city is on the verge of another housing boom as more and more denizens of the East Bay –with its ridiculous real estate market prices – opt for the area’s spacious, natural surroundings and moderate weather.

When you’re out for your next trip to Lake Tahoe, San Jose or even just longing to get a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, make sure that you check out some of the natural sights of Fairfield! It’s so easy to know when you’ve arrived in this city – – – the winds will surely let you know!

Panoramic view of picture above (2.04MB – Apple QuickTime required)

Bicycling in the 70s (with Ray Anthony Nario)

The year was 1977 and Ferdinand Marcos was still the Philippine president. A few months back, Jimmy Carter was sworn-in as the 39th President of the U.S. while I had just completed my freshman year in college.

It was our summer vacation and so, earlier that week, Ray and I decided that we will go biking to the hills of Antipolo, Rizal (a quiet but relatively big town, approx. 20 kms northeast of Manila).

I woke up at about 4:00 AM that Sunday, put on my cycling gear, and poured the de-fizzed Coke I placed in the fridge the night before, into the plastic bottles attached to my bike.

After a brief inspection of my steed (tires, gears, brakes), the road map, and my camera, I rolled on — to the scent of fresh-baked ‘pan-de-sal ‘, in the still-dark streets of Parañaque and headed towards Pasay City…where Ray and his family had moved.

Ray and I were childhood friends in Baclaran where his family had lived, even by the very day I began remembering things. That was until the owner of their apartment unit decided to lease out the entire complex to a Chinese businessman, which forced them to move someplace else.

He was younger by about 6 yrs but we shared the same interests: playing all sorts of street games, billiards, ‘dama‘ (a local version of checkers, usually played in barber shops), swimming at the Manila Bay –its water was still relatively clean and people could still catch some fish – and, of course, biking.

I called his name through the window in his room conveniently situated on the side of yet another apartment complex along Facundo Street. He had already prepared the night before as well and, in no time, we found ourselves pedaling furiously eastward to Pasig, Rizal, which is now a city and part of greater Metro-Manila.

Antipolo, although not very far from Manila, is a cyclist’ bane since most of it is situated on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre mountain range — that gives the city a spectacular view of Metro Manila.

But, why did we go biking there? It was the month of May and traditionally, people especially in predominantly Catholic Philippines – from all over the country, trek to the place to pay homage to the ‘Nuestra Senora Dela Paz y Buenviaje’ (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage) – a black-imaged Virgin that came from Acapulco, Mexico that was used during the Galleon Trade. Also, there are numerous spring resorts in Antipolo that offer a bit of relief during the hot summer months in the country.


It took us about two hours to reach the church and after we said our prayers, bought some ‘kasoy‘ (cashew nuts) also abundant in the area as with the ‘Tipolo‘ tree (breadfruit), where the place got its name from and snapped some photo souvenirs, we decided to continue our trek southward to the neighboring towns of Tanay and Baras. Both are still situated in the province of Rizal.

It was mostly downhill from Antipolo along the undulating roads toward Tanay and so, we decided to eat lunch in one of the roadside ‘carinderias‘ (eateries)- they are so ubiquitous along the main highways of the entire archipelago – not long after we reached the flatter sections of the town.

I forgot what we ate but remembered well that we drank more than we ate because of the noonday heat. I also made sure that my two water bottles were full for the impending climb towards Mabitac (part of Laguna Province) via Baras and, once again, Tanay.

I almost gave up as soon as we reached the brutal climbs in Mabitac. Ray, who was riding his trusty ‘play bike,’ was egging me on to continue without realizing that my steel road bike was climbing these slopes on a maxed-out 48 tooth (front chain wheel) by 18 tooth (rear gear) combo while he was leisurely pedaling on a smaller wheel with a 32 by 20 gear ratio!

I barely made it to the top! The cool breeze and the panoramic view of the Laguna de Bay gave me the ‘second wind’ I needed to pursue the journey further south. Besides, the trip back via the same roads would have probably been torture!

The rustic sceneries and the ‘genteel feel’ I had for the small ‘barrios‘ we passed-by en route to Mabitac (one of the three towns in Laguna that bordered the province of Rizal – the others being, Pakil and Santa Maria) made our pedalling easier than it seemed to be.

From their ‘verandas‘ (porches) or, in front of their hardware stores, old men and women waved at us, as we wheeled-by. As if, our souls had briefly met high above the clouds, and then, together, looked down with puzzlement, on the chaos and confusion people were creating for themselves on earth.

Bike touring Rizal and Laguna in the 70s
Rolling along the roads of Baras en-route to Laguna via Mabitac in this 70s photo

We bade goodbye to the mountains as soon as we entered the municipality (or, town) of Famy, in Laguna. It is a small town whose western tip briefly borders Laguna de Bay. Most of the towns in Laguna straddle this great lake which is, not only a source of livelihood but also, of many folklores. From there, the twisting roads of Siniloan led us to the larger, eastern part of Pangil — vernacular (in singular form) for the ‘fangs of wild boars’, which were said to be abundant and freely roamed the place.

It rained briefly while we were gingerly traversing a downhill section towards neighboring Pakil. These towns I remembered well as the “three Ps”…the next one being Paete — very well-known for its wood carvings and the sweet and succulent fruit, ‘lanzones.’ How could I not remember the sense of awe, Ray and I had felt as we whizzed-by these trees with their light-yellow, oval-shaped fruits right above our city-bred heads? We were not used to seeing those trees!

Also, most houses in Paete have small, thatched-huts that are usually detached from their main abodes, where their owners can do their carvings. To augment their income, some of these huts also double as small ‘sari-sari’ (assorted goods) stores.

It was in one of these sari-sari stores along the highway in Paete where Ray and I tasted one of the best pan-de-cocos(bread rolls with sweet coconut fillings) in our lifetime. It was not because they were well-baked but because we were so hungry after the lung-busting climbs. We washed them down with “Sarsi” (a local brand of root beer, whose aromatic flavor comes from the ‘sarsaparilla‘ vine) and lots of swigs from my, now slightly hot water bottles. It was about 2:30 PM and, from Ray’s house in Pasay City, we had almost been on the road for more than 9 hours!

Bicycle touring in the 70s with Ray Anthony Nario
Atop one of steep hills in Mabitac for a breather. Ray Nario snapped this picture of the author

And so, we pedaled on to the towns that caressed the southeastern portion of Laguna de Bay. These were: Kalayaan, Lumban, Pagsanjan  (although not really bordering Laguna de Bay, we decided to pass through this town en route to Santa Cruz, because of its popularity and allure), Santa Cruz and Pila.

It was in Pila where, again, we stopped briefly to sample one of the roadside delicacies called, ‘suman‘ (a long, sticky rice cake, whose flavor is enhanced by the coconut leaves it is wrapped on). These, we dipped in plain sugar for taste and as a means to supplant our already-drained body sugar reserves.

I also happened to have a university-mate and friend that lived in town and we briefly mulled to look for his house and to pay him a surprise visit.  But it was almost 5:00 PM and although it was the peak of summer, we were running out of daylight to cover the remaining nine Laguna towns and cities — and, the more than 90 kms of not-so-very-easy roads back to Manila. Also, given the fact that our frail bodies were simply running on whatever glycogen reserves they had, we backed out on the idea and pedaled on to the adjacent town of Victoria instead.

From Victoria, our pace was getting slower and slower as we trundled past the towns of Calauan, Bay and Los Baños, where its steep hills almost zapped the lights out of us and almost gave in to the thought of sleeping the night over as soon as we hit the town proper.

laguna_route We knew that we were not far from home as we stopped briefly in the town of Los Baños — very near the road that leads to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), situated inside the University of the Philippines at Los Baños’ (UPLB) sprawling compound.

Now, we were also very familiar to the towns and cities that we will pass-by along the way, since Los Baños had been one of our favorite cycling haunts from Manila because of its many natural, relaxing, and purportedly medicinal, hot baths.

The downhill-to-flat run from Los Baños towards Calamba, once again, boosted our already flagged-out spirits. We saw the last streaks of sun rays as it finally set on the western horizon as we approached the historical city. Calamba is the birthplace of the country’s national hero, Jose P. Rizal.

In one of the restaurants in this time-tempered city, it was only fitting that Ray and I talked – over cups of coffee – about the roads we had covered and the ordeals we had gone through. We had travelled far and well.

More importantly, we were able to see through our inner selves…our strengths and weaknesses, our tempers and moods, our bravado, our follies and foibles – as well as our determination. We had lived through yet another day in our youthful lives.

Darkness was upon us, as we agreed to moved on for as long as it was not too dangerous for us to ride through the remainder of the journey. And so, we pedalled on to the rest of the towns in the partly-lit roads of Laguna: Cabuyao, Santa Rosa, Biñan and finally, San Pedro.

It was almost 10:00 in the evening.

We still managed to squeeze some sugars out of our sore leg muscles and moved on to the first municipality on the western side of Rizal Province: Muntinlupa.

Like Pasig in the north, Muntinlupa, also, is now a full-pledged city — the southern-most one of greater Metro-Manila. While we were a mere 20 kms away from Pasay City, it was also here that we finally ended our saga on bicycle wheels — for health and safety reasons.

At the BLTB (Batangas-Laguna-Tayabas Bus Company) terminal in the town of Alabang, after asking permission from the bus driver, we hauled our bikes on the rearmost part of the almost-empty bus and slept soundly on the long, foam-padded backseat on our way back to Pasay City.

We had, finally, come full circle.


Bike notes: Ray used a ‘Patria‘ brand (a bike shop/manufacturer founded by Tony Kairuz whose main store was located in Buendia Avenue in Makati, Metro-Manila until it closed shop in the mid-80s) steel-framed ‘playbike’ (‘banana-type’ seat with raised handlebars) with 21″ wheels, single chain wheel with multi-gear back freewheel.

I utilized a locally made, 50 cm. ‘Pigeon‘ brand (a very small bike frame builder in Paco, Manila in the 70s that was co-owned by Tour of Luzon lap winner, Hermogenes Vinluan) steel-framed road bike with 27″ clinchers on Weinmann rims & steel spokes, Sugino alloy (52/38) chain wheel with a SunTour Dia-Compe 10-speed gear set (bar-end shift-levers), Universal center-pull brakes and a pair of old-school, steel/alloy pedals with Christophe shoe cages and straps.

The Temples of Thailand

I already felt the humidity of Bangkok the moment we stepped out of the plane to wait for the service bus that will take us to the main airport terminal. The bus’ air-conditioning hid this fact for a few minutes, and so, the muggy air blasted onto my face anew as soon as we stepped out of the airport to wait for another bus that will us take to our hotel after we had cleared immigration and retrieved our baggages.
Bangkok, despite of what I’ve read and heard from friends about the place, immediately impressed me after the almost 40-minute drive to our hotel, which was located in the heart of downtown…along Petchaburi Road. The roadways were clean and nicely engineered. Towering concrete posts for the still-undergoing-expansion Skytrain, dotted the right portion of the freeway, but they were left neatly in place –no dangling wood forms nor rusting steel supports.

The country -temples or without- simply showed us that the people is where we sense more the ‘breath of nature’ that moves our innermost heart.

But one thing that awed me were the magnificent temples that literally lined up the entire streets of Bangkok–Budhhism being the main religion of the country. Not only they tempered the modern look of the country, but they also added ‘mystique’ to the already-exotic place.
After a brief, albeit, refreshing sleep, quick showers followed by the hearty breakfast buffet in our hotel, Bangkok and its magnificent temples, would, once again, dazzle us during the 6-hour morning city tour.
&nbsp&nbspOne of the smaller temples inside the Traimitwitthayaram Temple Compound where the 'largest Buddah made of pure gold' in the world is housed -Bangkok, Thailand&nbsp&nbsp One of the smaller temples inside the Wat Po (the new name is Wat Phra Chetuphon), famous for the massive 'reclining Buddha'
The city tour showcased most of the popular -and bigger- temples in downtown Bangkok that included, the Wat Phra Chetuphon Temple (more popularly known as the ‘Wat Po’ where the massive ‘reclining Buddha’ is housed) and the Traimitwitthayaram Temple inside the Chinatown district, where the ‘biggest Golden Buddha made of pure gold’ in the world is located.
Finally, on a trip to the countryside the following day, Thailand not only showed us its gentler side but also visually reminded us that, “all that glitters is not, necessarily, gold.” Why? Inside those temples, while the beauty and craftsmanship of all the icons and statues may mesmerize visitors, they all paled in comparison with the natural warmth and friendliness of the Thai people.

In The Streets of Manila – 2005 Reprise

I knew it was going to be hot and humid but, I nevertheless went with my wife to visit Manila by the end of March. After all, it had been almost three years since I last sauntered upon its streets — to see again the places that had been mute witnesses to my frivolities in the early years of my adult life.
A few days after we arrived, we were already ambling along the districts of Santa Ana, Paco, Ermita, Malate, as well as portions of Intramuros and San Andres (formerly, a part of Santa Ana district). The main stretch of Pedro Gil St (formerly, Herran) – from Roxas Blvd to its dead-end at the historic Santa Ana Church, where it continues as New Panaderos St going towards Mandaluyong City – by itself, offered me a snapshot of what the entire city had gone through over the years.
As always, the area offered the amalgam of deja vu, fascination, sadness, as well as, desperation for I had so known almost the entire vicinity since the time I was still an elementary student at nearby Malate Catholic School in the late 60s.
Not much had changed in the heart of Paco and Santa Ana. Jeepneys, cars and tricycles, compounded by the narrow streets, continue to choke the area while numerous patches of urban blight seem to perpetually haunt these places. The current mayor of Manila had tried his best to give the entire city a fresh look by opening up most of the city parks -the “Paraiso ng Batang Maynila” (Paradise of the Child of Manila)- and put up those old, Spanish-style lampposts (ala-Intramuros) all throughout the main streets. But, they too, had become victims of what afflicts the entire archipelago as a whole — very poor (if there’s any) maintenance of these improvements, as well as the short-sightedness in planning and design of its overall infrastructure.
Malate and Ermita had seen the most changes due to new high-rise buildings along Roxas Blvd, A. Mabini, M.H. del Pilar and Taft Avenue as well as the redevelopment of the bayfront from Vito Cruz all the way to Rizal Park (Luneta) which Manilans fondly refer to as, “Baywalk.”
At the back of the Manila City Hall, in Arroceros St, saw the rise of a big mall. But, its overall design -like a big piece of hollow block- made the entire vicinity more bland that it used to be. Who knows what happened to the small business establishments that abound in the place before the mall? Gone were the genteel shops -as well as the post-war YMCA- that used to thrive when the GSIS and the DECS was still located in the same area. Even the improvement of the park (part of Mehan Garden) along Concepcion St did little to counter the blase look the mall did to the area. The sad state of the entire place says a lot how city managers (present and former) interacted with businessmen and prospective investors, on how to make the place not only commercially-vibrant, but also, how to make these establishments blend beautifully -without neglect of its history- with the entire area.
A few days later, I was sweating it out in the districts of Quiapo, Santa Cruz, Binondo as well as passing through San Miguel, Sampaloc and Santa Mesa districts via jeepneys and the newly-built LRT 2 (Megatren). I had already seen the changes made by the incumbent Manila mayor in the Quiapo-Plaza Miranda areas back in 2002 which, at least, sanitized the Lacson Underpass of crooks, thieves and petty criminals.

While the traffic situation in the vicinities of Manila may have improved because of the LRT 2 -which runs all the way from Recto Avenue to Santolan Road in Quezon City-, the entire city still need a lot of changes in its overall infrastructure (majority of its sidewalks are dilapidated), for it to become at par with its already-modern Southeast Asian counterparts.

Starting from Quinta Market underneath the Quezon (aka, Quiapo) Bridge, we meandered our way to Escolta via Carlos Palanca St (Echague), passing by the statue of the late Manila mayor, Arsenio Lacson – as well as nearby Sta. Cruz Church – in the renovated portion of the plaza. We ambled towards Binondo via Tambacan, stopping a bit at Ongpin St to buy some machang (steamed sticky rice with cooked pork or chicken at the center, wrapped in bamboo leaves) and siopao (steamed bun with braised pork/chicken inside) as pasalubong (take-home).
Then it was time to get some very cheap hardware/home furnishings along Tomas Mapua St (Misericordia) which the street is noted for. We ended our ‘mini-Chinatown tour’ on one of the tables at the ‘Pinsec Noodle House’ (wow, it’s still there!!) along C.M Recto Ave (formerly, Azcarraga) where we enjoyed my old favorites: beef asado noodles (braised beef w/ noodles) and siopao asado. After washing these down with our favorite soda, Rizal Avenue (Avenida Rizal) -which was simply a few steps away- surprised us with one of the most notable changes in the entire vicinity.
The stretch of Rizal Avenue from Plaza Lacson (near Carriedo) to C.M Recto Ave was ‘pedestrianized’. The old cement road, as well as the sidewalk, was replaced with bricks and assorted, colorful plant boxes were placed on the sides. Benches made of wood and stainless steel were place in the center for promenaders to sit on. Lampposts were added to complement the rather dim lights underneath the LRT 1 tracks.
The pedestrianization project, indeed, brightened up the area and with the on-going construction of a mall (hopefully, with a design that could recreate the grandeur or ambiance of the place after WW II) where the former Odeon Theater was located -as well as the timely opening of the modern, 4-storey, LRT 2-Recto Station nearby-, ‘Avenida’ as it was more popularly called, may well have found the recipe for its rebirth.
We almost walked the entire length of the ‘new’ Avenida from where we veered left towards Gil Puyat St (Raon St)…the “electronics capital” of the country. Here, scores of vendors offered us an assortment of goodies from the cheapest of electronic parts & equipments, fake audio CDs, VCDs, DVDs and almost anything related to the fake (very few were legit) mobile phone parts industry. In this area, I was also able to get myself a new pair of eyeglasses for only US$ 25. Time well spent since we also siddled to nearby Quiapo Church (we’ve come full circle) where we prayed to the patron saint and to God to give us more time in our next visit to the place.
Ronald inside the Quiapo Church, Manila The author inside the Quiapo Church, Manila.  Pic taken using the Treo 650 Ronald at the new LRT 2 -Recto Station along C.M. Recto Avenue, Manila
We also got some freshly-made hopia (small, round, very crusty bread with different fillings inside – very popular of which is the ‘mongo’ beans made into a paste), chorizong Macau (Macau pork sausages), as well as a cheap CD case (less than a dollar) as we headed back to pick up the eyeglasses at the optical shop located along P. Paterno St.
Very tired now, we ambled back to the LRT 2-Recto Station via Evangelista St and took one of the nice, roomy and air-conditioned trains for V. Mapa St – in Santa Mesa district -, that glided through Sampaloc district as well.
In Santa Mesa, we took a quick -and very cheap at about $2 for the two of us- lunch of pork BBQ-on-a-stick, menudo (diced pork and potatoes in tomato sauce), a dry version of the papaitan (sauteed goat innards with lots of onions and chili), free sabaw (soup), lots of rice and of course, a bottle of cold Coke to cool-off the noonday heat that had built-up on our bodies. It was also around this area where we took one of the two jeepney rides that brought us back to Hulo, Mandalayong City, where we stayed most of the time during our month long odyssey.
I might miss Manila once in a while as I continue to toil in another country for my livelihood. But, the place -much less, the entire country- had progressed, very, very slowly, to miss it longingly. Corruption, apathy, as well as the perverted sense of nationalism of majority of the people, had been the bane of the country, and getting to that next important step to become a truly progressive nation, is still very elusive for us Filipinos.
It’s still very hard to enjoy living in luxury in a country where majority of the people could barely eke out a living. Part of it may be their fault but, the bigger blame lies squarely on a government that perennially fails to deliver in its fundamental purpose…to uplift the socio-economic status of its constituents to the next level.