Sunday, December 16, 2007



THE STREET SELLER FROM XINJIANG

(Scenes from Shanghai, Part 3)



I spent some time walking along the Bund, Shanghai's historic waterfront lined with colonial-era buildings. In recent years, it has become gentrified, in the sense that fine dining European cuisine restaurants, high-end (read: very expensive) spas, designer luxury goods stores and "in" nightspots/bars have sprouted inside the buildings.

The weather was cool and slightly windy, and the architecture was really grand. I spotted this:





This vendor, i realized, came from the remote province of Xinjiang. And how did i deduce this?

Elementary, my dear Watson. Just last night, i had dinner with my friend (and business competitor) JPL, his wife and their local friends (Looi and quite-charming Mary), at a Xinjiang cuisine restaurant. Not only was the food quite good (special mention: their lamb kebabs were simply out of this world!), we were also regaled by native song-and-dance numbers from the restaurant staff, all dressed in traditional Xinjiang attire.

According to Wikipedia:

"Xinjiang
(Uyghur: شىنجاڭ, Postal map spelling: Sinkiang) is an autonomous region (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) of China. It is a large, sparsely populated area which takes up about one sixth of the country's territory. Xinjiang borders the Tibet Autonomous Region to the south and Qinghai and Gansu provinces to the southeast, Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the Pakistan- and India-controlled parts of Kashmir to the west.

Xinjiang is home to several Muslim Turkic groups including the Uyghurs and the Kazakhs. Other PRC minority ethnic groups include Hui Chinese, the Kyrgyz, the Mongols, the Russians, the Xibes, the Tajik, the Uzbek, the Tatars, and the Manchus."

So, while this guy is technically Chinese and can speak Mandarin, with his relatively fair skin, hair and eyes, he can be easily mistaken for an Eastern European.

Here's a closer look on his merchandise. As far as i could tell, it's basically glazed nuts with dried fruit attractively arranged in patterns on top, and looks very much like a cake.






Once you signal your interest to buy, he cuts a standard portion with a knife and puts it in a clear plastic wrapper.

I asked his permission to take photos, which was stubbornly refused. Drat! Finally, i offered to pay him one yuan for one photo. He silently assented, and demanded i pay up first before proceeding further. Finally, with the crisp note in his hands, i fired away. Okay, okay, so i took more than one shot, but who's counting? :-D

There are quite a few of these street sellers from Xinjiang, spaced a few hundred meters apart from each other. Here's a photo of the almost-entirely-unsold-yet cake of one of his colleagues:





Quite pretty, isn't it? And they all don't have the exact same designs!



Thursday, December 13, 2007



STREET SIGNS

(Scenes from Shanghai, Part 2)



Had a free Friday afternoon, and spent some time walking along Nanjing Dong Lu, Shanghai's premier shopping street. Designer boutiques, old-fashioned department stores, not to mention stores selling all sorts of odd-looking dried foodstuffs, line this pedestrian-only street.

I was amazed by the sheer number of people milling about. It seemed like 5 million out of China's 1 billion citizens were here, at any given time!

Anyway, i chanced upon this clothing store:





Hmm. . .i don't think the makers of Crocodile would be amused, no? Unless there's been a newly-discovered reptilian specie who just happens to be a close cousin.

At the far end of Nanjing Road, quite near the historic Peace Hotel (which, incidentally, is undergoing a much-needed renovation), guess what i saw?






Hah!? :-d I knew it! These Shanghainese folks weren't as stuffy and bland as they would let us think!

The merchandise inside was quite tame, though. Which, come to think of it, wasn't a bad thing at all. We wouldn't want the locals to become over-amorous and start propagating like crazy, and faster than you can say "Nanjing Dong Lu", China's population would reach 2 billion already, do we?





NOT-QUITE FLAWLESS CHINGLISH
(Scenes from Shanghai, Part 1)


Spent a few days in Shanghai last month for work-related reasons. I know i should not even start whining about how difficult it is to get around, etc., since the locals' grasp of English is rudimentary, at best.

So i won't. But i managed to capture some signs, which are purportedly in English and whose meaning escape me at the moment. Here goes:





(Above) Saw this at one of the booths in the exhibition i visited.

I'm not sure if the writer has a wonderful child-like sense of discovery, or if he has wanderlust. Or both?






(Above) Check out this sign posted inside the elevator of the hotel i stayed in, plugging their coffee shop.

So, i hope the plastic sculpture doesn't fall on you while you enjoy the cup of coffee . . . in the atrium, or in the city center? Or the atrium is in the city center?


Anyway, check this site for more not-quite flawless Chinglish!



Sunday, November 25, 2007

MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA
(Part I)


(This is the beginning, AND conclusion, of my series of posts regarding my trip to Sagada and Baguio. As previously stated, i decided to do a little writing experiment, and wrote the posts in reverse order. So, dear reader, you can read these posts of mine either in conventional Part 1-8 order; or for best results, read them in the order i wrote them. Either way, your comments, violent or non-violent, are all welcome!)






"IS THIS ANY WAY TO RUN A BUS COMPANY?"


Due to the news of heavy rains and landslides caused by a major typhoon in the Cordillera Region area, my friend C. and i were unsure whether to push through with our trip or not, until the very last minute.

In fact, most of the few people i had mentioned our trip to were discouraging. In particular, my fresh-faced friend G. exhorted me to stop being pig-headed, and actually believe in the weather forecasts for once. Being indeed pig-headed, i ignored her well-intentioned advice.

C. and i had chosen to take the Cable Tours bus, leaving at 8:30PM bound for Bontoc, as this was the quickest route. From Bontoc, Sagada was just a 45-minute jeepney ride away.

So it was, C. and i found ourselves searching for the Cable Tours bus station somewhere in E. Rodriguez Ave., Quezon City. Which we eventually found, with much difficulty. Why? Because save for the Cable Tours signboard (see above pic), there was nothing to indicate that it was a bus terminal! Instead, their bus was parked inside this ill-lit, grassy parking lot, which looked abandoned.

And it was just one bus. Out of curiousity, we questioned the driver. Turns out Cable Tours has a total of 4 buses in its fleet, and plies only the Bontoc-Manila-Bontoc route. Nothing else.

After waiting for an additional 30 minutes before finally pushing off at 9PM, our air-conditioned bus had a grand total of six passengers, C. and i included. Six!

Doesn't exactly inspire confidence, does it?

C. and i drew up a rough income statement for Cable Tours, based on information from our driver:

Revenues (ticket sales):

Yesterday's trip Bontoc-Manila PHP 6,000 (PHP600 X 10 passengers)
Tonight's trip Manila-Bontoc PHP 3,600 (PHP600 X 6 passengers)

Expenses:

Gasoline PHP10,000 (PHP5,000 per one-way trip X 2)
Salaries ?
Miscellaneous ?
____________
Net Income (Loss) (PHP )



Hmm. . . . one can only hope they have more passengers taking the bus during other times of the year. Otherwise. . . .

We questioned our driver regarding road conditions, etc. He merely shrugged, and mumbled that the road was still passable "despite the landslides". Not totally reassuring, but we'll settle for it.

Finally, we are off!!!



(The Cable Tours bus station, err parking lot, is located along E. Rodriguez Ave., Quezon City, facing Trinity College and right beside a couple of fast-food restos beside St. Luke's Hospital.

Daily 8:30PM departures bound for Bontoc, except during the low season, during which trips are only on M-W-F evenings. Total travel time is estimated at 12 hours, with 3 rest stops along the way. Fare is PHP600.00 per person.

Contact them at 0918 5216790)



Friday, November 09, 2007



MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA
(Part II)


SUMAGING CAVE


Despite all our initial apprehensions, the overnight 12-hour bus ride to Bontoc was smooth and trouble-free. And the weather? Quite nice and balmy, rather windy with a touch of cloud. One would be hard-pressed to believe it was raining real hard just a day or two ago.

In fact, the only hitch was that we had to change a flat tire somewhere in San Miguel, Bulacan.
The bus driver did tell us that there were some portions of the highway which were partially closed, due to landslides; and the clearance was just enough for our bus to pass through.

After alighting at the Cable Tours station in Bontoc, we walked over to where the jeepney bound for Sagada was waiting. Tired and weary from the overnight bus trip, we were impatient to get moving.

Good thing that while waiting for the jeep to fill up with passengers, we were entertained by this Manila girl who kept on yakking on her cellphone. Among other things, she had been in Baguio / Sagada for 2 weeks; she had a mountain of bills to pay (Citibank credit card, Globe cellphone bill, company loan, etc.); and she was looking for a new job. Tsk, tsk. . . .



Finally, we arrived in Sagada just around lunch time. First order of business was to drop by the Municipal Hall and register. This is required of every tourist, i'm not quite sure why, though. Maybe it's so that they can organize a search party for you, in case you're knuckle-headed enough to explore caves on your own, etc.

Speaking of which, C. and i decided to do some spelunking this afternoon. We dropped by the Tourist Information Center to hire a guide. There were actually two caves to choose from: Sumaging ("Big") Cave, which takes around 2 hours; and Lumiang Cave, which has these burial coffins strewn around near its entrance.

Or you could do both. The guides were offering this "Cave Connection" tour, wherein you enter Lumiang Cave and exit through Sumaging. This, they said, would take around 3 hours.

Pretty intriguing, huh? I was ready to say "go sago", but C. pointed out that 3 hours was way too much time to be spending inside tight, dank, claustrophobic caves. So, we settled for Sumaging Cave only.

Our guide this afternoon was this wiry, muscular local named George, who proved to be quite reticent. I don't know about you, but i like my tour guides to be chatty, with lots of war stories. The only story George narrated was about this female guide, who brought along a troop of 3 tourists into Sumaging Cave, at the height of a typhoon around 5 or 6 years ago. Surprise, surprise, they all died, except for one of the female tourists, who had to spend the entire night inside the cave, shivering from the cold, with no food and no light, until she was rescued the next day.

Not exactly a cheerful ending, i must say. But i bit my tongue, as George was bringing along the kerosene lamp, which would serve as our light source inside the cave. So no sense antagonizing him with some smart-alecky comments, diba?



To the batcave!


The above picture shows the steps leading down into the entrance of Sumaging Cave proper. It looks deceivingly easy; but from beyond this point onwards, the steps had muddy puddles from the recent heavy rains. In fact, George mentioned that the water levels inside the cave might be higher than normal.

Uh oh, how high exactly? I wondered aloud. George just shrugged, and gave a diffident half-smile.

The mouth of the cave entrance looked forbidding. George mentioned that we would be going down up to 120 meters below ground level. Sounds awesome, no?

We scrambled amongst the rocks, George going in front with his kerosene lamp, C. behind him, and myself bringing up the rear and carrying our backpack. Man, these rocks are really slippery! In fact, i slipped and fell on my butt twice.

And the reason why the rocks were slippery? Ahh....bat guano.

Yup, in some instances, the guano was quite moist and fresh, with that distinct pungent odor and mushy consistency. Almost like freshly-made ube jam, except darker in color. Hmm. . . must have been discharged from the source only a few minutes ago, eh?

Thankfully, after much more scrambling, we reached the portion of the cave with ice-cold crystal-clear water flowing from the rocks (see picture below). These rocks were grainier in texture; and thus, had more grip. Water was at knee-deep level.



Fantastic rock formations, with refreshing ice-cold water pouring forth.



Another rock formation.


At this point, the trek inside the cave became more challenging; and the best option was to take off one's shoes and go barefoot.

We had to rapel down a smooth rock wall, maybe 50 - 55 degrees. George made it look so easy. Actually, it looked more difficult than it really was. Of course, it was also easier said than done. C. was cool about it, even posing for pics; but i hung on for dear life.

Okay! What's next? This turned out to be nothing compared to what came ahead. As George led us into the inner recesses of the cave, we had to squeeze ourselves in between some narrow rock walls. The cold water was waist-deep by now, and i had to make sure our backpack didn't get submerged.

Uh oh, are you sure we can do this? I asked him at one point. He nodded, taciturn as usual.

Now, facing us was this pool of water which we had to cross. It looked and felt deep. How deep? Ordinarily, the water would be around chest-level, but with the recent rains, definitely higher. Uh oh.

Thankfully, we made it through. The soil we were stepping on was quite soft though, much like quicksand. At this point, i was literally grasping at the rock walls as though my life depended on it, just to get better traction and prevent myself from slipping into the water.




Your intrepid adventurers taking a moment to catch their breath.


As we made our way back to the entrance of the cave, we stopped for a while to catch our breath and snap some souvenir pics. Suddenly, George came alive and displayed heretofore undiscovered dexterity with C.'s digital camera. Not only was he familiar with all the settings, he waxed rhapsodically that he preferred Canon cameras over other brands, etc. He was about to get into a technical discussion about shutter speeds, etc., when we decided it was time to get moving again.



"And God said, "Let there be light"; and it was so."


In the end, i sustained bruises on both knees; scratches on both elbows, my right hand and right foot; and enough scary moments to last me a lifetime.

Truth be told, inside the cave, i was tempted to tap C. on the shoulder and tell him that we should just turn back, instead of proceeding further, a few times; but in the end, i was grateful that we pressed on and took in the entire experience.

When we neared the cave entrance and saw the open outdoors (see above pic), you couldn't imagine how relieved i felt, to be able to see the sky again.

And most of all, thank God we didn't choose the "Cave Connection" tour!!!



(Some tips: Guide fee for Sumaging Cave is PHP400.00 for one guide [for 1 - 4 pax]. Getting a guide is an absolute must.

As much as possible, do not bring any personal belongings [wallet, cellphone, etc.] inside, as you will need both hands free. If you really have to, bring a small backpack, and make sure to line its interior with a waterproof [Ziplock] plastic bag)




Sunday, November 04, 2007



MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA
(Part III)


"KISS THE RAIN"



Fog blanketing the Sagada sky.


Our surprising good luck with the weather ended today.

C. and i were planning to do a morning trek to the Bomod-ok ("Big") Waterfalls, and we expected to be back at our room at the Sagada Igorot Inn by early or middle afternoon.

Unfortunately, the strong, driving rains just kept on pouring and pouring, thereby cancelling the day's activities.
There was literally nothing to do at all, except "play tong-its [a card game]" as the guy at the Tourist Information Center half-jokingly suggested.

This was fine with C., who has long mastered the art of taking long naps and generally doing nothing. On the other hand, i like to believe i remained non-plussed by the turn of events. C. would beg to disagree, as he noted i was already becoming fidgety after only ten minutes of enforced idleness.



Rain and fog make for a gloomy day.


To make matters worse, the streets were virtually deserted and most shops (including the few internet cafes) remained closed. The one and only newsstand in Sagada normally receives the daily newspapers from Manila around 2:00 PM; today, it was more like 3:30 PM.

To kill time, we decide to play a game: name all the songs you know with the word "rain" in the title.

Me : "Here Comes the Rain Again" by the Eurythmics
C : "Rain" by Madonna
Me : "Rhythm of the Rain" by the Cascades
C : "Ulan" by Rivermaya (well, sige na nga)
Me : "It's Raining Men" by Geri Halliwell
C : "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" by . . . .???
Me : "Kiss the Rain" by Billie Myers


But this took all of 46 seconds. . .arrgghhh, what else to do??!?!

Oh yeah, we did some walking around and checked out some of the other inns nearby. St. Joseph's Resthouse was the place where VIPs and showbiz people stayed in, but we felt it was overpriced at PHP1,200.00/night. George's Guesthouse is the new kid on the block; a double room goes for something like PHP400.00/night, PHP500.00/night if you want to have a TV in your room.



Walking past St. Mary's Episcopal Church.


We also availed of Igorot Inn's in-room massage service, and dropped by the coop canteen to order a carrot cake for C.'s friend. Aside from this, it was more aimless walking around for us.

I thought to myself, Sagada can be so quiet and too laid-back that i'd go crazy if we stay here for one more day.

But despite all my whining, i eventually felt that this day wasn't totally wasted. I realized that s
ometimes, when travelling, we get too preoccupied with the things to do, sights to see (and take photos of), restos to dine in, etc. that we forget to just savor the fact that we are somewhere new and different from our regular lives.

I have been guilty of this 'by-the-numbers' approach to travelling in the past, and i'm sure i will be guilty of it in the future.


I guess there is something about the relaxed, unhurried, "whatever happens, happens" pace of Sagada life that makes you accept that things can be unpredictable; and like it or not, you just have to go with the flow.

This realization made the slacker in me quite happy. Yey! :-D




Monday, October 29, 2007



MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA
(Part IV)

GOOD EATS IN SAGADA


Initially, i was apprehensive that there would be a lack of good eating spots in this quiet, remote part of the country. However, in the course of doing research for the trip (mainly long private reading of Lonely Planet and other guidebooks at Fully Booked), i was pleasantly surprised to find out that i needn't be worried.


1. YOGHURT HOUSE




C. had previously eaten here, and heartily recommended it. "We must absolutely eat here" were his exact words.

The name Yoghurt House is actually a misnomer, since this resto also serves a fair range of sandwiches, rice dishes, pastas and the like. It is quite small, comprised of six tables. During peak season, you have to be here before 6:00 PM to ensure a table.

We had a couple of meals here, and i whole-heartedly agree with his sentiment.



Cozy interiors. You can browse through their book collection while waiting for your food.


Below are pics of some of the dishes we ordered:




Fried Rice with Meat and Vegetables (above) - simply superb, and they didn't scrimp on the meat. PHP110.00.




Roast Chicken with Cheese Pasta and Bread - looks yummy, tastes even yummier! PHP160.00.

Other dishes getting our thumbs up were their Pasta with Tuna and Cheese, which was unexpectedly spicy (PHP120.00); Pasta with Mushroom and Cheese (PHP120.00); and Farmhouse Sandwich (egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, at PHP60.00). The pasta dishes, in particular, were quite filling, as the portions were good for 2 persons.

Of course, let's not forget the yogurt. I ordered the Banana Yogurt (below). It was presented quite simply (too plain-looking, in my opinion), but the portion was generous; and the tartness of the yogurt was just right, balanced by the sliced banana chunks. Simply great! And only PHP65.00.




All in all, if i were a Michelin inspector, i'd give this place two stars: "Excellent cooking and worth a detour".


2. MASFERRE INN




Particularly interesting are the black & white photos on the walls, depicting the native populace. Taken by the late famed photographer, Eduardo Masferre, a native son of Sagada.


To find out more about him, please click here.





In general, their food was not as good as Yoghurt House, although they have a much more extensive menu.

The Lemon Chicken (pictured above) was above average. Not a bad deal at PHP160.00.

Friday, October 26, 2007


MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA
(Part V)

THE HIGHWAY FROM HELL


Woke up quite early today, as we hoped to make the 7:30 AM GL Lizardo bus bound for Baguio.

It wasn't a good morning, that's for sure. First, it was still raining continuously, and the sky was overcast. Second, came a brownout, so i had to take a shower in the dark AND using ice-cold water. Third, we couldn't find anywhere to eat, as all restos were closed, including our beloved Yoghurt House (even though the proprietress clearly told us last night that they open every day at 7:00 AM!)


Then, the final blow. Due to the non-stop rains yesterday, there was a landslide in one portion of the Halsema Highway. Thus, the buses plying the Baguio-Sagada route and vice-versa would not be able to make their daily trips today.

After some discussion with C., we thought of skipping the Baguio leg of the trip altogether and head back to Manila. I called Cable Tours, only to find out their bus bound for Manila from Bontoc will leave only by tomorrow 3:00 PM.

Uh-oh, we seem stuck here in Sagada for another day.


But friendly locals proferred an alternative solution: we could take the Sagada-Bontoc jeepney, which would travel up to the landslid portion of the highway. Then we would transfer to where the GL Lizardo bus was waiting for Baguio-bound passengers.

YESSS!!!



Around forty minutes later, we disembarked from the jeepney. A fairly long line of vehicles were parked on the side of the road, waiting for the fallen rubble and dirt to be cleared. Among others, there were delivery vans, a convoy of cars promoting this Oktoberfest battle of folk bands, etc.



That's C. checking out the landslide up close. Note his heavy back pack and box of carrot cake he is carrying.


I stopped to take photos of the scenery below. Beautiful, isn't it?





We had to take a detour through a small path, in order to reach our Baguio-bound bus waiting somewhere below. This seemed quite easy at first. True, we were carrying heavy luggage; but the weather was cool, and no hurry naman, right?



Along the narrow path onwards to our Baguio-bound bus.


Unfortunately, this was as good as our detour path got. From this smooth paved portion, it eventually turned into a steep, muddy, slippery path. Not only was it difficult maintaining one's foothold (lest one fell into the shallow ravines below) ; there was hardly anything one could grasp to steady oneself, save for some anemic-looking tree branches.

Fortunately, both of us did not take a tumble like Humpty Dumpty. Then it was a ten-minute trek along the highway to reach the makeshift bus stop. At this point, we were both sweaty, and huffing and puffing, from the exertion (and uttering curses under our breath at the weather).



After some waiting, our GL Lizardo bus finally was on its way to the City of Pines! Okay, okay, no need to get excited, i told myself, since it was a six- or seven-hour trip under the best of weather conditions.

As a backgrounder, Halsema Highway is 2255 meters at its highest point, the highest in the entire Philippine highway system. Believe it or not, despite being opened all the way back in 1931 (NO, THIS IS NOT A TYPO), it is literally not yet finished. It is alternately concreted (in short sections) and muddy and pot-holed (in much longer sections).

And did i mention that it consists only of ONE lane? So if two vehicles come upon each other head-on, one has to back up and make way. Incredible, isn't it?

From my window seat, i could see that our bus barely had enough room in several instances to navigate the highway. The tires were just a matter of inches from the edge of the road (okay, okay, i'm doing my damnest not to think of the sheer drop below!!!!)

The ride has been called "hell on your butt"; ass-numbing; teeth-rattling; mind-bending; whatever, it lives up to its reputation. As the Lonely Planet guidebook put it, "whizzing around hairspin turns with barely an arm's length to spare, it produces either amazement in the driver's skill or terrible anxiety."



Fog. . . .



and more fog.


Compounding our woes was the persistent rain and the cold wind. I am normally not susceptible to cold weather, but this time, i was shivering and had to close the window.

Oh, and the fog! As we went into higher and higher altitude, the fog blanketed not only the breath-taking mountain scenery; the mini-rice terraces amongst which galvanized iron-roofed houses nestled below us; etc, it also obscured what was in front of us.

Forward visibility was reduced to 10 - 12 feet, at best. From my vantage point, everything seemed enveloped in a gauzy, translucent white haze.


I imagined, just one wrong turn of the steering wheel or one mis-timed press on the brake pedal, we could be hurtling down the ravine below to Kingdom come.

Not exactly a comforting thought to have in your mind for seven hours.

Saturday, October 20, 2007



MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA
(Part VI)



"ANG MAHIWAGANG CARROT CAKE . . . BOW"
(C. and the Hapless Carrot Cake)


My friend and traveling companion, C., is one of those amiable, happy-go-lucky chaps who seem not to mind any favor(s) you ask of them, no matter how inconvenient.

So it was that during our time in Sagada, we were kept occupied looking for the ff. items a friend of his had asked him to buy:

1. Local red rice
2. Chili powder
3. Carrot cake


Alas, items no. 1 and 2 could simply not be found. Helpful store owners advised us to drop by the Saturday morning market, which we did. No luck though.

I did call my Baguio-based friend, S., whom we were scheduled to meet later on in our trip. She quipped that the local Mountain Province rice is actually BROWN, and becomes red in color only once cooked. While this factoid was interesting and all, it was NO help at all in locating the rice!




Weekend market scene in Sagada, with C. doing his search.



Fruits and veggies everywhere, but no red rice and chili powder.


Good thing we had more success with item no. 3, the carrot cake. C.'s friend specified that it should come from the Sagada Cooperative Canteen, located just beside the fire station and some fifteen steps away from St. Mary's Episcopal Church.

The coop is actually nothing more than a small, tin-roofed shack with a few wooden tables. Aside from the carrot cake, they also serve lemon meringue pie (which i tried; it tasted kinda horrible), custard cake (looked yummy), chocolate cake (looked yummy AND too sweet), etc. They do have PHP15.00 hamburgers, which seemed such an absolute bargain that C. bought one and ate it on the spot. His verdict? Well, let's just say you really do get what you pay for.

Anyways, back to the carrot cake. Turns out it has to be ordered one day in advance, and it has to be kept refrigerated, AND it lasts only 3 days before spoiling.


Undeterred, C. reasoned that the cool weather in Sagada and Baguio would act as natural refrigerators, and the bus we would be taking from Baguio to Manila would be airconditioned anyway. Hmm. . . not exactly Einstein-esque, but i couldn't fault his logic.

Thus, the carrot cake was duly ordered, and its carton box bound by thin nylon string picked up the following day, and patiently lugged by C. during our circuitous route down the steep dirt path to get to our Baguio-bound bus. I'm sure he was tempted once or twice to just fling the box to the ground, curse and stomp at it with all his might, but hey, the guy's a saint.


***********************************************************


Finally, finally, finally, a warm shower after our 7-hour nail-biting bus ride ordeal from Sagada via the infamous Halsema Highway. This Microtel Inn Baguio isn't so bad at all, it actually looks the same as in the brochures!

I was happily soaking in the warm jets of water when my cellphone suddenly rang. C. (who had decided to take a stroll along Session Road) was calling. The ensuing conversation below:



Me : "Yeah?"
C : (with panic in his voice) "Peter, the cake, the cake!!!"
Me : "What cake?"
C : (snarling) "The carrot cake, you dimwit!"
Me : "Oh yeah. What about it?"
C : "My friend just called. She says it can't be put in the freezer, it has to be in the ref only!"
Me : "Well, we deposited it with the Microtel front desk, diba? And they said they will put it in their fridge."
C : (shrilly, with annoyance in his voice) "Yes, but they also said they might not have space in the fridge and may just put it in their freezer instead!!"
Me : "Really now?"
C : (now ready to kill me) "YES, REALLY!! Can you please go over and check?"
Me : (now in a bad mood) "Huh?! What difference does it make anyway? Eh diba freezing is just like refrigerating, only 10X faster and more powerful? It might actually do wonders for your cake!"
C : (throwing up his hands in exasperation) "Nonsense!! If it's frozen kasi, once it's taken out, it will become moist and watery!"
Me : (reverting into normal smart-ass mode) "Oh, you mean, the gross differential between ambient temperature and normal sub-zero temperature inside the fridge has deleterious effects on the cake's molecular structure, by causing precipitation, thereby afflicting acute gastro-intestinal distress on the end-user?"
C : (buying a broomstick from a vendor with the intent to stick it up my ass) "JUST GET TO IT, okay???!!?"
Me : (meekly and resignedly) "No problemo, you just have to ask, you know."


27 seconds later, at the hotel front desk. . . .


Me : (with panic in my voice) "The cake, the cake!!"
Staff : "What cake, sir?"
Me : "The carrot cake, you dimwit!"
Staff : (staring at this wild-eyed, overweight guest dripping water all over the tiled floor) "Ah, do you have the deposit receipt?"
Me : (handing over the soggy deposit receipt) "Hurry! The cake! It shouldn't be kept in the freezer, only in the refrigerator!!!"
Staff : (squinting to decipher the blurred writing on the receipt) "Err. . .i have to check first, sir. But freezing is just like. . . ."
Me : (cutting him off) "NO!! You have to take it out of the freezer!!! It will become soggy if not!!"
Staff : (hesitating, not remembering what the employee guidebook mentioned about carrot cakes) "Ahh. . .err. . .hmm. . ."
Me : (doing my best Jack Nicholson scowl) "Are we clear?"
Staff : (in a tiny voice) "Ahh. . .yess. . ."
Me : (getting the hang of my pseudo-Jack Nicholson scowl) "I said, are we clear??"
Staff : (resignedly) "Sir, yes. Crystal."


46 seconds later, the staffer returns. . . .


Staff : "Sir, we confirm that your cake was placed on the third level of our ref, not in the freezer."
Me : "Oh? Are you sure?"
Staff : (smiling smugly) "Yes, sir."
Me : (in a demanding tone) "Can i see it?"
Staff : (ready to press the red button to call Security) "No."
Me : "Ow."


Two hours later, i asked C. if the carrot cake was really as good as advertised. After all, his friend had heaped all sorts of superlative praises on it, short of calling it the greatest thing since sliced bread.

C. just shrugged. It turns out he hates the taste of carrot cake!


Friday, October 12, 2007



MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA
(Part VII)


"Exhale. . .you deserve a soothing mountain experience!"


NORTH HAVEN SPA


Woke up all groggy this morning after our late night out with my Baguio-based friend, S.

Despite my half-conscious state, i was thinking, "what to do during this free morning, before we head back to Manila after lunch?" Hmm . . . let me count the ways:

Boating at Burnham Park? Nah, done that before already.
Horseback riding at Wright Park? Ditto.
Buying Good Shepherd jam and walis in the market? Tempting, but no.
Walking through Session Road to take in the local vibe? Yeah, why not? And check out whether that cheapo, fleabag hotel named Hotel 45 that C. and i stayed in years ago still exists. . .maybe next time.
Check out the Mansion house? What for? I couldn't care less if it blew up.
SM Baguio? Heck, i didn't travel through storm and rain and wind, risking life and limb, all the way here just to go to a freaking SM mall!!
Go for a massage? BUT OF COURSE!


One hour later, i was standing outside North Haven Spa's porch, waiting for them to flip the "CLOSED" sign on their front door to "OPEN" (i'm serious! :D).

Located in a quiet, non-descript and rather run-down residential neighborhood, it can be rather inaccessible. Best option, i think, is to go there by taxi.

The two-storey brick house is nothing really to rave about, and i felt the interiors, while clean and inviting, were a bit too dark. I'm not sure if it's the lack of lighting, or their heavy curtains. . . i couldn't take a decent picture inside at all.

Thankfully, to my pleasant surprise, North Haven's spa menu proved to be quite extensive, ranging from massages to body treatments/scrubs to facials to complete pampering packages. My close friends know i'm such a sucker for exotic treatments with "natural" ingredients and what not, so i was obviously charmed by some of the more unique items on offer:

Gis-Gis-To (60 min) - traditional head massage of the Mountain Province. "Must try!", according to the blurb.

Tal-Talad-Tad (90 min) - indigenous Mountain Province body massage using gentle and soothing strokes.

Hilot with Ventosa (90 min) - traditional Filipino healing method, releasing built-up lactic acid in the body and thereby facilitating relaxation. It also makes use of circular glass vacuums that draws out toxins and excess cold energy from your body (aka. that phantom illness known as "lamig")

Dagdagay (60 min) -
traditional foot massage of the Mountain Province, which uses "runo" sticks to stimulate the soles of the feet "to restore a sense of complete balance and harmony".

Baguio Strawberry Scrub (105 min) - uses fresh organic strawberries, resulting in improved skin tone and texture. (Yep, just add condensed milk, and you're all ready to be eaten)

Benguet Coffee Scrub (105 min) - uses ground coffee beans from the Mountain Province to cleanse the outer layer of the skin and improve circulation.

Cordillera Rice Scrub (105 min) - uses the thick red rice variety from the Mountain Province. It stimulates better circulation, cleanses the pores and removes dead skin cells. (No wonder C. couldn't find any red rice for sale in Sagada, it's all being used here!! Hahaha)

I had assumed that the above mentioned scrubs already incorporate a 60-min. massage, only for the staff to clarify that the entire 105 min. is for the scrub only. Talk about being thorough!



Various essential oil blends, etc. used by North Haven. No, that isn't mango jam.


Regretfully, i didn't have the luxury of that much time, so chose the Hilot with Ventosa instead. It was my first time to get a hilot massage, and i was quite curious what made it different from a Swedish or Shiatsu. My therapist vaguely mentioned that hilot focused more on long, downward strokes.

Not that it mattered much, anyway. Her touch was firm and powerful, and she hit all the right pressure points. Coupled with the Ventosa treatment, it greatly relieved the residual aches on my shoulders and upper back and legs from our Sumaging Cave adventure a few days ago.

Overall, i'd rate the massage 9 out of 10. And quite a great deal at PHP595.00 only.



This guy looked like he enjoyed his massage, too!

For me, one more good reason to visit the City of Pines! A return visit to North Haven is definitely in order!


(North Haven Spa is located at 21 Avelino St., Ferguson Road, Baguio City.
Tel. no. is 074 300-5022 or 0917 506-1349.

They do have a website at www.northhaven.multiply.com. Operating hours are 10AM to 10PM daily)




Tuesday, October 09, 2007



MANILA - SAGADA - BAGUIO - MANILA

(Part VIII)


(This is a series of posts regarding my recent trip to Sagada and Baguio. I've decided to do a little writing experiment as well: While the posts can be considered "stand-alone" articles, there is some narrative thread holding them together [at least, i hope so]. And i've decided to write the posts in reverse order, so this is the reason you are reading Part VIII first. Enjoy!)



FOREST HOUSE BISTRO & CAFE


I first ate at Forest House back in 2001, just a few months after it opened. I remember one of the owners, Ari Verzosa, chatting with us; if my memory serves me correctly, they used to rent this place to the mayor (or was it the vice-mayor or the congressman?), before deciding to kick him out and setting up a restaurant/cafe instead. As he said (or at least, what i vaguely recall him saying), it was time for their generation to show they could run a business and make money.

Since then, i've made it a point to go back here every time i'm at the City of Pines.

The food is above average, but not really spectacular (it won't make you go, "wow!"). For me, it's really the interiors which provide the charm of Forest House. It just feels so warm and cozy that after finishing your meal, you would prefer to just stay put, and tarry, and read their magazines, or exchange stories with your friends, or even just to be alone with your thoughts.

Close your eyes for a second, and suspending disbelief for a minute, you can easily imagine yourself transported to a winter ski resort, warming your hands in front of the fireplace while toasting marshmallows and chugging mugs of steaming Ghirardelli chocholate. . . okay, okay, i'm getting carried away, but you get the drift.

Today, i met up with S. for lunch before our 2PM bus back to Manila. Unfortunately, C. couldn't make it, as his lower back was acting up yet again. Poor guy, i guess his heavy backpack was just too much to bear, especially during that hike down the narrow mountain road to get to our Baguio-bound bus.

Check out the pics below:



The inviting exterior of Forest House.


Forest House is located quite near Nevada Square, a complex of bars/lounges/restos where most teen-agers seem to congregate on weekend nights. Between Nevada Square and Forest House are three dark, wooden, eerily-quiet houses (one of them is actually a hotel named Hotel Veneracion), which seem haunted. Scary, no?



Private table near the entrance.



Wooden high-beamed ceiling with comfy sofa and fireplace.


Thing is, i'm not sure the fireplace works, though. It could be props only. :-D



The bar area.



View from the inside.


Let's talk about the food for a minute. Forest House serves a very extensive array of steaks, soups, salads, meat/fish entrees and desserts. It can be quite difficult to decide what to order.

Below are some of the dishes we decided on:



Three-Cheese Spring Rolls (PHP215)

This dish was simply superb! Lightly fried, not greasy or oily at all. The cheese wasn't overpowering, and the dip proved a nice complement to balance the tartness of the cheese.



Forest House Lamb (PHP325)


I thought at first they had made a mistake, and given us a pork chop instead. At any rate, this was a tasty dish ("marinated in wasabi with garlic", as the menu says), and the lamb was tender.



Lamb Caldereta (PHP270)


S. felt that her entree was served rather cold, and i agree. It could have been a lot warmer. The lamb was tender, but unfortunately, the sauce a bit too spicy for both our tastes. And the staff interchanged our sidings: S. should have gotten the fries served with my lamb; and vice versa.

An average meal would cost something like PHP500 to PHP650 per person, with drinks. In my opinion, good value for money, taking into account the ambiance of the place.

Which means, S. is expected to make libre at Forest House next time i'm at her part of the world again!!!



(Forest House Bistro & Cafe is located along 16 Loakan Road, Baguio City. It opened a branch at Silver City Mall, Frontera Verde, Pasig City, Metro Manila earlier this year, said to be an exact replica of the Baguio original branch)



Saturday, August 18, 2007




A CLOSER LOOK AT THE HOUSE OF JIM THOMPSON
(Conclusion, Bangkok series)



You may ask, who was Jim Thompson? Perhaps a brief backgrounder is in order.

A. The Making of the Legend

Jim Thompson was a practicing architect who volunteered for service in the U.S. Army, and arrived in Bangkok as a military intelligence officer attached to the O.S.S. (precursor of the CIA). After leaving the service, he decided to live in Thailand permanently.

The hand weaving of silk, a long-neglected cottage industry, captured his attention, and he devoted himself to reviving the craft. Prior to his discovery and promotion of Thai silk, it was an ailing art with very small prospects of recovery, and was being kept alive by only a few weaving families in Bangkok.

He pioneered innovations such as the switch to high-quality, color-fast chemical dyes; faster looms, etc. to improve the quality and quantity of Thai silk. With his innate color sense, genuine enthusiasm and persuasive salesmanship, he contributed substantially to the industry's growth and to the worldwide recognition now accorded to Thai silk. Hence, he was dubbed the "Silk King" by the press.

He gained further renown through the construction of his Thai-style house, which combined six teak buildings from a variety of places and owners. Most of the houses were at least two centuries old, and were easily dismantled, stacked neatly on barges and brought by river and klong to the present sight, from as far away as the old capital of Ayutthaya.

In his quest for authenticity, Jim Thompson adhered to the customs of the early builders in most respects. The houses were elevated a full story above the ground, a practical Thai precaution to avoid flooding during the rainy season (and supposedly to ward off evil spirits). The roof tiles were fired in Ayutthaya employing a design common centuries ago, but rarely used today. The red paint on the outside walls [see above pic] is a preservative often found on many old Thai buildings.

All the traditional religious rituals were followed during construction of the house; and on a Spring day in 1959, decreed as being auspicious by astrologers, Jim Thompson moved in.

William Warren's book, "Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery" described it as follows:

" The completion ceremony was held on April 3, 1959, a little less than seven months after the first column had been raised. Nine priests performed the requisite chanting, sitting in their saffron-colored robes in a row facing the klong from the open drawing room, and a senior priest, the abbot of a temple, gave his blessings on the house. A symbolic cord was stretched around the perimeter of the property and connected to each of the buildings; this had to be left until it rotted away or its magic protection would be lost. Applications of gold leaf and sandalwood powder were placed above all the principal doors and also on Thompson's forehead, and lustral water was sprinkled generously about the premises. The place having been thus blessed, purified, and protected, the priests were then served a large luncheon, and what was soon to be described in tourist guidebooks as, simply, "Jim Thompson's Thai House" was officially ready."


In 1962, in recognition of his contribution to the country, the Royal Thai government awarded Thompson The Order of the White Elephant, a decoration bestowed upon foreigners for having rendered exceptional service to Thailand.


On Easter Sunday afternoon of 1967, Jim Thompson disappeared while on a holiday with friends at the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Up to this day, he has not been found, and no one is certain what had happened to him.


B. The House Museum

In 1976, the Court-appointed administrator for the property of Jim Thompson received permission from government ministries to establish a foundation bearing his name. Accordingly, the property was vested in the Foundation; and the house and art collection are now officially registered as a national museum.

This was actually my second time to visit Jim Thompson's House Museum. I had been here once before, on a previous trip to Bangkok; but it was a rushed visit, squeezed in between business meetings. Thus, there was no time to tarry and just simply walk around and take it all in.

Now, on this warm Sunday morning, i had a few hours to kill before leaving for the airport. Without hesitation, i made the choice to revisit the house. Sort of like tying up some unfinished business, i guess.

After paying the entrance fee of 100 Baht, our guide apprised us of their house rules.
Everyone is required to take off their shoes (yes, you can keep your socks on). Lockers are available to store personal belongings. Absolutely no picture-taking inside the house.


Jim Thompson was also renown for his extensive art collection. Among our first stops was this Buddhist sculpture below:




It is described as "a fine torso of Buddha in grey limestone, Dvaravati School 7th-8th century. Wearing a monastic dress, the Buddha held a fold of the robe in his hand. By virtue of its early date and artistic quality, this torso figures among the most important Dvaravati sculptures."

According to our guide, this was the most valuable in Jim Thompson's sculpture collection.


Traditionally, each room of a Thai house was a separate unit, and it was always necessary to go out of one to reach another. Jim Thompson wanted these rooms connected so he could move more easily from bedroom to drawing room to dining room.

This proved to be an especially tricky task, and a group of carpenters had to be brought down from Ayutthaya, where the ancient skills were still practised, to do the work.


The Master Bedroom

As per common Thai folk beliefs, the threshold of the door was raised, possibly for superstitious reasons, i.e. to keep evil spirits from creeping in at night and disturbing the sleep of the inhabitants (as they are supposedly unable to step over this height of more or less 2 feet). It was in fact regarded as bad luck to step on the thresholds when entering or leaving a room.

Jim Thompson's house did not strictly follow traditional Thai architecture to the letter. For example, during those days, modern Western-style toilets were unheard of; instead, bedrooms had a chamberpot, which occupants used for their. . .ahh, bodily secretions.

But Jim Thompson installed Western-style toilets for the bedrooms, most likely as a concession to modernity for his overnight guests.


Nevertheless, the chamberpots were on display, and our group of 5 or 6 people had fun trying to guess where the thing was. For the guest room, it turned out to be this ceramic black and white cat. For the master bedroom, it was a green frog figurine.



The Dining Room

Traditionally, dining room walls were left bare; but Jim Thompson chose to have his paintings displayed. Also on display here is his collection of porcelain teapots, plates, etc. One teapot, in particular, proved to be fascinating. Rather than having a conventional lid at the top, it was filled through a hole at its bottom.



Chinese pawnshop doors

Connecting the drawing room to the corridor leading to the master bedroom was this carved wall that had once been the entrance to a Chinese pawnshop.


The Drawing Room

It features, among others: an immense crystal chandelier (scavenged from an old palace); Burmese wooden figures from Amarapura looking down from niches that have been made from four of the original windows; an ornately carved Thai bed in the center of the room; banisters converted into lamp shades, etc. as pointed out by our guide.

Note the paneled teak walls, delicate carved work under the windows, and the broad floorboards with a beautiful shiny patina, said to be from the thousands of bare feet that had padded back and forth across them.


In my opinion, this is definitely a must-see for visitors to Bangkok, especially first-timers. For me, not only are the house and antique / art collection quite interesting in their own right, i also am deeply intrigued by the unsolved mystery of Jim Thompson's disappearance.

Imagine, forty years on and yet no one knows for sure how and why he literally disappeared from the face of the earth! It ranks right up there with the Bermuda Triangle and Stonehenge, don't you think?


(The Jim Thompson Thai House Museum is located at 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, RamaI Road, Bangkok, Thailand. If you are taking the BTS (Skytrain), get off at the National Stadium station. It is approximately a 100 m walk from the main road.

Visiting hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily. There is also a gift shoppe and a cafe-restaurant inside the complex.

Check out www.jimthompsonhouse.com for full details)



*Photos courtesy of The James H.W. Thompson Foundation
*Additional photos and text excerpted from William Warren's book "JIM THOMPSON: The Unsolved Mystery"



Sunday, July 22, 2007

G.U.S. NITPICKS!! (v. 14)

LA ESQUINA SPANISH RESTO



My bon vivant friend D. texted me out of the blue, dangling the opportunity of a free meal at this place in exchange for being his designated chauffeur/gofer for the day. Not one to pass up the chance to freeload, yours truly woke up early and fetched D. (aka "Bossing") at the duly appointed time and place.

This resto boasts of the famed chef Ed Quimzon as consultant, and Bossing kept on raving about it on our smooth, traffic-free journey to Tagaytay. Hence, my appetite was whetted, and my expectations quite high.

We were joined by his 3 Japanese friends for this lunch. Bossing had pre-ordered the dishes, so i engaged in getting-to-know-you chitchat with his friends while waiting for the food to arrive.

Heres how it went:



The Chorizo Splendido may have lacked presentation (doesn't it look like they just dumped the pieces into the bowl, and that's it?), but i can assure you it was definitely not lacking in flavor. Fiery hot and spicy, and bursting with tenderness! i think i could have eaten 4 or 5 orders of this.



The Gambas La Esquina were firm, nicely complemented by the cream-based sauce. Although i think they could have served the sauce on the side, perhaps?



We were then served Molo soup (not pictured), which the others all liked, but which i found a tad too salty.

Next up was the Pollo Iberico (above), which was particularly tender and juicy. I didn't fancy the potatoes though, they seemed a bit squishy, if you know what i mean.



Above is the Paella Cristina, named after their patroness, Cristina Ponce. I thought this dish was disappointing. It just tasted quite ordinary, and forgettable. . .definitely nothing to write home about.




We were served both Lapu-lapu and Mahi-mahi with sweet banana, presented identically (above). Thus, there was some confusion as to which fish was which. In fact, i forgot whether this pic was of the lapu-lapu or the mahi-mahi!

I had misgivings whether this combination would work well, but oddly enough, it tasted really good! Props to the chef.




Ahh, my favorite part. . .dessert!! Bossing was not fond of sweets, and had to be cajoled to order this Leche Flan and Apple Crumble Cheesecake. This leche flan tasted quite superb! Great, firm texture, with the right amount of sweetness. . .not cloying at all. And the presentation was great as well.

Sana
[Wishing, hoping, praying] i could have taken home a whole slab of this. . . (hint, hint) eh, Bossing? :-D

Bonus: Through La Esquina's glass windows, you get a view of the Splendido golf course, designed by the great Greg Norman.




Oh, and one last thing. In lieu of a pic of the resto's interiors, i decided instead to include this pic of their restroom. This steel bucket is rather cool, no? And in keeping with their Spanish theme, too.







(La Esquina Spanish resto is located at the clubhouse of the Splendido Taal Residential Golf & Country Club, Tagaytay. It is open for lunch and dinner only from Thurs. to Sun.)