Category Archives: TRAVEL

Sleeping Outdoors is Underrated

I know very few outdoor people. Except for the few campers and mountaineers, most of my friends are city folk, not comfortable unless they’re in a room with four walls and air-conditioning. I don’t blame them. I’m not an outdoor person, either.

The one and only time I went camping was in grade five, when the girl scouts camped overnight on school grounds. We slept in tents and had a bonfire, and while it was fun, the heavy tent and the effort made in pitching it put me off camping. Plus, it was a heavy canvas tent and the Philippines is a tropical country, which meant heavy condensation inside, resulting in the amplification of, well, smells. I think it was this, more than anything, that turned me off. I did like the sleeping outdoors part, though, and I feel that I don’t do it enough.

The last time I got the opportunity to spend the night in the open air was on a group trip to Villa Escudero. My friend’s boyfriend was in town and he invited us to vacation with them. We stayed in a villa whose porch overlooked the river. While my friends shared the bedroom, I decided to spend the night on the porch. We moved a spare mattress next to the bamboo railing. My corner claimed, I proceeded to refuse to move from it, getting up only for dinner and bathroom breaks. I was quite excited to be spending the night outdoors, next to the river. I’ve heard stories about how the resort’s surroundings are enchanted, and I was hoping to experience something like that. Long story short, I didn’t experience anything out of the ordinary, though I did have a great night.

I loved how quiet and serene it was. I loved that there was a constant breeze from the river, and how the trees and shrubs kept everything cool, despite it being the middle of summer. I loved how the light deepened into darkness, then lightened into morning. I loved how with the light came birdsong, soft at first, getting louder as more birds woke and joined in. What I did not like were the mosquitoes, but a bug patch on the back of my shirt–the one with cute animal designs they use on kids–quickly fixed that. Also, no weird smells.

I woke early, had breakfast, then switched to the hammock to sleep some more. Yes, I was on vacation with friends, but this was the group of introverted friends who agreed that going on vacation meant getting away from people, and sometimes, ‘people’ also meant each other.

Would I recommend sleeping out in the open? Yes. As long as you bring a mosquito patch and are sure you aren’t near anything wild or poisonous.

I’m looking forward to spending my next night outdoors. Yes, the porch of a cottage doesn’t count, but I’ve come to accept that that’s as close to nature as I’m willing to get.

Homemade Pancakes and Waffles: A Renewal of Family Ties

The last time I was in the US was when Obama was newly elected. It was my first time in the midwest–Batavia, a city outside Chicago, to be exact–and my first time staying with my relatives there. On my first morning, my cousin made pancakes. My eldest niece was six then, my nephew two, and my youngest niece just a month old. Eight years later, I was visiting again, this time under a new administration. And again, my first morning involved pancakes, this time made by my nieces, now fourteen and eight respectively, under the supervision of my cousin. The girls did the flipping while my cousin served the plain pancakes with melons, blueberries, and maple syrup. They were delicious.

My American relatives and I don’t communicate a lot unless we’re in each other’s countries, but whenever we do, it’s always fun, comforting, and enlightening. Before my first visit eight years ago, our memories of each other consisted of their summers spent in Manila, where they stayed at our grandmother’s house. I remember my two cousins marveling at how cheap the books in the Philippines were compared to thee US, and how they would stock up on them before returning. They’ve also visited once or twice as grownups, staying at my uncle’s place with their respective families after our grandma passed away.

Despite our sporadic interactions, we’ve somehow remained close, our doors open to each other for however long we want. My cousin, the one whose kids made the pancakes, explained that those summers she and her sister spent in Manila were fun ones, and it’s the memories of those times that have kept us comfortable with each other, despite our geographical distance. It’s what makes it possible to meet again after many years and take up where we left off while getting to know each other at the same time.

My nieces made pancakes again the weekend before I left, this time with chocolate chips mixed into the batter. But my visit wasn’t all about pancakes–when I visited my other cousin in Chicago, she made waffles for breakfast. Clearly, their side of the family has a griddle cake thing going on, something that I enjoyed very much. Now that I’m back home, I can’t eat a pancake or a waffle without thinking about the ones I had in Batavia and Chicago, which not only taste better, but were also made with care. I hope it doesn’t take me another eight years to return.

Sisig, Halo-Halo, and Carrot Cake: A Tiny Tour of San Fernando and Angeles, Pampanga


My friend Vanessa invited me to Pampang to see their newly opened bakeshop outside The Orchid Gardens, a popular resort in the area. Ian, a friend who I travel a lot with, came along.

Matti’s Bakeshop started as a kiosk in a strip mall in Pampanga. It’s now a bakeshop and cafe. The first time I tried their cakes, I mentioned that they made the best carrot cake I’ve ever had, and I’m glad to say that, years later, this is still the case. Ian agreed. Too bad I have to go all the way to Paampanga to get it. 

Aside from the carrot cake, must-trys include the ensaymada, soft and even made more interesting by the addition of cream cheese; the spaghetti, Pinoy-style sweet and strangely unputdownable, the kind you have too keep eating (Ian had leftovers for breakfast and said it tasted good even when cold–Ian may be a big guy, but he reserves his calories for food that’s worth eating); and the fruit tea, green tea steeped with different fruit, warm and sweet and comforting.

Pampanga is famous for its cuisine. It’s the kind of place where even a random street stall will yield delicious fare. But it isn’t just the food. There are historical places to visit as well.

The San Fernando Railway Station, a small, rectangular brick building that used to house the now defunct train station is now a museum filled with relics that date back to World War II, when it was used as the last stop in the Bataan Death March. Not part of the exhibit but equally attention-grabbing is Marsing, the station’s adorable pit bull. Mars, as she’s called, the station manager adopted Mars, as she’s fondly called, because she would have been put down otherwise. She’s affectionate and loves attention, so be sure to say hello. There are ancestral houses nearby thaat aren’t open to the public yet, though there are plans to do that soon.

There’s also the San Guillermo Church in Bacolor, which was mostly buried under lahar after Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991. The church is fully functional though it remains half-buried–it only takes a short staircase to get to the belfry, where bats still live.

Time and stomach constraints meant that we could only try a few restaurants. Since Ian and I had already tried Aling Lucing’s, where sisig was supposed to be invented, we decided on Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy and Sisig, Lucing’s closest rival. There’s a reason that tokwa’t baboy and sisig get equal billing on the restaurant’s name–they’re equally delicious. I can’t eat meat because it makes me queasy, but I was more than happy to brave a headache for the sisig, which was crunchy and chewy without the aid of egg or mayonnaise. 

The tokwa’t baboy was, for lack of a better word, amazing. It’s your usual hard tofu and pork (they used pig’s ears) in a soy and onion marinade, but the restaurant’s version has celery and kinchay, which adds a surprising amount of flavor and texture. It didn’t need the pork, honestly. We also enjoyed the pako (fiddlehead fern) salad, which was topped with a surprising amount of salted egg and came with a sweet vinaigrette. It’s hard to find pako in Manila, and the Pampangueños are fiercely proud of the fact that it can be found most anywhere in Pampanga. Am I jealous? Yes, I am.

Vanessa was raving about her favorite streetside mami (noodle) stall, which served noodles with beef brains, so we tried some of that, too. I just had a sip off my Ian’s bowl. The noodles were nice and chewy, not overcooked. The broth was deep and rich and tasted like it had been simmering for a lot longer than the three hours tthe veendor said it took to cook it. The brains were soft and buttery. Brains aren’t my thing, but I can understand why this dish is such a big hit. The piping hot snack cost Php35 (US$.70) and is filling as well as delicious. No wonder it sells out so fast.

It was also mentioned that we had to try the Razon’s halo-halo in Pampanga, where the chain is originally from, because the serving in Manila is but a shadow of the glory that can be found in Pampanga. And you know what? It’s true! A Razon’s halo-halo in Manila, though absolutely delicious, only comes witha smidge of ingredients–the rest is ice and milk. In San Fernando–we didn’t even try it in Guagua, where it’s from–the ingredients take up half the tumbler! At Php80, it’s a bit expensive by Pampanga standards, but still cheaper than in Manila (where it costs Php115), and more satisfying, to boot.

Pampanga halo-halo is diifferent from regular halo-halo. Also known as ‘white halo-halo,’ it only has three ingredients, leche flan being the darkest in color, and doesn’t use beans. We got an extra plate of leche flan because you can never have enough leche flan with your halo-halo. At Php80 for five slices, Razon’s leche flan is expensive, even by Manila standards, but it was oh so worth it. Creamy with a hint of citrus, a reminder of how most places don’t make leche flan like this anymore.

Ian and I also stopped by the San Ferando Wet Market, where we bought Pampanga-style tocino (cured pork) and longganisa (breakfast sausage) to take home. If you like your breakfast meat sweet, Pampanga-style is for you! Our last lunch was at Abe’s Farm at the foot of Mt. Arayat. You get the same fare as the Abe’s restaurants in Manila, but with a different view. The only thing missing were hammocks where we could nap after.

There were more places that we wanted to try, but we didn’t have time or stomach space. It only means that we’ll have to find our way back someday.

Thank you very much to Vanessa, Melissa, Malds, and your mom for being so nice to us! 

P.S. If you happen to be in The Orchid Gardens, check out the 7-Eleven outside. It has wood paneling, well-lit booths, and machuca tiles.

Stopping for corn by the side of the road

Left to right: Me, Toto, and Ian with our roadside corn.

So this happened.

A couple of friends–distant cousins Ian and Toto Carandang–and I were driving home. Rather, Ian was driving and using Waze to navigate Manila’s awful traffic. 

The app had taken us to the bowels of Pasig. We had no idea where we were. We’re kind of sad that way.

Ian and Toto were talking about how hungry they were getting when  Toto and I interrupted the conversation by yelling “Corn!” at the same time. We had both seen the same guy selling fat cobs blackening on the grill, a mountain of unshucked corn behind him.

Ian stopped the car and Toto and I get down and order three pieces. They cost Php20 each. We waited about five minutes for the corn to cook. The vendor brushed a thin coat of butter and sprinkled a bit of salt on them before handing them to us. He said they were from Nueva Ecija.

The corn was soft and warm and sweet, a delicious diversion to the rush hour traffic jam and a wonderful memory between friends.

Stories of the supernatural from the enchanted resort, Villa Escudero


If you grew up in Manila the 70s and 80s, Villa Escudero was the place for family vacations. And now, decades later, the resort still hasn’t lost its charm.

Highlights included (and still includes) rides in hydraulic carts pulled by carabaos with flowers on their horns, as well as dining at the foot of a small waterfall, letting your feet relax as the water flows gently past.

The Tiaong, Quezon resort is part of a coconut plantation located in the middle of mystical mountains Banahaw and Cristobal. Running through it is the Labasan River, whose water comes from the foothills of enchanted Mt. Banahaw and is so named because the old folks believed that at dusk, ‘naglalabasan ang mga diwata,’ the fairies come out.

The people who live there say that the place is enchanted. I asked Don Conrado “Ado” Escudero, the resort owner, whether there is any truth to the supernatural stories. Don Ado recently launched Villa Escudero Coconut Plantation Cookbook, a book on Villa Escudero’s foodways. He was happy to answer questions about the resort’s original occupants.

Mysterious Voices, Mysterious Appearances

“We were brought up in a Spanish background, naturally Catholic religion, but we (follow) what our ancestors told us,” he said. “They always tell us always to respect Mother Nature because (this land has) always been taken cared of by the fairies.”
Don Ado has never heard or seen anything himself (he’s not even sure he believes in them), but many other people have. “There are times when our guests report, and very innocently, that very early morning, they would hear very nice songs that they cannot understand coming from the other side (of the river),” he said. “We say, ‘That’s just your imagination.’ We belittle those things. We say, ‘That’s good! Mother Nature is taking care of you.’”

Enchanted Waterfall

What really sets Villa Escudero apart from other resorts is its waterfall, which has been a picnic area since the 1800s. Don Ado tells of an occasion: “A group of five ladies came to me after about the two weeks that they were here. They brought with them a picture of the waterfalls. They were at the bottom. There was a lady behind them. But the waterfall was two or three feet behind them, so where was she standing? They wanted to know who that lady was. I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe that’s a double exposure,’ but actually, I wondered (who she was) because how can that lady be at the back? And not just once. Several times. I can only attribute it to the nice people.”

The staff has told him their own experiences as well. “We had employees who would report to us that there are little people who take care of the waterfalls. This is what they say: to please leave some syrup for them. They like syrup. And so we would do that. And we would lock the room and the next day you go there, it’s empty. Many times like that. I play the game; nothing to lose. Nobody’s hurt,” Don Ado says.

Sacrifice Pa More

Sacrificing an animal before construction starts, or ‘padugo,’ is a common practice among Filipinos. Usually, just one chicken will do. At Villa Escudero, it seems that the elementals have bigger appetites.

“Back when we were going to build the pool, I was approached by the builder who said, ‘We need to make an offering.’ I always follow them without any question,” Don Ado said. “But when they brought in the backhoe, it stopped just as it was starting and there was nothing (anyone) could see that was wrong (with it). And then one of our employees who sees–the third eye, they call it–said, ‘That’s easy. We have to kill more.’ The minute we did, it worked.”

Does Don Ado believe in the supernatural? “Those are little stories. I play with it. Why not? Nothing to lose. It’s not a matter of believing. It’s not hurting me,” he says.

Buried Treasure

Some people say that aside from protecting the environment, the elementals of Villa Escudero also guard treasure. “(People are) always telling me, ‘Sir, there is a very very big sum of gold that’s hidden here.’ So I say, ‘Will they share it with me?’” Don Ado said. “And you know, many times, we do see sprints that are really in that area guarding it. But I haven’t really seen anything. I wish I could dig it up. I won’t hesitate. “It’s an interesting life. I’m not superstitious but I’m always careful.”

 

Inquire about visiting Villa Escudero and getting a copy of  Villa Escudero Coconut Plantation Cookbook at villarscudero.com.