Saturday, May 30, 2009

Inanity and the Absurdity of Posterity

A record of sorts. Beating my personal bests.

No. of hours in pajamas - 25 (maybe barring the times I've been in my sickbed)
No. of kilometers traveled in pajamas - app. 394

Bontoc. I put on my pajamas at roughly 10PM. The next morning, we were traveling to Baguio to spend the night there en route to Manila. I decided I would shower in Baguio. The Baguio Country Club shower, a gazillion stars better than the one at Bontoc, beckoned. I went coffee-shopping in Bontoc and had lunch at Cafe by the Ruins in my snowflake riddled jammies. And then some people, without asking my pajamas, decided to go straight back to Manila. The country club lodging was canceled. And so my pajamas and I arrived home past 10 in the evening. My pajamas practically walked itself to the hamper.

And that, my dear friends, is another installment of utterly useless facts about me.

There is no bottom to the well of inanities I can think of. Read more!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Stuff I Like: Oishi Cheese Sponge Crunch

You may be surprised to know that I'm not all that fond of junk food. Except for clover chips, which is comfort food that brings me back to childhood when my dad would bring a pack home for me knowing it was my favorite.

I'm not even a snacker. No, I developed this lush fleshiness through the willful consumption of the real goodness of dead animals combined with the carbo-laden staple of the masses. Real meals for real women and voracious manual laborers. With extra rice.

I discovered this evil snack through this blog -- lafang nation's. Intrigued, I bought a pack each of the cheese and the chocolate for a long trip. I tried the cheese flavor first. I did not expect that my first bite would make my tongue feel what being in love feels like.

Well, it's just crud, really. There is no one main ingredient except for some starch combination, the elements of which may not necessarily come from nature. Starch shaped into little letter o's by machines and then dipped in an evil cheeselike flavoring. Soaked in cheese product. And sugar. And when you put it on your tongue, the crud and cheeselike substance and the sugar and all the additives melt deliciously coating your tongue with heaven, and your tastebuds take control of your brain and you feel like you did when you had your first kiss, and you understand why that tree was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It's so good it's disgusting.

The zip lock comes very handy, because you can really only have a couple of pieces at a time because it's sickeningly rich and cheesy and sweet. A couple of bites that add a couple of pounds to your hips. Agh. Oishi is the anti-Christ! Read more!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: Claude Tayag's FOOD TOUR

If you caught Anthony Bourdain's Philippine stopover episode, then you have seen Claude Tayag. He entertained Tony at his restaurant/home/art gallery, Bale Dutung, in Pampanga, presenting a very posh, telegenic rendition of kare kare. He also introduced Tony to sisig.

And if you're not Kapampangan, maybe you were offended by his assertion that Filipino food is Pampanga food. But I got what he meant. He meant to say that Filipino food is different for everyone, depending on your own experience and cultural milieu. The food you grew up with as you lived in the region you grew up in, the food served by your mom and/or your lola, the food that comforted you as a child and continues to comfort you now is your definition of Filipino food.

But this is not about Claude Tayag's Tony Bourdain guesting. This is about his book.

If you are a foodie worth your salts, if you take every three day weekend as an excuse, an opportunity to discover the regions and their cuisines, then grab a copy of this book, and keep it close to your sunglasses and favorite weekend jaunt outfit.

It will be your guide, your handbook as you traverse the country and its neighbors, searching for fantastic culinary experiences that sate the appetite for food as well as for culture. It presents helpful information including contact details so you can replicate the food tours he has taken. Really, get a copy. I can see myself bringing this with me as I go south and north of the Philippines.

The book is actually a compilation of his columns in the Philippine Star. At the end of each entry is a recipe.

It is not the best written food and travel book I've ever read. Claude Tayag is not an awful writer, but let's just say his core talents lie in the visual and the culinary. He writes well enough in a breezy, conversational manner with no pretensions. Maybe a little unimaginative with a tendency to interject using the word "burp" a lot. But hey, you're not buying this book because of its literary merits. You're buying this because it will inspire and enlighten the hungry gourmand and antsy vagabond in you.

There are 3 things I didn't like about this book. The first one is its size -- bigger than your standard trade paperback, it is not very handy. The next one is its price -- P550; I think it's worth it because I will get a lot of use from the book. I also like the quality of its binding and paper stock, and that alone makes it worth it for me, but it's a prohibitive price if you want to spread the word about it and want each of your friends to get a copy. The last thing that lessened my enjoyment of this book is that the entries are verbatim lifts from his columns, and sometimes they would include captions for photos that were part of the original newspaper articles but were not included in the book. It was a bit frustrating not having the visuals that go with the captions.

But the things I liked about the book compensated for the above flaws. I liked the history of sisig, his dining guidelines, the healthy balance of street food and fine dining experiences, how he communicated his lip-smacking love of food with no apologies, and his practical traveler tips. I love the way his stories include his wife Maryann as his partner in gourmanding and traveling. He makes fun of her a lot, but he is obviously head over heels in love with her. And best of all, I like the pen sketches that accompany each article; they add so much value, art, and charm to the book.

Oh, and one more thing, don't read this hungry.

Read more!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Musing Mondays: Mommy's Fault

Musing Mondays are hosted by Rebecca!.

Do you remember how you developed a love for reading? Was it from a particular person, or person(s)? Do you remember any books that you read, or were read to you, as a young child? (question courtesy of Diane)

I blame it all on my mom. I'm not sure how old I was when my mom started teaching me to read, but I remember that I wasn't in school yet, so I must have been 3. My mom would give me a newspaper and ask/command me to read in front of my relatives. Most moms would ask their kid to sing or to dance. My mom would show off my reading prowess. I remember mispronouncing the word highway, and they got a chuckle out of that.

Mom started me off with Ladybug fairy tales. Rumpelstiltskin just might be my very first book. In my mind's eye, I can still see one of my favorite books then, Little Match Girl. What a sad, sad story. Every birthday and Christmas, I would get 5 Nancy Drew books until finally I had the complete series. To this day, that collection is still in my must-save-in-a-fire list. I didn't really grow up with many toys so I had to rely on books for entertainment.

I blame my mom for this addiction to books. And I thank her much for it. Read more!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Ultimate Bookworm Gift

I want one for Christmas! No, I can't wait. I want one for Independence Day. Slurp. Slurp.

Gosh, I just might never leave the house with something like this in my room. Read more!

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Mario. Vargas. Llosa. For some strange reason that name conjured a vision of an extremely serious writer typing somber, tedious sagas spanning generations, replete with tumultuous political events and heartbreaking drama. How wrong I was. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is anything but serious. I should have been more observant and let the whimsical cover clue me in. Nothing somber about it. It's flashy, color splashed, and it looks like the artist had much fun reading the novel and was inspired in designing the cover art.

It is a fun book. The back cover blurbs use adjectives like funny, extravagant, madcap, uproarious. All descriptions accurate.

The story revolves around Varguitas, a young law student and aspiring author who is paying his dues by writing slash plagiarizing news for radio. Set in the 50s, the story happens at a time when TV is not yet the ubiquitous medium it is now. Radio rules as the channel for entertaining and informing the masses.

Two Bolivians come to town.

One is Pedro Camacho, a talented but twisted writer who writes scripts and directs radio drama. His radio shows hook listeners and soon he becomes the buzz of Lima.

When Varguitas, peculiar in that society because he prefers books over the radio, asks his grandma why she likes radio serials so much, she says 'It's more lifelike, hearing the characters talk, it's more real. And what's more, when you're my age, your hearing is better than your eyesight." His other relatives explains their addiction by saying, "because they set a person to dreaming, to living things that are impossible in real life, because there are truths to be learned from them, or because every woman remains more or less or a romantic at heart." And that explains why Camacho's following grows. As his popularity rises to mythic proportions, his manic madness worsens, and soon he's out of control.

The stories that Camacho writes are central to the story. They are narrated in chapters alternating with the main plot chapters. So the reader actually reads many little stories within one book. Stories that entertain, shock, and end the chapters in cliffhangers and intriguing questions the way serials are wont to do. To me, this is interesting because the book uses similar devices to a book I read recently, Ricky Lee's Para Kay B. But Llosa's book ties the stories more cohesively to the main plot.

The other visitor from Bolivia is Aunt Julia, related to Varguitos only by law, recently divorced, and out to find a husband. She did not count on having a romance with a relative 14 years her junior. What ensues is mayhem as irate relatives, well-meaning friends, queer mayors, and a violent father get involved in this comedy that twists, convolutes, and climaxes (ooops, spoiler alert) in the most exciting and tiring wedding I've ever read about.

The story could and should have ended very soon after the climax. Instead it over-explains what happens after the meaty part of the story. A protracted epilogue. Only then do you realize that the book is actually a semi-autobiographical account. Wiki can shed more light about the autobiographical elements of this fiction.

This is my first Llosa, my first novel written by a Peruvian author. It overtook many books in my TBR short list because of a reading challenge I wanted to join. I didn't get to finish the book in time to make the challenge deadline, but I'm glad I read it just the same. It's the kind of book one calls delightful. Llosa is a witty writer who knows how to have fun and how to have his readers join in the fun.

The Latin American vibe is dominant and gives the novel its energy. The soap opera theme influences much the novel's cadence and reading experience. I like that the book is a good balance of realism, satire, fantasy, and slapstick. I enjoyed the detailed account of what happens in the making of radio serials. I like the clever way of using the first few lines of each chapter as titles. Llosa certainly writes to amuse.

I don't know if it's the translation, but the writing is on the side of verbose, with long complex sentences and hard words that trip me up like cyclothymic, oneiric, and deliquescence. As I type, all these words get those squiggly red lines, but they do exist; just look them up.

I recommend you look up some Llosas as well. Well worth reading.
This book is my response to the Global Voices Book Challenge. Read more!

Saturday, May 16, 2009


"Meritocracy" is one of those much bandied terms of the 90s. Pretty much the way "servant leadership" is today's buzzword, a favorite among cliche-loving speechsters. I didn't understand meritocracy much then, and it took Malcolm Gladwell's latest book for me to wrap my head around it. Ironically, the book illustrates it by underplaying it.

Gladwell asserts that merit alone is not the key to success. It it not what we do that enables us to get ahead. Which is not to say that hard work and diligence are not important. They are. In fact, Gladwell's magic number for somebody to achieve some kind of success in a chosen field is 10,000 hours. It takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something. Look at Bill Gates. He's been hacking (literally, not in the security assault sense) at computers since he was a teenager. The Beatles spent thousands of hours in smoke filled pubs to be as good as they are as a band. They worked harder than their peers so they got farther.

But 10,000 hours of practice is just part of the formula. There are other extraneous factors that have made people succeed where others failed. Things like cultural legacies. And circumstantial opportunity. And where, when, and to which family you were born. These things may work to our advantage or disadvantage.

The case of Korean Air pilots would strike you as a compelling argument that culture can affect our ability to do our jobs. In this case, their high regard for authority created communication problems that proved fatal. Recognition of the problem enabled the Koreans to turn the situation around. They had to stop using what is called "mitigated speech" to prevent more plane crashes. They had to be taken out of their culture and be re-normed.

Interestingly, the Philippines was mentioned as one of those countries most enslaved by this respect for authority. When my sister in law (a doctor involved in child protection) and I were discussing the book, she mentioned that our traditional practice of calling adults, related to us or not, with respectful terms as Tito or Kuya is a double edged legacy. One one hand, it makes us a gracious and polite lot. On the other, it sets up a situation of familiarity, misplaced trust, and undue respect that abusers may take advantage of. Like the Korean pilots, maybe we need to "shed some part of our own cultural identity" to prevent tragic circumstances.

But let's go back to the story of success that the book Outliers tells.

This book says that it is not necessarily the brightest who succeeds. Our smarts can only get us so far. This has been proven empirically. A high IQ can arguably get you to good schools. But once you're in, you're in the same level playing field as those who also got in, whether their IQ is higher or lower than yours. Interesting, eh?

Don't believe anyone who boasts of his success, 'I did this, all by myself." According to Gladwell, they are "products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky -- but all critical to making them who they are."

As usual, Gladwell fills the pages of a book with fascinating information shared through fascinating stories. Reading Gladwell always makes me wonder if there's any practical use to the copious information he shares. At the verge of (gasp) middle age, I no longer have any control over the circumstances and legacies that have shaped my life to the way it is now. And 10,000 hours? With a sinking feeling, I ask myself if there is something in my life, other than breathing and eating, that I have done for 10,000 hours. Hmmm, I better stop playing YoVille and do more of whatever it is I want to do best. I don't have much time left.

I suppose this is useful to parents, teachers, and any one who can influence the very young. This is useful to the young, the generation just starting to invest the first of those 10,000 hours. Gladwell says, "To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success... with a society that provides opportunities for all."

The book teaches us to look at the circumstances and the cultural aspects that can affect, positively or negatively, our chances of success. The first challenge is to recognize them. Then use or circumvent them. Then work hard, work smart, be open and alert to opportunities, and carry on.

Whether this book is useful or not, Gladwell, as he has done with The Tipping Point and Blink, entertains, engages, and encourages his readers to think.
Gladwell, I find him doing in all his 3 books, posits some brave, fantastic, maybe debatable, theories that may not necessarily be well grounded conclusions to his research, but he does make us think. Doesn't he?
Read more!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Red Kimono

Unit 1A GF, Fort Strip, Fort Bonifacio,
Taguig City, Metro Manila

The Bait:
All the Japanese food you can eat
The Line: "Get the best of both worlds -- buffet quantity and a la carte quality."
The Hook: Value for money, or rather, volume for money
The Sinker: Carb fest, not in a good way
The Catch: P535 per person exclusive of drinks and other ala carte items

I just learned about the term "volume for money" in Claude Tayag's book Food Tour. He attributes the phrase to Chef Myrna Segismundo. It refers to the Pinoy's predilection to stuff their faces and load their stomach in buffet lines. Volume a priority, taste only secondary.

Red Kimono's Better than Buffet helped me understand the concept.

It was the second time we went for the 534 peso all-you-can-eat promo. The first time was for dinner some months back. We arrived hungry and joined a group of more than a dozen people. And I enjoyed stuffing my face as well as the camaraderie of playing 1-2-3 pass with all the dishes being passed around the table.

A couple of days ago we went back for lunch, and it was not as enjoyable as the first time.

I need to explain the promo. It is buffet with a twist. And they say it is better than buffet. I disagree. Buffet is a simple concept of lining up the dishes on the buffet table, and the diner is free to strategize what to pick and how much of each.

I tend to go value for money focusing my attention on the starters, which feature high value dishes like sashimis, oysters, and carpaccios; then I skip the main dishes, the pastas, and the rice; and home in on the desserts. In a buffet one can control the quantity per dish. One can enjoy a mere tablespoonful of an item and be satisfied.

In Red Kimono's Better than Buffet concept, there is no buffet table. Instead, they bring the buffet to you. You pick items on a printed menu. You can get as many orders as you like. Then they bring the dishes to you already plated in family style quantities.

Plus there are conditions. They have the usual conditions of no leftovers, no take-home. I can agree with those rules because they minimize wastage. (Yes, we need to remember the starving people in China) The problem is you don't have control over the quantity per order. So you don't get to sample as many dish varieties as you would in a regular buffet.

There is also a condition about a minimum order of rice. The worst thing is they serve only sushis; no sashimis. So imagine how carb-laden you are by the end of the meal, even if you have managed to artfully and deceptively distribute your leftover rice among the plates and under them so it won't be too obvious that you actually had leftover food. Gag me with a sako of rice!

The other reason why this is not better than buffet is that there is no buffet table to walk to. I actually like walking from my table to the buffet table. And back. I can delude myself into thinking that I am exercising in between bites. Walking while carrying the weight of the loaded plate. At Red Kimono, you are deprived of that brisk-walking workout. Unless you need to go to the wash or take a biological break -- for that you need to go take a stub from the servers and walk outside the restaurant to the common rest rooms.

Carbs plus no-exercise -- not the best post-meal sensation. All your body systems focused on digesting all that starch. I was surprised that I was able to stave the lethargy and drive home before having the mother of all siestas. Take note: I am not a siesta person.

But after having said all that, I would still recommend this promo if (one) you are very hungry, (two) you are dining with a big group so you can share dishes, and (three) if you're a member of the extra-rice confederation.

I don't know if there was a change in chef, but the food seemed to be better the first time. Or maybe we were just hungrier. Back then, I loved the crabstick rolls with wasabi mayonnaise, the shitake mushroom teppanyaki, the chicken teriyaki, the grilled miso chicken, and the layered spinach & tofu. The beef kamameshi also seemed beefier then.

On our second visit, I enjoyed the california crunch and the salmon & cream cheese maki. The pork teriyaki is tender and tasty, but make sure you coordinate your orders. We also had teriyaki chicken, and I felt there was just way too much teriyaki in the world.

Of course, dessert is part of the better than buffet menu. If your stomach is not at bursting level, you may have the buko pandan jelly with vanilla ice cream. The green tea ice cream was too overwhelmingly tea-tasting, so I didn't like it. You can also try the chocolate balls.

So, is it better than buffet? Nah. But go ahead and stuff yourself when the time and conditions are right.
Read more!

Kiangan Flashback

This is a cut and paste from a May 8, 2002 blog. The photos were added recently. Made some minor edits before posting.

---start of flashback entry ---

Sappy Travelogue
May 8, 2002

I just had a memorable weekend, and for some reason I cannot find the words to write about it. We went up North and maybe my muse loved it there so much that she decided to stay behind. It’s extremely frustrating because I am wishing I can write about it as well as I have experienced it. Muse, muse, come back wherever you are. Nope, nothing. Still at a loss for words. So I’ll just plunge on and try to describe my weekend. I was able to get some free vacation leaves for Friday and Monday due to 2 instances I had to work Sundays. That meant I had a 4-day weekend to enjoy. And enjoy it I did. Tuks, his sister Yella, his cousin Angie, and I set off for the Northern province of Ifugao in Tuks’ reliable Honda Civic. We left our house past 10 and went to pick up Yella and Angie and we were at the North Expressway by midnight and out of it in more or less an hour. We exited and got into long winding roads of countryside. The three femmes slept most of the way while Tuks drove, something he seems to truly enjoy. We woke up to a breathtaking sunrise, with mountains, hills, and rice fields replacing our daily vista of concrete and steel. The road, lined with trees, stretched towards a horizon. The sky was cast with a pinkish bluish glow. It was refreshing to wake up and know we are out of the city and away from the rat race arena. Our mobile phones inutile as no cell sites were in sight. There was one Kodak moment when we caught the sun peeking out at that point where two mountains overlap. Kind of a cliché photo op, but it was too beautiful to pass up. I asked Tuks to stop the car. I said the word stop about five times but he kept on driving. When he slowed down it was too late. The view was gone and if we drove back the sun would not be in the same place anymore. His excuse for not stopping was that he did not think I was serious about asking him to stop. Sounded like something from a rape trial. I said stop and I meant it. But Tuks, the Vacation Nazi himself, has this race he plays in his mind as if Michael Schumacher and the devil are after him, and the jury of the Guinness Book of Records are waiting at the destination point to clock in his record breaking time. There could be a Mother Mary apparition by the side of the road, or a real, live Elvis Presley sighting by the highway shoulder, or Jennifer Lopez herself in a thong with a sign that says “will f*** for food” and he still won’t stop just to take pictures. It messes up his flight plan or something. I tried to sleep to forget about missing the photo op, and as I woke up Yella realized we were lost and we had to do a U turn. Ironically, the turn we missed was about a kilometer from the photo opp spot. I think Tuks, in his rush to ignore the sun peeping over the mountains scene, stepped on the gas and that’s how we missed a turn. If we had stopped to take that photo we would have been coasting leisurely and we probably would have noticed the little directional sign. And we wouldn’t have lost so much time.

Other than that sour moment with the Vacation Nazi, every other moment went well.
We arrived at the house of our host in time for breakfast, checked in at the Yamashita Shrine, where we were billeted, and headed for the Banaue Rice Terraces.

The Banaue Rice Terraces. We grew up being taught in school that this place was the eighth wonder of the world. As adults we realized that almost every country has its own “eighth wonder”. Call me biased, however, I think this spot is quite deserving of that claim. I will try to post my photos as soon as I can, but you can drop by this site I found through google to get a preview of how amazing this place is. Think Mt. Rushmore in grandeur, but prettier. It is a wonderful example of God and man’s coalition to create monumental art. Think 2,000 years back and how the tribal mountainfolk who created this wonder had to survive against or with the environment. Too far from the sea to subsist on seafood, their mountain slopes too steep for traditional rice fields, the Ifugao folk carved rice terraces following the contours of the mountain, meticulously piled and matched the rocks for reinforcement, used mud to bind the structure, built an ingenious irrigation system, and combined function with art leaving a work of beauty and a source of sustenance for future generations.

Having said all that, I also have to honestly say that it was a bit of a letdown. Modernization has brought about damage to what would otherwise be an awesome piece of nature art. Shanties of corrugated iron and wood scraps speckled the otherwise green and amazing scenery. Time has diminished its beauty, and the artists who created the original are no longer here to care to save it. It is on the list of endangered World Heritage sites and that at least is helpful.

And then we saw Charlie’s Angels. These are the 3 Ifugao women clad in full regalia, faded feathers on their hair, clad in hand woven costumes, standing by the road to have their photos taken with the tourists for a little forced "tip."

Afterwards, we went to the market place to look for local craft and interesting produce. We (meaning Tuks) just spent a small fortune the day before on my car A/C repair so a shopping spree was out of the question. I used all my will power not to buy anything. Okay, so it wasn’t will power. I just did not bring any cash with me. At the end of the market trip, all I bought were two hand woven sashes that I used as a bow to bind the photo album. The photo album turned out so pretty, with pictures (took 5 rolls of film) and illustrations.

We lunched at this hole in the wall place called Las Vegas Inn. Nothing Vegas about it thought. Rustic meets tacky. With a great view of the terraces. We had curry rice; igado, a local meat stew dish; something with lettuce and cucumber they call Israel Salad, which tasted really good; and fried milkfish.

We went back to Kiangan back to the Shrine where we were checked in. Showered. Walked towards the house of the bride, Lenore.

Lenore was a social worker working for the Child Protection Unit where Yella also works. She is a 40ish single mom, and was about to marry Paul, a 50ish American divorcee. They met 20 years ago, as maid of honor and bestman to Lenore’s cousin, and Paul’s brother’s wedding. No sparks, but they met again after 20 years, fell in love, and was about to marry. Their wedding was actually our pretext to having ourselves a grand vacation.
An Ifugao wedding is more than just interesting. It is such a memorable, astounding experience. It is steeped in tradition, and very rich with symbolistic rituals. There are pre-wedding and post-wedding rituals that involve the slaughter of pigs, cows, carabaos and chickens. I do not think I will get into detail with this because it requires much cultural tolerance to appreciate. Some parts are gruesome but we had to respect the cultural differences.

During the eve of the wedding, we were at Lenore’s house. There were some rituals done. We did not understand the dialect used so mainly we just watched. There were gongs playing, dancing, chanting, and lots of ground stomping. Ancestors were called, gods were invoked. Afterward, the priests and the couple, who were forbidden to touch each other, walked to a neighbor’s house to drink rice wine brewed specifically for the occasion. The wine tasted good. We continued to just watch and take photos because the people were conversing in their dialect and we could only guess what they were talking about. Poor groom, of course, was hopelessly lost.

We went back to the house for the highlight of the evening – the “poor piggy should have stayed at home” scene. The main ritual involved the sacrifice of a native pig and the extraction of its liver as an unusual alternative for tea leaves. The chief priest looked at the state of the liver and the bile sack to determine if the union was to be blessed by the gods. The liver seemed to have passed merit, and the shaman foretold that the coupling would be successful and fruitful. Offspring will be many despite them being 40ish and 50ish old already.
The ceremony went on till dawn. Chanting and dancing mostly. But we left right after dinner. Which was merely choked down out of respect. Nothing like witnessing a pig execution to ruin the appetite.

The next morning was the Catholic wedding, which we decided to skip. We instead went to the market where we did not find anything of interest. They were selling city stuff – plastics, fake jeans, etc.

We then drove to Bae, a valley of rice fields and amazing beauty. Nothing, not the photos, not my wordy descriptions can ever do justice for the spectacular sight of rolling fields, and mountains, and wild flowers, and vines, and more rice terraces and the locals doing their farming. It’s just so awesome, so incredibly beautiful it can make an atheist thank God. The road was a single lane concrete path winding over the fields and so you get this feeling that you are rolling in clouds of green. It is just beautiful. Spectacular. Priceless. Again, God and man conspired to draw out ooohs and aaaahs and OMG’s from us gaping, drooling spectators.

We parked the car and walked 283 million steps down a hill. My legs were trembling at the exertion; muscles left dormant struggled to keep up. At the bottom of the steps was a rusty bridge spanning a river. It was summer, and the water was barely ankle high. We followed the river downstream where they said there was a waterfall up ahead. Up ahead might be a short distance to the locals, but for us used to cars, escalators and walkalators, it was quite a walk. There was no clear path so we had to walk on mossy rocks and pebbles, hold on to vines, dip our teva’ed sandals on cool water. I slipped twice, once breaking 3 nails on my right foot. We did not even see the waterfall because getting there seemed too dangerous for our old cranky bones to survive. So we just sat and marveled at the view.

On the way back, we stopped by the bridge. A part of the river was deep enough for swimming and a lot of pre-teen boys were happily playing, diving from the cliff onto the water. We wished we brought a change of clothes so we too could take a dip in the cool water.

Walking back up the 283 steps was more difficult than going down. We had to take a lot of “nature appreciation” stops just to catch our breath. Gasping, panting or not, I would have stopped too. It is an awesome feeling sitting down alone just allowing nature to beguile me with its spellbinding magic. Basking. Praying thanksgiving for being so privileged to be where I was. Composing snippets of poetry in my head. Inhaling the strange, rare scent of fresh air. I would sit and observe insects sucking pollen from wildflowers, watch a butterfly color coordinate itself with the flower petals it lands on, look at trees and notice how their branches serve as picture frames for nature, highlighting portions of the vast scenery. A few seconds of rest and I had the time to notice the lone tropical palm tree seeming out of place and yet looking strikingly beautiful, standing defiant in a forest of hardwood trees. Leafless Jemilina trees with their white trunks serving as accents to the dark verdant background.

A leaf fell and I was there to hear it drop. And then another leaf fell, and another leaf, and another, and another. And soon it was raining leaves. I likened them to little children running home screaming, the rain is here, the rain is here for the leaves falling occurrence was followed by a drizzle. I was praying for it to pour just to complete the nature experience.
Who said words were necessary for poetry? What I was so privileged to see was poetry for the eyes.

And as if God knew the climbing, wading, trekking exercise was going to knock the breath out of us, there was a halo-halo stand waiting for us near where we parked. Halo-halo is a dessert concoction of sweetened fruits mixed together with crushed ice and milk. It was heavenly, especially because we forgot to bring any water with us and we were really thirsty from the trek. In the halo-halo stand, the lady who minded the store had an infant covered in homemade comforters. He had a name that sounded like medicine, benadryl or something like that. He had the cutest smile. And he was unaware of how lucky he was to grow up in a place of such beauty.

From where we were we could hear the gongs of the wedding reminding us to drive back for the tribal wedding ceremonies. It was the most difficult task to pull ourselves out of that huge slice of heaven. After a quick trip to buy more film, we went to Lenore’s house. Lunch was being served. Now, this you’ve got to imagine. There is no such thing as a small private wedding for the Ifugaos. At least 17 pigs were killed to feed all the townsfolk. No RSVP customs here. Everyone can just drop by, queue for the meal, which they ate on de-layered banana trunks. After lunch, they had the Ifugao wedding ceremony. Even more ceremonious than the previous activities.

The bride, the groom, the priests and the entourage were in full regalia. There were so many rituals. More of the gongs, the chanting, and the ground stomping. Bride and groom were given beads for their hair, fertility necklaces, intricate headpieces. More ground stomping and chanting. The other shaman’s feet must have withstood a million stomping. They were the widest feet I’ve ever seen, spread out like a fan, contorted, and twisted, and sturdy. Wine was poured on the couple’s feet.

Then the entourage was led out into the streets. Like a line following the pied piper, they walked and danced with the groom and the men striking the gongs in an unusual beat.
We did not follow them, but from what we heard, they went to another place and a dozen chickens were choked to death; one of the unfortunate fowl was tied to the groom’s waist. The standing joke was that there was a new definition of love. Real love is dancing out in the streets in a g-string with a dead chicken on your hip just to marry the woman you love.

We left the bride’s home and went to check out of the inn. We were supposed to stay and maybe view the post-wedding ceremonies the next day, but we were all overwhelmed with ceremony and decided to cut short our stay and drive back to the next province to make our trip back to the city the next day a little shorter.

We ended up at Solano, a bustling town in Nueva Ecija, which boasted of no major tourist attraction. The board, lodging and food costs were double of that in Kiangan. On the way to Governor’s Hotel, we stopped at the Dutch Pancake Restaurant. I went out of the car to ask the Dutch owner what time they opened in the morning. We were planning to have breakfast there. After checking into the hotel, we decided to have dinner at the Dutch restaurant also.

The T-bone was highly recommended, but I found it a bit tough. The scalloped potatoes were very good though. The pancake desert was also good. And it was fine service for the owner to run and get us wine even if it wasn’t offered in the menu. On our way out, he mentioned a little girl who went up to him earlier in the evening asking about what time they opened in the morning. It turned out that I was that girl, but he said I looked much younger a couple of hours ago. He said I looked no more than 14 then. I didn’t know if I would be thrilled to be mistaken for a teenager or aghast that I aged so quickly.
Nonetheless, he was a nice host and we had breakfast there the next day. He mentioned wanting to expand his restaurant as a franchise and was willing to give the first franchise for free just to break into the market. Mental note to remember this when we are looking for business ventures.

On the drive back to the city, we stopped for lunch at this charming restaurant called Vicentico’s Grill. Food was excellent and the local antique décor was lovely. A couple of stopovers to buy goodies for the folks back home.
Tuks dropped me off at my Dad’s place so that I can say goodbye to him before his trip to Europe. I stayed the night there. The next day, Monday, I had my practice round of being a woman of leisure. Woke up late. Breakfasted leisurely. Spent the good part of the morning creating a roller coaster park in the computer. Dragged my nephew and my niece to have my nephew’s tuition fee assessed. Went to see Spider Man. Hohum. Try as I might, I just can not find Kirstn Dunst pretty. Had popcorn, soda and fries for the movie. Mc Donald’s ice cream cones, chicken poppers, mashed potatoes and fries for after the movie. Back home, more computer games, dinner and Tuks finally picked me up to go back to real life. My greatest learning out of the whole experience is that I really should not worry about my Islandhopper business venture. Seeing the places I saw, falling in love with my own country, experiencing so much pride to call this land home, I know now that whether I succeed or fail in this venture, I would have had the time of my life traveling and seeing all these wonderful places and getting to know my country. Aaaah. God is good! Read more!

No to the Philippine Book Blockade

By now, every Pinoy bookworm has heard about the furor over the Philippine Book Blockade. I haven't blogged much about the issue because I don't think there is anything I can add to what has already been said by those better versed in the legal intricacies. And those with louder voices, stronger influence.

I am one of the most apolitical persons I know. I don't even like reading the newspaper, so in matters that concern the government, I usually play the silent observer. Even when I feel strongly about certain causes or issues, I prefer to be lend support by adding to the critical mass.

And here is a way to add to the critical mass. Sign the petition here.

By the way, here is a page with a list of links about the issue: Read more!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wishlist Wednesday: Lonely Planet's The Travel Book

Spotted at: New Arrivals, Lifestyle Section, 2nd Floor of the spanking new National Book Store at Glorietta 5

What it is about: Why, travel, of course. It's an A to Z catalog of profiles of every country in the world, 2 pages allotted to each country. With limited paper square inchage, It is not jam-packed with information. Instead, it highlights some very select aspects of each destination country. Specific suggestions on what you must read, watch, or listen to before you go there and what you must see, eat, and do when you get there.

Why I lust for it: Travel Planet is great at presenting different non-cliched views of places, of places far from the beaten path. Also, this will be a great addition to my collection of books that include The Photo Book, The Fashion Book, The Art Book, and The House Book. Yes, it's a shallow reason, but there's no logic to this book lust.

The price of the object of my desire: A little over a thousand pesos

Why I deserve this book and why you might want to give it to me: I survived Sagada (see previous post). And I used my mothballed backpacks to get there. I am sooo Lonely Planet.

Amazon reviews here.
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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Nine Things I Learned about Life by Spelunking in Sagada

14 fun, fearless, clueless souls, most of them book geeks from my book club took advantage of the Labor Day weekend and grabbed the chance to tick off a bucket list item: Spelunking at Sagada. I was one of them. And that cliche about learning lessons the hard way -- this experience exemplifies it.

Here are the lessons I learned the hard, slippery, slimy, smelly, scary way:

LESSON ONE: The dumb gets farther; the dumber gets dead.
- For a bunch of book geeks, we did not do our research thoroughly enough. When asked to choose between the normal cave tour (PhP 100 per person) and the Connection Challenge (PhP 400 per person), which traverses 2 caves, Sumaging and Lumiang, we chose what sounded more exciting, more difficult, more unforgettable. Maybe we’ve been reading too much fantasy. Maybe it's the hashish in the Sagada air. We wanted to release the inner extreme athletes inside us. And we got what we asked for. And failed to anticipate just how difficult it would be, for geeks as well as non geeks, for the fit and for those whose most strenuous exercise is carrying bag loads of books from Booksale. We all had no idea what challenges lay ahead. The guides did not give us a clue.

On hindsight, that naiveté, that ignorance, that stupidity was good. If we had known how formidable the challenge was, most of us in the group would probably have not taken it. We would have backed out when we still could. At the mouth of the first cave.

Instead, we went in, excited, awestruck, dumbfounded, dumb as rats led by the pied piper. And got the surprise of our lives. Many surprises, in fact. Gimongous walls to scale, steep crags to climb down, cliffs to descend, slippery rocks to walk on, knee-deep muck to dip our bare feet into, blind corners to hug, streamlets to swim in, the narrowest of edges keeping us from plunging into deep dark pits. It was unbelievable what we had to go over, go under, go through, jump into, squeeze in, hurdle, straddle.

Truly, if somebody had shown me first a video of what we had to do, I would have chosen not to do it, knowing full well knowing full well that given my fitness level, I couldn't. Not knowing made me do it. It was sheer stupidity that got us there, literally in between a rock and a hard place. The uncertainty almost killed me, but it was also what got me through. The dumb, the clueless, when unaware of the dangers ahead, can actually accomplish more as he walks in ignorant bliss. And I’m glad I was stupid enough to do it. Because that was by far, the most exciting, most amazing thing I had to do in my whole life.

Of course, we were blessed to have survived relatively unscathed despite our ignorance. Tales of those who were stupid enough to go in without guides and never to come out again serve as a counterpoint to this lesson. It’s okay to be clueless sometimes, but rash stupidity could cost you your life.

LESSON TWO: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Aww, shut up! - I do not fear heights, nor water. I have scuba dived in open water. I have rafted through grade 4 white water with a stupid smile on my face. I have parasailed alone and was able to look down without feeling squeamish. I get a kick from roller coaster rides, the higher, the faster, the scarier, the better. My bucket list includes bungee jumping and skydiving.

The first time I had to take a high ropes challenge, I couldn’t contain my excitement and wanted to zip down the wire a dozen times. I was fearless. I was 25 years old, a size 6. I could do anything.

As a trainer facilitating high ropes challenges, I had seen participants break down in tears as they confronted their fear of heights. I could only watch without really understanding what that fear was all about.

Until now. 42 years old. 70 pounds overweight. My sense of balance faulty. With nothing to rely on but the grace and strength I got from ballet classes with Ms. Valeriana in second grade, and from a few lousy attempts at a badminton regimen.

In the cave, we had to rappel down a cliff, the bottom of which we couldn’t see from where we were. No harness, no safety nets. The ropes did not even have knots for gripping. And what confounded us was that the rope was tied to a lithe, little man, barefoot, sitting by the edge of the cliff. Our lives depended on him being strong enough not to be pulled by our weight to go hurtling down with us to our sure deaths.

I was afraid of falling to my death, the guides picking up my brains and innards splattered on the cavern floor. I was afraid I would die without having completed my scrapbooks. I was afraid of falling and not dying, but being permanently disabled and not being able to drive myself to the bookstore. I was afraid I'd look stupid.

I was afraid. Petrified. As afraid as I’ve never ever been in my whole life. So afraid I cried for a few seconds. What made me cry was this inner struggle of accepting that I had to do it. There was no chickening out, no charming or bribing my way through, no delegating the tough parts to others, no negotiations, no way to circumvent the challenge. I had to get down that cliff or else stay in that cave forever subsisting on a diet of bat sashimi. I was so afraid, so stupefied my brain could not even manage to make my life flash before my eyes.

But then again, after all the drama, when I got out of the cave, got home, and had a shower, I realized I had no scratches. No bruises. I did not even break a nail or scratch my pedicure. Not even though I slipped a dozen times. Not even though I missed a step rappelling up a crag and I held on the rope, swinging dangerously, ramming my already sore body against a rocky wall. I suppose fear kept me safe. It made me walk slower, and made me look like a stupid granny wimp, but it was also the instinct that made me take only sure steps and kept me from harm.

Fear is not always a bad thing.

LESSON THREE: We are stronger, faster, harder than we can ever imagine. Like I said, I’m not in the best shape. I find myself panting just mounting the bed. And I would never believe that I could do what I did in those caves. I still could not believe it now.

Nearing the exit, we stared at a 3-storey high, 15 degree steep wall that separated us from the freedom outside. In normal circumstances I would have thought it impossible to climb it and survive. But all the earlier challenges showed me that I could do what I never thought I was capable of doing. So even if the adrenalin was already starting to dwindle, and I was tired from 7 hours of gruelling spelunking, I just took a look at the challenge in front of me and did it. I heaved, I grunted, I whined, and I climbed, and climbed,and climbed until I finally got out of that cave. I realized I am stronger than I ever thought. I can do far more than I ever thought possible.

I realized how much our mindsets limit us from doing what we want to do, how much we underestimate our strengths, how much power is within us. It took the caves of Sagada and 5 sadistic guides to make me discover my inner strength.

LESSON FOUR: Crap is inevitable.In the last upward stretch out of the cave, we had to climb stone steps, made extremely slippery by bat excrement. The stench was unbearable, but the worst thing was that we had to hold on to some of the rocks to balance or lift ourselves up. Our fingers would land on inch-thick sludge – thick, icky layers of moist, mushy guano. And every germophobic fiber in my body would cringe and cry. But I just had to hold on for dear life fueled with the desire to just get out of that wretched cave that had held us captive for far too many hours.

In a Mythbusters episode, Adam and Jamie once concluded that “Poo is everywhere.” Literally. Sadly, it is true metaphorically too. Life can get crappy sometimes. Oftentimes, one can walk around and avoid stepping on poo, but there are times when there is just no way around it, and one has to bear with all the crap. You just have to grin and bear it. The thing is a little crap ain’t going to kill us.

LESSON FIVE: That big, fat ass (or nose, or ears) of yours will someday be put to good use. - What got me through the toughest physical challenges and the most perilous conditions? My stamina? Strategy? My upper body strength and leg power? Nah! It's my big, fat ass.

As we slid on rocks and soil, our guides asked us to rely on a skill creatively called the butt technique. Many, many times, we had to get ourselves closer to the pull of gravity and sit down, and let our butts do the walking, the wading, the sliding. And for the first time in my life, I thanked God for my ample assets.

I have always had what are euphemistically called child-bearing hips and the most generous rump to go with them. I hate how they get in the way of fashion and vanity. But that time at the cave, I was so grateful for all that generous padding.

It was a clear case of making lemonades out of life’s lemons. Life is fair when the things we consider as faults are actually blessings in disguise. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about 1930s born Jewish lawyers who were barred from WASP law firms forcing them to develop skills that would actually spell their success 20 years later.

So, don’t whine too much about your big ears or your big butts or whatever it is you consider a liability. They just might come handy someday.

LESSON SIX: Trust the experts, especially when you’re not one. –For all the bravado and the pride we felt after that incredible experience, we all know we couldn’t have done it without our guides, James, Andrew, Mark, Matthew, and Jory. (Those apostolic names did not escape my attention.) So many times in that whole experience, we really did not know what to do and were too afraid to do whatever it was we had to do. We had to literally let our guides lead our feet through every step. I mean every little scaredy step. And they would even let us step on their knees, shoulders, hands, and bear our weights as we shifted our balance to move forward.

For control freaks like me, it was very difficult letting go, trusting someone else, and bearing the shame of total reliance on others. But what choice did I have? So, I had to let go and let the guides get me through. When the guide said, “Trust me,” I had no choice but to obey. I trusted him with my life.

It’s the same thing in life. Don’t be macho. There are times when we have to let the experts show us how. We have to humble ourselves and allow others to help us for the sakes of safety, survival, and success.

LESSON SEVEN: Rest when you get the chance and enjoy it. – Spelunking with a large group, we had to sometimes wait for each other as we shared 5 guides and the light of a few kerosene lamps. Those were moments for rest. I loved those moments as we caught our breath and had the time to look around and admire the beauty within the cave – the fantastic rock formations, the shadows and the lights creating moving art against the smooth and the rough rocks, the heights, the layers, the sexy curves of walls, the secret crevices, the trickling and falling of the water, awesome sights no camera can capture. They’re meant to be etched in memory.

Those rest breaks slowed us down and stretched what was meant to be a 4-hour trek to 7 hours of torture. But those breaks actually fueled me, not just by replenishing energy, but also by inspiring me with beauty, and reminding me how blessed, how privileged I was to experience something so awesome.

LESSON EIGHT: The less you have, the less you fear. – Travel light. Travel light. Travel light. It’s a lesson that in my years of jet setting and island hopping, I still cannot comprehend. But when you’re in a slippery niche, 20 feet off stable ground, trying to balance yourself is made more difficult by anything hanging from your neck, shoulders, arms. Having too many things -- some of them precious like high-tech cameras, your return tickets -- complicates matters as you try to protect your goods when really you should be protecting your head and limbs. The less you have with you, the less you worry about losing or breaking them.

At one point, I had to accept that my camera had already been destroyed by the water and the blows. Strangely, I felt liberated from having to take more pictures and finding time to download them when I get back home.

Travel light. It’s still a maxim I find hard to accept wholeheartedly. But it is a lesson well learned in those dark, dank, dangerous caves where material possessions play second fiddle to life and health.

LESSON NINE: Shoes are important. – You have to use the right shoes for the right time and place. I thought my trusted Teva’s were good enough. But they are trekking shoes, not spelunking shoes. And at some point, it was better to go barefoot to let our feet grasp the rocks more securely. Having the right shoes for the right time and place is important. Okay, I don’t really know what this teaches me about life. I just want to justify my shoe closet issues.

Today, I say CAVE is a 4 letter word. My joints are still sore. My voice a bit hoarse. My body recuperating from all the slips and falls. But I can say about spelunking at Sagada, I’ve been there and done that. And I’m glad I did.

Sagada pics here:

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